Monday, 25 May 2009
Here's a birthday well worth marking. Robbie Ross, the bravest, most loyal and most admirable of the Oscar Wilde circle, was born on this day in 1869. Here was a man who had the almost unimaginable courage to 'come out' to his family in the 1880s, and who made no attempt to disguise his sexuality among the hearties of Cambridge - who duly dunked him in a fountain and gave him pneumonia. Nothing unusual in that, sadly, but what came next was extraordinary - Ross not only forced a public apology from the offenders, but mounted a vigorous (failed) campaign against the don who had supported them. Later, when virtually all the 'friends' of Oscar Wilde (including, deplorably, Walter Sickert) were shunning and disowning him after his public disgrace, Ross remained steadfast to the end - indeed to the deathbed. This loyalty provoked a long campaign of vilification from the odious Lord Alfred Douglas (and Ross was also publicly persecuted by the deranged Noel Pemberton Billing). But Ross's greatest and most lasting achievement was as Wilde's literary executor, rescuing his scattered writings, buying up copyrights, sorting out the genuine from the fake, and establishing a definitive edition of the Wilde canon. Then, with typical selflessness, he gave away all earnings and future rights in the works to Oscar's sons. I don't think the category 'gay hero' does any favours to anyone, but if ever there was a man who deserved the title, it was surely Robbie Ross.