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"Enthralling . . . Far from evil, Queensbury as Stratmann presents him is definitely sympathetic, perhaps even admirable."—Booklist, starred review
The Marquess of Queensberry is as famous for his role in the downfall of one of our greatest literary geniuses as he was for helping establish the rules for modern-day boxing. The trial and two-year imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, lover of Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, remains one of literary history’s great tragedies. However, Linda Stratmann's riveting biography of the Marquess paints a far more complex picture by drawing on new sources and unpublished letters. Throughout his life, Queensberry was ...
The Marquess of Queensberry is as famous for his role in the downfall of one of our greatest literary geniuses as he was for helping establish the rules for modern-day boxing. The trial and two-year imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, lover of Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, remains one of literary history’s great tragedies. However, Linda Stratmann's riveting biography of the Marquess paints a far more complex picture by drawing on new sources and unpublished letters. Throughout his life, Queensberry was emotionally damaged by a series of tragedies, and the events of the Wilde affair—told for the first time from the Marquess’s perspective—were directly linked to Queensberry’s personal crises. Through the retelling of pivotal events from Queensberry’s life—the death of his brother on the Matterhorn and his fruitless search for the body; the suicides of his father, brother, and eldest son—the book reveals a well-meaning man often stricken with a grief he found hard to express, who deserves our compassion.
Son and Heir
John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensberry has a 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 for 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 demonising of his accuser. Queensberry, denounced by biographers as eccentric to the point of clinical insanity, a homophobic, anti-Semitic, militant atheist, described by his own son as 'the perfect type of evil, cruelty, ferocity and brutality', is usually portrayed rampaging through his narrow-minded world like a grotesque pantomime villain, spitting hatred and threatening to horsewhip anyone who disagreed with his twisted obsessive views.
His kindest critics suggest that he might not have been wholly responsible for his actions, the victim of a tainted inheritance from his Douglas forebears, 'the mad, bad line,' as Wilde put it; the notorious family peculiarities, like the Douglas surname presumably passing down only through the male. Extracting the real Queensberry from this cascade of vilification reveals a man who was neither mad nor bad, nor was he an atheist: his prejudices, however we may view them today, were those of the society and the time in which he lived. He was not, admittedly, always an easy man to know or to like. Volatile, self-willed and aggressive, he was formed from the passions of two hardy nations and damaged early and often by tragedy, labouring for much of his life under acute grief and crushing misery. While famed for a quick, hot temper and an eagerness to settle disputes with his fists, his greatest conflicts lay within, for beneath the bombastic exterior was a craving for the happiness, truth and love that would forever elude him.
The idea that the Douglases were, as a family, not only highly unbalanced but had always been so is a confection of the popular press that did not arise until the 1870s and was largely, although not entirely, due to the turbulent and troubled career of John Sholto Douglas. With the exception of the unfortunate third marquess, no Douglas prior to that decade appears to have suffered from any mental incapacity. Before John Sholto made an impact on the public consciousness, the Douglases had a very different standing: that of a noble line with a long and battle-scarred history that had played a vital role in the making of Scotland. As feudal lords they were Barons Drumlanrig from the fifteenth century, and Earls, Dukes and Marquesses of Queensberry from the seventeenth, serving their country in a succession of high-ranking public appointments. The Douglas family, declared the Dumfries Standard in 1858, 'while not one of the wealthiest, occupies a distinguished place on the roll of the Scottish peerage,' and when a youthful John Sholto entered the navy the Leeds Mercury commented: 'The navy is looking up.' In the 1860s if the Douglases had an unfortunate public reputation, it was not for eccentricity but fatal bad luck. 'The noble house of Queensberry,' commented the Illustrated London News in 1865, 'has been at various periods, strangely subject to mortal mischances.' The mere fact that John Sholto became marquess at all was the culmination of a series of unlikely events and occasional bizarre accidents.
