In the first part of this essay, I told how Ernest Dowson met Adelaide Foltinowicz, aged eleven years and a half, whom he nicknamed “Missie” or “Missy”, then he started spending his evenings at her father’s restaurant where she worked as a waitress, and gradually fell in love with her.
In some way, Dowson viewed himself as Dante, the chaste lover of Beatrix, who admired her in church: “I have just returned now from Notre Dame de France […] I could not espy my ‘Beata Beatrix’ amongst the veiled Enfants de Marie: but I presume she was there” (to Arthur Moore, 3 May 1891, Letters, no. 145, page 195).
Now she was growing into adolescence: “We celebrated the Natalia of “Missy”, last week; the thirteenth,” (to Arthur Moore, 22 April 1891, Letters, no. 143, page 193). He could thus no more consider his love for her as an innocent friendship with a child, and was afraid that it could end. He shared his anxiety with Victor Plarr on 5 March 1891 (Letters, no. 137, page 187):
Die Kleine instead of changing, altering, repelling, as I hoped/feared might happen, in the nature of things, seems to grow in grace & favour daily. What a terrible, lamentable thing growth is! It “makes me mad” to think that in a year or two at most the most perfect exquisite relation I have ever succeeded in making must naturally end. Yes it makes me mad! One ought to be able to cease caring for anyone exactly when one wished; it’s too difficult: or one ought to be able to live entirely in the present. Something is distinctly rotten in the State of Denmark.
His expectation that love would disappear as soon as Adelaide grew into her teens had been expressed in his poem Ad Domnulam Suam written in October 1890; indeed, he had never been in love with an adult woman. But to his own surprise his feelings for her deepened instead of waning, as one can read in Growth, a poem written in April 1893. His love for her became obsessive and quasi-mystical; for instance in February 1892 he wrote to Victor Plarr (Letters, no. 175, page 223):
that curious indefinable charm which I recognized yesterday; and which makes the blood dance in my veins whenever She speaks or smiles or moves.
It seems to me that at last, by an affection of this kind one does really, in a life of shadows and dreams and nothings, set one’s foot upon the absolute.
Then in April-May 1892 (Letters, no. 184, pages 230–231):
Does not a great, personal passion become a whole metaphysics? At least an abstract, metaphysical notion, or a sacrament, or a mystery, or a miracle, in certain lights, becomes more credible than any material thing or appearance, one’s mere going or doing, or talk or juxtaposition or the death one will die. […] I write as an illuminato: I seem to have seen mysteries, & if I fail to be explicit, it is because my eyes are dazzled.
Confidence crisis and marriage proposal
Desmond Flower and Henry Maas write in the Introduction to Part II of Letters (page 127):
Adelaide at thirteen was still more child than woman, and it must have been some time before she understood the strength of Dowson’s feeling for her. She was wayward and could tease him into paroxysms of jealousy, but nothing seemed to shake his devotion. Being in love with a girl of such an age caused numerous difficulties. The chief of these was the fear of being misunderstood, and in 1891 there occured an incident which threw Dowson into a prolonged depression. During August 1891 the papers were filled with reports of a case of abduction. A sixteen-year-old girl named Lucy Pearson had given reporters a gruesome account of the treatment she had received at the hands of her captor, a man named Newton. Dowson first read of the affair at the beginning of September and was filled with horror; immediately he felt that the innocence of his relations with Adelaide had been shattered […] and he imagined that her family and his own friends looked askance at him, questioning his motives. This was all the more bitter since his behaviour towards her had always been scrupulous and the thought of acting otherwise would never have entered his head.
Dowson wrote to Arthur Moore:
I have had a moral shock since yesterday, which has racked me ever since with an infinite horror that I may be misunderstood in the only thing that I really care about, by the only people to whom it matters. As ill luck would have it I came across the Star yesterday and read a most disgusting story of a disgusting person, which I suppose is a notorious scandal that one has escaped by being in Brittany. The worst of it was, that it read like a sort of foul and abominable travesty of—pah, what is the good of hunting for phrases. You must know what I mean, and how I am writhing. I imagine all the comments & analogies which one’s kind friends will draw, and unfortunately I can’t help feeling that even her people—and mine, as far as that goes—might take alarm & suspect my motives. And yet I swear there never was a man more fanatically opposed to the corruption of innocence—even where women are concerned—than I am. Unfortunately the excellence of my conscience doesn’t make any difference. This beastly thing has left a sort of slimy trail over my holy places (3 September 1891 Letters, no. 162, page 213).
