This is a story about stories. On its most basic level, Oscar’s Ghost is about Oscar Wilde’s life and how its telling affected the lives of two people whom fate had cast as characters in it. But it is also about other stories: the stories told in courtrooms masquerading as the `whole truth’; the stories we tell ourselves to create an identity; stories we tell others to carve out a place in the community; stories that marginalized groups tell themselves to make sense of their difference; and the stories society relies upon to explain a moment in history. Oscar’s Ghost explores how all these stories interact and what happens when contradictory narratives collide.
So begins Oscar’s Ghost by Laura Lee. Ostensibly, Lee’s book is about how Oscar Wilde came to write De Profundis, and the subsequent feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. While in prison, after being convicted of `gross indecency’, Wilde attempted to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation and legacy by writing De Profundis, a long essay (50,000 words) in the form of a letter 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 its intended recipient to read the manuscript; indeed, Douglas first learned of its existence in 1913, when it was used as evidence against him during a libel trial that he had instigated against Arthur Ransome. By this time, Wilde had been dead for a decade, Douglas had undergone a religious conversion to Roman Catholicism, and Ross, formerly Douglas’ bestie, now despised him.
But Oscar’s Ghost is much more than just the story about Wilde’s attempt to define his own legacy. The book begins by providing context: Lee introduces each of the main characters, explains how they each met, and examines the many interconnections between them in the wider circle of Wilde’s entourage. She then discusses Wilde’s trial and resulting imprisonment, and finally examines the ramifications of Wilde’s writing of De Profundis. For Wilde was not the only one engaged in active myth-making: Ross, as Wilde’s literary executor, sought to restore Wilde’s literary reputation, and would use De Profundis as part of this larger goal, whereas Douglas spent most of his remaining life responding to the narrative that he had betrayed Wilde, was only interested in Wilde for his money, and was responsible for Wilde’s death.
Most of their attempts to control the narrative of Wilde’s life and death (and thus their own roles in these events) was done in the courts, where Douglas and Ross both tried to present the `true side’ of what happened, in a series of lawsuits. (Not surprisingly, as former lovers, the battle between Ross and Douglas would be especially fierce.) Of course, the media impacted public perception of Wilde’s legacy (and the respective roles Douglas and Ross played), by what journalists would record in the newspapers, either choosing to report the court proceedings or not, their decisions depending upon the salacious nature of the testimony. Lee therefore devotes a substantial portion of her book to these trials, as they are responsible for much of the subsequent perception of Douglas and Ross (and, indirectly, of Wilde).
Meticulously researched and evenly presented, Lee presents the dramatis personae in their full contradictory glory (Douglas especially seems to have inherited a propensity for mental illness from his father). More than a dry retelling of queer history, it is an engaging story in its own right.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske