Robert Baldwin Ross, the youngest of seven children of John Ross (1818–1871), attorney-general of Upper Canada, was born in Tours, France, on 25th May 1869. His grandfather, Roger Baldwin, was also a senior politician. After the death of his father, his mother took Ross and his siblings to London.
Ross went to King's College in 1888 to read history, but his academic career was undistinguished. On leaving Cambridge University at the end of his first year, he went to Edinburgh as a trainee journalist on the Scots Observer, then under the editorship of William Ernest Henley.
In 1886 Ross met Oscar Wilde. According to Frank Harris the two men had become acquainted in a public lavatory. However, Maureen Borland, the author of Wilde's Devoted Friend: Life of Robert Ross (1990) claims that this is a "scurrilous and uncorroborated suggestion" and that "it is much more likely that Alex Ross, Robert's elder brother and a literary critic, made the introduction, possibly at the Savile Club."
It is believed that this was Wilde's first homosexual relationship. Wilde's biographer, Owen Dudley Edwards, has argued that the relationship started after his wife lost interest in sex after the birth of their second son: "Remembering his father's sexual infidelities (resulting in at least three bastards), Wilde recoiled from the thought of sexual solace with other women, and Ross seems to have exploited his sexual hunger and refusal to betray his heterosexual bed. Wilde never seems to have engaged in anal penetration either actively or passively."
Ross also had a sexual relationship with Alfred Douglas. While Douglas was staying with Ross they had sex with two young boys, aged 14 and 15. Both boys confessed to their parents about what happened. After meetings with solicitors, the parents were persuaded not to go to the police, since, at that time, their sons might be seen not as victims but as equally guilty and so face the possibility of going to prison.
In June 1891, Ross introduced Douglas to Oscar Wilde. The two men entered into a sexual relationship. They also worked together and in 1892 Douglas was involved in the French production of Wilde's play, Salomé. They attempted to get it produced in London with Sarah Bernhardt taking the star role but it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain as being blasphemous. Wilde later recalled: "I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age.... But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it."
In 1894 Alfred Douglas received a letter from his father, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, on the subject of his friend, Oscar Wilde: "I now hear on good authority, but this may be false, that his wife is petitioning to divorce him for sodomy and other crimes. Is this true, or do you know of it? If I thought the actual thing was true, and it became public property I should be quite justified in shooting him in sight." Douglas replied with a brief telegram: "What a funny little man you are." This enraged Queensberry who decided to carry out more research into the behaviour of Wilde.
The Importance of being Earnest, opened at St James's Theatre on 14th February, 1895. It was well-received by the critics. H.G. Wells commented "More humorous dealing with theatrical conventions it would be difficult to imagine." However, the play was criticised by two of his strongest supporters. William Archer asked: "What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality?" George Bernard Shaw, who found it "extremely funny" but dismissed it as his "first really heartless play".
The 9th Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Alfred Douglas, discovered details of his son's sexual relationship with Wilde and planned to disrupt the opening night of the play by throwing a bouquet of rotten vegetables at the playwright when he took his bow at the end of the show. Wilde learned of the plan and arranged for policemen to bar his entrance. Two weeks later, Queensbury left his card at Wilde's club, the Albemarle, accusing him of being a "somdomite". Wilde, Douglas and Ross approached solicitor Charles Octavius Humphreys with the intention of suing Queensberry for criminal libel. Humphreys asked Wilde directly whether there was any truth to Queensberry's allegations of homosexual activity between Wilde and Douglas. Wilde claimed he was innocent of the charge and Humphreys applied for a warrant for Queensberry's arrest.
Queensberry entered a plea of justification on 30th March. Owen Dudley Edwards has pointed out: "Having belatedly assembled evidence found for Queensberry by very recent recruits, it declared Wilde to have committed a number of sexual acts with male persons at dates and places named. None was evidence of sodomy, nor was Wilde ever charged with it. Queensberry's trial at the central criminal court, Old Bailey, on 3–5 April before Mr Justice Richard Henn Collins ended in Wilde's attempt to withdraw the prosecution after Queensberry's counsel, Edward Carson QC MP, sustained brilliant repartee from Wilde in the witness-box on questions about immorality in his works and then crushed Wilde with questions on his relations to male youths whose lower-class background was much stressed." Richard Ellmann, the author of Oscar Wilde (1988), has argued that Wilde abandoned the case rather than call Douglas as a witness.
