MC:P204 The Colman Collection of Papers of Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945)
1 – LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
[Further information on Douglas’s life can be found in H. Montgomery Hyde, Lord Alfred Douglas: A Biography (London, 1984), Douglas Murray, Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas (London, 2000), and Caspar Wintermans, Alfred Douglas: a poet’s life and his finest work (London, 2007). A complete edition of Douglas’s letters by Caspar Wintermans is in progress.]
The poet Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas was born on 22 October 1870, the third son of John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensberry and his wife Sibyl (née Montgomery). After attending Winchester College, he came up to Magdalen College as a Commoner in 1890. He left Oxford in 1893 without taking a degree. It was while he was still an undergraduate, in 1891, that Douglas first met Oscar Wilde. The ensuing relationship is too well documented to need re-telling here, but it is important to remember, in the light of later comments on Douglas’s character, that, after Wilde’s release from prison in 1897, Douglas did stay with Wilde again, and that it was only due to the financial pressures exerted by both men’s families that they were obliged to separate.
In the later 1890s and early 1900s Douglas began to publish collections of his poems, and in particular to win a reputation for his skill in writing sonnets. In 1902, Douglas married Olive Custance, herself a poet, and they had one son, Raymond. Tragically, Raymond Douglas later suffered from mental illness, and spent much of his adult life in hospitals until his death in 1964.
Douglas converted to Roman Catholicism in 1911, and remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. However his life in the 1910s and early 1920s was not an easy one. Douglas spent much of this time engaged in litigation, much of it induced by himself, and in 1913 his marriage collapsed and he was declared a bankrupt. He also turned vehemently against the memory of Wilde, as shown in his book Oscar Wilde and Myself (published in 1914), although Douglas claimed in later years that this was in large part ghost-written by his then friend T. W. H. Crosland. The above biographies provide more details of Douglas’s unhappy and disputatious life during this period.
His lawsuits culminated in 1923, when he was sued for libel by Winston Churchill over a speech in which Douglas claimed that Lord Kitchener had been murdered, and that Churchill was party to the plot to torpedo the ship on which he was travelling. Unsurprisingly, Douglas lost the case, and was sent to prison for six months, during which time he wrote his sonnet sequence In Excelsis.
His prison experiences seem to have cured Douglas of his litigiousness, and he mellowed with age, although he remained capable to the end of writing ferocious letters to the press (see MC:P204/1/2N below). He wrote fewer poems in his later years, but he did publish two volumes of autobiography, a study of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and a second book on Wilde, Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up, in which he took a more balanced view of his old friend.
In 1927 Douglas moved with his mother to Hove, and remained there until just before his death, Sibyl Queensberry dying in 1935. Olive Douglas herself moved to Hove around this time, and although she and Douglas were by now in regular, and friendly, contact, they never lived together.
After his wife’s death in February 1944, Douglas’s financial situation worsened, since the allowance from her on which he had depended for many years now ceased, and there was uncertainty about where he could live. As his health worsened, a local farmer, Edward Colman, and his wife Sheila, to whom Douglas had been introduced in 1943 by a mutual friend, Richard Rumbold (Hyde, 326), and with whom he quickly had become good friends, brought him to stay at their farm near Lancing in December 1944, where he died on 20 March 1945.
2 – THE PAPERS
In his will, Douglas bequeathed his books, manuscripts and copyrights to Edward Colman, and also appointed him his literary executor. Colman proved a loyal executor to Douglas. Aside from preserving his papers, and collecting related material of his own, he and his wife succeeded in having the bankruptcy order on Douglas’s estate annulled in August 1981. Upon Edward Colman’s death in 1988, his widow Sheila become Douglas’s literary executor until her own death in 2001.
A significant portion of the Douglas-Colman papers were sold to the Hyde Collection, but the remaining papers in Mrs. Colman’s possession were bequeathed to Magdalen College on her death, and were transferred there in May 2002 as Accession No. 02/145.
The greater part of the Magdalen collection falls into two groups. The first group consists of papers which had been in the possession of Douglas at the time of his death, and comprises letters, newspaper cuttings, some manuscripts, and a small portrait of himself. Douglas himself claimed that, when he moved out of his flat at St. Anne’s Court in Hove in May 1944, he had a big clear-out of his papers, and that he only kept Bernard Shaw’s letters, and the manuscript of his poems and books (Hyde 329). The Shaw letters are now part of the Hyde collection, but the evidence of this catalogue (and indeed of the Hyde Collection) shows that Douglas kept considerably more than he claimed, not least his letters from his mother.
The second group in the collection consists of papers collected by Mr. and Mrs. Colman. This comprise letters to them from Douglas himself, newspaper cuttings, but also material which they collected themselves, such as letters from Douglas to other people, and related documents, such as correspondence between Olive Custance and Aubrey Beardsley. A smaller third group comprises documents relating to Olive Custance, such as letters written to her. Presumably these documents came into Douglas’s possession on his wife’s death, and joined the papers that way.
The catalogue of the Douglas-Colman papers is therefore divided into three sections, thus:
At various times, both Douglas and the Colmans subscribed to press-cuttings agencies, so that many of the press cuttings come attached to slips from the relevant agencies. The Douglas-Colman papers therefore contain arguably the most complete newspaper archives in relation to certain occasions, such as reviews of Douglas’s books in the 1930s, his obituaries, or some of his biographies.
3 – CONVENTIONS OF THE CATALOGUE
Unless otherwise indicated, all letters are both written and signed by the writer, and comprise just one sheet. In the summaries of the contents of letters, editorial or explanatory comments are given in square brackets. All letters lack their envelopes unless otherwise indicated.
Several people mentioned in the papers change their names, either due to marriage or to promotion to a title. In such cases, the catalogue gives the name under which they are known in the relevant document, but all entries on them are indexed under their surname or, in the case of married women, their married name. A special case is afforded by Olive Custance, Douglas’s wife. Her formal title after her marriage was “Lady Alfred Douglas”, which might lead to confusion. In the catalogue, therefore, she is called “Olive Custance” before her marriage, and, not wholly accurately, “Olive Douglas” after it.
4 – ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I wish to express my thanks to John Stratford and Caspar Wintermans for their valuable assistance in the preparation of this catalogue, the former carrying out much initial ordering of the papers before they came to Magdalen, and the latter for helping to clarify dates and allusions in many letters, especially those from Sibyl, Marchioness of Queensberry (see MC:P204/1/1C/1–77).