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Olive Custance.

The poison pen of a Fairy Prince.

By FERDI McDERMOTT.

OLIVE CUSTANCE WAS the long-suffering wife of Lord Alfred Douglas, the beautiful young man over whom Oscar Wilde lost his reputation, livelihood and family. But at the same time Lord Alfred was holding court in Oxford, his future wife, Olive, was already holding court in London. She ventured into literary society very young, at the age of sixteen in the London of the 1890s, surrounded by admirers of both sexes.

This 1890s London set which Olive joined was gathered around the publisher John Lane, the originator of The Yellow Book, an eclectic periodical of poetry, fiction and non-fiction prose, with new illustrations; most notably the distinctively languid cover cartoons drawn by Aubrey Beardsley. The Yellow Book cast its golden hue over a whole decade of London literary life and acted as a focus for a group young poets who elicited the ire of critics because of their morals. This fin de siècle literary scene whose names are still known to us, labelled, rather imprecisely, as ‘decadents’, included John Lane’s reader, the accomplished writer and critic Richard Le Gallienne, the future Father John Gray, Ernest Dowson and Aubrey Beardsley. The young Olive was of course a respectable young lady, accompanied by her lady’s maid, and certainly did not attend any Dionysian vigils with these young men, but John Lane hosted afternoon tea parties and it was at these that Olive began to make a reputation for herself as both muse and poet. She also conducted an extended epistolary flirtation with the Yellow Book’s editor, the American novelist, Henry Harland. But he was an older, married man; the exchange was sentimental, but quite chivalrous.

Another of her admirers was the now largely forgotten Scottish lyric poet, John Davidson. Davidson was immediately rather taken by the young Olive, and he made an eerie prophecy about her, predicting both the course of her poetry and the nature of her marriage. It begins like this:

At sixteen years, she knew no care:
How could she, sweet and pure as light?
And there pursued her everywhere
Butterflies all white.”

And ends like this:

“There only came to her forlorn
Butterflies all black.”1

The poor man walked into the sea in 1909 and was never seen again.

Richard Le Gallienne spoke of Olive’s personal “flower-like loveliness”2 as well as finding her poems like a breath of fresh, feminine air:

[S]he instinctively understands some of the secrets of the use of words. The importance of her own moods, the exquisiteness and strangeness of living, the mystic beauty of the world, and all the glory and pathos it seems to mean in certain hours : music played at twilight, the sound of the rain, friends, and flowers (the friends as flowers, the flowers as friends), the sudden wonderful face of love, fair as a shooting star, her own beauty and the beauty of the morning sky, beautiful pain and all the mysterious sadness of joy — of such is the kingdom of earth for this young poet. And the words she finds for these moments are as rich and subtle, and yet as simple, as the moments themselves.”3

In her adolescence, as we discover in her diaries and correspondence, she had dreamed of one day finding her ‘fairy prince’, and ‘prince’ was the nickname she gave to John Gray whom she met when she was only sixteen.

The handsome Gray, reputedly the model for Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray,4 was the first object of her girlish devotion and the first discerning audience for her poems, many dedicated to him. He received them with “wry amusement”,5 offered her sincere advice, but …

You were indifferent . . . and I may forget
Your profound eyes, your heavy hair, your voice
So clear, yet deep and low with tenderness.
That lingered on my ears like a caress
And roused my heart to make a futile choice.6

These lines notwithstanding, there was certainly a real complicity between the two. One scholar7 refers to a letter from Olive telling how her mother prohibited her from being alone with the dashing East London poet, and how Gray had converted her name for him “Prince of Dreams” to “Prince of Breams.”8

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice. The escape key will then return you here.

Ten years after falling for John Gray, and only a few months after he surprised his friends by disappearing to Rome to study for the priesthood, Olive decided to “build a willow cabin at [the] gate” of Lord Alfred Douglas. They had met as children at a wedding, and their families were known to each other, but they had never met as adults. Olive was attracted to him because he was a poet, because he was handsome and surely because she relished a challenge.

To Gray, Olive had written of a princess waiting for her prince; now, to Douglas, she wrote of his arrival.

