Alfred ‘Bosie' Douglas was a complicated man. He was spoilt, reckless, prone to violent tempers – and that's what his friends said about him. He was a gifted writer who was too lazy to fulfil his potential. At different times he was endearingly thoughtful and callously thoughtless. He inflicted suffering on those closest to him but was no stranger to suffering himself. In his later years he became a kindly uncle and a raging anti-Semite.
He was also the man who so infatuated Oscar Wilde that the greatest writer of his generation was willing to risk his reputation and ultimately his freedom for him. It is his relationship with Wilde for which he is now remembered, and that is what this article will predominantly focus on.
Last year I read a biography of Wilde and listened to a few podcasts about him, and my impression of Bosie was not good. He is typically seen as the malevolent influence who introduced Wilde to the murky world of male prostitutes and pressured him to pursue the disastrous libel case against his father, the Marquess of Queensbury; and this characterisation is certainly not without merit. But to what extent is it unfair on Bosie, and indeed to what extent does it rob Wilde of agency in the reckless and selfish behaviour that led to his downfall?
Bosie Douglas and Oscar Wilde
Matthew Sturgis' biography of Wilde paints a very dark picture of Bosie Douglas as a toxic man who thought of not much else than his own pleasure. Having met Wilde some time in 1891, when he was 20 and the Irish writer was 36, they began a sexual relationship in 1892 which quickly progressed from having sex with each other to partaking in orgies with multiple men. It is not Douglas and Wilde's sexuality that will bother readers in 2024 so much as the identity of the men they picked up – young (mostly teenaged), working-class men who it seems often felt pressured into homosexual acts by the more powerful protagonists. Although Wilde's subsequent generosity to these men is well documented, so is his lecherous behaviour. Bosie, meanwhile, seems to have been unconcerned about what happened to these men after their encounters with him, if he didn't retain them for future encounters.
Bosie and Oscar Wilde pose for photos together (photo from Cove.com)
Homosexuality was of course illegal in Victorian Britain, and it is in this context that Douglas and Wilde's recklessness must be understood. They made very little attempt to cover up their encounters and would host orgies in some of London's most fashionable hotels, unconcerned by what shocked chamber-maids and clerks might see. Wilde's sexuality was an open secret in London's literary circles, but he still had a reputation to protect. Bosie had no such qualms, insisting on being seen together and throwing tantrums when Wilde tried to concentrate on his writing; in his bitter letter to Bosie from prison, Wilde complained that he had never written a word in Bosie's company because he would not allow him to focus.
One of the most shocking revelations from Sturgis' book comes from the autumn of 1894, when Douglas was struck down with influenza. Wilde dropped everything to tend to his lover, making sure the room was well stocked with flowers and reading to him by his bedside. When the roles were reversed shortly after (Wilde had perhaps caught the flu while tending to Bosie), Bosie left Wilde on his own, declaring how boring he was when he was sick. When Wilde gently raised his upset at this, Bosie through into a violent rage which frightened Wilde enough to break things off.
This was not the first time they had ‘broken up' but on pervious occasions Wilde had relented when Douglas, ‘overcome with remorse and longing', hinted at suicide if they did not see each other. Sturgis' biography leaves the reader in little doubt that theirs was a toxic relationship; Wilde was happier and more productive when not in Bosie's company, but it seems that Bosie was the poison he could not resist, no matter how many times his friends demanded he leave him. On this occasion, Wilde felt compelled to relent after reading about the death of Bosie's older brother in the newspaper. It was this re-conciliation in late 1894, shortly after Wilde's 40th birthday, that would lead directly to his downfall.
Wilde's Libel Trial
Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensbury, another thoroughly unpleasant man described in Sturgis' book as a ‘chattering ape', had seen the pair together around London and had heard all the rumours about them. He had even turned up to Wilde's family home to confront him. After he sent a series of increasingly angry telegrams to his son, Bosie replied – without Wilde's knowledge – with a simple, dismissive message: ‘what a funny little man you are.' It only increased the Marquees' determination to expose them.
