Book review: The Marquess of Queensberry, Wilde’s Nemesis by Linda Stratmann

Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. Picture: Getty
Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. Picture: Getty
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Reviled for his persecution of Oscar Wilde, has the Marquess of Queensberry been misjudged?

The Marquess of Queensberry, Wilde’s Nemesis by Linda Stratmann

Yale University Press, 336pp, £20

Outside the diminishing world of boxing, the Marquess of Queensberry is remembered as a screaming homophobe who destroyed the life and literary genius of Oscar Wilde. Can we ever learn to love him?

Probably not. But Linda Stratmann’s masterly new biography cautions us to condemn a little less and understand a little more. It is essential for a good biographer, and Stratmann is a very good biographer, to cultivate a degree of sympathy with her subject. Without it she may not plumb his depths, and Queensberry was a man of abysmal depths.

Her concluding invitation to her reader to see the tortured Marquess as a “fundamentally well-meaning” man whom we “might even like” is unlikely to find many takers. In The Marquess of Queensberry, Wilde’s Nemesis she has nonetheless succeeded in removing his diabolical costume and revealing a human being.

Any story of a Scottish titled landowner which starts with one of his forebears killing, roasting and eating a kitchen boy is unlikely to end well, and in Queensberry’s case we know that it ended very badly indeed. Before and during his own Victorian time, the Douglases of Dumfriesshire were celebrated as mad, bad and dangerous to know.

The ninth Marquess, John Sholto Douglas, was regarded as highly suspicious until the last five years of his life, when he basked in popular acclaim for busting the supposed gay artistic clique which revolved around Oscar Wilde. He died in January 1900, a few months before Wilde expired in a dingy Parisian hotel room, and the reputations of the two men began their long transposition.

The gentry do not always have it easy. Aside from cannibal ancestors, they are vulnerable to the same bereavements, bad marriages and family squabbles as the rest of us. The tribulations of John Sholto Douglas could have been scripted by Evelyn Waugh in an especially malicious mood.

Stratmann does suggest that Queensberry’s personal difficulties contributed to his behaviour as Wilde’s nemesis in the mid-1890s, so it is worth running briskly through them while trying to keep a straight face. John Sholto Douglas was born in Italy, rather than on the family’s Dumfriesshire estate, because his father had prudently legged it across the Channel to escape his gambling creditors.

When John was 14 years old his father, whose betting debts had escalated heroically, was found shot dead in a field with his gun at his side. Seven years later Queensberry’s younger brother Francis also died, while attempting to scale the Matterhorn. Francis’s body was never found.

Queensberry travelled to the Alps, climbed to the spot where Francis had last been seen alive and experienced a transcendental revelation. That revelation would mature into a vaguely dotty spirituality which when forcefully (Queensberry was nothing if not forceful) articulated caused his contemporaries at worst to decry him as an atheist and at best to regard him with furrowed brows.

He married an indolent, lissom beauty from an artistic family, whose delicate nurture of their young boys caused Queensberry to worry about their sexuality. His widowed mother then developed a passion for militant Irish Republicanism. When Fenian activists were imprisoned or executed for murdering policemen, she wrote letters of support and sent cheques to their families. After a few years of this, Queensberry was embarrassed into sending cheques and open letters of support to the dead policemens’ families.

As his marriage collapsed in slow motion Queensberry threw himself into riding chasers – he loved horse-racing almost as much as he loved boxing – and was thrown in return by the horses so frequently that he broke almost every bone in his body. His eccentric theosophy caused his fellow Scottish peers to refuse to elect him to the House of Lords and he was blackballed by the Reform Club. Another of Queensberry’s brothers told the 1891 census enumerators that his own wife was a “lunatic crossing sweep” and that their son was a “shoeblack” who had been born “in darkest Africa”. Summoned to West London Police Court to answer for that offence, he shortly afterwards killed himself.

Having divorced his first wife, Queensberry discovered himself to be impotent. In an attempt to cure the condition he married another, much younger woman. The cure failed. His second marriage was annulled as unconsummated. Then his oldest son, christened Francis after Queensberry’s dead brother, blew his own brains out in a turnip patch.

Shortly afterwards the Marquess of Queensberry was told that his son Alfred, who had been called “Boysie” or “Bosie” by his mother when he was a toddler, was having a sexual affair with the flamboyant playwright and boulevardier Oscar Wilde.

Due to Stratmann’s biographical skill, we are not encouraged to think of this as Queensberry’s last straw. Stratmann is correct to point out that “sodomy” was abhorrent to almost the whole of late- Victorian society and that gay rights were a thing of the distant future. Wilde and Bosie both knew that, but they nonetheless strolled into a legal labyrinth from which there was no exit.

Stratmann is gentle with Wilde, and fully appreciative of his genius, while pointing out that it was he and not Queensberry who brought the first, fatal legal action. Having been attacked, Queensberry the pugilist was happy to hit back with all the force he could muster. When the Marquess won, it was not in his power to bring a second action and chase Oscar Wilde all the way to Reading Gaol. That was the function of the legal system, which it embraced with relish and success.

Could Wilde have ignored Queensberry’s persistent, vicious public taunts? If he had done so, would they have gone away? The answer must be no, and no. That relationship was made in hell. Oscar never ran from a verbal fight in his life. Queensberry’s chief characteristic was an adamantine pursuit of principle.

And a fat lot of good it did either of them. We know of and still mourn the premature death of Oscar Wilde. The Marquess of Queensberry, having enjoyed a few exalted months as the nation’s most popular persecutor of pansies, died estranged from almost all of his surviving relatives. His posthumous reputation was fated by the genius of his last opponent. For as long as Oscar Wilde is remembered and loved, so too will his nemesis be reviled.

Queensberry was nobody’s nemesis, of course, not literally and not figuratively. Linda Stratmann may not persuade all of us to like this driven, hurt, unhappy man. But in a perfectly enthralling biography, she lifts John Sholto Douglas from the page and submits him in three dimensions to the judgment of history.