Queensberry was found not guilty and his solicitors sent its evidence to the public prosecutor. Wilde was arrested on 5th April and taken to Holloway Prison. The following day, Alfred Taylor, the owner of a male brothel Wilde had used, was also arrested. Taylor refused to give evidence against Wilde and both men were charged with offences under the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885).
The trial of Wilde and Taylor began before Justice Arthur Charles on 26th April. Of the ten alleged sexual partners Queensberry's plea had named, five were omitted from the Wilde indictment. The trial under Charles ended in jury disagreement after four hours. The second trial, under Justice Alfred Wills, began on 22nd May. Douglas was not called to give evidence at either trial, but his letters to Wilde were entered into evidence, as was his poem, Two Loves. Called on to explain its concluding line - "I am the love that dares not speak its name" Wilde answered that it meant the "affection of an elder for a younger man".
Both men were found guilty and sentenced to two years' penal servitude with hard labour. The two known persons with whom Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency were male prostitutes, Wood and Parker. Wilde was also found guilty on two counts charging gross indecency with a person unknown on two separate occasions in the Savoy Hotel. These may in fact have related to acts committed by Douglas, who had also been Wood's lover.
Wilde served his time in Pentonville Prison, Wandsworth Prison and Reading Prison. Ross was a regular visitor and according to his biographer, he "was his most constant and loyal friend". In March 1897, Wilde wrote to Alfred Douglas about the death of his mother: "No one knew how deeply I loved and honoured her. Her death was terrible to me; but I, once a lord of language, have no words in which to express my anguish and my shame. She and my father had bequeathed me a name they had made noble and honoured, not merely in literature, art, archaeology, and science, but in the public history of my own country, in its evolution as a nation. I had disgraced that name eternally. I had made it a low by-word among low people. I had dragged it through the very mire. I had given it to brutes that they might make it brutal, and to fools that they might turn it into a synonym for folly."
Upon Wilde's release from prison in 1897, he took up with Douglas once again. The two men lived together for a while in Naples and after they they met frequently in Paris. Douglas also helped Wilde financially. Later that year he published an edited version of De Profundis. Wilde's biographer, Owen Dudley Edwards has argued: "It did not deny his own culpability for the wreck of his and his family's lives, but it made his obsession with Douglas the leading count in his own self-indictment. It attacked Douglas for hatred of his father, acknowledged his love for Wilde, but saw that love, like Wilde himself, enslaved in the work of hate. Ross was held up as a model of friendship and stimulus. Yet the power and profundity of De Profundis itself asserted Douglas's far more cataclysmic inspirational effect. Nor was the contrast accurate in all respects. Both Ross and Douglas were demanding, self-centred, and indiscreet, and Wilde's relationship to both of them was more that of an indulgent but exploited uncle than of the physical lover he seems to have been for a relatively brief time in each case. Both Ross and Douglas were homosexual liberationists, Ross more constructively, Douglas more flamboyantly."
Suffering from meningitis Wilde went to stay at the Hôtel d'Alsace. He was visited by Ross. Before he became unconscious he remarked: "I am dying beyond my means". An Irish priest, Cuthbert Dunne, gave him extreme unction and absolution on 29th November, 1900. Oscar Wilde died the next day and was buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris.
Before his death, Wilde appointed Ross his literary executor; but, with Wilde's estate bankrupt, it was not until 1905 that Ross was able to pay Wilde's creditors and annul the bankruptcy. In 1908 Ross published, in fourteen volumes, The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde.
Ross was also director and administrator of the Carfax Gallery, a small avant-garde art gallery in London, which, under his direction, gained a reputation for showing the work of unknown artists. In 1908 he became the art critic of The Morning Post. His biographer, Maureen Borland, has argued: "He held very firm opinions on the role of a critic, believing that it was his function to stimulate intelligent interest in paintings and to equip viewers to make their own independent judgements. He was never afraid to praise or damn: his love of the French impressionists was combined with trenchant criticism of post-impressionism. At the opening of the Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1910 he blithely dismissed Cezanne as a failure."