While Wilde was growing increasingly anxious about Queensbury's threats, Bosie was rather ‘enjoying the mounting tension' and ‘relished the thought of a confrontation'. He counselled Wilde to bring his father to court, and when Queensbury left a note for Wilde accusing him of being a ‘somdomite' (about the level of spelling one might expect from a chattering ape) Wilde felt he had no choice but to sue him for libel.
Knowing how disastrously the libel case would turn out, it is easy to see the folly of Wilde's decision. But in fairness to Douglas and Wilde, Queensbury was becoming an increasing problem, even threatening to ruin the pinnacle of Wilde's career – the opening night of his classic play, The Importance of Being Earnest, at St. James' theatre in February 1895 – by stalking around the theatre shouting slurs about him. The thought of silencing him for good was a very attractive one.
The trouble was that Wilde had no case; what Queensbury was saying was provably true. Everyone around Wilde told him not to pursue the case, but Bosie was adamant, even throwing yet another tantrum at a lunch where Wilde's literary friends urged him to drop the case. Bosie shouted that they were ‘no friends of Oscar's' and stormed away from the table, leaving Wilde to sheepishly apologise to his friends and hurry after him. As it turned out, he was following him to the abyss.
Wilde's case duly fell apart, and within 8 terrible weeks over April and May 1895 he went from accuser, to accused, to convict.
Not that Bosie was there to see much of it – he fled to France after Wilde's arrest.
The Case for the Defence
All of the above paints a pretty damning portrait of Bosie Douglas. Is there anything to raise in his defence? Douglas Murray's biography of Bosie goes some way to re-habilitating him with some mitigating factors.
For a start, there's his chattering ape of a father. John Douglas, the Marquees of Queensbury, was a frightening man who seems to have made enemies everywhere he went. His own family hated him, and he seems to have hated them back. Bosie endured a miserable childhood that was brightened by his mother, Sibyl Montgomery, who coddled him and – as his actions in adulthood show – thoroughly spoilt him. Perhaps this can explain why he consistently acted like such a child.
Of course, he wasn't actually much more than a child during his relationship with Wilde, and Murray does bring our attention to the fact that after Wilde's death in 1900 he seems to have matured somewhat. He married and had a son, and was remembered by his illegitimate niece as a kind and loyal uncle. His own literary output even improved. However, this cannot erase the raging anti-Semitism of his later years – ironically, he would be imprisoned for libel after accusing Winston Churchill of taking part in a Jewish-led conspiracy to assassinate Lord Kitchener.
Bosie provoked both affection and disdain in his later years (photo from The Times)
His young age during his relationship with Oscar Wilde must also bring our attention to the uncomfortable fact that the great writer was more than complicit in his own downfall. Being so much older than Douglas and – not least by his own reckoning – so much more intelligent than any of his friends, Wilde should surely have appreciated the recklessness with which he was acting and the damage that he was allowing Bosie to inflict on his life. While Sturgis' biography is sympathetic to Wilde, one cannot read it without becoming frustrated that so formidable an intellect behaved in such a foolish manner. Not only foolish, but crude and sometimes cruel – Wilde was arguably predatory in his encounters with young men, and although he was very kind to them after such encounters the details of his arrogance and persistence with them make for uncomfortable reading. He also acted with very little concern for his long-suffering wife, Constance, or his children. Indeed, Sturgis' section of Wilde's life from 1892-1894 is titled ‘the selfish giant', and lists countless examples of his inconsiderate behaviour; on one occasion, after Constance asked him to come home to her and the children, Wilde flippantly replied that he had been away so long that he had forgotten the address. Though he loved his wife in some capacity, and was a doting father when he was at home, Oscar Wilde's greatest betrayal was ultimately of his family. He would never see his children again after he was imprisoned.
It was not Bosie Douglas who betrayed Constance Wilde and her children. It was not Bosie Douglas who carelessly replied in the Old Bailey witness box that he had never kissed a certain male hotel clerk because he was ‘peculiarly plain'. But on his own merits, it seems that Bosie Douglas was an unpleasant man who encouraged unpleasant behaviour in those in his company. None more so than Oscar Wilde, who had the capacity to appreciate the malign influence that Douglas had on him but did not resist it.
Read more tales about Victorian London:
Cover Photo from Wikipedia