This thing is killing me. Since I came back, nothing has been the same: I’ve tried to persuade to myself that I’m wrong, but I give it up. Her people are as kind & cordial as ever, there are no obvious differences made: only I can feel there is a difference and that it will become more apparent daily (22 September, Letters, no. 168, pages 217–218).
Although as a “decadent” he was no admirer of marriage, Dowson concluded that it would soon be necessary to openly ask Adelaide’s hand, and explaining his resolution to Moore in January 1892 (Letters, no. 173, page 221), he set himself as deadline her 14th birthday (13 April):
The issue of it all is, since I have not any longer a shadow of doubt that my condition is transparently obvious to everybody concerned, and that the Damozel perfectly understands the situation, and since it is merely an English tradition which assumes Heaven knows why? that a girl is not Amabilis when she is at her most amiable age—why should I delay in putting a rather untenable situation easily right? […] En voilà pour toujours. Therefore mon bien cher ami and esteemed collaborator, I have decided that when “Masquerade” is finished which should happen on or before the 13th. April next which is also a Birthday—I will put an end to this absurd pretence of further consideration which deceives nobody and plainly declare myself. […] I do not believe in marriage in the abstract in the least. Only it is the price, perhaps a heavy one, which one is ordered to pay if one has an immense desire for a particular feminine society. In the present case I would pay it ten times over, sooner than risk the possibility of some time or other regretting that I had let go irrevocably something which promised a good deal, which I never had, & which is perhaps after all the best thing obtainable in this stupid world—simply out of lâcheté!
The same month he wrote to Victor Plarr (Letters, no. 174, page 222): “Hélàs, mon vieux, I am ready to make all the sentimental surrenders—even the last and most of all, when She is come to years of discretion.” Being passionately in love and having to wait before declaring himself made him very nervous: “And for das Mädchen—she has never been more intimately charming: I become almost sanguine, although of course there are all the other difficulties still to be surmounted” (13 February 1892, Letters, no. 177, page 224).
Moreover, the situation was complicated by the declining health of Joseph Foltinowicz, Adelaide’s father, as Dowson wrote to Plarr on 23 February (Letters, no. 242, page 275):
You ask of Her? She has been, I am glad to say, extraordinarily sweet for the last four weeks; so that in spite of my indicible pessimism I begin at last to think that there is, really, beneath her double perversity of enfant gâtée and jeune fille coquette a solid foundation of affection. She is growing into a charming girl. […] I should like very much to reveal myself there entirely, especially insomuch as Monsieur’s days are very obviously numbered, and before the changes and revolutions which this fact makes one anticipate, I should like to be firmly established.
When the deadline of Adelaide’s 14th birthday arrived, Dowson wanted to present his marriage proposal to her mother, but he could not. As he wrote to Samuel Smith in April or May 1892 (Letters, no. 183, page 229): “I go to have tête-à-tête teas with Madame! We talk intimately, we talk of Her—natürlich […] I was just coming out with a protestation, to the effect that my one object and desire in life was to be of service to her admirable daughter—when we were interrupted.” Then in early May (Letters, no. 185, page 231): “I can’t somehow screw myself up to making a declaration of myself to Madame, although I am convinced it is the most reasonable course. Any day however with favourable omens it may arrive.”
Beginning of 1893, the family business from which Ernest Dowson earned his living, a dry dock on the Thames river, was becoming ever more obsolete and did not bring enough money. And as Desmond Flower and Henry Maas write in the Introduction to Part III of Letters (page 259):
Another consideration, however, was probably decisive. For the last year he had been firmly resolved eventually to marry Adelaide Foltinowicz and the time was approaching when he would have to be in a position to support her and offer her a home if he were to expect his proposal to be accepted. So in February he put in for the office of librarian and secretary at Newington in south-east London.
