three pairs of lovers with space

BOSIE’S ADVENTURES IN ALGERIA, 1895

 

In early 1895, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, aged twenty-four, accompanied by his devoted and celebrated friend Oscar Wilde, went to Algeria, where he spent a month having a series of erotic adventures with local boys.

The main source of information for this is André Gide, the future winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, but then a young man of twenty-five, only recently aware of himself as a boy-lover, who met Douglas in Algeria by accident. His autobiography describing his encounters with Douglas, Si le grain ne meurt, was published in Paris, 1926. The extracts from it that follow are taken from pp. 270-91 of the unexpurgated edition of Dorothy Bussy’s translation,  If It Die …, published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1977.

Gide’s account is here interwoven with his correspondence and that of Douglas and Wilde.

The footnotes are this website’s except for one pointed out as by Gide.

 

Douglas and Wilde arrived in Algiers on 17 January. About a week later, Wilde wrote to Robbie Ross:[1]

               Algiers shoe-shine boy

There is a great deal of beauty here. The Kabyle boys are quite lovely. At first we had some difficulty in procuring a proper civilised guide. But now it is all right, and Bosie and I have taken to haschish: it is quite exquisite: three puffs of smoke and then peace and love. Bosie wakes up at night and cries like a child for the best haschish.

We have been on an excursion into the mountains of — full of villages peopled by fauns. Several shepherds fluted on reeds for us. We were followed by lovely brown things from forest to forest. The beggars here have profiles, so the problem of poverty is easily solved. …

The most beautiful boy in Algiers is said by the guide to be ‘deceitful’: isn't it sad? Bosie and I are awfully upset about it.

Just after this, they went to stay in the pretty resort town of Blidah, 45 kilometres from Algiers.  There by coincidence they ran into André Gide, the future Nobel prize-winning author, then aged twenty-five.  Wilde already knew him, but not yet that he was, like themselves, a boy-lover.  His torment over the conflict between this and his Puritan upbringing are described in The Initiation of André Gide. Gide had been about to leave Blidah, but decided hesitantly to stay on when he noticed Wilde and Douglas’s names in the hotel’s visitors’ book.  Here begins Gide’s vivid account of their time together:

I had seen a great deal of Wilde in Paris; I had met him at length in Florence; I have related the whole of this at length in another book and also what follows, but not with all the details I wish to add here.[2] Lord Alfred Douglas's infamous book, Oscar Wilde and I, is too barefaced a travesty of the truth for me to have any scruples about telling it now, and since fate willed that my path should cross his at this juncture, I feel it is my duty as a witness to give my testimony.

A photograph of Wilde that he gave to Gide in December 1891, © fondation Catherine Gide

“I did not know Douglas, but Wilde began at once to sing his praises with extraordinary enthusiasm….

“You’ll see him,” he kept repeating, “and you’ll tell me if it’s possible to imagine a more charming divinity.”

… Lord Alfred Douglas, he did not appear, as far as I can remember, till after dinner. Wilde and he dined in their rooms, and I expect Wilde invited me to dine with them, and I expect I refused, for in those days all invitations made me retire into my shell ... I cannot remember and I have vowed not to be tempted into furnishing the vacant rooms of my memory. But I agreed to go out with them after dinner, and one thing I remember very well is that we were no sooner in the street than Lord Alfred took me affectionately by the arm and exclaimed:

“All these guides are idiotic; it’s no good explaining - they will always take you to cafes which are full of women. I hope you are like me. I have a horror of women. I only like boys. As you’re coming with us this evening, I think it’s better to say so at once …”

I hid my stupefaction at the brutality of this outspoken statement as best I could and fell into step without a word. I could not think Bosy as beautiful as Wilde did; but though he had the despotic manners of a spoilt child, he combined them with so much grace that I soon began to understand why it was that Wilde always followed so submissively in his wake.

The guide introduced us into a cafe which, louche as it was, had nothing to offer of the kind my companions wanted. … I can think of nothing more to say about that evening which was on the whole a rather dismal affair. The next morning I returned to Algiers, where Wilde joined me a few days later. … Douglas … returned to Algiers with him.

