Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde’s Nemesis, by Linda Stratmann

“John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensberry has the unique and unfortunate place in the history of literature: he is almost universally reviled as the man who precipitated the tragic downfall of Oscar Wilde. The ultimate though not exclusive  responsibility of Wilde’s downfall must be borne by Wilde, who committed a criminal offence, had the man who exposed him put on trial for libel, and then lied in the witness box, but Wilde’s well-deserved rehabilitation as a literary genius and a good if not flawless human being has led to the demonizing of his accuser.”

So begins Linda Stratmann’s thorough and fair biography of Queensberry (1844-1900), a man who is actually famous for two things: precipitating the destruction of Oscar Wilde, and lending his name to rules of modern-day boxing. Stratmann takes us on a linear journey to show the evolution of this divisive and surprisingly complicated man—a man driven by a passion for athletics, by moral order, and a deep sense of his own importance in the development of 19th century Britain. The act for which he is most notorious for—attempting to drive a wedge in the homosexual relationship between his son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and Wilde—was actually the culmination of a life rocked with familial suicides, tragic accidents, marital incompatibility, failure to attain a peerage, and an impotence that spoiled any chance of him attaining any sexual satisfaction of his own.

Stratmann’s details it all: the suicides that claimed the life of both Queensberry’s father and one of his sons; the tragic mountain-climbing accident that killed his brother Francis when Queensberry was on the cusp of his 21st birthday; his troublingly ill-suited marriage to his first wife, Sybil, a woman of genteel refinement who had no interest in the obsessions of her jock husband; the reflection of Bosie’s flamboyancy found on his father in law; and Queensberry’s frustrating attempts to secure for himself a seat in the British House of Lords, an honour bestowed on his son Francis at the age of 27 when he hadn’t really done anything to deserve it.

Readers will also find a detailed explanation of how Queensberry was able to shepherd along the rules that would return boxing from backroom bare-knuckle bloodbaths and back into the respectable fold of the western sporting world. What’s interesting learn here is that Queensberry didn’t actually devise the rules that bear his name. They were developed by his friend, the sportsman John Graham Chambers, and were first applied only to amateur boxing. But Queensberry did pay to have a tournament challenge cup created for bouts fought under these rules, and thus his name eventually became associated with them.

One should not believe, coming into this lengthy biography, that Stratmann has written a hagiography that downplays the man’s heinous behaviour when it comes to Wilde. She doesn’t. But what she has written is a detailed portrait of Queensberry and how he became the surly and infuriating man he became. Stratmann rightly puts the blame for Wilde’s downfall on key moments of the playwright’s own hubris and naïveté, especially during specific courtroom scenes during the libel trial. We are, perhaps for the first time, able to see those scenes through Queensberry’s eyes. In the end, we may not be left with a view on Queensberry that allow us to sympathize with him. But we are left with a rich record that will help us to better understand him.

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