His application was rejected. As say Flower and Maas, “Had he succeeded, his life might have taken a different turn.” Indeed, Dowson
could have eaned his living satisfactorily in a library. If he had done so and been accepted by Adelaide, he would have continued to enjoy the conditions of life under which all his best work was done—free from financial worry and the need to accept the hack-work which was to absorb most of his energies in the latter part of his life (page 259).
In March 1893 Joseph Foltinowicz’s health began to fail, and in the weeks which ensued until his death on 24 April the strain was almost unbearable. […] Dowson’s resolution to bide his time with Adelaide broke down; he declared himself openly at the worst possible moment—when her father’s life was despaired of—and achieved nothing. Adelaide, who was barely fifteen, temporized; and after her father’s burial things reverted to their previous state of indecision (pages 260–261).
I quote Dowson himself (to Victor Plarr, April 1893, Letters, no. 246, page 277):
Foltinowicz is given up by the doctors, and sinks from day to day. You can imagine that in the rather strenuous atmosphere that prevails there I have been carried off my feet. I am afraid you will accuse me of great folly, but yesterday, last night, I declared myself. Do you blame me very much? I should like to know. I thought I had the resolution enough to say nothing to her, until she was at least on her way to being seventeen. But we happened to be alone together, and we spoke of grave things and my resolution collapsed. She behaved with very much more discretion than I showed; she seemed to think that I ought to have waited till she was older, but she admitted that she was not surprised, and she was not angry. And then as we say in Parliament ‘the matter dropped’. Have I ruined the whole thing, do you think? Advise me, prithee. I assure you that I had the most admirable intentions, the most exalted—and the result is that I feel as if I had made a hopeless, not very creditable fool of myself. What will be her attitude do you suppose? The understanding is that we should not allude to the thing any more for the present, but go on as before: do you think that is very possible?
A more detailed account of the event is given in a letter to Samuel Smith, written late April 1893, after Joseph Foltinowicz’s death (Letters, no. 247). In it one can sense Dowson’s exalted state of mind, for instance when he says (page 279): “the important thing is that one should have, just once, experienced this mystery, an absolute absorption in one particular person. It reconciles all inconsistencies in the order of things, and above all it seems once and for all to reduce to utter absurdity any material explanation of itself or of the world.” He ends with (page 280): “This letter is like Tristan and Isolde, it has nothing but love and death in it.”
In the summer of 1893, Dowson applied again for a position of secretary. As Desmond Flower and Henry Maas write in the Introduction to Part III of Letters (page 260): “This came to nothing, and in his endeavour to establish his independence by one means or another, he undertook in this same year the first of the numerous translations at which he was to work assiduously until his death.”
Both Ernest and his father Alfred suffered from tuberculosis, and his father’s health was deteriorating; Ernest himself had his first attack in August 1893. Alfred died on 15 August 1894, possibly of a drug overdose. As say Flower and Maas (page 262), “There was widespread belief among Ernest’s friends, and possibly his relatives as well, that his father had committed suicide.” Then on 4 February 1895, his mother Annie committed suicide. “All the photographs of her show a tragically sad face and there is evidence that she had always suffered from some degree of mental instability; it must have been the loss of her husband and the accumulation of financial worries that caused her in a fit of depression to hang herself.”
Ernest, who had for years lived at the family dry dock, finaly left it. According to Flower and Maas (page 265), “Something went badly wrong in ‘Poland’, and it seems likely that Adelaide declared firmly that she would not marry him. But if there was a quarrel, it was mended. Nevertheless London had become intolerable and at the first opportunity he left.”
In October 1895 he made a tour through Belgium with Conal O’Riordan. Then he settled in Paris. But as this town was too expensive, in February 1896 he went to Pont-Aven, in Brittany, and stayed there for six months. While in France, he still exchanged letters with Adelaide. “Missie writes to me fairly often, friendly letters, which give me sleeepless nights and cause me to shed morbid and puerile tears” (to Victor Plarr, May 1896, Letters, no. 335, page 362). “I have broken my heart over her, but she remains, none the less, my sole interest in life” (to Arthur Moore, June 1896, Letters, no. 343, page 369). Adelaide wrote him once that her deceased father’s restaurant had been disposed of, then later that it was resuming and finally that it was to be sold. It is in Pont-Aven that he wrote the preface of Verses dedicated to Adelaide (see the beginning of Part I).