Whereas with John Gray she had played the role of princess,9waiting for her prince to come, with Lord Alfred she also played the doting page-boy, like Cesario to Orsino in Twelfth Night. Olive wrote to him out of the blue, hoping to woo him by letter; she sent him forget-me-nots and some recycled poems which she had originally written about John Gray, but which she now addressed “To Lord Alfred Douglas”, adding one or two ones which mention his fair hair and blue eyes. To Gray she had written of a princess waiting for her prince; now, to Douglas, she wrote of his arrival.10 They exchanged photographs, and with the help of Robbie Ross, another friend of Wilde’s, they arranged a few secret meetings at his London gallery.

At 27, Olive was experiencing her first really successful romance. And at the same time, she was also being pursued by yet another admirer, this time a woman, and an American. Nathalie Barney, a wealthy heiress and salon hostess in Paris saw herself as a latter day Sappho. It was while enquiring after a new translation of the works of Sappho that she heard about Olive Custance from her publisher, John Lane.

Soon after, on holiday in Italy with Barney, Olive annoyed her friend by spending the whole time gazing at a photo of a classical statue of Antinoüs whom, she said, reminded her of her new pen friend, Lord Alfred Douglas. Meanwhile Nathalie lay paralyzed in bed with a fever:

I spoke of you, Antinous, with her who is my heart’s delight,
The while we watched the dawn of night through veils of dusk diaphanous.

I praised your gracious loveliness, as in cool marble it appears,
Your eyes that seem too sad for tears, your smile that is a sheathed caress.

And I, a free-born singing child, in this dull sordid age of ours,
Cried to my friend, “Oh flower of flowers, worship him with me!” but she smiled.

She smiled, and said with soft disdain, “His statue cannot see or hear:
If you should kneel forever, dear, he would not know, you kneel in vain.”

Yet all night long, oh, my Desire, I watched beside you, pale and dumb;
And now the silver Dawn has come: the sky is stained with scarlet fire.

The faint light widens to fair day round a white statue: the birds sing,
But you will never wake, my King, though love should kiss your lips away.11

BUT HE DID awake. And so it was that less than two years after Wilde’s death, the two young poets married in in March 1902, in London, by special licence and without the permission of Olive’s parents, after a whirlwind romance conducted largely through the post. Lord Alfred, still disgraced at home in Britain,12 had in fact just sailed to America in search of a rich heiress to marry and thereby put an end to his financial worries. But his heart was not in it, and when Olive instead became engaged to a rich school friend of Douglas’s, George Montague, the jealous poet rushed back and talked her out if it. Their hastily and secretly organised marriage caused quite a scandal. George Montague, although younger, had been a very intimate friend when they were boys at Winchester College, and even since. So it can reasonably be described as a love triangle, or a quadrangle, if one includes Nathalie Barney; she had supposedly envisaged marrying Douglas as a way of inducing Olive to live with her too, in a kind of ménage à trois.

Despite its inauspicious and unorthodox beginnings the marriage did last, much to everyone’s surprise, through all the “welter of mud and stones.” It was, however, marked with sadness and conflict (mainly over custody of their son Raymond, and the interference of Olive’s father, the overbearing Colonel Custance). As Nancy Hawkey has observed, after marrying him, Olive’s energies were mainly “expended in coping with her husband.”13 Raymond was diagnosed a schizophrenic and eventually died in a mental hospital in 1964, a broken man. His chances of married bliss had been shattered long before when his father exposed the only serious lady-friend of his life as a gold-digger who had lied about her age and social standing.

Mental fragility was rife in the Douglas family, but Lord Alfred was never diagnosed as anything in particular, though the public record of his narcissism and pig-headedness is pretty conclusive; he was rarely out of the courts, suing or being sued for libel; it has been suggested14 that he suffered from bipolar disorder. And yet, since Shakespeare, there have been few men who have written such beautiful sonnets. He certainly had a poetic talent, which was usually occluded by the long shadow cast by Oscar Wilde.

Here are two exquisite sonnets dedicated to Olive, from 1907:

Sonnet iv

My thoughts like bees explore all sweetest things
To fill for you the honeycomb of praise,
Linger in roses and white jasmine sprays,
And marigolds that stand in yellow rings.
In the blue air they moan on muted strings,
And the blue sky of my soul’s summer days
Shines with your light, and through pale violet ways,
Birds bear your name in beatings of their wings.
I see you all bedecked in bows of rain,
New showers of rain against new-risen suns,
New tears against new light of shining joy.
My youth, equipped to go, turns back again,
Throws down its heavy pack of years and runs
Back to the golden house a golden boy.

