Luca Fumagalli

Four volumes of poetry and a famous husband were not enough to guarantee Olive Custance the recognition she deserved. Still today. Even today her name remains confined in the footnotes of English “fin de siècle” literature, only arousing the interest of collectors of late Victorian volumes. Even the more substantial writings about her can be counted on the fingers of one hand: in addition to the short monograph Olive Custance: Her Life and Work (1975) by Father Brocard Sewell – also editor of an anthology entitled The Selected Poems of Olive Custance (1995) – the most important are the preface to the 2015 reissue of The Inn of Dreams, by Edwin James King, and the biographical article by Jad Adams entitled Olive Custance: A Poet Crossing Boundaries (2018).

Yet Custance, who lived in the shadow of Lord Alfred Douglas, was one of the best poetesses of her time, comparable in talent to Dollie Radford and Alice Meynell. She was one of the authors linked to John Lane’s The Bodley Head publishing house and she wrote contributions for such popular magazines as “The Yellow Book” and “The Savoy”. Aubrey Beardsley paid homage to her with an Ex libris designed by him, and writer Natalie Barney, a friend of hers, amply praised the evocative beauty of her poetry.

Born on 7 February 1874 and daughter of an army colonel, Olive Custance began writing her first verses when she was still young, soon earning the admiration of the cultural circles of the capital. To the countryside around Norwich, where her family lived, she much preferred the bustle of London, full of new artistic ferments that came from the continent like a breath of fresh air. Her volumes of poems – Opals (1897), Rainbows (1902), The Blue Bird (1905) and The Inn of Dreams (1911) – are a journey into the inexhaustible mystery of the human being described according to the canons of Symbolism. Nor are religious compositions lacking, the number of which gradually increased over the years, especially after her conversion to the Church of Rome.

Before meeting her future husband, Olive Custance’s love was all for John Gray, a young and attractive poet, friend of Oscar Wilde, whom a consolidated tradition indicates as the model of the almost homonymous protagonist of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The boy, twenty-five at the time, later abandoned the vice-ridden bohemian undergrowth to become a Catholic priest, and maintained a long correspondence with Olive, full of affection and very useful literary advice.

In June 1901, when “Wild Olive” – as Custance was wont to sign herself – met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas for the first time, it was love at first sight for both of them. Douglas, born in 1870, and himself a worthy poet, had just escaped the stormy relationship that had led Oscar Wilde to his grave and was eager to rebuild his life. The money inherited from his father, however, had been squandered almost immediately and with it the hopes of being able to start afresh had evaporated.

In the autumn, while Douglas was in America to find a rich heiress to marry, Olive, aware that the marriage with the sweet Bosie would be impossible, officially became engaged to George Montagu, a member of parliament, destined to inherit a noble title and an immense fortune. When Alfred Douglas returned to England alone, he strove to regain the woman he loved. The latter, after an initial resistance, broke off her engagement with Montagu and the two were able to get married in March 1902, albeit without the consent of the Custance family.

Their married life was an alternation of dramatic ups and downs. If Bosie was able to make peace with his in-laws, the stress that came from his involvement in numerous processes related to Wilde’s literary legacy contributed to the spread of tension in his home. Deceiving himself that he could find some respite, he allowed himself to pursue other women, such as Doris Edwards and the painter Romaine Brooks, while Olive dealt alone with the schizophrenia of their only son, Raymond, who would spend most of his short life in a psychiatric hospital.

The real annus horribilis for the couple was 1911: Lord Alfred Douglas’s conversion to Catholicism – the natural culmination of the conservative positions he had developed since, in 1907, he became director of “The Academy” – dug a very deep furrow between him and the proudly Protestant Custances. The relationship with Olive, who did not convert until 1917, was definitively wrecked; there was no divorce, but from 1913 the two began to lead separate lives. Thus they lost custody of their son, who passed to Colonel Custance.

Their love, stormy but sincere, was rekindled only in 1932, when Olive decided to move to Hove, near Brighton, occupying a house close to her husband’s. From that moment until her death on 12 February 1944, the two began to see each other again almost every day.

In the Thirties, having found serenity, “Wild Olive” had started writing again. New poems appeared in various newspapers, putting an end to the long silence that had lasted since 1911. It was a “second spring” which, although stylistically not reaching the levels of the first works, confirmed the direction that her poetic idiom had taken some time ago. A Rimbaud’s “inquiétude de Dieu” recalled, in the constant dialogue between the sacred and the profane, the luminous moments of her youth.

Catholicism, which Olive had ceased to practise only a few months after her conversion, came back and knocked on her soul’s door during the last days of her life. In her bed, with tears in her eyes, she regretted putting herself and literature before religion. Like the opal that she venerated so much – “Opal” was in fact another of her nicknames – she had led a multicolored existence, full of contradictions and sins. Hope, however, never failed. Perhaps, before dying, she thought for one last time of “Beauty”, that poem she had written in a moment of rare happiness, a heartfelt prayer to Our Lady: Heaven could truly seduce more than flesh.