New biographical work on Custance

Review by Edwin James King

Adams, J. “Olive Custance: A Poet Crossing Boundaries.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, vol. 61 no. 1, 2018, pp. 35-65. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/679212.

olive

The British writer, historian and television producer Jad Adams has produced a extensively researched biographical account of Olive Custance. It is now, by a few hundred words,  the longest such work in print (the other two shorter ones are Father Sewell’s [1] and my own[2].) So I although I have to declare an interest, in the parliamentary sense of that term, I am perhaps as well-informed on the subject as I am opinionated, because I am deep in study of the same documents as Mr Adams. He is very much a confrère, rather than a competitor, so I hope he will not take any criticisms too much too heart. In this review I will explain why I enjoyed this article and why I also found it somewhat disappointing, at least as a biography of a poet.

Drawing largely on the work of various biographers of Lord Alfred Douglas and synthesising the information they give about Custance, Adams also gives some new information from the diaries in the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library and from letters in the Eccles Collection in the British Library. I have been looking at the London documents for a few years and have bought a ticket to New York to read the documents there in February 2018.  But I have also read documents from a few other places that Adams hasn’t visited (Oxford, British Columbia, Paris). It is not a level playing field … Adams is a scholar of a whole generation of writers so he cannot be everywhere at once; I am an Olive Custance fanatic and my main research focus is her and her alone.

One oft-neglected fact about Olive Custance is that most of the poetry that made her a celebrated figure of the ‘decadent’ 1890s was the work of girl of between 15 and 17 and not of a mature woman [3]. She was a well-read young girl with a lively imagination, fed by readings of Byron, Swinburne and Pater and artistic and sophisticated playacting with her younger sister, Cécile. She never went to school, but at 16 met the delicately handsome poet, John Gray, Oscar Wilde’s former intimate and future Catholic priest. She immediately fell in love with him, as her first ‘fairy prince’. In fact she fell in love with most of the really interesting people she met from then on (aided and abetted by a maid who enjoyed living and loving vicariously, rather like Juliet’s maid in Romeo and Juliet.) One of the young men was the poet and writer Richard Le Galienne, who believed she had the makings of a poet. Once her parents could be persuaded that she was old enough to be published (it took a few years), she turned out to be quite a hit. Her poems in the popular papers such as The Pall Mall Gazette reached a far wider audience than many of the serious-minded decadents and aesthetes whose handcrafted limited editions usually never ran to more than 200 copies and who rather disdained the mass market. She eventually married Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover and her second ‘fairy prince’;  he was a better poet than she was, but neither he, nor John Gray, nor even Oscar Wilde enjoyed the worldwide attention of Olive Custance as a poet in the period known as the fin de siècle and the Edwardian era. In those days, Olive’s poems were read out during tens of thousands of peaceful family home evenings round the fire or the piano in places as far apart as London, Dublin, Kansas, Melbourne, Cape Town and Dehli; but today, of course, almost no one has heard of Olive Custance. She is known, if at all, as Oscar’s boyfriend’s wife.  That said, Adams’ work is part of a genuine revival. After the work of Nancy Hawkey[4] and Father Brocard Sewell in the 1970s there was a 40-year lull. But now, Olive Custance is coming out of the literary woodwork.

So what does Adams find in all those diaries and manuscripts? Unfortunately, the diaries do not cover her childhood or teenage years at all, and even the adult ones are often mutilated and incomplete.  This can lead to a great of deal of misconceptions, and also means one needs to do a lot of ‘joining up the dots’.  In general, Adams does this with an open mind, a strong sense of the cultural context and a deal of common sense. A breath of fresh air about her marriage, gleaned from the diaries, is that despite their complicated personalities, Bosie and Olive seem to have had a normal marital life; Adams makes a point of making a point about this because this truth has often been occluded by other writers, in their fascination for the theory that their married life was an impossible sham in sexual terms.

Adams gives more attention than has hitherto been given to Richard Le Gallienne, and this is encouraging; especially as the gossip at the time was that he and Olive had been lovers and yet scholars have for some reason tended to discount this. It all contributes to my impression that Le Gallienne was the man who was instrumental in making her reputation as a poet. Adams also seems to get all the complicated chronology around the courtship of Olive and Bosie completely right where other scholars have got muddled over it. (‘Bosie’ was the nickname of Lord Alfred Douglas, perhaps because he was “beau”.)

In regard to the poems themselves, Adams suggests that Custance was a poet who loved to bear her soul in verse, and yet most of the time he does not use her poems as a source for his biographical exposition; which is a pity as they cast a lot of light on her marriage, her beliefs, her priorities and her general outlook.  The only notable exception to this is when he makes a respectful nod to Dr Sarah Parker’s sapphic reading [5] of a number of poems. Nor does he speak much or at all about her style and development as a poet. In the end, although the account is informative and interesting, we are not left with any real impression of Custance as an artist.

There are also one or two biographical blind-spots that at the risk of seeming peevish, one feels it important to highlight. Apart from references to John Lane and the 1890s circle, we do not get a clear sense of the kind of society in which Olive grew up nor the company she kept in London later.

It is suggested that she grew up in the country, which is not quite true. The family only moved there properly when she was in her late teens, and it was in 1893 (when Olive was 19) that her father inherited the property at Weston Hall, Norfolk.  Before that time Eleanor (the mother), Cécile (born 1876) and Olive (born 1874) lived mainly in London, though no doubt many dreamy summer holidays were spent in Norfolk with their grandparents.  (The move to the country may in fact have had something to do with Colonel Custance’s disquiet about his eldest daughter’s social habits in the city.) The period covered by her published diary (1905-1910) [6] is not really covered much at all in the article, and her collections The Blue Bird (1905) and Inn of Dreams (1911) are ignored as life events and also for biographical clues they contain.

