Alfred Douglas Biography

Alfred Douglas, a British poet and journalist, gained notoriety for his controversial relationship with Oscar Wilde, the renowned Irish poet and playwright. Despite facing opposition from his father and enduring a tumultuous connection with Wilde, Douglas remained steadfast in their bond. However, their relationship was marred by Douglas’s deviant behavior, leading to public humiliation and a legal feud with his father. After Wilde’s release from prison, Douglas briefly reunited with him before eventually marrying Olive Custance and starting a family. Douglas’s conversion to Roman Catholicism and the founding of the magazine ‘Plain English’ marked significant changes in his life. Unfortunately, his involvement in a libel case against Winston Churchill resulted in imprisonment, and he ultimately passed away due to heart failure.

Quick Facts

  • Nick Name: Bosie
  • Also Known As: Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas
  • Died At Age: 74
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Olive Custance
    • Father: John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry
    • Mother: Sibyl Montgomery
    • Siblings: Francis Douglas; Viscount Drumlanrig, Percy Douglas; 10th Marquess of Queensberry
  • Born Country: England
  • Poets
  • Journalists
  • Died on: March 20, 1945
  • Place of death: Lancing, Sussex, England
  • Notable Alumni: Magdalen College, Oxford, Magdalen College
  • Cause of Death: Congestive Heart Failure
  • Founder/Co-Founder: Plain English
  • Education: Winchester College, Magdalen College, Oxford

Childhood & Early Life

Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas was born on October 22, 1870, in Powick, Worcestershire. He was the third son of The Most Hon. John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and his first wife, Sibyl Montgomery. His mother’s favorite child, Douglas was nicknamed ”Bosie,” a name he carried until his death. His parents divorced in 1887 due to his father’s infidelity.

Douglas attended ‘Wixenford School’ and ‘Winchester College’ (1884–1888). He later joined ‘Magdalen College,’ ‘Oxford’ (1889–1893) but dropped out soon. He then took up a job as an editor of ‘The Spirit Lamp’ (1892–1893). His relationship with his father soured. Apparently, he used the ‘Oxford’ magazine as a secret means to advocate homosexuality.

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Literary Works

Douglas had published many volumes of poetry. He is also credited for ‘Oscar Wilde and Myself’ (1914) and ‘Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up’ (1940), which chronicle his controversial relationship with the playwright. Apart from this, he wrote two memoirs: ‘The Autobiography of Lord Alfred Douglas’ (1929) and ‘Without Apology’ (1938). He edited the literary journal ‘The Academy,’ (1907 to 1910). Around this time, he allegedly began an affair with bisexual artist Romaine Brooks.

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Relationship with Wilde

In 1891, Douglas met Wilde for the first time. By then, Wilde was married and had two sons. The two began a relationship soon. In 1893, Wilde commissioned Douglas to translate his French play ‘Salomé.’ Lord Chamberlain banned the play, calling it blasphemous. Robert Hichens’s 1894 novel ‘The Green Carnation’ was based on Douglas and Wilde’s controversial relationship. The texts in the book were later used against Wilde in the 1895 trials.

Douglas wanted Wilde to sponsor his habits of gambling and casual affairs with other men. It triggered arguments between them. However, their frequent break-ups always ended up in reconciliation. Douglas’s tumultuous relationship with his father worsened when he supported Wilde when his father had a dispute with the playwright. He even persuaded Wilde to defame his father. His dropping out of ‘Oxford’ was a result of his father’s conspiracy, who suspected him of being in a homosexual relationship. His father also threatened to disown him and stop all financial aid. Douglas’s career suffered due to his incomplete education. Douglas also praised ‘Salome’ in ‘The Spirit Lamp,’ much to his father’s dismay.

Trials

With Douglas’s support, Wilde had Queensberry arrested and charged with public insult, for using the phrase “Posing as somdomite.” Sodomy was a criminal offense back then. In Douglas’s father’s defense, his lawyer, Edward Carson, assassinated Wilde’s character, labeling him as a dangerous older man who used his wealth to seduce young men into homosexuality. Wilde’s erotic letters to Douglas were produced as evidence, which the former claimed to be his works of art. He was also accused of publishing homoerotic themes in the single-issue magazine ‘The Chameleon,’ of which Douglas was the publisher. Douglas’s poem ‘Two Loves’ was used against Wilde at the trial. The lengthy trial finally ended in a hung jury. The libel law thus ordered Wilde to pay a substantial monetary compensation to Queensberry, leaving the playwright bankrupt. Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labor, while Douglas was forced into exile in Europe.

Reunion & Separation

Wilde’s critical letter to Douglas from jail was titled ‘De Profundis.’ The two reunited at Rouen after Wilde was released on May 19, 1897. The reunion was, however, disapproved by their friends and families. In late 1897, they lived together in Naples, but financial pressures and other personal issues got them separated. Wilde moved to Paris, while Douglas moved to Britain in late 1898. Wilde died penniless in 1900. Douglas was the chief mourner at his funeral. At the grave, Douglas reportedly had an altercation with Canadian journalist, and Wilde’s former lover, Robbie Ross. The brawl led to a feud.

Marriage

Following Wilde’s death, Douglas romanced bisexual British poet Olive Custance. The two got married on March 4, 1902. Custance’s lover, writer Natalie Barney, was the godmother to their son, Raymond Wilfred Sholto Douglas. Douglas’s conversion to Catholicism in 1911 wrecked his marriage. Thus, Custance and he separated in 1913. However, they reconciled briefly in the 1920s, after Custance, too, embraced Catholicism. Their son’s health issues made them drift apart. The two finally separated after Custance gave up Catholicism. They, however, never divorced.

Plain English

In 1920, Douglas, in collaboration with activist Harold Sherwood Spencer, started a right-wing, Catholic, and anti-Jewish weekly magazine named ‘Plain English.’ ‘Plain English’ was shut down at the end of 1922. A feud with Spencer led to the end of Douglas’s permit to edit in 1921. Hence, he started a rival but short-lived magazine called ‘Plain Speech,’ in collaboration with activist Herbert Moore Pim.

Imprisonment

Of all Douglas’s libel cases, the most noted one was when he libeled Winston Churchill in 1923 and was sentenced to 6 months in prison. While in prison, Douglas composed his final major work, ‘Excelsis’ (”In the Highest”), in 1924. It had a reference to Wilde’s ‘De Profundis’ (”From the Depths”).

Final Years & Death

Douglas was released in 1924, and by that time, he had grown empathetic toward Wilde. His highly applauded lecture, titled ‘The Principles of Poetry,’ delivered at the ‘Royal Society of Literature,’ on September 2, 1943, marked one of Douglas’s last public appearances. On March 20, 1945, he died of heart failure in Lancing, Sussex. He was buried at the ‘Franciscan Friary,’ Crawley.

Legacy

The earlier ones among Douglas’s six biographies, written by Braybrooke and Freeman, had no quotes from his copyrighted work. Back then, ‘De Profundis’ was unpublished. His later biographies were written by Rupert Croft-Cooke, H. Montgomery Hyde, and Douglas Murray. His last biography, ‘Alfred Douglas: A Poet’s Life and His Finest Work,’ written by Caspar Wintermans, was released in 2007. Douglas has been portrayed by actors John Neville in ‘Oscar Wilde’ (1960), John Fraser in ‘The Trials of Oscar Wilde,’ (1960), Jude Law in ‘Wilde’ (1997), Colin Morgan in ‘The Happy Prince’ (2018), and Robin Lermitte in the ‘BBC’ drama Oscar (1985).

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