            Wilde's son Cyril in 1896

… To tell the truth Bosy interested me extremely; but ‘terrible’ he certainly was, and in my opinion  it is he who ought to be held responsible for all that was disastrous in Wilde’s career. Wilde beside him seemed gentle, wavering and weak-willed. Douglas was possessed by the perverse instinct that drives a child to break his finest toy; nothing ever satisfied him; he always wanted to go one better. The following example will show to what lengths his effrontery would go: I was questioning him one day about Wilde’s two sons; he laid great stress on the beauty of Cyril (I think), who was quite young[3] at the time, and then whispered with a self-satisfied smile, “He will be for me.”[4] Add to all this a poetical gift of the rarest quality, which was apparent in the musical tone of his voice, in his gestures, his eyes, and the expression of his features; there was apparent too in his whole person what physiologists call “a bad heredity”.

The next day or the day after, Douglas returned to Blidah, where he was making arrangements to elope with a young caouadji[5] he wanted to take with him to Biskra; for my descriptions of the oasis - where I intended returning myself - had captivated him. But to run away with an Arab is not such an easy thing as he had thought at first; he had to get the parents’ consent, sign papers at the Arab office, at the police-station, etc. ; there was work enough to keep him at Blidah for several days; during this time Wilde was more at liberty and able to talk to me more intimately than he had hitherto done.

A photograph of Douglas that he gave to Gide June 1896, © fondation Catherine Gide

Wilde and I both left Algiers, I think, on the same day, very shortly after this memorable evening[6]; he, recalled to England by the determination to put an end to the accusations of the Marquis of Queensberry, Bosy’s father; and I with the intention of getting to Biskra before Bosy. Bosy had decided to go there with Ali, the young Arab of Blidah he had fallen in love with; he had written me a letter to say he was returning to Algiers and hoped I would wait for him, so that we might travel together, for the long two days’ journey would be unbearably dull with only Ali, who, it appeared, knew no more French or English than Bosy knew Arabic. I have such a contradictious temper, however, that this letter merely made me hurry on my departure; either because I disliked lending a hand to this venture and soothing the way for someone who thought everything his due, or because the moralist that slumbers in my breast considered it indecorous to strip the roses of their thorns, or simply because my sulkiness carried the day - for one of these reasons, or a mixture of them all – I started. But at Sétif, where I was to spend the night, I received an urgent telegram.

I always welcome with perverse alacrity anything that comes to upset my plans; I will not attempt to explain this trait in my character, for I cannot understand it myself . . . In short, I broke my journey and began to wait for Douglas as whole-heartedly as the day before I had fled from him. The fact is I had found the journey from Algiers to Sérif horribly long. But I soon found the wait longer still. What an interminable day! And the next, that still lay between me and Biskra? What will that be like? thought I to myself, as I paced up and down the tiresome, regular streets of the ugly little military and colonial town, where it seemed impossible anyone should care to come except on business, or stay except by order, and where the few Arabs one sees look out of place and miserable.

While in Sérif, on 2nd February, Gide wrote to his mother: [7]

Lord Douglas is travelling with a little Arab boy twelve or thirteen years old, whom he picked up in Bidah – a real kidnapping.”

Presumably Gide wrote this just before he first set eyes on Ali, the little Arab in question, since in the following passage from his If It Die …, he described him as “not sixteen.” As will be seen though, his true age was fourteen, assuming that Douglas, after at least a fortnight as his lover, was the better authority.  To return to If It Die…:

I was impatient to see Ali. I expected just a modest little caouadji, dressed more or less like Mohammed; it was a young prince who stepped out of the train, in brilliant garments, with a silken sash and a golden turban. He was not sixteen, but how stately his bearing, how proud his glance. What condescending smiles he bestowed on the hotel servants as they bowed before him! How soon he had realized that, humble as he had been the day before, it was now for him to come into the rooms first, to sit down first … Douglas had found his master, and in spite of the elegance of his own  clothes, he looked like an attendant, waiting on the orders or his gorgeous servant. Every Arab, however poor, has an Aladdin within him all ready to blossom forth; at the first touch of fate - behold him a king!

