Monstrosities of a Vile Victorian

Linda Stratmann’s attempt to exculpate the Marquess of Queensberry of his myriad sins is a misguided stab at rescuing a the reputation of a truly wretched man

Books History
Family spat: Queensberry and his son Percy came to blows over the former's treatment of Oscar Wilde

The life of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, was not a happy one. While he was a teenager his father shot himself. His 21st birthday was interrupted by news of the death of one of his brothers on the Matterhorn. Another brother later slashed his neck and bled to death in a London hotel room. His first son and heir shot himself in what may or may not have been an accident. Marriage to the mother of his children led to divorce for his unreasonable behaviour. A second marriage — to a woman half his age — was swiftly annulled due to the groom’s impotence. Long before his death in 1900 at the age of 55 all his children hated him. When Percy, his second son and eventual heir, came to see him on his deathbed Queensberry apparently sat up and spat at him.

Against this are two claims on posterity: he put his name to the rules of boxing and, as the father of Lord Alfred Douglas, he caused the downfall of Oscar Wilde.

Given time the biography industry turns on all minor as well as major players. The Wilde affair is no exception. There have already been biographies of most of Wilde’s family and friends. Fifteen years ago I wrote the biography of Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. There have been several biographies of Wilde’s wife as well as friends such as Robbie Ross, Ada Leverson and Frank Harris and also several books on the Douglas clan. This is the first full biography of John Sholto Douglas. It is not hard to see why.

The twin criteria for a good biography are that the subject should have lived in (and preferably contributed to) interesting times and that they should have left posterity with something worthwhile. Bosie suffered interesting times even after Wilde was dead and left a small quantity of good poetry. Ross nurtured two generations of writers. By contrast, though Queensberry contributed destructively to a moment, he left nothing of worth.

Linda Stratmann — whose publishers unwisely flag an earlier book on chloroform on the jacket notes — slightly heroically tries to contest this. In her epilogue she writes, “For too long [Queensberry] has been represented as an evil, brutal, insane bigot who set out to destroy literary genius Oscar Wilde.” She refers to Queensberry’s “too short life”, and describes how “reassessing Queensberry today we might find him difficult, abrasive and opinionated, but fundamentally well-meaning. We might even like him.” I doubt that.

“Cher fat Boy” opens a typical letter to Foreign Secretary, Lord Rosebery, “I presume the savoury odour of your Jew money bags has too delicious a fragrance to allow me to expect any justice in high quarters.” Rosebery had been guilty of promoting the career of Queensberry’s eldest son and recommending he sit in the House of Lords. As Queensberry himself had some years earlier been prevented from sitting by his own peers he saw his son’s advancement solely as an insult aimed at him. His rage over this matter — like all his rages — ended by encompassing his whole family, most of the government and, on that occasion, the Queen. A letter to the Prime Minister was headed “copy of letter sent to the Christian whoremonger and hypocrite Gladstone”. Queensberry thought of himself as a free-thinker. He was certainly an early and outspoken atheist or agnostic. That was just one of the causes he probably set back some decades.

Of course his campaigning vitriol found its deepest fulfilment — and temporary vindication — in his pursuit of Oscar Wilde. It is true, as Stratmann claims, that as with the Rosebery case he may have been partly impelled by a desire to protect his sons. But his correspondence suggests that he was more propelled by his own hurt, a terrible boredom and the considerable limitations of his brain.

Queensberry long intended to persuade Wilde to sue him for libel and of course he finally succeeded with the semi-literate scrawl left at Wilde’s club. What follows is well known — the collapse of that trial, the ensuing criminal prosecutions and Wilde’s conviction and imprisonment. It still reads as horribly and avoidably tragic, but gains little in the retelling here from Queensberry’s viewpoint. The Marquess was hero for an hour, but history swiftly began to accord him a different verdict.

Though unable to turn up anything new on this most well-furrowed ground, Stratmann performs some honourable labours on other portions of her subject’s life. But it is small beer. Only Queensberry’s part in destroying a genius at the very height of his powers could retain him as a subject of any interest. Does it really matter which voyages he was on as a young sailor? Or that after the trials he became a bicycling enthusiast, possibly riding tandem with a former Sussex county cricket captain?

Stratmann half-heartedly attempts to show that Queensberry might be remembered for his own thought, being as he was somewhat ahead of his time on ideas of marital law and religious doubt. But this is not persuasive. Queensberry was not even a shallow thinker. To read his public or private efforts to think is like watching a chimpanzee holding a volume of Kant. A profound and serious thing may be in his hands, but he has no idea what to do with it.

Stratmann manages the minefield of major sources judiciously, rightly distrusting several key witnesses. But she is wrong to quote wholly uncritically from Wilde’s prison letter De Profundis or to quote from André Gide and even Frank Harris with something like trust.

Nevertheless it is an admirable stab at rescuing a wretched and awful man. Perhaps the best summary is one which Stratmann quotes. The Sporting Times wrote on Queensberry’s death: “It is not for us here to inquire into the workings of his peculiar mind. It had a craving for something; it knew not what.”