When John Sholto's grandfather, John Douglas of Lockerby (the eighteenth-century spelling of Lockerbie) was born in 1779 the likelihood that he would become Marquess of Queensberry must have seemed remote. The marquessate was in the hands of his fourth cousin once removed, William, fourth Duke of Queensberry, a libidinous bachelor of fifty-three with a taste for opera girls and teenage ballerinas, who could, had he been so inclined, have surprised everyone by taking a young bride. Even if William died without a legitimate son, the next heirs to the peerage were John Douglas's two older brothers, Charles and Archibald.
William had not anticipated acquiring the Queensberry peerages, but on 19 October 1754 thirty-two-year-old Lord Henry Douglas, Earl of Drumlanrig, three months married and son and heir of the third Duke and fourth Marquess of Queensberry, inaugurated what later came to be thought of as the 'Drumlanrig curse'. Riding over a ploughed field, he drew and cocked his gun for the purpose, it was thought, of shooting crows or pigeons, when his horse stumbled, the gun discharged, and he shot himself dead. The next Earl of Drumlanrig, Henry's younger brother Charles, suffered from a weak constitution and was sent to Lisbon for his health, where he managed to avoid being killed in the 1755 earthquake. He returned home to die of consumption in the following year, aged thirty, leaving William as heir to both the dukedom and the marquessate.
'Old Q', as Duke William came to be known, the relative with whom John Sholto is most often compared, was a devotee of the racecourse and a keen gambler. Although aristocratic sportsmen had been patrons of the prize ring, as professional boxing was then known, since the early eighteenth century, organising championships, giving financial backing to fighters and laying enormous wagers, the one sport in which Old Q seems never to have taken any interest was pugilism. In their strenuous efforts to discover the ninth marquess's eccentric ancestors newspapers often declared him to be a direct descendant of Old Q – John Sholto was a fourth cousin three times removed on his grandfather's side and four times removed on his grandmother's – but aside from a tendency to risk life and limb by riding their own racehorses, the two had little in common apart from recreational tastes they would have shared with many another aristocrat of their time. Certainly William had none of John Sholto's chaotic, sometimes misguided, but occasionally prescient crusading spirit; nor did he suffer the succession of bitter disappointments, frustrations, family conflicts and personal tragedies that made so much of John Sholto's life an unhappy pandemonium; neither did William share his distant cousin's restless wandering nature, being content to divide his time between the turf at Newmarket and his boudoir in Piccadilly, to the neglect of his Scottish estates. His one foray into estate management was cutting down ancient woodlands to finance the marriage portion of his illegitimate daughter, stimulating the rage of his tenants and a poem by Wordsworth. William's supposed 'eccentricities' were no more than one might have expected of a wealthy man who had decided to devote his time and money to the pursuit of pleasure.
When William succeeded to the Queensberry titles in 1778 his predecessor's British peerage, the Dukedom of Dover, became extinct. It is unlikely that the lack of a British peerage was a sore point with William, as it was to be with both John Sholto and his father. Under a ruling which was to echo destructively down the Douglas line, Scottish peerages created before the Act of Union of 1707 did not automatically entitle the holder to a seat in the House of Lords, and Scottish peers were required to elect sixteen of their number to represent them in the Lords for the duration of each parliament. In 1786 William became a British peer as Baron Douglas of Amesbury. William never married, and when he died on 23 December 1810 the Dukedom of Queensberry and the family seat Drumlanrig Castle passed to his cousin the Duke of Buccleuch who was known thereafter as the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry. Charles Douglas, John Sholto's great-uncle, succeeded to most of the Scottish titles as sixth Marquess of Queensberry, Viscount of Drumlanrig and Baron Douglas of Hawick and Tibbers, but not the English barony. For a second time in the Douglas family a British title died with its holder.
With the accession of Charles the marquessate enjoyed a long period of stability and worthy public service. Of the notorious Douglas eccentricities, which were to be a subject of public comment from the 1870s, there was no sign. Charles had married Caroline Scott in August 1803, and by 1810 the union had produced four daughters, with another child due the following year. Hopes must have been high for a son and heir, but although Caroline was to bear eight children they were all girls.