Sonnet v

When we were Pleasure’s minions, you and I,
When we mocked grief and held disaster cheap,
And shepherded all joys like willing sheep
That love their shepherd ; when a passing sigh
Was all the cloud that flecked our April sky,
I floated on an unimagined deep,
I loved you as a tired child loves sleep,
I lived and laughed and loved, and knew not why.
Now I have known the uttermost rose of love ;
The years are very long, but love is longer ;
I love you so, I have no time to hate
Even those wolves without. The great winds move
All their dark batteries to our fragile gate :
The world is very strong, but love is stronger.15

In the first of these two it is difficult not see in Douglas’ love for Olive a kind of rediscovery of innocence. In “Sonnet IV” she is like a forgiving mother: with her, he can become an innocent boy again, leaving behind what he now began to view as his sordid sexual past. In “Sonnet V”, he can fall into her arms as into the arms of childish sleep; and he feels safe with her: she his refuge in the storm. This, he decides, is not an ephemeral connection, but a relationship which will define his life, as the two breaks in the iambic rhythm testify: “longer” and “stronger”.

Initially, I was drawn to Douglas, nicknamed Bosie from childhood,16 for the quality of his writing, the pathos of his story, the fascinating aura of Wilde, and also by the drama of his deep and enduring conversion to Catholicism, in the context of his relationship with Wilde and in the particular circumstances of his family and upbringing. But that was before I fell in love with his wife, or at least with the picture of her that emerges from her poetry and life story. And when one gets involved in a marriage like theirs, one cannot help but take sides. More and more, I have found myself taking Olive’s side.

For much of their married life, Bosie and Olive spent time apart. Even when things were going well, in the early years, this phrase pops up in several letters: “Boy gone – girl left.”

For much of their married life, Bosie and Olive spent time apart. Even when things were going well, in the early years, this phrase pops up in several letters: “Boy gone – girl left.”17 It well describes their habit of passing like ships in the night. It was very much a commuter marriage. Bosie was often shooting in Scotland, or on business in the City. Olive would visit her friends, or her father in Norfolk. And so, there developed a kind of studied, almost artificial correspondence which both of them knew would one day be a subject of study for scholars. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that their courtship too was epistolary. Custance had, let us remember, already made romantic overtures by letter to two other 1890s poets — John Gray (later Canon John Gray, a Catholic priest) and the American Henry Harland — so she had developed a talent for it. In those days the postman called several times a day in London, and they also sold stamps. People often asked him to wait a few seconds for them to compose a speedy reply. In London, especially, it was almost like sending an email today.

Sometimes, they even scheduled telephone conversations in their letters, but — as poets — the letter, fortunately for us, seems to be their preferred method of communication. There is a kind of ostentatious drama in much of it. Their declarations of love seem to take place in front of a wider audience than merely the beloved. But it is, sadly, the same when Bosie uses the written word to solemnise his hateful feelings.

By 1911 the marriage had already lost some of its lustre. At about that time, Olive writes:

A crash of thunder overhead
Drowned the last bitter word you said …
I turned away from your angry eyes
To watch the lightning in the skies …

But concludes, hopefully:

A golden sun is in the dim west gleaming
Scattering all the shifting-streaming,
Silver fringes of glittering rain!
Come! let us kiss and be friends again!18

Olive writes, some time in 1913 or 1914: “Certainly you have written me the most beautiful sonnets in the world, because you are a great poet … but you have never really loved me as I loved you … I did not expect … I only hoped you to be kind to me … but you have been very cruel to me … and your letters are the worst of all….”19 Close friends and relations all knew the terrible effect that Bosie’s written curses (and sometimes, they were literally just that) could have on Olive. Wommy (the nickname for Bosie’s sister) wrote to Olive about Bosie’s poison pen, worried that “otherwise the letters will begin again, and something must be done about all this.”20

