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‘I am your loving boy-wife’: a short history of queer letter writing

In March 1893, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, most famous today as the lover of Oscar Wilde, composed a letter to his friend Maurice Schwabe in Sydney:

My darling pretty boy, I do love you so much & miss you every minute; as long as you were in England I didn’t mind so much not being with you, but now that you have gone right away, I miss you all day & all night. I really love you far more than any other boy in the world, & shall always be your loving boy-wife, or your ‘little bitch’ if you prefer it.

Schwabe, another of the young men in Oscar Wilde’s London set, had been exiled to Australia, sent here by his family in the hope of keeping him away from scandal. Bosie’s letter, now housed at the State Library of New South Wales, is a strange and gorgeous artefact to read in the midst of Australia’s ‘postal survey’ on same-sex marriage.

Maurice Schwabe letter, via State Library of New South Wales

Maurice Schwabe letter, via State Library of New South Wales

It is a reminder that, hidden away in the epistolary archives of our past, there has always been a language, however playful and improvised, for describing the pleasures of queer matrimony. Bosie’s phrase ‘boy-wife,’ which glistens with a kind of clumsy literalism, recurs at the end of the letter, where he writes: ‘I feel that I want to cry. Goodbye now my dear darling beautiful Maurice; I send you all my love and millions of kisses all over your beautiful body. I am your loving boy-wife.’

If on the one hand a ‘postal survey’ seems like the most archaic, manifestly absurd endgame to decades of queer activism, there is also something fitting about the fact that we have ended up here. Queer life has deep ties to the postal system, both – as Bosie’s letter demonstrates – as a space for touching and being in touch with one another, but also as a site for the cruellest regulation of those intimacies. Letters have contained all those millions of kisses, but all the tears as well.

Oscar Wilde himself is perhaps the most memorable example. In his letter to Schwabe, Douglas reports that Wilde was at that time being blackmailed by a young rent boy named Alfred Wood. ‘He is trying to rent Oscar with two letters which Oscar had written to me, & which AW stole from my pocket when I took him to Oxford.’ Today those letters are well known, as they were later adduced as evidence in the criminal trials against Wilde.

Exhibit ‘A’ in Wilde’s trial, via The National Archives UK

Exhibit ‘A’ in Wilde’s trial, via The National Archives UK

‘My own Boy,’ he wrote in the first. ‘Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those rose-red lips of yours should have been made no less for the music of song than for the madness of kisses.’ The letter is significant not just because it was an instrument of Wilde’s downfall, but also as it memorialises his love for Bosie before it had been transformed into bitterness and hostility. For as well as being sexy and charming, Bosie could also be cruel, and manipulative, and fickle with his affections. And it was Bosie who initiated Wilde’s descent into scandal, baiting him into an unwinnable, and disastrous libel suit against his father, the Marquess of Queensberry.

In the years of his imprisonment at Reading Gaol, between 1895–97, Wilde famously wrote another letter to Bosie – a long, scathing letter in which he denounced him as the cause of all his misery. Writing from the solitude of his prison cell, Wilde was determined to make Douglas understand what he had done. ‘You must read this letter right through,’ he tells him, ‘though each word may become to you as the fire or knife of the surgeon that makes the delicate flesh burn or bleed.’ That letter, which was published after his death under the title ‘De Profundis’, is an extraordinary study in resentment. At times both arrogant and self-serving, it is also Wilde at his most brilliantly, unbearably earnest.

‘Love is fed by the imagination,’ he writes, ‘by which we become wiser than we know, better than we feel, nobler than we are.’ His accusation was that Bosie had only ever been driven by hatred. ‘So to gratify it you gambled with my life,’ he tells him, ‘as you gambled with my money, carelessly, recklessly, indifferent to the consequences. If you lost, the loss would not, you fancied, be yours. If you won, yours, you knew, would be the exultation and the advantages of victory.’

Excerpt of ‘De Profundis’

Excerpt of ‘De Profundis’

If Bosie’s letter to Maurice Schwabe is one kind of textual object that queer communities might cling to through the postal survey, ‘De Profundis’ is another, offering as it does its own set of fortifying lessons. It is, in part, about what it means to feel deeply, profoundly betrayed by an intimate love. At the same time, it demonstrates what is most rending about that experience – how we become less like ourselves because of it. The love affair between Malcolm Turnbull and the queer community has always been an unlikely one, but it is true that in his time as a frontbencher, Turnbull articulated the dignity of LGBTI people with a clarity that was uncommon in conservative Australian politics. By the time he ascended to his current office, he had become an object in which queer people could invest their ambitions – not necessarily as a party-political idol, but as a figure who refracted our own faint sense of progress, and whose pragmatism offered the promise of a different landscape for queer politics in this country.

And yet to have watched his time as prime minister, and witnessed what he has wrought against us, it is surely no longer possible to sustain the illusion that he is our advocate. One wonders, though, what will come next for the relationship between Turnbull and queer Australians. In his letter, Wilde repeatedly insists that it is only through forgiveness that he will eventually find solace. And yet the letter is so apposite for this moment precisely because it fails in that endeavour, because, despite its insistence otherwise, it veers away from its more reparative impulses. There are, of course, some who would argue that we must eventually relinquish our grievances against the PM. ‘De Profundis’, though, suggests that there is something incredibly powerful in sustaining and cultivating bitterness to those who have betrayed and manipulated us – that furious, and repetitive complaint can be more enabling, more emotionally and intellectually productive, than whatever half-hearted instinct we may have toward forgiveness.

But it is also an expression of the fantasy that we could ever make others understand their culpability in our suffering – that we could produce a scene in which they are compelled to listen to and accept our indictments against them. Unsurprisingly, Bosie burned the copy of ‘De Profundis’ that Wilde had mailed to him, and spent the rest of his life denying any responsibility for what happened to Wilde.

One suspects that Turnbull, no matter the result of the postal survey, will never understand his own role in the homophobic enterprise of modern Australia. There is no version of the future in which he reassumes his old voice, or in which he reckons with the events he has created, and we should not invest one moment in the illusion otherwise.

‘Most people live for love and admiration,’ Wilde writes in ‘De Profundis’, ‘but it is by love and admiration that we should live.’ This is the kind of lesson that Turnbull – a man who, for all his education, gives off the impression of having never truly admired anyone but himself – seems incapable of learning. But it is one that all queer Australians might come to understand deeply over the next few months. Among all that is mean and senseless about the postal survey, the process has also reactivated some of the old pleasures of the postal system for queers and their friends, a way of forming our communities across distance, supporting, and being seen to each other. And there is a kind of love and admiration that comes from witnessing that work in action. It is perhaps by that love and admiration for each other that we will eventually measure our success.

 

 Lead image: Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Matthew Clarke is completing a PhD at the University of Sydney on the queer history of letter writing in England.

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