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The Mad Bad Line: The Family of Lord Alfred Douglas

‘You had yourself often told me,’ Oscar Wilde wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas, ‘how many of your race there had been who had stained their hands in their own blood; your uncle certainly, your grandfather possibly; many others in the mad, bad line from which you come.’ Wilde’s tragic involvement with Lord Alfred Douglas’s family led him to believe anything he was told about the ‘mad, bad line.’ The truth was even stranger than he imagined.

That Lord Alfred’s grandfather, the 7th Marquess of Queensberry, committed suicide is more than a possibility. His eldest son, the 8th Marquess, was that noted eccentric famous for giving his name to the rules of boxing and for his persecution of Oscar Wilde. He had other claims to notoriety. His agnosticism resulted in his expulsion from the House of Lords; he quarrelled violently with all his sons, the eldest of whom was found dead in suspicious circumstances.

His part in the Wilde affair is well-known, but this book throws new light on the trials. It reveals, among other things, that when Lord Queensberry supposedly forced Wilde to prosecute him — by leaving a libellous visiting card — Wilde had already instructed his solicitors to take legal action. It also explores Lord Rosebery’s role in the cause célèbre. There is, in addition, the curious story of the arrest in America, while the Wilde trials were proceeding, of Lord Queensberry’s youngest son.

Nor was the 8th Marquess the only eccentric in the Douglas family. His mother shocked London society by supporting the Fenians; one of his brothers was killed in the first ascent of the Matterhorn; another brother cut his throat in a London hotel. The Marquess’s eldest sister created a scandal by marrying a baker’s boy, twenty years her junior, and his youngest sister, Lady Florence Dixie — author, explorer, ardent feminist and champion of the Zulus — was, in her day, almost as controversial as Marquess himself.

Based on much original research, Brian Roberts’ immensely readable book examines this extraordinary family more fully than ever before, previous studies of the Queensberrys having been mainly concerned with the various Marquesses’ sporting activities.

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