“Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy” by Laura Lee— Battling for the Legacy

Lee, Laura. “Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy”, Amberley Publishing, 2017.

Battling for the Legacy

Amos Lassen

With the death of Oscar Wilde there was a battle between two of his closest friends and former lovers, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the playwright’s greatest love, and Robert Ross, Wilde’s friend and literary executor. The battle was over who would control the narrative about Wilde’s life, and who history would blame for his death. It led to the revelation of sexual secrets and personal letters, blackmail, stalking, and five lawsuits. It greatly affected the two participants and also how we remember Wilde today.

Each man tried to use the secrets from their former intimate moments with Wilde. Some of us are aware of this battle against the other but this is the first book to focus just on the feud. At it’s most basic, this is about Wilde’s life and how it affected the lives of two former lovers. We read stories that we heard in court that pretended to be the truth and we read stories about identity and stories about how we find ourselves as part of a larger community. We soon realize that these stories are our lives especially when they all come together. This is a book about how Wilde wrote “De Profundis” and what happened afterwards with between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Wilde wrote this while in prison after his conviction for `gross indecency’. He used the writing as a kind of rehabilitation for his reputation that was severely hurt by his personal life style and his conviction. “De Profundis” is written as a long essay (50,000 words) and in letterform to Douglas, his former lover, who he repudiates in this letter. Wilde entrusted the manuscript to Ross, another former lover (of both Wilde and Douglas), who did not allow the intended recipient to read it and it was not until 1913 that Douglas learned of its existence. It was then used as evidence against him during a libel trial that he had instigated against Arthur Ransome. Wilde, by then, had already been dead for ten years and Douglas had converted to Roman Catholicism. and Ross who had once been Douglas’ best friend now hated him.

We get the background and the context, meet the main characters and learn how they met Wilde and each other and see the interconnections between them. The book examines  Wilde’s trial and imprisonment and examine the ramifications of Wilde’s writing of “De Profundis”. Ross, as Wilde’s literary executor, sought to restore Wilde’s literary reputation, and would use the essay as part of this larger goal for Douglas who ended up spending most of his remaining life responding to the essay and attempting to negate that he only interested in Wilde for his money, and was responsible for Wilde’s death.

Both Ross and Douglas attempted to control the narrative of Wilde’s life and death in the courts, where Douglas and Ross both tried to present the “real story” of what happened and to do this they had to get through number of lawsuits. The media impacted public perception of Wilde’s legacy and their decisions depended upon the salacious nature of the testimony. A great deal of the book is about the trials since it is through them that we get our perceptions of the two men. It is quite a story.