Summoning any sympathy for Lord Alfred Douglas would appear to be difficult, if not impossible, so congratulations to Douglas Murray (aged a mere 21) for attempting the task, and condolences for what, despite his best efforts, must be judged an honourable failure. More than half a century after his death in 1945, Douglas remains incapable of redemption. Although exceptionally goodlooking when young, Douglas possessed a correspondingly repulsive character; while Dorian Gray's appearance may have been inspired by another of Oscar Wilde's friends, John Gray, his personality bears many similarities to that of Douglas. His entire life, he found himself fascinating; Hesketh Pearson, who met Douglas during the latter's old age, described him as "too much absorbed in himself to be conscious of the existence of others except in reference to his own immediate feelings". Pearson also referred to Douglas's fondness for writing letters to the press, calling this "a well-known form of dementia, frequently indulged in by people who feel that they are not getting enough attention".
Indulgence might be considered a hallmark of Douglas's temperament; he was indulged by his absurdly doting mother who financially supported him until her death, 10 years before his own, at the age of 91. He was certainly indulged by Wilde, who, after one particularly vicious quarrel between the two men, could still tell Douglas he was "the divine thing I want, the thing of grace and beauty". He was even indulged by his father, the bilious Marquess of Queensberry, whose attacks on Wilde were inspired, however perversely, by love of Douglas.
But the only person to whom he showed much gratitude for any indulgence received was himself. Otherwise, his instinct was to fight with everyone, not least his own son with whom he broke off all contact for many years; this unhappy child eventually spent the greater part of his adult life in a psychiatric institution. It would have been better for Douglas, and all who knew him, had the same incarceration been his lot.
Instead, he lived into an embittered and impoverished old age when, finally in Douglas Murray's new biography, the reader perversely begins to feel an inkling of pity for someone hitherto inspiring only disgust. Murray claims he does not intend to be "a pure apologist" for Douglas but still attempts to explain or excuse much of his subject's behaviour which is both inexplicable and inexcusable. This is no easy task. There can be no justification for Douglas's repeated lies - in speech and print - about his relationship with Wilde, and many other men; in the interests of Catholicism, to which he had converted in 1911, he repeatedly perjured himself.
In 1919, he went further and declared that he had been "born into this world chiefly to be the instrument, whether I would or not, of exposing and smashing Wilde's cult and the Wilde myth". He was a snob ("Wilde's father was certainly a knight," he wrote in 1914, "but heaven alone knows who his grandfather was") and, much worse, a virulent anti-Semite, who believed the Jews had conspired with Winston Churchill to murder Lord Kitchener; for this libel, he was deservedly sent to prison. He even managed to accuse his wife of responsibility for his own adultery. Many of his feuds might have been dismissed as merely absurd had he not pursued them with such vehemence and determination to see the object of his venom destroyed.
Given this litany of unrelenting nastiness, Murray can do little but recite the chronology. He struggles to make a case for Douglas's poetry but does not enjoy much more success here. It was typical of his personality that Douglas wrote Petrarchan sonnets, an anachronistic form which he had mastered to little purpose. Not surprisingly, he detested modernism as represented by T.S. Eliot ("the supreme enemy of poetry now living") and wondered why his own worth was so little appreciated. Douglas was a grotesque individual who, it can be confidently stated, would now be forgotten but for his unhappy association with Wilde, a relationship once described by Richard Ellmann as an "amour fatale".
Murray's research has been meticulous and he was even able to persuade the British Home Office to let him see material not due for release for many more years. But even while he tries to redress a perceived imbalance by writing harshly of such individuals as Robert Ross and kindly of his protagonist, the consensus is unlikely to change. Alfred Douglas remains a deeply unappealing individual.
Robert O Byrne is an author and an Irish Times journalist