DNA #191

LGBTQIA+ History Month: In Love And War

Oscar Wilde and Robert Baden-Powell (Napoleon Sarony and National Portrait Gallery/Wikicommons)

October is LGBT History Month, to celebrate DNA is republishing important stories from the LGBTQIA+ past; including our iconic role models, stories of our struggles and a celebration of our wins as a community.


Oscar Wilde was a celebrated writer. Robert Baden-Powell a war hero and founder of the Boy Scouts. Their sexuality informed and shaped their lives in remarkably different ways. Dick Burns compares their fates and reflects on how they influenced his own life’s journey.

They were two distinctly different men, and each came to be symbolised by a different flower: Oscar, the green carnation, and Robert the fleur-de-lys. Their lives and careers took different paths but, in common, their homosexuality shaped their destinies and influenced the conventions and values of the 20th Century. One, a mediocre student, became a decorated war hero. The other, a literary genius, was ruined by scandal.

The green carnation is associated writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). It was originally a symbol of his homeland, Ireland, but, as he wore it during his trial for “gross indecency”, it was soon adopted as an easy visual signifier among homosexual men in repressive, secretive Victorian-era Britain.

Lord Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941), Boer war hero and founder of the Boy Scouts movement is associated with the more regal fleur-de-lys, the emblem of the Scouts to this day. He founded the Boy Scouts organisation in 1908. One aim of its formation was to help get inner-city London boys into the outdoors. As an inner-city boy growing up in urban Sydney, New South Wales, this resonates for me. The Boy Scouts were among the greatest influences on my life. I learned independence and a diversity of skills (among them the pleasures of skinny dipping and mutual masturbation).

My scoutmaster introduced me to bushwalking and Tasmania, as well as indirectly leading me into my future career. On becoming a Queen’s Scout (the highest possible award for a Scout of the British Commonwealth), he gave me a congratulatory gift: a leather-bound, gilt-edged edition of the works of Oscar Wilde. He would not have known that Wilde was gay. My father tripped up with a similar lack of knowledge; he named me after Richard The Lionheart, not knowing that King Richard I was one of the queer monarchs of England.

Oscar Wilde’s importance lies in his innovatory influence on English literature – a poet, a crafter of legendary wit, fairy tales, and the novel The Picture Of Dorian Gray. This novel gives the Faustian contract-with-the-devil legend a new twist: Dorian Gray retains his physical beauty as depicted in his portrait, while the portrait itself takes on the physical characteristics of Dorian’s aging and the effects of his licentious lifestyle. Wikipedia lists 24 film and TV versions of The Picture Of Dorian Gray, six from the silent era. My preference is for the 1970 English-Italian film, featuring Helmut Berger as Dorian.

Wilde also wrote with innocent and sparkling wit, such as in his play The Importance Of Being Earnest, yet it was his dark erotic version of the Salome myth that Richard Strauss used in his opera. The production of the opera Salome that I prefer has Karl Böhm conducting and Teresa Stratas in the title role. The soprano needs a mature voice to sing the part, and a body that looks like the teenager Salome was. Oscar Wilde is also thought to have written, or at least contributed to, the 1893 soft-porn novel Teleny, or The Reverse Of The Medal.

Baden-Powell’s first taste of success came during the Boer War in southern Africa, when as a colonel in the British Army he led the strategic railway town of Mafeking through a 217-day siege. He came up with the idea of forming the Scouting movement from his experiences in Africa; he had developed excellent bushcraft skills. To advance his ideas, Baden-Powell wrote Scouting For Boys, which describes methods of outdoor activities aimed at developing character, survival skills, citizenship, and personal fitness among youths. Many boys eagerly joined, and the scouting movement rapidly grew to become the world’s largest youth organisation.

Oscar Wilde married early but later found the love of his life in the poet Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Wilde was in a loving marriage to Constance with two sons when he met Lord Douglas in 1891. Douglas was a son of the Marquis Of Queensberry and had been sent to one of the country’s most exclusive so-called ‘public’ boarding schools, Winchester College. History books, novels and films (for example Another Country starring Rupert Everett and Colin Firth or The Poisoned Bowl: Sex And The Public School by Alisdare Hickson) expose the long tradition of sex and love between schoolboys. Douglas once said that at Winchester 90 percent of the boys had sexual relations with one another, only because “the other 10 percent were too ugly”.

The next four years completely inverted Wilde’s life, leading to his trials in 1895. Their short-lived sexual relationship began in early 1892 and ended when Bosie introduced Oscar to the world of male prostitutes; it was the testimony of these young men that resulted in the guilty verdict, and Wilde’s two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol. The trials had actually been initiated by Wilde, after Douglas’s father accused Wilde of “posing as a sodomite”.