Ali was certainly very beautiful; fair-complexioned, with a smooth brow, a well-formed chin, a small mouth, a well-formed chin, a small mouth, rounded cheeks, and the eyes of a houri ; but his beauty had no power over me; a sort of hardness in his nostrils, of indifference in the too perfect curve of his eyebrows, of cruelty in the scornful curl of his lips, checked every trace of desire in me; and nothing put me more off than the effeminacy of his whole appearance, which some people perhaps would have found seductive. All this is to show that during the considerable length of time I lived in his society, I felt absolutely untroubled. And even, as often happens, the spectacle of Douglas’s felicity, which I did not envy, had the contrary effect of inclining me all the more to chastity - a disposition that lasted after he had gone and during the whole of my stay at Biskra.

The Hotel de l’Oasis had already disposed of the Cardinal’s apartment, which we had occupied the year before; but the Royal had just opened and we found a set of rooms there which, for agreeableness and commodity, were very little inferior to the former: this apartment was on the ground floor and consisted of three rooms, two of which communicated with each other, and were at the end of a passage opening out of doors. We were able to reach our rooms without having to go through the hotel, by the outside passage door, of which we were given the key, for no one else used it. But I generally got in and out by the window. My room, into which I had a piano put, was separated from Douglas’s and Ali’s by the passage, and looked on to the new casino, as did Douglas’s; there was a fairly large space of ground in front, which, when school was over, was used as a playground by the same Arab boys who the year before had come to play on our terraces.

Gide's servant Athman, 14, when Gide met him in late 1893

I have said that Ali did not understand French, so I suggested that Athman[8] should serve as interpreter between Douglas and him. Athman, on hearing I had arrived, had thrown up his work, hoping to take up service with me; but I did not know how to employ him. I blamed myself afterwards for venturing to suggest such a post as this for him, but Douglas and Ali's relations were not of a kind particularly to surprise an Arab, and besides, at that time, I was far from having the great friendship for Athman that took up so much room in my life later on, and which he soon began to deserve. He eagerly accepted the offer directly it was made, but I realized before long that it was because he hoped to spend more time with me. The poor fellow pulled a long face when he saw I was resolved not to go out with Douglas, and that, as a matter of fact, he would see very little of me. Douglas drove out every day with him and Ali to one of the neighbouring oases, Chetma, Droh, or Sidi Okba, which could be seen from the hotel terraces, glowing like dark emeralds on the russet cloak of the desert. Douglas tried in vain to persuade me to come too. I took no pity on the boredom he must certainly have felt between his two pages, considering it as the fair penalty of pleasure. It’s his own fault, thought I, trying to arm myself with factitious severity against what I was only too ready to admit. And as my own penalty, I buried myself in work, with the flattering feeling that I was atoning for something. Now that years have made me more docile, I wonder at all these scruples - the survival of a worn-out ethical creed, which I had ceased to approve, but on which my moral reflexes still depended. On trying to discover the secret springs that made my machine recoil in this way, and as it were involuntarily, I must confess that what I chiefly discover is a surly, unaccommodating temper. The fact is, I did not like Bosy, or perhaps it would be fairer to say that my interest in him was greater than my liking; in spite of his attentions and his kindnesses, or perhaps because of them, I remained on the defensive. His conversation very quickly bored me; with an Englishman, or a Frenchman who knew a little more about English matters than I did, I dare say it might have been more varied and abundant; but when the ordinary topics were exhausted, Douglas returned incessantly and with disgusting obstinacy to the things I spoke of only with excessive embarrassment - an embarrassment which was increased by his total lack of it. I found it quite enough to meet him at the interminable hotel meals (how charmingly graceful and roguish he looked as he exclaimed, “I really can’t do without a little champagne!” - and why did I sulkily refuse the glass he offered me?) or sometimes at tea in company with Athman and Ali (and I heard him repeat for the hundredth time - it was the repetition that amused him more than the phrase itself – “Athman, tell Ali his eyes are like a gazelle’s”).

