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The Berg Collection : letters and diaries

A key source for the study of Olive Custance is the collection of letters kept in the New York Library as part of the Berg Collection. The following is a librarian’s summary of what is contained in these documents.

LORD ALFRED and LADY ALFRED DOUGLAS[1]

Autograph letters and autograph diaries.

The papers in this part of the exhibition tell the story of the courtship and married life of two poets whose gift for poetry was choked by the other gifts, both good and bad, which fortune bestowed upon them. Lord Alfred Douglas was born to high social position, wealth, good looks, and a talent which produced at least a few sonnets which have been anthologized for more than half a century. Olive Custance Douglas was endowed with the same gifts on a more modest scale. The privileges which came so easily to them they threw away as thoughtlessly as they received them. Lady Douglas was not the woman to save her husband from the violence of his own emotions, which make him one of the most psychologically interesting and least appealing figures in the annals of English literature.

The papers date from the turn of the century, from shortly after the death of Oscar Wilde. They add little to the knowledge of that most famous victim of Douglas’ power to fascinate and to destroy. Yet they give a vivid glimpse of the fashionable and semi-bohemian world of the Edwardian period in which Olive Custance and Alfred Douglas met and decided to try matrimony together. The attempt was far from a success but not altogether a failure. Though their union seems to have exacted quite a price from her conventional parents, from their only child, Raymond, and even from themselves, the Douglases lived on terms of friendly separation toward the end of their lives.

The two hundred and more letters from Alfred Douglas to his wife begin in June 1901, when Olive Custance seems to have introduced herself as a “girl poet” by sending a “beautiful letter” and a “crown of wild speedwells.” They touch upon Douglas’ visit to the United States in the autumn of 1901 when he unsuccessfully attempted to barter his name for an American fortune. They cover his subsequent courtship of Olive, who seems to have been quite as worldly wise and perhaps even as experienced as the man she married on March 4 1902. There are letters from almost every year up to 1919, which embrace the troubled course of Douglas’ relations with the Custances, with Olive, and with Raymond, who was more or less of an invalid.

The two hundred and more letters from Alfred Douglas to his wife begin in June 1901, when Olive Custance seems to have introduced herself as a “girl poet” by sending a “beautiful letter” and a “crown of wild speedwells.” They touch upon Douglas’ visit to the United States in the autumn of 1901 when he unsuccessfully attempted to barter his name for an American fortune. They cover his subsequent courtship of Olive, who seems to have been quite as worldly wise and perhaps even as experienced as the man she married on March 4 1902. There are letters from almost every year up to 1919, which embrace the troubled course of Douglas’ relations with the Custances, with Olive, and with Raymond, who was more or less of an invalid.

A handful of poetic manuscripts mostly by Alfred Douglas came with the papers. Some of them are expressions of dependence on Olive and love for her. Others — not unexpectedly —are bitter attacks upon her character: “I know you now, Circe and Sycorax,” he concluded in summing up the first dozen years of their married life. There are also two manuscript poems signed Olive Custance and dedicated to John Gray: “The Songs of Love” and “The Silence of Love.” To the collection of Douglas papers was added Lord Alfred’s correspondence with Madame Francis d’Avilla, who translated some of his poems into French. The letters, which run to over one hundred, begin in 1930 and extend to within six weeks of his death on March 20 1945. Olive Douglas had died thirteen months earlier, on February 12 1944. The letters shown here cover a multitude of subjects, including Madame d’Avilla’s translation. A copy of her translation, Palmer, Paris 1937, is also displayed– the copy presented by the translator to her mother.

[1] Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox … v.68 1964, pp. 8-9.

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