Is expressing your love always an act of honor? How can we tell whether love is real?
Oscar Wilde, today a patron saint for queer love but in his time vilified and imprisoned for his attraction to men by the society which had first celebrated the Irish writer’s wit and genius, thought “when you really want love, you will find it waiting for you.” Did Wilde find love? A year ago, I embarked on a quest to see the facsimile of a rare letter written by Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, also known as “Bosie,” in 1895.
I wanted to see for myself whether their love was real. Is this not a question we all harbor, even when blissfully in love: is it real? Tucked in this question, like a tiny Russian doll enfolded in moments of bliss, is another question: will love last?
Bosie’s letter, written at a crucial, terrifying moment in Wilde’s life, a few days before he was sentenced to two years of hard labor, has not been transcribed before, and appeared, until very recently, only as a facsimile in two rare books. It was first reproduced in a limited-edition biography written by Wilde’s friend Frank Harris in 1910, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, and then in a private edition of Wilde’s letters published in San Francisco in 1924. What I discovered, in addition to Bosie’s surprising testimony to their love at a moment when Wilde was being abandoned by most of his friends, associates, and fans, was another secret in that second, private printing of Wilde’s letters, about one of the great booksellers of all time.
On March 20, 2020, I traveled to Columbia University’s Butler Library in upper Manhattan. I made my way up six floors to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where only one other person sat hunched at a large table. At the desk, instructions accompanied by a withering look sent me back into the hallway to check my coat, umbrella, scarf, backpack, and gloves in a locker. I returned to the desk, armed now only with a pencil (taken from those offered), my iPhone, and a piece of paper. I had requested to see Some Letters from Oscar Wilde to Alfred Douglas, 1892–1897, edited by A. C. Dennison and Harrison Post, and published privately by the book collector William Andrews Clark, Jr., in San Francisco, in 1924. Clark, the founder of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was a great bibliophile who bequeathed his own collection of books to the “Southern Branch of the University of California,” today’s UCLA, where it became part of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. The Clark Library holds the largest collection of materials related to Wilde anywhere; this would have pleased Wilde, who was “struck by no part of America […] so favorably as California,” since here “a man can be a man today, and yesterdays don’t count.” Of the 225 original copies of the book with Wilde’s letters, a few dozen extant copies remain today in rare book collections in the United States, with an additional three copies in England, Ireland, and Canada.
After some long minutes, an archivist delivered the book to me, not on a tasseled velvet cushion or shrouded in lace, but on a moldy-looking, greenish bed of foam that would have horrified Wilde. I was handed gloves. I examined the book, the pages of which are so brittle that discovering what Wilde and Bosie meant to each other required sacrificing a bit of it. At some point in the future, Some Letters will crumble into dust.
I read through all of Wilde’s moving letters, and then came across the strange item that I had hoped to find — the facsimile of a hand-written letter that Bosie wrote from Paris to Oscar Wilde in 1895. The date is significant. It is May 15, between Wilde’s first and second trial, 10 days before Wilde was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labor for “sodomy and gross indecency” in a spectacle fueled by what George Bernard Shaw, in a letter reprinted in Harris’s 1910 biography, casually identified, in himself, as “all the normal violent repugnance of homosexuality.”
The first trial had been brought by Wilde against Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who had left a card at Wilde’s club, inscribed, “For Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite” [sic]. But near the trial’s end, which Wilde for a while was favored to win via his eloquent defense of homosexuality as a nobler and sublimated “form of affection” than straight love, the prosecutor suddenly threatened to put several rent boys on the stand to testify that they had had sex with Wilde. Wilde instantly accepted a ruling that exonerated Queensberry and ruled his accusation of Wilde “true in substance and in fact.”
But here Wilde’s real trouble began. While the first trial had concluded, Wilde was now charged with “sodomy and gross indecency.” He had several hours to escape London for Paris before he was arrested, but in a gesture of defiance, pride, or perhaps foolishness, he stayed put. Police seized him. The second trial ended in a hung jury, but in a final trial Wilde was declared guilty and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. After serving his full term, he was discharged. The greatest playwright in the English language since Shakespeare had few friends left among the cultured crowd in London whom he had regaled and satirized with brilliant plays and a scandalous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. He was also broke.