The most stable gay relationship in Wilde’s life was, however, his friendship with Robert Ross, who had been the first man to seduce the writer. Robert Ross foresaw the consequences of taking legal action against the marquis but, urged on by Douglas (and Lady Wilde), Oscar went ahead, accusing the marquis of defamation. The defense found the male prostitutes who testified, dooming Wilde to a guilty verdict. Ross remained a loyal friend, supporting the writer throughout his devastating trials, and became his literary executor.

Upon his own death, Ross’ ashes were placed in Wilde’s tomb. ‘Bosie’ Douglas was an immature, selfish young man who seems to have toyed with the smitten Wilde. Perhaps it’s due to the fashion for not smiling photographs in the 1890s, but Lord Douglas does not appear to be an attractive man. He appears dull and surly, although accounts of the day describe him as beautiful. He looks much more handsome as portrayed by the actors in the two better films of Oscar Wilde’s life: John Fraser to Peter Finch’s Oscar in The Trials Of Oscar Wilde and Jude Law in Wilde, with Stephen Fry (who seems born to play Oscar Wilde).

Jude Law and Stephen Fry in 1997’s Wilde.

Wilde’s whole life, at least until the guilty verdict, was a performance. The young Robert Baden-Powell also learned early on that he could stand out among his many siblings by acting and clowning. He liked performing in amateur theatricals. Photos prove he had a taste for dressing up, both in and out of his military uniform. Aspects of being an army officer would almost certainly require acting credentials, particularly in maintaining the famous British stiff upper lip during the Siege Of Mafeking. There was also Baden-Powell’s performance of a lifetime: hiding his sexuality and living up to his stoic mother’s ideals.

Baden-Powell met the love of his life, Kenneth “Boy” McLaren, early on, and married late: he was 55 and his wife, Olave, only 23. While the extroverted Wilde experienced physical love with another man, it can only be speculated
whether Baden-Powell ever acted upon his love for McLaren. Late in his life, Baden-Powell began censoring his personal papers and effects, a job continued enthusiastically by his widow to ensure that nothing blemished the reputation of the Chief Scout. The most his biographer Tim Jeal could ascertain was that Baden-Powell was a repressed homosexual, although even this fact is disputed due to the lack of documentation. In contrast, Wilde left a treasure-trove for biographers – volumes of letters and other papers about “the love that dare not speak its name” (a phrase actually penned by Lord Douglas in a poem).

Baden-Powell failed his mother in one crucial respect – he was not bright enough to be accepted into Oxford University. Instead, he joined the cavalry regiment, the 13th Hussars, with some engineering from Mrs Baden-Powell. In Victorian times, a career in the British Army was held in high-regard, and the 13th Hussars had played an important role in the Battle Of Waterloo and in the Charge Of The Light Brigade during the Crimean War. In 1881, during his first posting to India, Baden-Powell met Kenneth McLaren, who had acquired the nickname Boy thanks to his youthful appearance. When the 22-year-old McLaren joined the regiment in India, Baden-Powell believed he was just 14.

Kenneth “Boy” Mclaren in 1895.

B-P and McLaren were soon going on picnics where they would shoot pigeons and spread out on rugs in the shade to have “a quiet sleep and read”. They had adjacent tents, and acted together in plays and musicals. On their next posting, the two shared lodgings. Baden-Powell raised the ire of his mother when he proposed that on his next leave, he and McLaren might visit Australia rather than return home to England. When the regiment did, in fact, return to England, Baden-Powell and Boy spent their first weeks together in Scotland. It is difficult to believe that two men so close, particularly with the heightened tensions that define army life, did no more than read while lying together in the shade.

It was in 1889 that Colonel Baden-Powell was sent to Africa in charge of a force that was to divert the Boers from important coastal areas such as Cape Town as well as to demonstrate the power of the British Empire. Officers were assigned to him, but the colonel personally selected McLaren for his staff. B-P set up base in the town of Mafeking (now Mahikeng) on the northern border of the Republic Of South Africa. During the siege, Baden-Powell used his theatrical training along with army know-how to confuse and thwart the enemy, such as setting up fields of fake landmines and having his men walk around trenches to avoid imaginary barbed wire.

His stiff upper lip was made to quiver only once. In action with the Boers, McLaren was badly wounded and taken prisoner. Learning this, Baden-Powell had to be physically restrained from rushing out under a white flag to rescue his Boy. The relief of Mafeking occurred six weeks later, whereupon McLaren was rescued and convalesced back to Britain.

