Review: Alfred Douglas, Caspar Wintermans

WARNING: If you are not interested in Oscar Wilde and his life and friends and everything, and you do not want to read this post, I totally understand. But do yourself a favor if that is the case, skip to the end of it and read the poem in block quotes. It’s magnificent and I want to read it every day for the rest of my life.

The full title of this book is really Alfred Douglas: A Poet’s Life and His Finest Work, but I couldn’t put that for a few reasons, the first one being that as far as I am concerned Alfred Douglas has not got any finest work, his work is all terrible; and the second being that this is not so much as life as it is an apologia. Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), as you may or may not know, was the most famous of Oscar Wilde’s boyfriends, and is generally considered to have been a rather unpleasant, baselessly vain, self-centered little twerp. Winterman thinks otherwise. Actually, here is what Winterman thinks:

Envy! One cannot wholly rid oneself of the impression that the mud which over the years has been slung at Lord Alfred derives in part, consciously or unconsciously, from this feeling. After all, most of us are not really beautiful. Most of us are not of noble birth. Most of us are not so charming as to be capable of charming charming people like Oscar Wilde – if we ever meet them, that is. And then we cannot write poetry – at least not as well as to gain the praise of masters like Stephane Mallarme.

Dude, really?

I don’t think biographers have to be one hundred percent unbiased — how could anyone? — and I have been known to rejoice in admiring biographies of Oscar Wilde. But even then, I like to have a sense that they’re aware of the moments when he’s behaving appallingly badly. Wintermans seems to think Bosie is justified, or nearly, in every dreadful thing he does. He insists he’s not going to gloss over Bosie’s anti-Semitism, for example, but:

When we point out that numerous distinguished contemporaries of Douglas…also expressed themselves in an uncomplimentary way about the Jewish race, this is only to draw attention once more to the unpalatable fact that anti-Semitism was a widespread phenomenon in Europe around 1900 which had taken root in intellectual circles as well. The observation that in this respect Bosie was a child of his age is not, of course, advanced in excuse of his attitude [cause I feel like it kind of is], although it should be borne in mind [uh-huh] that his strictures [in the paper he edited] were directed at individuals rather than Jews as such.

The nice thing about this is that it all sounds so sanitary. We never have to read any of the ugly things Bosie published about the Jews, or the still uglier things he said in his private correspondence. And then Wintermans goes on to say that the article Bosie wrote claiming that Winston Churchill was part of a big Jewish conspiracy to assassinate Lord Kitchener (swear to God) was written in good faith, because that apparently makes it okay. Frankly there is a point at which believing in idiotic stories spun by mentally ill bigots teeters into bigotry its own self.

Oh, plus, plus, Wintermans wants to defend Bosie against all these rumors (which have already been thoroughly debunked by numerous biographers of both Oscar Wilde and Bosie) that Bosie abandoned Oscar Wilde after Wilde was disgraced, and never went to visit him in France, and all that foolishness that isn’t true. He says that Bosie was the only one of Oscar Wilde’s friends who went to visit him in jail and didn’t leave the country until Oscar Wilde’s lawyer demanded that he go. Robbie Ross, who would become Wilde’s literary executor, and who Wintermans is keen to portray in a nasty light, isn’t mentioned, even though Ross only left the country after his mother begged him to, and then only because she promised to send money for Wilde’s court costs.

WHATEVER. I DO NOT CARE what Casper Wintermans thinks of Robbie Ross. Everyone knows Robbie Ross was a sweet dear who was very kind to Oscar Wilde’s children, and Bosie was a nasty shrew who spent half his life screaming about all the people who were out to get him, and the other half complimenting himself on his good looks and magnificent poetry. Although apparently, says Wintermans, who I cannot necessarily trust because of how shady he was in reporting events that might have reflected badly on Bosie, apparently Bosie was really sweet to his little niece Violet. Apparently he took her in when her father died, and read her stories and took her to nice lunches and made up silly songs for her. And that is the official nicest thing I know about Lord Alfred Douglas.

