Book review: The Marquess of Queensberry, by Linda Stratmann

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 4:33pm

The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde's Nemesis

by Linda Stratmann

Yale University Press

John Douglas, Marquess of Queensberry (1844-1900), is best remembered as the avenging father of Lord Alfred Douglas and the man who encompassed the ruin of his son's lover, Oscar Wilde.

Queensberry's fellow Victorians would be startled to find he is worthy of a biography: his reputation was that of a vain, excitable thug. He was despised by his children, estranged from other relatioves, and ostracised by members of the House of Lords.

He was abusive in every sense of the word.

Yet Linda Stratmann - a historian of Victorian crime and upper-class swaggering - is vindicated in her decision to devote several years to delving into Queensberry's belligerent career. She not only traces the havoc left as he barged and hurtled his way through life, but she illuminates lost notions of manliness, sportsmanship, combat and virility. Her book examines the masculine fear of gentleness and the compensatory alternative of aggression. It revisits, too, the Wilde trials from the viewpoint of his persecutor - and this approach is full of insight and interest.

Stratmann has worked hard to trace obscure newspaper and archival sources, both of which she has used well. It is pleasing to find a biographer who digs so deep to unearth extenuating circumstances for her subject. She uses charitable interpretations wherever she can. There is an unlikely sweetness of tone in her descriptions of all the rage and revenge. The subcategories describing the peer's personality in her book's index read: "courageous, combative and adventurous"; "craving for love"; "crusading urge, outspoken, unconventional"; "high-spirited and competitive"; "truthful and honourable"; "volatile temper".

Despite this, Queensberry emerges as a histrionic bully who saw life as a noisy drama in which he was the star; everyone else was a bit player or a despised understudy. He had little sense of other people's existence, could not imagine their feelings or respect their wishes, and was destructive in every impact.

Guardian News & Media


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