A hitherto unpublished poem by Lord Alfred Douglas is a good example of the ability which he had to nurse a sense of personal hurt into a sense of invincible and righteous indignation. Although he did not include it in his published collections, he must have known that in sending it to his wife, at some time probably between 1913 and the late 1920s, it would eventually reach a wider audience: the gallery of public opinion before which he was always justifying himself. Even when he had calmed down, he still had to be in the right, to have the last word. In this quite deliberately and abruptly curtailed sonnet (an octet with no sestet to follow) he describes Olive as helplessly hard-hearted:

To Olive

Dark green the olives grow ; black, black their stones,
The wood is hard, the green leaves show, — why this?
Sunwards, green-whitened sympathy, — below
The Judas-tempered essence of his kiss;
NO sympathies with any human groans.
Still, OLIVE I have you and you have me
BOTH to exist forever in the Press,
Except for LOVE, of the World’s Bitterness.21

The iambic pentameter, the appeal to Scripture and the lexicon of biblical words give Bosie an almost pontifical authority; the capitalisation spells out his counterclaim to her assertion that “you have never really loved me as I loved you”: “NO … OLIVE … BOTH … LOVE”.

Perhaps his initial capitalisation of the Press, refers not just to the violence of their suffering, like olives being crushed for their oil, but also to the way in which much of their marital strife was enacted in the public gaze, self-inflicted and self-promoted, and destined to be kept alive in their literary correspondence, ensuring that they would be “forever in the Press”.

The curtailing of the sonnet form is particularly significant: often the tensions and problems set up in the first eight lines of a sonnet are somehow resolved in the last six. (For example, in the first three of his collected “Sonnets to Olive” where the sestets begin with “Yet”, “Yet”, and “But” respectively.) But for them, he perhaps thought, there was no kind of resolution “except for love.”

In a similar poem which did find its way into the Collected Poems, he again gives Olive, and Raymond the same Judas treatment. Jane Stevenson, reviewing Caspar Wintermans’ biography of Bosie22 in the Telegraph, had this to say of the other poem: “Self-pity came as naturally to Douglas as solipsism: in ‘Before a Crucifix’, he identifies his betrayal ‘by wife, child, friend’ with that of Christ betrayed by Judas. His son, the wretched victim of a custody battle, whom he kidnapped, preferred living with his grandfather: to represent this as a ‘betrayal’ suggests a lack of empathy.”23 But Douglas was slow and deliberate in writing his sonnets. He cannot have written both at the same time. To return to the same finger-wagging theme, probably years later, like a dog to its vomit, and then to send it to your wife in order to cause her pain is — to my mind — the act of a sanctimonious cad. He is not lashing out in extremis, which one could more easily understand and forgive; his tone is almost recollected, unnervingly calculated.

Douglas can confess to nothing without impugning someone else’s honour at the same time, so as to present himself in a better light.

When Olive read Bosie’s Autobiography in 1929, she must have bit her lip over the way in which she had been portrayed. All she knew before she read it was that she had given permission to Bosie to quote from her early love letters. The request to do this must have touched her. But in the end, Bosie used these letters to her “Fairy Prince” to bolster his ridiculous claim that Olive loved him less as he grew “more and more manly.” She, who was always very discreet about her private life, would not have appreciated being portrayed as a lesbian in order to take the heat off her husband. Like the cowardly Rousseau in his Confessions, Douglas can confess to nothing without impugning someone else’s honour at the same time, so as to present himself in a better light. A particularly surprising element of the Autobiography is that apart from making this particular point in the early pages, Douglas mentions his wife very little through the rest of the book, after over twenty years of marriage.

And yet, in the end, I have to love poor Bosie, if only for dear Olive’s sake. She is, in 1929, still the delicate and beautiful flower that Richard Le Gallienne so admired in the 1890s; the gentle and forgiving soul who really did love her Fairy Prince right to the end. I think I may let her have the solemn last word, in this uncollected poem which she wrote for him as a reply to his book. This is real, enduring, forgiving, understanding love, without the least hint of rancour or selfishness. Bosie was a lucky man.

To Bosie … after reading his Autobiography.

O! Never again have I loved Dear Heart,
As I loved you …
I gave you my girl’s passion,
Like a cup of golden wine,
Triumphant that you drank and drained it up,
That you were mine!

