x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Book review: Marquess of Queensberry had a method to his meanness

Linda Stratmann’s biography provides a nuanced portrait of a man often known only as the antagonist who destroyed Oscar Wilde’s life, writes Matthew Price

The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde’s Nemesis

Linda Stratmann

Yale University Press

The fall of Oscar Wilde began with five garbled words jotted down on a calling card. It was February 1895, and Wilde was riding high. Simultaneous runs of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest charmed theatregoers; London was buzzing. But his private life was about to catch up with him.

The playwright and controversial wit was being pursued by an implacable enemy: the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, father of Bosie, Wilde's lover. Lord Alfred Douglas, known to family and friends as Bosie, had defied Queensberry by continuing to see the older (by 16 years) Wilde; that Bosie left Oxford, with no degree, under the cloud of scandal, only further inflamed his father. Determined to end a relationship he thought ruinous, and hoping to force a confrontation, Queensberry struck at Wilde with a single phrase - "for Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]" - that he scribbled on his card and left at Wilde's club.

The relationship did indeed prove ruinous - for Oscar Wilde. He sued Queensberry for libel, lost the case, and then was tried for gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labour. The lurid drama of the proceedings, with its details of rent boys, shocked London. Wilde was ruined; his imprisonment broke his health. He died in Paris a few years after his release, his name a byword for disgrace.

Queensberry, however, was posterity's loser. If Wilde has taken on the status of a martyr to a cruel, hypocritical society, it is Queensberry who now looms as the chief bad guy in this drama - an obtuse, violent, abusive, narrow-minded bigot.

In his definitive life of Wilde, Richard Ellmann wrote: "The impression that has been given of Queensberry is that he was a simple brute. In fact he was a complex one." Linda Stratmann, in The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde's Nemesis, stresses that complexity and tries to put her subject in a more sympathetic light.

Queensberry, she writes, acknowledging his ill repute, "is a convenient villain, a man you can easily love to hate, a one-dimensional caricature of a wicked, violent type, rampaging about with a horsewhip and frothing at the mouth."

"Extracting the real Queensberry from this cascade of vilification reveals a man who was neither mad nor bad … his prejudices, however we view them today, were those of a society and the time in which he lived. He was not, admittedly, always an easy man to know or to like. Volatile, self-willed and aggressive, he was formed by the passions of two hardy nations and damaged early and often by tragedy, labouring for much of his life under grief and crushing misery."

A short, powerfully built holder of a Scottish title, Queensberry is famous in other contexts for his influence on boxing - he imposed rule-bound order on a sport that had a tarnished reputation. He was a passionate sportsman - he boxed, ran foot races, rode horses in the steeplechase. He was also a noted - if not infamous - eccentric and social rebel. (Of Queensberry, The Pall Mall Gazette noted: "Manner serious; impossible to imagine a joke thriving in his vicinity.")

His views on religion were out of step with his times - while not declaring himself an atheist, he spoke of "the Inscrutable" rather than God (his views later evolved into a kind of agnosticism). For this, he was refused entry to the House of Lords. His views on matrimony also earned him many raised eyebrows, and calumny from the press. Two failed marriages convinced Queensberry that divorce law must be reformed, and that a man should be able to allow a mistress to join him alongside his wife under the same roof.

Stratmann makes a sympathetic case for Queensberry's deformations of temperament.

His family line was riven with suicide and sadness, even cannibalism: the demented 3rd Marquess ("The Cannibalistic Idiot"), who died in 1715, killed, roasted and ate a scullion. Closer in the family line, his father died, an apparent suicide. The death of a brother on climbing trip in the Swiss Alps in 1865 prompted a spiritual crisis and a revision of Queensberry's religious beliefs.

These events alone were enough to cast a shadow over a life; but Stratmann suggests the death of his eldest son and heir, Francis - another apparent suicide - pushed Queensberry past the breaking point. Rumours swirled around Francis's alleged dalliances with Lord Rosebery, the prime minister. He had lost one to scandal and death; he would not lose another.

The death of Francis, Stratmann argues, is a vital factor in explaining his unhinged conduct towards Bosie and Wilde. It is too much, she says, to ask Queensberry to rise above the prejudices of his age: homosexuality may have been a fact, but it was not sanctioned behaviour. Queensberry was resolute: the love that dare not speak its name should keep its mouth shut.

That said, Queensberry's outbursts are difficult to justify. In the annals of vituperation, he has few rivals. Bosie gave as good as his father got, and their ever-volatile relationship threated to erupt into violence on several occasions. (Queensberry actually got into a fistfight with another son, Percy, who had taken Bosie's side.) He signed letters "Your disgusted so-called father," and called Bosie an "impertinent young jackanapes". "You reptile," he raged in another, "You are no son of mine, and I never thought you were."

He threatened, on more than one occasion, to shoot Wilde, who laughed off such bluster, dismissing Queensberry as "drunken, déclassé and half-witted". Queensberry's cruel words to his son still shock: "I cried over you the bitterest tears a man ever shed that I had brought such a creature into the world, and unwittingly had committed such a crime."

Still, Bosie was as vicious as his father. A manipulative and spoiled young man, he pushed Wilde to carry out the libel suit that led to his ruin. Wilde may have done some foolish things, but he was an acute observer of human behaviour. Bosie was much more like his father than he would like to admit. Wilde told him "whenever there is hatred between two people there is a bond or brotherhood of some kind. I suppose that, by some strange law of the antipathy of similars, you loathed each other, not because in so many points you were different, but because in some you were so alike."

After his disgrace, Wilde observed that Bosie's "father saw in me a method of annoying his son, and the son saw in me the chance of ruining his father, and I was placed between two people greedy for unsavoury notoriety, reckless of everything but their own horrible hatred for each other, each urging me on, the one by public cards and threats, the other by private, or indeed half-publics scenes, threats in letters, taunts, sneers." This is a fair, even dispassionate, estimate of an entanglement that brought Wilde down.

Stratmann offers her own gloss on the matter: "Of course Queensberry's frantic opposition to the relationship was not 'a method of ruining his son'," she writes, "but an attempt to save him from ruin or worse, but Wilde never seemed to appreciate the horror with which homosexuality was regarded outside his own artistic circles."

The author has admirably waded through a tangled miscellany of charge and counter-charge. Several of Wilde's friends wrote biographies in the years after his death, with differing accounts of the scandal. Bosie himself wrote a self-justifying autobiography, and later disavowed Wilde and denounced homosexuality. Stratmann gives us a full portrait of a man who has been reduced to one-dimension. Surely, Queensberry deserves a fair hearing, and the author gives him one in a biography that is both entertaining and judicious. But it is still a difficult reclamation project.

Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.