In 1911 the publisher Martin Secker commissioned Arthur Ransome to write a book on Oscar Wilde. He was given considerable help by Robert Ross. He provided access not only to Wilde's literary estate, but also to his own private correspondence. Ross wanted Ransome's book to help rehabilitate Wilde's reputation. Ross also wanted to gain revenge on Lord Alfred Douglas, who he considered had destroyed Wilde. He did this by letting Ransome see the unabridged copy of De Profundis, the letter Wilde wrote to Douglas when he was in Reading Prison. Ransome became only the fourth person to read the letter where Wilde accused Douglas of vanity, treachery and cowardice.
The book, Wilde: A Critical Study, was published on 12th February 1912. The following month, on 9th March, Lord Douglas filed an action for libel against Ransome and Secker. Ransome's friends, Edward Thomas, John Masefield, Lascelles Abercrombie and Cecil Chesterton gave him support and Robin Collingwood offered to pay his legal costs. Secker settled out of court and sold the copyright of the book to Methuen.
The case against Ransome began in the High Court on 17th April 1913. According to Roland Chambers, the author of The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome (2009): "Douglas had a strong case. Answering the charge that his client had ruined Wilde, the prosecution pointed out that Douglas was little more than a boy when Wilde first met him, whereas Wilde, almost twenty years his senior, had already written The Picture of Dorian Grey, a scandalous work sprung from a corner of life no proper gentleman ever visited, still less boasted of in print. If there had been any corruption, it had been Wilde's corruption of Douglas."
Douglas's counsel went on to argue that Wilde was "a shameless predator who had deprived an innocent boy not only of his inheritance, but of his chastity". Douglas admitted during cross-examination by J. H. Campbell (later Lord Chief Justice of Ireland) that he had deserted Wilde before his original conviction and had not returned to England, let alone visited his friend in prison, in over two years. He also read out correspondence that indicated that Douglas had "consorted with male prostitutes" and had taken money from Wilde, not because he needed it but because it gave him an erotic thrill. Campbell read from a letter written by Douglas: "I remember the sweetness of asking Oscar for money. It was a sweet humiliation."
The case took a dramatic turn when the De Profundis letter was read out in court. It has been described as the "most devastating character assassination in the whole of literature". According to Wilde's letter, Douglas's insatiable appetite, vanity and ingratitude were responsible for every catastrophe. Wilde finished the letter with the words: "But most of all I blame myself for the entire ethical degradation I allowed you to bring on me. The basis of character is will power, and my will became utterly subject to yours. It sounds a grotesque thing to say, but it is none the less true. It was the triumph of the smaller over the bigger nature. It was the case of that tyranny of the weak over the strong which somewhere in one of my plays I describe as being the only tyranny that lasts."
Douglas, who claimed never to have read the letter, found the contents so upsetting he left the witness box, only to be called back and reprimanded by the judge. After a three-day trial, the jury took just over two hours to return its verdict. Arthur Ransome was found not guilty of libel and the publicity the book received meant that it was now going to be a bestseller. In spite of the ruling in his favour, Ransome insisted that the offending passages be deleted from every future edition of the book.
As Michael Kettle, the author of Salome's Last Veil : The Libel Case of the Century (1977), has pointed out: "At the trial, the unpublished portion of De Profundis (carefully hoarded by Ross, but which Wilde, on release from prison, had almost at once repudiated), together with some of Bosie's letters to Wilde (which Ross had seized on Wilde's deathbed), were produced with deadly effect. Bosie lost the case. This, in fact, was Ross's revenge on Bosie for supplanting him in Wilde's affections. Bosie, who had just gone bankrupt, suddenly became a changed man. He now saw Ross as the cause of all his troubles; he even repudiated Wilde himself. He attacked Ross bitterly as a homosexual, with continual open libels. Bosie's father, Lord Queensberry, had hounded and finally ruined Wilde. Now Bosie himself was on the warpath against a widely known homosexual."
In January 1914, Douglas' friend, the journalist, Thomas Crosland, wrote a long, deliberately libellous letter to Ross, accusing him of being a homosexual. Unwilling to become involved in a court-case, Ross did not respond to the letter. The following month copies of this letter were sent to various people, including Herbert Asquith, the prime minister, Chief Justice Charles Darling and the editor of The Morning Post. When this information appeared in the newspaper, Ross had no option but to accuse Lord Douglas of criminal libel.