And you were all my joy and all my pride,
Mine to adore!
I lived to love you, and I would have died
To love you more …

You were beautiful, like a bright sky
At Daybreak in the Spring!
Yes! Proud and beautiful, and brave and shy,
Like a young King …

And round us, an old Dragon, coiled the World
Hungry for our Delight!
Hating our laughter, and our scorn that hurled
Its weapons out of sight!
Furious to find, that our indifferent ears
Were deaf to its cold gibes
Its flatteries even, and its foolish tears,
And all its golden bribes! …

For we were young and wayward, caring less
What people thought or said
Than that a ruffled curl or tumbled tress
Should mar a lovely head.

thinking that a ribbon knotted,
or a jewel gone astray,
More cause for sorrow,
than that foes are cruel,
Or friends betray!

Because we had each other, and the flowers,
And all earth’s delight!
The birds, the animals, Day’s dancing hours!
The spangled night …

The fields, the forests and the shining sea,
Blue waters and blue sky …
How gay we were, not knowing what would be!
Careless and gay and blind, we could not see
our future, you and I! …

But sometimes, after storms, the rainbows rise,
though skies be overcast!
And lovers look into each others’ eyes,
And smile at trouble past …

So let us smile, so let us too, forget
Our bitter tears
And kiss away the sorrow and regret;,
Of all those years …

For never again have I loved Dear Heart
As I loved you! …

— Olive Custance, Lady Alfred Douglas, March 1929.


Ferdi McDermott is Headmaster of Chavagnes International College, a Catholic boarding school in France for boys with its own university-level Liberal Arts programme. A writer and researcher specialising in 19th century and fin de siècle literature, he  founded the St Austin Review in 2000 and is working on a new book: Wild Olive – The Life and Collected Works of Olive Custance, Lady Alfred Douglas.

The previously unpublished poems of Lord and Lady Alfred Douglas, as well as quotations from their correspondence, are copyright of the literary estate of Lord Alfred Douglas and published with its gracious permission. Copyright 2018, Messrs John Rubenstein and John Stratford.

NOTES.

  1. Unpublished handwritten MS, posted to Olive Custance by Davidson, Berg  Collection, NYPL.
  2. Le Gallienne, Richard, The Romantic 90s, New York, 1925, p. 165.
  3. Le Gallienne, Richard,  ‘A New Woman Poet’, in The Westminster Budget (London), Fri., Aug. 20, 1897,  p. 12 (and elsewhere; widely syndicated).
  4. In The Portrait of Dorian Gray, London, 1890.
  5. See Sewell, Brocard, Footnote to the Nineties: A Memoir of John Gray and André Raffalovich.
  6. ‘Ideal’, in Opals, London, 1897.
  7. Fletcher, Ian, “Amendments and Additions to a Bibliography of John Gray”, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Volume 22, Number 1, 1979, pp. 64.
  8. A bream is a fish similar to carp, widely fished for sport in Britain but rarely eaten.
  9. In the poem sequence “The Fairy Prince” in Rainbows, London 1902.
  10. In “Songs of a Fairy Princess”, Rainbows, 1902.
  11. Poem ‘Antinous’ in Rainbows, London, 1902.
  12. After the conviction of his friend Oscar Wilde in 1895 for gross indecency in a trial that shocked the nation.
  13. Hawkey, Nancy J, “Olive Custance Douglas: Introduction to a Bibliography” in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Volume 15, Number 1, 1972, pp. 49-51
  14. By Laura Lee in Oscar’s Ghost: The Passionate Battle Over Oscar Wilde’s Legacy, Amberley Publishing, 2017.
  15. “Sonnets to Olive”, in The Sonnets of Lord Alfred Douglas, London: The Richards Press, 1943.
  16. On account of his good looks, as in the French beau, but also from ‘boysie’, his mother’s diminutive of ‘boy’.
  17. In the Berg Collection, NYPL.
  18. Typed MS among the papers of Natalie Barney at the Sorbonne; also appeared in  Country Life, Vol. 46, Iss. 1196,  (Dec 6, 1919): p 711.
  19. Undated letter in the Berg Collection, New York Public library.
  20. Wommy to Olive, April 6th 1914, Berg Coll.
  21. Berg Collection, no date.
  22. Caspar Wintermans, Alfred Douglas: a Poet’s Life and his Finest Work, London, 2006.
  23. Accessed 31/10/2018.

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