Persona non grata in England, Wilde moved to France, under the assumed name Sebastian Melmoth, and tried to rehabilitate his life for three difficult but also “unrepentant” years, as biographer Nicholas Frankel has explained. To access funds, Wilde consented never to see Bosie again, and quickly broke that promise. Bosie’s letter, reproduced in full below, is an expression of sincere affection and love for the man whose life, some believe, he ruined simply to hurt his own father. Lord Douglas, who authored the line, “the love that dare not speak its name,” has been treated harshly by many biographers of Wilde, but he loved as well.
The letter was first published in facsimile, in Harris’s 1910 biography, to rehabilitate Wilde’s image after his death at age forty-six, in 1900. It now appears in a book I edited, Wilde on Love. Most of Wilde’s letters were published in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000), edited by Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, though not all of the letters bought by Clark are included. But there is a delicious twist to the slim volume of Wilde’s love letters to “Dearest Bosie” that has not been noticed so far, at least to my knowledge. The small private edition of Wilde’s letters includes a brief essay by legendary American bookseller A. S. W. Rosenbach.
Rosenbach achieved enormous fame, notoriety and great wealth as “Dr. R.” in the 1920s and 1930s rare book trade, when he was also nicknamed “the Terror of the Auction Room” and the “Napoleon of Books.” He is assumed to have traded books valued at $75 million in today’s money, and his personal collection, including the manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Bram Stoker’s notes for Dracula, is held today at the revered Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. Rosenbach and his brother were colorful characters, who kept live terrapin in the basement of their townhouse ready for supper, and sold and bought enormously valuable books, especially early American literature not yet favored by America’s wealthy classes, now housed in major collections, including the Folger Library, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, and the Clark Library at UCLA.
There is precious little information about A. S. W. Rosenbach’s private life. In scholarly essays, he is called “a life-long bachelor” who died of the effects of an “unrestrained life.” His single foray into fiction, the intriguingly titled The Unpublishable Memoirs (1917), concludes with the tale of a roguish book dealer who tricks rich people out of their printed treasures and marries not for love but to obtain a rare book; the final pages are a diatribe against marriage. It’s hard not to call a book queer where the wife leaves her protagonist husband because of his “wicked, unnatural, unspeakable” love for books, which leaves him free to indulge his real passion from now on. The Rosenbach Library’s website stresses that “The Unpublishable Memoirs is not a personal memoir, but a work of fiction”; Rosenbach’s biography describes the book as “his farewell gesture to a former way of life” of a literary writer. But I have not been able to locate a reference to Rosenbach’s essay about Wilde’s letters in the privately printed book from 1924, either online or in available biographies of Rosenbach. Rosenbach had bought Wilde’s twenty-five letters at auction in New York in 1920, for $7,900 ($103,000 in today’s money), with other Wilde manuscripts for a total of $44,881 ($590,000 in today’s money). Rosenbach then sold the collection to Clark. The two men treasured Wilde’s letters as much for literary merit as for their author’s notoriety; in a 1936 essay, “Letters that we ought to burn,” Rosenbach empathizes with “Wilde’s despair” at seeing the poet Keats’ love letters for sale at auction in 1885, but notes, with his trademark irony, that Wilde was “little dreaming that […] his own letters […] would appear on the auction block […] and be published for the delectation of a naughty world.” Rosenbach does not mention in that essay that he had published Wilde’s letters, but only his purchase of the manuscript of Wilde’s sonnet “On the Sale by Auction of Keats’ Love Letters” (today in Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Library). Many of Wilde’s letters were destroyed by their recipients after the author went to jail, fearing incrimination, and Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland, had censored many letters published before the 1950s. Why did Rosenbach include and draw attention to Bosie’s letter in the small, private printing?
Here is Rosenbach’s explanation for including the facsimile of Bosie’s letter:
There is included in Mr. Clark’s collection a single letter written by Lord Alfred Douglas to Oscar Wilde. This is given without comment at the end of the volume. As has been stated before the letters are terribly human. They begin so debonair, so gracious and so winning. Alas! They end so differently. The tragedy of Wilde’s life ebbs and flows through them. The very qualities of the writer are revealed to us as in a mirror. It is for this reason that they are now given to the world.