With the title of marquess came lands that had been in the Douglas family since 1733, Tinwald and Torthorwald, lying east of Dumfries, and the great estate of Kinmount just north of the Solway Firth. The original mansion, Kelhead House had burned down in the eighteenth century, and in 1812 Charles directed the building of a new one at a cost of £40,000. Its architect, Sir Robert Smirke, favoured simplicity of outline, and was scathingly critical of excessive ornament. The severe, almost fortress-like mansion house with its lofty stone portico (the decorative balustrades and urns seen today were not added until 1899) still overlooks the parkland, woods and waters of the estate which lies just over a mile north of the village of Cummertrees. An 1823 engraving shows the three-storey house with its central four-storey tower, not without a stately grim beauty of its own, rising like a grey ziggurat from an ocean of Scotch firs and copper beeches.
Charles was elected as a representative peer in 1812 and served in that capacity for the next twenty years. Described as 'that truly popular nobleman', he was well liked not only by friends and relatives but the public and his tenants. The one picture we have of him shows a jolly, plump fellow, rather red in the face, enjoying himself at a ball.
Scottish representative peers were usually re-elected without question at each parliament, but as both Charles and, later, John Sholto were to discover, exceptions could be made for any man who decided to rock the boat. Whiggish Charles was one of the few Scottish peers to support the Reform Act of 1832, and for this impertinence his fellow Tory peers refused to re-elect him in 1833. Within days, however, it was rumoured that he would receive a British peerage, and later that year he was created Baron Solway of Kinmount. Charles did not enjoy his barony for long. After a period of precarious health he died on 3 December 1837. His younger brother Archibald had died unmarried in 1796, one of the hundreds of men lost when HMS Courageux slipped its moorings and was wrecked off the Barbary Coast. The marquessate passed to Charles's second brother John, but the title Baron Solway died with him.
John Douglas, seventh Marquess of Queensberry failed, like his brother, to exhibit any eccentricities. His main interest was agriculture, and he preferred the life of a 'quiet, useful, respected country gentleman'. After the necessary attendances at court following his accession, he returned to his previous modest habits. He stood as a representative peer for Scotland in August 1841, came a miserable last in the poll, and never stood again. The only slightly disreputable incident in his history occurred in 1822 when he acted as a second to Sir Alexander Boswell in a duel, called over an alleged libel, which ended fatally for his friend.
In 1817 John married Sarah Douglas, a first cousin once removed. There was a strong military flavour to this side of the family. Sarah's father was Major James Sholto Douglas and her brothers served in the Peninsular War. Their only son, Archibald William (the future father of John Sholto Douglas) was born in Edinburgh on 18 April 1818, and took after the vigorous Douglases on his mother's side rather than his quiet father. His sister Georgina was born in 1819.
Archibald went up to Eton in January 1832. The English public school of the period was noted for its harsh regime: poor and inadequate food, frequent corporal punishment, bullying, and lack of organised recreation. Boys settled disputes with their fists and it must have been here that Archibald developed an early enthusiasm for pugilism; thereafter he was 'renowned for the alacrity with which he took to his fists, and for the dexterity with which he used them'. Eton may have coloured Archibald's view of public schools, since he did not choose one for the education of John Sholto. He left Eton between the summer of 1834 and Easter 1835. What he did in the next two years is unknown, but by 1837 he had settled on a military career, and joined the 92nd Foot as an ensign. Pugilism remained a lifelong interest, but he also swam, rowed, played cricket, and was a bold if inelegant horseman. Following the accession of his father as marquess, Archibald took the courtesy title of Viscount Drumlanrig, soon shortened to 'Drum' or 'Drummy' by his friends. In March 1838 he accompanied his parents and sister to London, and was plunged into a dazzling round of dinner parties, balls and fashionable assemblies. At the Queen's levee at St James's Palace on 21 March the new marquess and viscount were formally presented to Her Majesty. Some two thousand people might attend such an event, all resplendent in silks, velvets and jewels, with orders, decorations and chains of office on display and, after kissing the Queen's hand, there would be lavish banqueting, followed by games and music. It was a world away from the more modest delights of Dumfriesshire. There is no surviving portrait of Archibald, who was described as above average height with 'a firmly knit and well set up frame'; his face 'inclining to ruddiness and essentially good-tempered'. In Nature's Nursling, a novel written by his daughter Gertrude which has strong autobiographical elements, 'Lord Cyril Camion', who is undoubtedly based on Archibald, is 'a young handsome man, with beautiful, sad blue eyes, and wavy hair and beard of amber-gold'.