The continuing production of verses in the 20s, 30s and 40s, up to and including the Second World War, is not mentioned at all.  These gaps might not be important, but for the fact that we are only interested in her in the first place because she was a poet. Another lacuna is her conversion to Catholicism, which happened of her own accord when she was separated from her husband, and which had probably been in her mind for a long time. Such conversions were an important feature of the lives of a great many artistic people in those days, especially of ‘decadents’, so it is not an ephemeral detail. Although mention is made that at the time of her death she had lapsed, no previous mention is made of her conversion in 1917; nor is it mentioned that shortly before she died, she had expressed a desire to return to the Church.[7]  In general, although the correspondence now available does cast light on her life in the 20s and 30s, this is not adequately covered; especially as it included important and intriguing new friendships such as that with the famous Lord Leverhulme, the soap millionaire, and with the eccentric demonologist, Montague Summers. Marie Stopes is mentioned, and so is John Betjeman, but they were more friends of Bosie’s than of Olive’s.

The article is part of a larger and more ambitious project to provide extended biographical pieces about neglected ‘decadent women’ of the 1890s which will no doubt be brought together in a book in which some of what I have described as ‘gaps’ may well be filled. I have perhaps been a bit harsh in this review, but the context of the wider project perhaps puts the article’s shortcomings in perspective: Adams is mainly interested in Custance as a figure of the 1890s and it is therefore this period of her life which seems the most relevant and interesting, and the relationships of that period which seem to define her.

Father Sewell first expressed the view that Custance’s identification with decadence was nothing more than a pose; and other scholars have suggested that her labelling as a decadent is a mistake, caused simply by her intimate association with figures close to Oscar Wilde.  And yet the label sticks rather persistently. In 1920 Mary C. Sturgeon suggested that we “find in the verse of Olive Custance a complete devotion to beauty, and no other concern at all.” (Studies of Contemporary Poets, 1920, p. 402.) Based on a cursory reading of Opals and Rainbows, one can understand that opinion (even if it is an over-simplification), but even when read in a hurry the next two collections create a very different impression. Adams, however, is much rougher: “if enjoying art and sex without an apparent morality was decadent, then that is what she was.” For a real Olive Custance fan like me, that hurts. C’est trop, Monsieur Adams, c’est trop!

Walter Pater wrote in 1891 that “a true Epicureanism aims at a complete though harmonious development of man’s entire organism. To lose the moral sense therefore, for instance the sense of sin and righteousness, as Mr. Wilde’s heroes are bent on doing so speedily, as completely as they can, is … to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development.” [8] Olive Custance was more of Pater’s tribe than Wilde’s on the question of personal morality; few scholars pick this up.

So, although this new account fills some gaps in the picture, it leaves many still in need of attention, and unfortunately it fails to create an appetite to read the poetry for its own sake or for what it can tell us about the lady behind it. Olive wrote in 1905: “Like a shy child I bring you all my songs.”  The shy child, and her songs, still remain rather in the shadow of the men in her life. So there is plenty more work for people like Adams and me to do.

Edwin King published an edition of Custance’s Inn of Dreams in 2015 and is currently preparing Wild Olive: The Life and Collected Poems of Olive Custance (Lady Alfred Douglas) for publication in 2018.

Notes

[1] Brocard Sewell, Olive Custance: Her Life and Work (London: The 1890s Society, 1975).

[2] Olive Custance, Edwin James King (Ed.), The Inn of Dreams: Poems by Olive Custance, London: Saint Austin Press,  2015.)

[3] This is stated in a letter to AJ Symons, dated 27th November 1925, in the Norman Colbeck Collection, University of British Columbia Library, Canada.

[4] Nancy Hawkes, “Olive Custance Douglas: Introduction to a Bibliography” and “Olive Custance Douglas: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Her” in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Volume 15, Number 1, 1972, pp. 49-51 and 52-56.

[5] Sarah Parker, The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889–1930 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013).

[6] Caspar Wintermans, I Desire the Moon: The Diary of Lady Alfred Douglas (Olive Custance), 1905–1910 (Woubrugge: The Avalon Press, 2004).

[7] Rupert Croft-Cooke, Bosie, (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1963), p. 372.

[8] Walter Pater, ‘A Novel by Mr Oscar Wilde’, The Bookman, 1, Nov. 1891, pp.59-60; reprinted in Walter Pater: Sketches and Reviews (1919).

3 Comments

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3 responses to “New biographical work on Custance

  1. Caspar Wintermans

    It is indeed wonderful that Olive Custance is being rediscovered nowadays. Fans of her work may be interested to learn that the bulk of her diaries and her correspondence with her husband (and with other people as well) is going to be included in my forthcoming edition of “Lord Alfred Douglas: A Life in Letters.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • ukchavvy

      When do you expect the book to be published?

      Like

      • Caspar Wintermans

        That is not easy to say. Most of the work (begun in the early 1990s) is done, but I still have to collect quite a lot of material–and then of course I must find a publisher! Preferably one who takes great care of the typographical side of this multi-volume project. I may say, however, that the book will be a delight to all lovers of the 1890s… and may say so without arrogance, for I am the editor merely, not the writer of these fascinating documents.

        Liked by 1 person

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