"The tower of ivory is assailed by the foul thing" wrote Oscar Wilde of his encounters with the Marquess of Queensberry, although later, in Reading Gaol, he feared that history would consign him to "the lowest mire," while judging Queensberry as "the hero of the hour." History has rightly restored Wilde's fame, but the accepted view of Queensberry as either insane, or simply bad has until now suggested that any detailed examination of his life is unnecessary.
Queensberry and Wilde's first encounter was at the home of a mutual friend around 1880 or 1881, a meeting which only Queensberry later recalled. Wilde was soon attracting public attention, although in 1883 Henry Labouchere, the MP who two years later introduced the notorious legislation under which Wilde was to be prosecuted, denounced the "epicene youth" and "effeminate phrase-maker" as destined for oblivion. By 1890 Wilde was a noted author, and popular society figure, but the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray denounced by the Daily Chronicle as "a gloating study of mental and physical corruption of a fresh fair and golden youth," led to scandalous rumors being circulated in London clubs.
Queensberry was not the only father to advise his son that Wilde was not a fit man to associate with, but he was the only one to be publicly defied.
In 1892 Bosie and Wilde were lunching at the Cafe Royal when Queensberry arrived and Bosie invited his father to join them. Queensberry unwillingly agreed, but Wilde exercised his legendary charm and wit, and they were soon chatting animatedly, and arranged to meet again. Wilde later told Bosie he had enjoyed meeting Queensberry who "had a lot in him that appealed to him."
Queensberry's old friend, Lord de Grey reassured him that Wilde was a frequent guest at his house, and "perfectly all right," and two days after the meeting at the Cafe Royal Queensberry wrote to Bosie saying he approved of his friendship with Wilde.
This situation was not to last. Rumors about Wilde persisted, and Queensberry's friends were all too willing to pass them on. In 1893 when Bosie left Oxford University under a cloud of scandal, Queensberry questioned his tutor, and learned the truth about his son's sexual preferences. Homosexuality was then, as Bosie himself stated, regarded as "far worse than murder." Exposure would have led to social ruin, obliging him to flee the country to avoid arrest. The appalled father kept the knowledge to himself.
In 1893, Queensberry's eldest son, 26 year old Francis, secretary to Lord Roseberry, was awarded an English peerage while his father who had already been excluded from the House of Lords after declaring himself to be an agnostic, was overlooked. Queensberry was furious. There were rumors that Lord Roseberry took a sexual interest in young men and Queensberry may have feared that this was the reason for Francis's advancement.
Queensberry's volatile state was not helped by the collapse of his second marriage to a much younger woman. He was suffering from impotence and the marriage, which was never consummated, was later annulled.
Queensberry's next encounter with Wilde was at the Cafe Royal in April 1894 but by now he could not be charmed. He did not make a scene, but immediately afterwards wrote to Bosie ordering him to stop seeing Wilde. Glances of affection may have passed between the pair since Queensberry wrote: "With my own eyes I saw you both in the most loathsome and disgusting relationship as expressed by your manner and expression." Increasingly furious, threatening and insulting letters passed between father and son and Wilde realized that he was caught in a war between Queensberry who he described as "drunken, déclassé and half-witted" and vain, selfish and defiant Bosie.
Queensberry's suspicions were confirmed when he obtained copies of Wilde's indiscreet letters to Bosie, and matters were not helped by Bosie goading him with insulting telegrams. Queensberry went to see Wilde at his home in Tite Street, taking with him a companion who is usually assumed to have been a prizefighter. The only detailed account of the meeting is Wilde's who said that Queensberry, "waving his small hands in the air in epileptic fury," confronted him with the rumors about his relationship with Bosie. With Queensberry threatening to thrash Wilde if he saw him with Bosie in a public restaurant, and Wilde countering that his way was to "shoot at sight" the interview was over and Wilde gave orders that Queensberry was never to enter his house again.
Queensberry retreated from the London furore to stay in one of his Scottish cottages and refused to receive any further communication from Bosie, telling him to "gang your ain gait."
Wilde decided to break off his relationship with Bosie but on the day he was to take that step he learned that Queensberry's heir Francis had been found shot dead, and felt unable to abandon his friend at such a time.
Queensberry's second son Percy promised to resolve the Wilde scandal, but Bosie assured Percy that the rumors were untrue, and had been invented by his father. When Wilde begged Bosie to tell Percy the truth he refused and "we had to play the comedy of your father being an insane man subject to absurd and unaccountable delusions."
Queensberry returned to London where he discovered that his whole family believed Bosie, and he alone was left to deal with the situation. Unable to locate Wilde he decided to attend the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest intending to pelt the author with vegetables, but Wilde had been warned and Queensberry was turned away. In desperation Queensberry finally told his family about Bosie's Oxford scandal, but it was too late. On February 18th, Queensberry had a furious fight with Percy who challenged him to bring matters to a head. That day Queensberry left his infamous calling card at Wilde's club.
Wilde, egged on by Bosie, who promised the insolvent playwright that his family would pay his costs, made the fatal mistake of prosecuting Queensberry for libel. The collapse of this case led to Wilde's arrest and trial for indecency but the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Bosie had been packed off to France, but in early May, Queensberry was told by a friend that Bosie was back in London. When Wilde was granted bail on May 7th, Queensberry, determined to prevent any reunion with his son, made enquiries at the hotel where Wilde was staying which led to Wilde being obliged to leave. Wilde later fled from another hotel, finally taking refuge with his mother. Queensberry explained "I presumed [Bosie] had intended to meet Wilde and therefore I took the step I did the other night to satisfy myself whether they were together or not. There was no occasion for him to bolt as he did if the wretched boy was not with him."
Queensberry would probably have been content had Wilde simply left the country although he threatened to go after him and shoot him if he took Bosie with him. "But I think he ought not to be allowed to leave the country. I think he ought to be placed where he can ruin no more young men."
After Wilde's release from prison and exile in France, he feared that Queensberry would set detectives on him, or even confront him personally, but Bosie laughed at the idea and the two met again openly and without hindrance.
Writing in 1929 Bosie said that he could not blame his father for trying to separate him from Wilde, but blamed him bitterly for the way he tried to do it. His own actions, however, had really left his father with the choice of taking the action he did or abandoning his son.
Linda Stratmann is the author of the new book The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde's Nemesis.