Early in 1900, just before he himself died, Oscar Wilde remarked upon hearing of Ernest Dowson's death; "Much of what he has written will remain," and, "I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb, and rue, and myrtle too, for he knew what love is." These are as much an accurate summation of Dowson's little known fiction as of his better known poetry. That known as 'Cynara,' his most oft-quoted example, where...
"All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! In my fashion."
There is little rose-tinted romance in Dowson's view of love. This is its quiet power. He wrote from the heart; from its effect upon him at the time; from personal experiences he so often came out of the poorer. This reader couldn't help but feel this was due to his once being a hopeless romantic in the first place. Through his twenties, he had transient relationships with teenage showgirls, prostitutes and bar-girls from those venues where he was regular receipient of tots of absinthe and Spanish wine. (Hence the "bought red mouth" in 'Cynara').One such – from a Polish, family-run cheap restaurant near his fathers' London docks where he reluctantly worked – was the proprietors' very young daughter, Adelaide Foltinowicz, whose pragmatism may only have stoked Dowson's lustrous fire. (They remained an unlikely couple for over a decade until Adelaide married someone else).
To glean a thumbnail sketch of Dowson from Jad Adams' 2000 biography: he was boyishly slight of build, narrow-shouldered, shy, introspective, pale, (from tuberculosis), flannel-wearing, chain-smoking, with an unsmiling 'soft' mouth beneath a mousy moustache, from losing his teeth at an early age and rarely bothering with his set of replacements. Yet, while a depressive, who also drank to smother what he could, he was no miserablist, sudden bursts of energy and a determination to change his immediate situation also taking hold, allied to a serious appreciation of a droll wit. Often homeless, he was as generous to the poor as one on his modest income from writing could be. More problematical – especially today – was his unsatisfactory love-life idealised, like so many men of the time, through at least two affairs with early teenage girls.
Superficially, Dowson sounds like one of those self-destructive rock stars of more recent times; physically fragile, incapable of looking after themselves, getting into fights, monosyllabic from intoxication, being dependent on drink and occasional coke, overspending on each ensuring constant destitution. Yet, also like them, uniquely brilliant at their equally public talent. It may be difficult to feel even a smidgen of sympathy for a man with such tastes; but Dowson's authenticity managed to elicit a certain beauty from his self-destructive habits.
Singularly more mature than his ability to look after himself is his own fictionalised view on relationships, played out in these nine short tales – the summation of what he produced of the form. These originally published in the inevitable Yellow Book and other 'decadent' journals of the Nineties. Eight of the nine tales are thematically connected in one way or another; missed opportunities for love where circumstance rather than personal blame – i.e. the restrictions and expectations of Victorian society – conspire to deprive each party. Five of them originally collected under the well chosen banner, 'Dilemmas.' (1895). The young woman in each – the protagonists' object of desire - may be idolised, but never patronised. Biographer Jad Adams gave a class A example:
"Dowson merged religious devotion with earthly love, particularly in his prose. In 'Diary of a Successful Man,' the object of the men's devotion joins a closed order, as the beloved girl does in 'Apple Blossom in Brittany.' This story...is set in the fictional Breton village of Ploumariel where Dowson also set 'A Case of Conscience' and to which he frequently referred when saying he wanted to be back in Brittany. In the story, Benedict Campion, an English Catholic of around 40, is visiting his ward, a girl of 16. Marie-Ursule is an orphan, being educated at a convent under the supervision of the local Cure who, recognising Campion's love for the girl, urges that he marry her. Campion delays, returns to London, and when he next sees Marie-Ursule she is turning to him for advice on whether or not she should enter the Ursuline convent. He feels he cannot deflect her from this higher path... so he acquiesces, and she never knows of his love for her, thus combining religious vocation with the sacrifice of love for a higher purpose." (Adams, p.54).
I have little doubt that mass appreciation of Dowson as a novelist could have rivalled that of DH Lawrence had he lived to produce them unaided. (He had co-written two, early in his short career and flawed through compromise, with former Oxford chum Arthur Moore). Still, there is a sensitivity, subtlety and emotional authenticity in the short tales that can be seen as a blueprint for more extended prose. Whereas, in much of the poetry, Dowson's depiction of himself in love is as a wraith, or spectre, the ghost of himself with whom a lover may conjoin were he so fortunate. (See 'Saint Germain-En-Laye,' 'A Requiem' and 'In a Breton Cemetery'). That he never lived to mine from these nine – dying from long-term TB at 32 - has undoubtedly held back his reputation.