Wilde, like his precursor Shakespeare and his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche, valued masks more than displaying one’s authentic self. He was punished harshly when one of his masks was removed. Rosenbach’s essay about Wilde’s letters to Bosie also lifts a mask, but only for the few readers who discover the privately published volume — which now includes us, today.
When I left the Columbia Library after spending some hours with Wilde’s and Bosie’s letters, I felt addressed by Rosenbach’s enigmatic explanation for including Bosie’s letter in facsimile, and thus partly shielded from prying eyes. Rosenbach noted that through these letters “the very qualities of the writer are revealed to us as in a mirror.” What is revealed in Bosie’s letter? To me, the letter says that Wilde and Bosie’s love was real when Bosie wrote the letter, and it was real when Wilde received it – even if Bosie later hedged on the nature of their bond. But the letter also holds a mirror up to Rosenbach, who drew attention to its inclusion “without comment.”
Columbia University’s Library closed seven days after I visited due to the COVID-19 pandemic; the Rare Books collection remains closed to the day of this writing. I imagine Wilde’s small book safe and snug in the library’s vault, waiting for another empathetic reader to leaf through it with gloved fingers and be moved by Wilde’s love that cost him his livelihood, his family, and stained his reputation for decades to come. For what it is worth, it took British official 117 years after London society jeered, shamed, and locked him up, to pardon Wilde, in a blanket ruling called “Turing’s Law,” named for computer scientist Alan Turing, in 2013.
What can Bosie’s love letter to Wilde mean to us today, when gay marriage has been legal in England since 2014, and in the United States since 2015, and Wilde’s plays are read by high school students everywhere, while he had been imprisoned for corrupting the young? What did it mean to Wilde? What does it mean for Rosenbach to publish this letter in particular? Some delicacy should be observed in outing people posthumously; today’s terminology, which identifies Wilde as “gay,” “queer,” and a member of the LGBTQ community, applies only uneasily to people who lived in times when sexuality was not an “identity,” but at best a practice, and nearly always a crime. But it is a moral failure to uphold bigotry when remembering a person’s fully lived life, and it is an intellectual failure to willfully ignore what an author signals to readers today. Rosenbach sent a message into our present time via a comment on Bosie’s love letter to Wilde. It is our task not to ignore it.
Wilde was insulted in life but became an inspiration in death. Bosie’s letter is brought to us, and now resides rare book collections, thanks to Rosenbach’s stature and influence. But perhaps Rosenbach commented specifically on Bosie’s letter to partly lift his mask and signal something not mentioned by his biographers. In the place habitually reserved for the names of spouses and descendants, Rosenbach’s otherwise effusive New York Times obituary in 1952 concludes with the deflating line: “His clubs were the Grolier in New York, and the Philobiblion in Philadelphia.” Perhaps Bosie’s letter allowed Rosenbach to speak to future readers what his time would not hear. This makes me think of Bosie’s letter as a work of literature, posing a question for us today about the reality of love, rather than more fodder for another biography. Bosie’s letter bears witness to the fact that expressing one’s love remains an act of courage in any age.
Below is a transcript of Lord Alfred Douglas’s letter to Oscar Wilde, sent from Paris to London, where Wilde was in custody awaiting the outcome of his trial.
May 15, 1895
MY DARLING OSCAR
Have just arrived here. It seems too dreadful to be here without you, but I hope you will join me here next week. Dieppe was too awful for anything, it is the most depressing place in the world, even Petits Chevaux was not to be had, as the Casino was closed. They are very nice here, and I can stay as long as I like without paying my bill which is a good thing as I am quite penniless. The proprietor is very nice and most sympathetic, he asked after you at once & expressed his great indignation at the treatment you had received. I shall have to send this by a cab to the Gare du Nord to catch the Post as I want you to get it first post tomorrow.
I am going to see if I can find Robert Sherard tomorrow if he is in Paris.
Charlie is with me and sends you his best love.
I had a long letter from […] this morning about you. Do keep up your spirits my dearest darling, I continue to think of you day and & night, and I send you all my love.
I am always your own loving & devoted boy