Over a century after his death, Oscar Wilde is still a contentious character. Many are familiar with at least some snippets of his life story, if not the whole thing: his impassioned personality, his fame and success, his trial and imprisonment for gross indecency with men and his death only a few years afterward.
As if it weren’t enough for controversy to follow Wilde throughout his life, it continued even after his death. This took the form of a bitter conflict between Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and his literary executor, Robert Ross.
Laura Lee’s new book, "Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy," deals with this conflict and with the enormous fallout of Wilde’s death.
“It actually started when I got a Kindle for the first time,” Lee said. “I was looking for something to download that was free and I chose De Profundis, Oscar Wilde’s long essay that he wrote in prison in the form of a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas.”
This prompted Lee to start investigating more of the work that Wilde and Douglas had written about each other, which spurred her onward and opened up more questions.
“I found that everything that had been written was kind of arguing from the point of view of one of these guys or the other. And I wanted to see what the context was and be sympathetic to all of them, but figure out what I could about what the truth was,” Lee said.
That was six years ago. Now the book is complete, and Lee has gained a much fuller picture of what motivated both Douglas and Ross as they sparred in the years following Wilde’s death, battling over whether the death should be blamed on Wilde’s circle of friends and admirers or on Douglas alone.
“[Wilde] was an aggressive man, he inspired them both,” Lee said. “They were both quite a bit younger than him, and he talked about art and made them feel like they were part of a community, part of something that was forward-looking and exciting instead of being on the margins. So I think that they were both very devoted to him, and they both felt, in different ways, responsible for parts of what had happened to him … I think a lot of their feud was not wanting to be blamed for what happened.”
It was a complicated battle, in part because people are complicated and because it was hard to put Wilde’s decline in health in black and white terms. There is no question that Ross and Douglas both cared for Wilde, but it is interesting to note the ways in which Douglas has been increasingly blamed for Wilde’s misfortunes in the years following his death, in large part due to Ross’s writings.
“[Ross] really framed our dialogue about Oscar Wilde,” Lee said. “But interestingly, Lord Alfred Douglas, later in his life, even though he had no warm feelings for Robert Ross, he even said that that mythologizing of Oscar Wilde was a necessary first step to preserving his legacy.”
In the end, it seems that the point is less to declare a true and definite winner, and more to examine the interesting manifestations of this conflict.
“I don’t think there were winners and losers, necessarily,” Lee said. “I think that grand mythology about Oscar Wilde is part of what made him so intriguing, and such an enduring figure. So I’m sympathetic to both of the men in the battle, I understand both of their motivations. I try to see them as much as possible on their own terms, and with empathy.”
Lee’s book will be available for purchase in the United States starting on November 1. She will speak at the Ann Arbor District Library on October 17 at 7:00 p.m.