Friday, 25 May 2007

A Reviewer Reviewed

We've recently been named one of the five best publishing blogs by the incomparable Mark Thwaite at The Book Depository. Probably because of all the photos. Not only that but thanks must go to Martin Huddersfield who took the time to photocopy some more Kavan pics as well as some of her short stories published in the London Magazine in the 60s. To answer your question Martin ( no return address) I think that you're right in saying that Red Dogs was never republished. Unless perhaps in Julia and the Bazooka (A fine name for a book, that) whose contents list I can't put my hands on at the moment.

But on to non Kavan related topics. A couple of weeks ago, the Telegraph printed a review of Alfred Douglas: the Man and His Art by Jane Stevenson. Ms. Stevenson professed herself less than convinced by Caspar's arguments for Bosie's rehabilitation. At the behest of the aforementioned incomparable we asked Caspar to come up with a riposte. And here it is:


Although December is still far away, I was reminded of a phrase in one of Bosie’s Christmas sonnets—‘the dark battalions of the unreconciled’—when reading Jane Stevenson’s review of my biography of Lord Alfred Douglas. She belongs to a group of critics who find it utterly impossible to say anything in favour of the poet who was loved by Oscar Wilde.
The phenomenon of this antipathy is not new. Why, Reginald Turner, writing to Bosie in the late 1920s, pointed out that he (Turner) had had to endure much criticism for breaking a lance for his Lordship. Turner is one of my witnesses for the defence of the poet. I was happy to unearth, in the course of my research which incidentally extended over a period of some eighteen years, his testimony that ‘the only real money of any amount that Oscar got [after his release from prison] was provided, and provided lavishly, by Bosie Douglas.’ I hoped that the evidence of Bosie’s loyalty to his incarcerated friend, of his courage in openly pleading for a humane treatment of gays, and of the support he gave to Wilde at the final stage of the latter’s chequered career, would have resulted into a somewhat more balanced picture of the man. It pleases me to say that I have been contacted by some of my readers who told me as much. But Jane Stevenson has joined the band of Bosie-bashers and shows dismay even at the fact that he failed to get a degree! No doubt she would also lecture Messrs Richard Barnfield, Shelley and Swinburne, for they, too, did not gain academic laurels; but I may point out to her that Bosie, while at Oxford, read a tremendous amount of literature; that he was, in fact, a highly-cultured man as is evinced by his poetry as well as by his contributions on literary subjects which appeared in The Academy under his editorship. I refer Ms Stevenson to my bibliography of Bosie’s articles.
The reviewer of the Telegraph raises her hands in horror at Bosie’s ‘irresponsible behaviour’ and cites two instances: (1) that he carried a loaded revolver with him which accidentally went off making a hole in the ceiling of a hotel and (2) that he eloped with Olive Custance without having a fixed idea of how the two of them were going to make a living.
True, Bosie did carry a gun in the months before Wilde’s incarceration, but it would have been helpful to her readers if Ms Stevenson had told them why the young aristocrat had armed himself. He had done so in view of the fact that his father, the Marquess of Queensberry, objected to his relationship with Oscar Wilde and had threatened to use physical violence if he met the couple at, say, a public restaurant. Considering that the Marquess had previously been trying to horsewhip the Foreign Secretary, one can understand that Bosie acquired a weapon to defend himself from someone who was notoriously bellicose.
As regards Bosie’s subsequent runaway match, I may remind Ms Stevenson of the words of Pascal: Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas. Olive and Bosie were very much in love, you see. They acted impulsively, irresponsibly if you will; yet they have my sympathy for following the dictates of their hearts rather than listening to the sober voice of reason. But them I’m a romantic.
In my biography I have quoted the testimony of many who knew Douglas and who had warm words for him, such as Rupert Croft-Cooke, John Betjeman, Alice Head and Bosie’s niece Violet (whom he adopted), to name but a few. Ms Stevenson refers to none of these testimonies as it would rather spoil her caricature of Douglas who, she claims, ‘as his beauty faded turned more solipsistic, litigious and liable to violent reverses of opinion. He blasphemed most of his gods at one time or another, including Wilde and pederasty.’ The comment on Bosie’s ‘fading beauty’ is intensely typical and interesting from a psychological point of view. Bosie-bashers always refer with glee to the transience of his good looks. I don’t know if the physical appearance of these critics is likely to appeal more to abstract rather than figurative painters and sculptors, but few things seem to cause more irritation in some quarters than beauty and charm. Jealousy, as Bosie himself wrote in one of his letters, is, indeed, ‘the most terrible of all sufferings.’ Now Jane Stevenson mentions Bosie’s efforts at one time in his stormy life to distance himself from the deceased Wilde, without, typically, telling her readers why he did so and without telling them that he happily reconciled himself to the memory both of the writer whom he had revered and of Robert Ross who had done his utmost to traduce him (Bosie). The reviewer is wrong, then, when she states that Bosie’s sonnet to Churchill, acknowledging he had misjudged the politician, constitutes ‘perhaps the only occasion on which Douglas, a good hater, made such a concession.’ She is wrong when she claims that Bosie kidnapped his son, Raymond (it was his grandfather who did this), and when she remarks that ‘the most depressing thing about the early poems is the desire they show for the consumption of boys as commodities,’ she is really entering the realms of silliness. In fact (to quote Rupert Croft-Cooke’s comment on a colleague of Ms Stevenson who, writing about Oscar, had made an equally silly remark), this judgment ‘can only be answered by a plural monosyllable which Wilde would never have used.’ Bosie’s gay poems number a mere six or seven, so to suggest, as does Jane Stevenson, that ‘these set the whole tone,’ seems odd to me.
The reviewer does not hold Bosie’s poetry in high regard. Well, each to his taste. I venture to think that Bosie was a great poet, and find myself as regards this in the company of someone whom Jane Stevenson does respect, if only (as she points out) because he got a double first at Oxford; a man of letters who, writing in 1897, described Bosie as ‘a most delicate and exquisite poet—far the finest of all the young poets in England.’ It was Oscar Wilde who wrote this, and I fondly hope that my edition of Bosie’s poems may enable new generations of unprejudiced readers to experience in his lyrics the same thrill of beauty and wonder which for years has delighted