In November 1914, Douglas appeared in court. Although the case went very much against Ross, the jury was divided. Before the case could be reheard, Ross abandoned the action, and offered to pay Douglas' costs. Douglas, short of money, had to accept. Ross was forced to leave his post as valuer of pictures and drawings for the Board of Inland Revenue and retire from public life.
After the court-case Alfred Douglas discovered that Ross had become a close friend of Herbert Asquith and Margot Asquith. He sent a letter to King George V complaining about the prime minister's relationship with Ross. In April 1915, Douglas published a poem, All's Well With England, which implied that Margot was a lesbian and that her husband was having a sexual relationship with Ross.
During the First World War Ross became friends with two soldier-poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. According to Maureen Borland, the author of Wilde's Devoted Friend: Life of Robert Ross (1990): "In Ross's delightful and witty company, for a few precious hours, they could forget the horrors of trench warfare. Although these men were not among his partners, Ross was clearly homosexual and had two long-term relationships. He shared a house for fifteen years with (William) More Adey; a shorter partnership, with Frederick (Freddie) Stanley Smith, ended in 1917, when Smith took up a diplomatic appointment in Stockholm. Ross discouraged discussion of his sex life, and maintained a lifelong silence about the exact nature of his relationship with Wilde."
In 1917 Lord Alfred Douglas became convinced that Ross was a member of a secret society called the Unseen Hand. As Ernest Sackville Turner, the author of Dear Old Blighty (1980) has pointed out: "One of the great delusions of the war was that there existed an Unseen (or Hidden, or Invisible) Hand, a pro-German influence which perennially strove to paralyse the nation's will and to set its most heroic efforts at naught... As defeat seemed to loom, as French military morale broke and Russia made her separate peace, more and more were ready to believe that the Unseen Hand stood for a confederacy of evil men, taking their orders from Berlin, dedicated to the downfall of Britain by subversion of the military, the Cabinet, the Civil Service and the City; and working not only through spiritualists, whores and homosexuals."
In December 1917, Noel Pemberton Billing published an article in The Imperialist by Arnold Henry White that argued that Germany was under the control of homosexuals (White called them urnings): "Espionage is punished by death at the Tower of London, but there is a form of invasion which is as deadly as espionage: the systematic seduction of young British soldiers by the German urnings and their agents... Failure to intern all Germans is due to the invisible hand that protects urnings of enemy race... When the blond beast is an urning, he commands the urnings in other lands. They are moles. They burrow. They plot. They are hardest at work when they are most silent." It was true that there was a great increase in cases of sodomy coming before the British courts but the main reason for this was the large numbers of young men being herded together under wartime conditions.
Relying on information supplied by Harold S. Spencer, Billing published an article in The Imperialist on 26th January, 1918, revealing the existence of a Black Book: "There exists in the Cabinet Noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute." Billing claimed the book listed the names of 47,000 British sexual perverts, mostly in high places, being blackmailed by the German Secret Service. He added: "It is a most catholic miscellany. The names of Privy Councillors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors, members of His Majesty's Household follow each other with no order of precedence." Billing went onto argue that "the thought that 47,000 English men and women are held in enemy bondage through fear calls all clean spirits to mortal combat".
In February 1918 it was announced by theatrical producer, Jack Grein, that Maud Allan would give two private performances of Oscar Wildes's Salomé in April. It had to be a private showing because the play had long been banned by the Lord Chamberlain as being blasphemous. Noel Pemberton Billing had heard rumours, probably put around by Douglas, that Allan was a lesbian and was having an affair with Margot Asquith.
On 16th February, 1918, the front page of The Vigilante had a headline, "The Cult of the Clitoris". This was followed by the paragraph: "To be a member of Maud Allan's private performances in Oscar Wilde's Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of those members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000." This was a reference to the so-called Black Book.
As soon as Maud Allan became aware of the article she put the matter into the hands of her solicitor. In March 1918, Allan commenced criminal proceedings for obscene, criminal and defamatory libel. As Douglas had been involved with Oscar Wilde in the original production of the play, he was asked to give evidence on behalf of Noel Pemberton Billing. He also promised to give Douglas the opportunity to attack his old enemy, Robert Ross.