And here is my official favorite thing from this book. It is a poem written by a Belgian dude called Danny Cannoot for the English Oscar Wilde Society:

Ode to Oscar Wilde

The wild Oscar Wilde loved very much Alfred Douglas
But Alfred didn’t love Wilde like he wanted.
Usual it goes that way between two people.
Like in that case the one mend it more than the other.
Love is always so fragile like you have chosen.
Alas, Douglas had the bad character.
He played with Oscar’s love like with a glass,
It fell and broke, not only Oscars’s love,
But also the great Wilde.
Who died in the Parisian hotel d’Alsace.
Now he is buried alone en lonesome at the graveyard Pere Lachaise,
Where I yet came several times.

Look, I know. I want to have that embroidered on a pillow.

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17 thoughts on “Review: Alfred Douglas, Caspar Wintermans

  1. There are two great phrases here:

    “Most of us are not so charming as to be capable of charming charming people like Oscar Wilde.” Well isn’t that the truth. However, I have observed that my friends’ romantic adventures are not often explainable in terms of charm. Often it’s some physical characteristic that appeals to the friend, but not to me.

    Also: “there is a point at which believing in idiotic stories spun by mentally ill bigots teeters into bigotry its own self.” Yeah.

    The poem is, uh, interesting.

    • Exactly my reaction to the charm thing. Bosie may have been charming (though I bet I wouldn’t have been impressed by it), but I suspect Oscar Wilde was responding at least 50% to aesthetics. :p

  2. It sounds like this biographer is a bit of a butt-kisser when it comes to Douglas. I don’t know much about Douglas, but even I can see through those quotes that Wintermans is absolutely fawning over him. I also loved that poem! Tell it like it is!

    • It’s not necessary to know much about horrible Douglas. This post said the nicest thing I know about him, and one or two nasty things, but trust me, the other stuff about him is nearly all terrible.

  3. Jenny, I think I am going to wake up laughing in the middle of the night! Loved your review, but I really don’t think I’m going to be reading this book. And about the poem – Jeanne, I can’t put it better than that.

    I’m coming down with a cold and starting to feel really miserable – this cheered me up considerably. Thanks.

    • Oh, poor you with your cold! I hope it doesn’t last too long. 😦 And glad this ridiculous book could make you smile – at least some good came out of it. :p

  4. Interesting review, Jenny! I love Oscar Wilde’s works and his way of coming out with quotable quotes and admire the way he lived an unconventional life. I thought that it was Alfred Douglas’ father who made life difficult for Oscar Wilde got him into prison. Is that true?

    I don’t think I will be reading this book – it looks very biased as you have said. But the poem that you have quoted is very nice!

    • It was indeed Alfred Douglas’s father who persecuted the crap out of Oscar Wilde. But Bosie himself grew up to have many qualities in common with his father, like utter utter selfishness, infidelity, paranoia, raving sexism and antisemitism, a towering ego – I could go on but you get the point. :p

  5. So I don’t think I’ll be picking this one up any time soon, but I *do* really need to read a biography of Wilde. I’m thinking The Real Trials of Oscar Wilde sounds really good.

    • It is very good indeed. But not so much of a biography proper; and neither is my favorite biography, Gary Schmidgall’s The Stranger Wilde. It’s excellent, but it doesn’t do a chronological life of Wilde, more like essays about various things in Wilde’s life. For a straight biography, Ellmann’s the standard, but it drags in spots.

  6. Ewww, dodgy. Seems like the author hasn’t realised that apologias just put readers backs up. If Bosie’s bad, then keep him bad. It’s more tolerable than attempted whitewash. I don’t know what it is with me but I can’t make that poem scan right – but do take a picture of the pillow when it’s done for us to see. 🙂

    • The poem doesn’t scan at all. Or rhyme. But I love it anyway. “Alas, Douglas had the bad character” is my favorite line because of how true it is.

      Bosie IS bad. Not through and through, but frequently.

  7. Pingback: Learning about the Black Panthers « Jenny's Books

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