Caspar Wintermans
The Hague, The Netherlands


Jenny Sturm said...

Aaaarrrgghh! You irresponsible Britons! 'Red Dogs' was written in the colonies [well, New Zealand then] and first published in Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann, 1949. Next publication was Lehmann's 'The Pleasures of New Writing ...' in 1952. Next was in 'Celebration' edited by Anthony Stones, Penguin, 1984.

PeterOwenPublishers said...

Well, we dratted poms are irresponsible, thanks for putting us right Jenny. And thanks again for the photographs. How odd that a story written in 1941 (or thereabouts, don't start) qualified not once but twice as 'New Writing' - what a massive dislocation the war must have been.

Jenny Sturm said...

Who would have anticipated that my pedantry has become contagious? I had better keep taking the pills ... the 'Pleasures of New Writing' is an anthology drawn from those previously published by Lehmann in his magazines. His Introduction explains - 'the fifty contribtutions ... gave me great pleasure to read when they first came in as manuscripts, and pleasure again when I re-read them for the purposes of this book ... Each one of them was written to communicate imaginative or intellectual pleasure.' Kavan would have been thrilled to find her story only nine pages away from that of her good friend Louis Macneice, with whom she spent time in New York. Now I shall go back to bed. My work here is done.

Clarissa Dunn said...

Is it possible to access
Jenny Sturm's research on Anna Kavan? She seems to have
priveleged information. I am interested in reading more.

PeterOwenPublishers said...

Hi Clarissa,
Well, the only person who can answer that is Jenny, I know that a new book has been suggested in the past . . .