The libel case opened at the Old Bailey in May, 1918. Billing chose to conduct his own defence, in order to provide the opportunity to make the case against the government and the so-called Unseen Hand group. The prosecution was led by Ellis Hume-Williams and Travers Humphreys and the case was heard in front of Chief Justice Charles Darling.
Alfred Douglas was cross-examined by Noel Pemberton Billing on the 1st June. He attempted to bring up the subject of Robert Ross, but Chief Justice Darling prevented him doing this. Billing asked Douglas if he regretted meeting in Oscar Wilde: "I do most intensely... I think he had a diabolical influence on everyone he met. I think he is the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last 350 years... He was the agent of the devil in every possible way. He was a man whose whole object in life was to attack and to sneer at virtue, and to undermine it in every way by every possible means, sexually and otherwise."
On 4th June, 1918, Billing was acquitted of all charges. As James Hayward has pointed out: "Hardly ever had a verdict been received in the Central Criminal Court with such unequivocal public approval. The crowd in the gallery sprang to their feet and cheered, as women waved their handkerchiefs and men their hats. On leaving the court in company with Eileen Villiers-Stewart and his wife, Billing received a second thunderous ovation from the crowd outside, where his path was strewn with flowers."
Cynthia Asquith wrote in her diary: "One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Papa came in and announced that the monster maniac Billing had won his case. Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points." Basil Thomson, who was head of Special Branch, an in a position to know that Eileen Villiers-Stuart and Harold S. Spencer had lied in court, wrote in his diary, "Every-one concerned appeared to have been either insane or to have behaved as if he were."
Robert Ross died suddenly on 5th October 1918 at his home, 40 Half Moon Street, Mayfair, London.
(1) Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (1897)
I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards. Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged. It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away. With me it was different. I felt it myself, and made others feel it. Byron was a symbolic figure, but his relations were to the passion of his age and its weariness of passion. Mine were to something more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger scope.
The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.
I have lain in prison for nearly two years. Out of my nature has come wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb. I have passed through every possible mood of suffering....
I hope to live long enough and to produce work of such a character that I shall be able at the end of my days to say, "Yes! this is just where the artistic life leads a man!" Two of the most perfect lives I have come across in my own experience are the lives of Verlaine and of Prince Kropotkin: both of them men who have passed years in prison: the first, the one Christian poet since Dante; the other, a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ which seems coming out of Russia. And for the last seven or eight months, in spite of a succession of great troubles reaching me from the outside world almost without intermission, I have been placed in direct contact with a new spirit working in this prison through man and things, that has helped me beyond any possibility of expression in words: so that while for the first year of my imprisonment I did nothing else, and can remember doing nothing else, but wring my hands in impotent despair, and say, "What an ending, what an appalling ending!" now I try to say to myself, and sometimes when I am not torturing myself do really and sincerely say, "What a beginning, what a wonderful beginning!" It may really be so. It may become so. If it does I shall owe much to this new personality that has altered every man's life in this place...
A great friend of mine - a friend of ten years' standing - came to see me some time ago, and told me that he did not believe a single word of what was said against me, and wished me to know that he considered me quite innocent, and the victim of a hideous plot. I burst into tears at what he said, and told him that while there was much amongst the definite charges that was quite untrue and transferred to me by revolting malice, still that my life had been full of perverse pleasures, and that unless he accepted that as a fact about me and realised it to the full I could not possibly be friends with him any more, or ever be in his company. It was a terrible shock to him, but we are friends, and I have not got his friendship on false pretences....
All trials are trials for one's life, just as all sentences are sentences of death; and three times have I been tried. The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the house of detention, the third time to pass into a prison for two years. Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.
(2) Cynthia Asquith, diary entry (July, 1918)
One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Papa came in and announced that the monster maniac Billing had won his case. Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points. The fantastic foulness of the insinuations that Neil Primrose and Evelyn de Rothschild were murdered from the rear makes one sick. How miserably conducted a case, both by that contemptible Darling and Hume Williams! Darling insisted on having the case out of rotation.