When Baden-Powell returned home a year later, McLaren was the first person he visited. Their friendship only faltered years later after McLaren married a woman who, in Baden-Powell’s class-conscious estimation, was beneath him.

After the prolonged siege in South Africa, Colonel Baden-Powell was feted by society. During his time in the army he had written guides for his men on bushcraft. These were taken up enthusiastically by British boys, so he re-wrote the guides, directing them towards a younger audience. Baden-Powell was also a skilled sketch artist – Scouting For Boys is full of his sketches, and one anecdote reveals he could write with one hand while sketching with the other. Baden-Powell later ran a training camp for boys that ultimately led to the formation of the Boy Scouts Association. In 1910 he left the army to become its Chief Scout.

In his book, Baden-Powell instructs the boys in a series of “campfire yarns”. In the first edition, campfire yarn number 18 is headed: Avoid Self-Abuse, but there is no entry. At the end of the book, under Notes For Instructors
(soon to become known as Scoutmasters), he writes a page on “continence”. At the end of the 19th Century, British concern with masturbation was not just the Biblical injunction against “spilling seed” but was also believed to lead to impotence, a loss of mental powers and a dulling of courage. Baden-Powell wrote that the temptation to self-abuse could arise from “eating rich foods, sleeping on the back in a soft bed with too many blankets, from constipation… or dirty talk of others”. But he never once mentioned the onset of puberty or hormones. (My first orgasm occurred while naked in a sleeping bag with another boy on a Scout camp.)

Portrait of the Chief Scout as an older man: Lord Baden-Powell

By 1930, popular thought on masturbation was changing. In the book Rover Scouting, written for young men too old to stay Boy Scouts but wishing to remain in the movement, the author wrote that masturbation was a natural stage in human development, and did not have “the physical ill-effects which used to be imagined”. Scouting For Boys was also revised many times to eliminate Victorian prejudices and some of Baden-Powell’s stranger instructions. For instance, in the first edition he devotes an entire section to what to do should a boy comes across a suicide, such as a hanging. Instructions include telling the Scout to “cut down the body at once, taking care to support it with one arm while cutting the cord”. He goes on to say the boy needs to overcome being “timid” [squeamish], writing, “He won’t be much use until he gets over such nonsense.”

Now a man of-a-certain-age, respectability through marriage was required of Baden-Powell. The author Malcolm Bradbury once described the English as having “the most rigid code of immorality in the world”. B-P considered suitable female prospects before settling upon 23-year-old Olave St Clair Soames. She was the daughter of Harold Soames (artist, brewery owner and landed gentry) and Katherine (from a line of titled and wealthy Russian merchants). Despite their age difference, she was a very respectable choice.

However, letters sent by the 55-year-old describe “cold feet” and a concern for what his mother would think. Nine months of prevarication were cut short by a curt letter from Olave’s father, possibly containing a threat of litigation for breach of promise. They married in October 1912. Shortly after his wedding day, Baden-Powell began, mysteriously, suffering severe headaches. He shared the matrimonial bed enough to do his duty and sire three children, but for the most part he slept on a single bed on the balcony of their home, where, miraculously his headaches disappeared.

Sir Robert Baden-Powell, OM, GCMG, GCVO, KCB, Lord Baden-Powell, the 1st Baron Of Gilwell spent his final years in Kenya, dying there in 1941. Although he had a tomb reserved for him at Westminster Abbey, his wishes indicated he preferred to be buried in Kenya where his gravesite was dedicated a national monument. Upon her death in 1977, Olave’s ashes were buried there alongside her husband.

Oscar Wilde died broke and without honours, having exciled himself to Paris after prison. It was only in 1995 that a small, stained-glass window was inserted into Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey to commemorate his life. In 1908, Wilde’s lifelong friend and literary executor Robert Ross commissioned sculptor Jacob Epstein to create a monument in Paris, funded entirely by an anonymous donation. An extract from Wilde’s poem The Ballad Of Reading Gaol is inscribed on the side of his tomb. The epitaph reads:

And alien tears will fill for him Pity’s long-broken urn, For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.

It wasn’t until July this year (2015) that the Boys Scouts Of America lifted its ban on openly gay scoutmasters participating in the organisation. In doing so, Boys Scouts President and former US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates said, “We must deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.” We can only wonder at what B–P and Boy McLaren might have made of that statement.

Wilde, apart from his place in the pantheon of great writers and dramatists, has been described as the world’s first true celebrity. His trial was what today would be called a tabloid sensation. It’s a pity Wilde didn’t have a Twitter account. His story, though, brought the subject of homosexuality into the light and began the movement towards equal civil rights in the UK, even if very slowly.


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