On 11 February, Douglas wrote to Robbie Ross[9]:

My dear Bobbie,

                                      The market in Biskra in 1899

Oscar will have told you that I am held fast by the lassoo of desire to a sugar-lipped lad. He is of  extraordinary personal beauty, and is aged fourteen. In fact, between me and you, his sugar has not yet been wiped by the nurse from milk.[10] I constantly compare my boy to a gazelle.  … [We recently had] a fearful scene. My boy, Ali, insisted upon wearing an old pair of trousers, I having just, at vast expense, bought him two new pairs. Words followed (through the interpreter, who speaks moderate French), and finally I told him that I had seen another boy named Achmet who was far more like a gazelle than he was; I said he was so like a gazelle that on dirait une vraie gazelle,[11] and that he was in constant danger of being shot in mistake for one. This completely overcame my boy who lay on his bed and wept for two hours, the interpreter saying: Il dit que puisque vous avez fait venir ici an autre garçon qui ressemble une gazelle, c'est mieux qu'il retourne à Blidah à ses parents, parce que ici il est comme orphelin, n'ayant ni père ni mère, mais vous seulement, et cet. et cet.[12] All this quite seriously. Finally, we made it up and had each other, as we have done every single day since I brought him from Blidah ten days ago (sometimes twice). … I am far too occupied with Ali to look at anyone else, and Ali has sworn to stab me if I have any other boy. … I am really having a splendid time.

To resume Gide’s account:

Day by day, he allowed his ennui to creep a little nearer.

This idyll came to an abrupt end. Although it was with some amusement that Bosy saw Ali was beginning to carry on a somewhat suspicious intrigue with a young shepherd of Fontaine-Chaude, he flew into a violent rage when it dawned upon him that he was quite capable of being touched by the charms of the Oulad, and in particular by Meriem’s. He could not endure the idea that Ali perhaps went to bed with her; he was not sure that this had actually taken place (for my part, I had not the smallest doubt of it), angrily demanded confessions, regrets, promises, and swore that if these were broken, he would dismiss Ali on the spot. I felt Douglas was not so much moved by real jealousy as by pique. “Boys” he declared; “yes, boys, as much as he likes; but I will not endure his going with women.” For that matter, I am not at all sure Ali really desired Meriem; I think it was rather that he felt flattered and thought he would put an end in this way to the accusations of impotence he heard muttered about him; I think he liked giving himself airs, imitating his elders and appearing grown up. He pretended to submit, but Douglas had lost confidence. One day, in a fit of suspicion, he took it into his head to search Ali’s trunk, and discovered a photograph of Meriem, which he proceeded to tear to pieces … It was tragic; Ali was soundly horse-whipped and his howls created a tumult among the people in the hotel. I heard this uproar, but considered it wiser not to intervene, and remained shut up in my room. Douglas appeared at dinner that night with a livid face and steely eyes; he told me Ali was returning to Blidah by the first train, that is to say, the next morning. He himself left Biskra two days later.[13]

 

[1] Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, edited by Merlin Holland (2000), p. 185.

[2] Note by Gide: Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde’s executor and faithful friend, wrote to me as follows, March 21st, 1910: “I am delighted that you have reprinted your brilliant Souvenirs of Oscar Wilde. I have told many friends, since your study first appeared in I’Ermitage, that it was not only the best account of Oscar  Wilde at the different stages of his career, but the only true and accurate impression of him that I have ever read; ...

[3] Nine years old.

[4] Whether Wilde had any knowledge of these hopes is quite unknown. One of many indications of his deep love for his son is his words in De Profundis, his letter to Douglas from prison in 1897: "I could not bear the idea of being separated from Cyril, that beautiful, loving, loveable child of mine, friend of all friends, my companion beyond all companions, one single hair of whose little golden head should have been dearer and of more value to me than, I will not merely say you from top to toe, but the entire chrysolite of the whole world." (The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, New York, 2000, p. 715)

[5] Note by Gide on p. 281: the boy who makes and serves the coffee (caoua) in an Arab café.

[6] Gide’s night with a boy arranged with Wilde’s help.

[7] Jean Delay, The Youth of André Gide, abridged and translated by J. Guicharnaud (Chicago, 1963), p. 396.

[8] Gide’s fifteen-year-old boy servant, to whom he had grown chastely attached over the last year.

[9] Quoted from a private collection by Neil McKenna in his The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (New York, 2003), pp. 329-30.

[10] McKenna, op. cit., says this suggests “Ali had not yet sucked Bosie.”

[11] Meaning “One would say a real gazelle”.

[12] Meaning “He says that since you’ve made another boy come here who resembles a gazelle, it’s better that he returns to his parents at Blidah, because here he’s like an orphan, having neither father, nor mother, but only you, etc., etc.”

[13] 18th February, a little more than three weeks since Douglas’s first departure from Blidah, by when he had evidently become enamoured of Ali.