The Marquess of Queensberry is perhaps as famous for destroying one of our greatest literary geniuses as he was for helping establish the rules for modern-day boxing. The trial and two-year imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, following a series of events inspired by Wilde’s romantic interest in his son, remains one of history’s great tragedies. However, this riveting biography of the marquess, also known as John Sholto Douglas, paints a far more complex picture by drawing on new sources and unpublished letters.In this exclusive author article for the Yale Books blog, author Linda Stratmann reintroduces the oft maligned figure of John Sholto Douglas and suggests why we should look again at the established reading of his legacy.
John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensberry is an easy man to hate, since he is generally reviled as the man who caused the downfall of one of literature’s great geniuses, Oscar Wilde.
Biographers of Wilde and his contemporaries usually dismiss Queensberry as eccentric to the point of clinical insanity. In film he is a grotesque figure with no more depth than a pantomime villain; coarse, vulgar, and uneducated, he rampages onto the scene spitting a hatred that seems to emanate solely from his own twisted obsessions.
His kindest critics have suggested that he was the victim of a tainted inheritance from his Douglas forbears, but the idea that the Douglases were highly unbalanced and had always been so did not arise until the 1870s and was largely although not entirely due to the troubled career of John Sholto Douglas.
The easy assumption that Queensberry was mad or simply bad leaves the biographer with no reason to examine his motives for anything he did or said. Opening up this field of enquiry, and extracting the real Queensberry from the cascade of vilification, reveals a much maligned man, whose opinions on social issues were ahead of his time, while his prejudices were those of the society in which he lived. In finding Queensberry we also cast fresh light on events surrounding the downfall of Oscar Wilde.
Queensberry was for most of his life an unhappy, often grief stricken man damaged by a series of tragedies and bitter disappointments. Volatile, bold and self-opinionated, with a quick hot temper, he liked to settle disputes with his fists, but he was never a bully, and beneath the bombastic exterior was a man who craved happiness, truth and love.
Much of what is believed about Queensberry comes from one source,
the exaggerated and sometimes untrue allegations made by his son, Alfred (Bosie) in hysterical and self-justifying letters and memoirs, as he attempted to defend his lover, Oscar Wilde, by attacking his father’s character representing him as an evil, ignorant brute. As a result, events in which Queensberry had no hand, such as the prosecution of Wilde, are often attributed to his personal malice, while his every action is interpreted in a negative light. Queensberry was no intellectual, but he had passed rigorous naval examinations, was widely read on philosophical and social subjects, and spoke French.
Queensberry is a convenient villain, but if there is a villain in Wilde’s story it is Bosie, whose carelessness, arrogance, selfishness and beauty all conspired to bring about Wilde’s destruction.
Queensberry’s angry letters should not be read without a detailed appreciation of the events that led to their being written, while his more considered, heartfelt and sometimes pathetic letters reveal a desperate craving for understanding and affection.
There are numerous pivotal events in Queensberry’s fractured life. The suicide of his father when he was fourteen must have been a shattering blow. The loss of a beloved brother, killed on the Matterhorn on the cusp of the celebration for Queensberry’s twenty first birthday was a coming of age in another, harder sense. The perilous night alone on the mountain looking for his brother’s body broke his devout belief in Christianity. Queensberry was a searcher for spiritual truth, but feeling abandoned by the Christian God, became an agnostic. His public renunciation of Christianity made him a social pariah, excluded from gentlemen’s clubs and the House of Lords.
His admiration for blonde beauty led him into a disastrous marriage, which he was emotionally and psychologically unable to endure. Separated from his wife and children, he never again found a permanent home, living alone in small apartments, hotels or his bleak Scottish cottages.
His sister Gertrude shocked society by marrying a baker’s boy twenty years her junior and died aged fifty of tuberculosis. His brother James was an alcoholic, who committed suicide at the age of thirty-five. His brother Archibald became a Roman Catholic priest, and chided Queensberry for his stand against religion. His true soulmate was his sister Florence, a political activist who destroyed her reputation by forging a letter and faking an assassination attempt. When Queensberry most needed her support she was disabled with arthritis and unable to help him.
Queensberry’s heir, Francis, was the only son of whom he could be proud, but when Francis was given an English peerage while Queensberry was overlooked, the two became estranged. In 1894 Francis aged 27, committed suicide amidst rumours of a brewing homosexual scandal involving Prime Minister Lord Rosebery. It was in the aftermath of this event that Queensberry made his most strenuous efforts to end the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Bosie, which he must have feared could lead to his son’s ruin or death.
Bosie, who inherited his mother’s beauty and his father’s temper, expected a life of idle luxury and clashed with his father who insisted he should adopt a profession. Bosie, who initially claimed that his relationship with Wilde was innocent, alleged that the scandal about the pair had been invented by his father from malice or delusions. Bosie’s lies turned the family against his father, and by the time Queensberry left the infamous card he was probably ready to explode with frustration. Queensberry was also at this time suffering from impotence, and his second marriage rapidly collapsed and was annulled.
The Marquess’s second son Percy was an alcoholic who pursued easy wealth in goldmines, and lived permanently in debt. Queensberry’s one forlorn hope for contentment was a Scottish retreat and reconciliation with Percy and his wife, but Percy believed Bosie’s lies and turned against his father. It was a betrayal Queensberry was never able to forgive.
There is only one world in which Queensberry reigns supreme; his name remains a byword in boxing. The Queensberry competition, which he sponsored, enabled boxing to become a legally acceptable and properly regulated sport, and he promoted boxing as an exercise and a skill, rather than the bloody endurance test it had once been.
Queensberry was not insane; indeed the true wonder of his story is that he was not, since the tragedies of his life might have made a lesser man crumble into irretrievable depression and suicide. He suffered many bouts of depression, from which he emerged with a firmer resolve or a new scheme with which to escape his demons. At the end of his too short life, he was still on the fringes of society, but pursuing bodily fitness with bicycle and punch ball, outclassing in vigour most men of his age, enjoying the company of like-minded friends, and still promoting his then unorthodox ideas of reform.
Re-assessing Queensberry today we might find him difficult, abrasive and opinionated, but fundamentally well-meaning. We might even like him. The world of sport and theatre in which he felt comfortable is far closer to our twenty-first century society than that of the respectable Victorian middle and upper classes that rejected him. Many of his ideas that so appalled the Victorian establishment – simpler divorce laws, and the enfranchisement of women – have come to pass.
Had he lived longer he might have been admitted back into the House of Lords, an acceptance that would have blunted his pain and disappointments, given his life the meaning he craved, and enabled him to employ his forceful personality, and passion for change in some of the major reforms of the twentieth century.
– Article by the author of The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde’s Nemesis, Linda Stratmann