With his new rank came promotion. In July 1838 Archibald left the 92nd Foot for the 2nd Life Guards, as cornet (standard-bearer) and sub-lieutenant. Several of his fellow officers were followers of the prize ring, and Archibald joined this group of enthusiasts who met regularly at Limmer's Hotel, at the corner of Conduit Street and George Street near Hanover Square. There, 'in a little tunnelled recess at the bottom of the dark, low-browed coffee-room', 'the rich squirearchy, who visited London during the sporting season'13 ate plain English dinners, drank port and gin-punch, and arranged fights. He became a patron of Johnny Walker, who went on to become the lightweight bare-knuckle champion of England.
The young viscount's sporting activities were characterised by a physical courage and daring amounting sometimes to recklessness. It was the heyday of fox hunting as the favoured sport of the gentry, and long, fast, exhilarating rides with hedges to jump offered the thrill of danger that Archibald craved. Said to be 'one of the hardest riders across country that these islands contained', he took the most formidable fences without fear. 'No exposure ever seemed to affect his fine hardy frame, and fatigue could not touch it.' On 14 September 1838 Drumlanrig and another young officer made an ascent in the Royal Nassau Balloon, a popular spectacle, but a mode of transport still in its experimental stages and in the following year he took part in a grand tournament at Eglinton Castle. He also, as did other young officers, rode his own horses in steeplechases.
Archibald was a risk-taker with a need to prove himself and nowhere was this more evident than in his gambling habits. His friends were often concerned at his 'fatal propensity to select one horse in a big race for whom he had conceived an often baseless antipathy' and lay a sum against it which 'it would have sorely crippled him to pay, if indeed he was able to pay it at all', claiming that 'the escapes often by the skin of his teeth from which [he] ... emerged with impunity, would have shattered the nerve of an ordinary man'.
But Archibald also had more serious things on his mind – he was ambitious to create a position for himself in public life, and the royal court, once he had tasted its glamour, was an irresistible lure. Although he was only twenty, his political views were well known. In August 1838 The Satirist suggested why Prime Minister Lord Melbourne had not awarded Archibald's father a British peerage. 'If I raise Queensberry to the peerage,' Melbourne is supposed to have said, 'and he should die, which is not improbable, I add another Tory to the House in his son.' The Satirist agreed, 'particularly when it is known that the son is one of those upstart popinjays who look upon Toryism as proof of good taste'.
Excerpted from THE MARQUESS OF QUEENSBERRY by LINDA STRATMANN. Copyright © 2013 by Linda Stratmann. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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List of Illustrations.................... viii
Author's Note.................... x
Queensberry Family Trees.................... xv
Introduction: The Card.................... xvii
1 Son and Heir.................... 1
2 The Queensberry Inheritance.................... 16
3 The Young Gentleman.................... 27
4 Night on a Mountain.................... 42
5 'He Thought He Loved'.................... 52
6 The Game and Sporting Lord.................... 67
7 Original Notions.................... 81
8 Judged by his Peers.................... 95
9 An Undercurrent of Eccentricity.................... 107
10 Full of Woes.................... 121
11 Four Sons and a Daughter.................... 137
12 The Antipathy of Similars.................... 149
13 A Serious Slight.................... 161
14 Wounded Feelings.................... 174
15 Catastrophe.................... 189
16 A Family Divided.................... 203
17 The Peer and the Poet.................... 214
18 In the Dock.................... 227
19 The Price of Victory.................... 239
20 'Where Stars shall ever shed their light'.................... 255