The legal proceedings over the inheritance from his parents, involving a dispute with his relatives, dragged on for years, so he could not get the money from it. He had thus to live in a small way from royalties of his published works or from the fees paid by Smithers for his translation work, but the latter was often short of money. As Flower and Maas write in the Introduction to Part V of Letters (page 378):
The family sollicitors were careful administrators and needed considerable persuasion before they could be brought to pay Dowson the smallest sum on account of an eventual sale; indeed, the firm was not finally wound up until 1902. As a result Dowson spent the last five years of his life in repeatedly disappointed expectation, in varying circumstances, depending on his income from writing, and died penniless, yet after his death was found to be the owner of an estate valued at over £1,000.
At the end of 1896, Dowson returned to England. As Flower and Maas write (page 376), early in 1897 Dowson “took room above the Foltinowicz restaurant in Sherwood Street. Nothing could have been worse for his peace of mind. Adelaide was there but out of his reach, for she was now unofficially engaged to Augustus Noelte, the son of a tailor who had at one time acted as waiter in the restaurant but had now reverted to his father’s trade at the same address.” As Dowson wrote to Samuel Smith in April 1897 (Letters, no. 351, page 382):
I know that you must think me a fool, but I am suffering the torture of the damned. I ought to have drowned myself at Pont Aven, or having come back to London I ought to have had the strength of mind to have kept away. Now, if I change my rooms or go to the Arctic Pole it is only an increasing intolerable Hell, and except yourself, and slightly, Morse [Moore], there is not a person I come across who realizes that I am being scorched daily, or does not put down my behaviour to sheer ill humour.
Flower and Maas add (page 376): “The decline in his health, reluctance to inflict himself in his dilapidated state on people who would find it offensive, and the need to keep his energy for the translation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses combined to make him a semi-recluse.” At that time he deepened his friendship with Oscar Wilde. Indeed, the latter was released from prison in spring 1897, and Dowson was one of the few who had remained faithful to Wilde after he was tried and convicted for his homosexual relation with Lord Alfred Douglas. As say Flower and Maas (page 377):
It took some courage for anyone to be seen with Wilde in 1897; most of the friends who had been proud to know the eminent author in his successful days now coldly ignored his existence. Dowson was one of the few who did not abandon him, and his action in seeking out the ostracized poet is evidence of that generosity and charm to which all his friends have borne witness. Wilde’s friendship was the best possible thing for Dowson.
At the end of September 1897, while Dowson was in Ireland visiting a friend, Adelaide and Augustus Noelte were married in the Bavarian Chapel of Westminster. Flower and Maas write (page 378): “Moore attended the wedding on Dowson’s behalf and also took his present. That Dowson’s days were now numbered was in one sense fortunate, since it is difficult to imagine the distress he would have felt at Adelaide’s death, from septicemia following an abortion, which occurred three years after his own.”
Dowson spent the last two years of his life working at several translations for Smithers and at publishing volumes of his own works. “With this record of industry before them, his friends in London may perhaps be forgiven for not realizing the seriousness of his situation. His health was rapidly declining and he had not the money, or perhaps the inclination, to buy those comforts which might have at least prolonged his life” (page 380).
Sick, desperate, poor and wretched, Dowson remained friendly and generous in his heart, as shown in the testimony of Guy Thorne (Ranger Gull) in TP’s Weekly, July 1913, quoted by Flower and Maas (pages 379–380):
He seemed a lost creature, a youthful ghost strayed amongst the haunts of men, an object of pity. Pale, emaciated, in clothes that were almost ragged, poor Ernest flittered from bar to bar in search of someone with whom to talk. When he found a friend, his face would light up with a singular and penetrating sweetness that made one forget his untidiness—to use no other word—which verged on offence. He was never penniless, was always the first to pay for others, and when the drink was served he would sometimes furtively take a little golden cross from his waistcoat pocket and dip it in the glass before he drank. Someone who did not know the circumstances said, “Ernest, were you ever in love?” The poet answered in the words of Voltaire. “Vous me demandez si j’ai aimé: oui! c’est une histoire singulière et terrible.” While I live I shall never forget the wan smile, the haunted look in the poor fellow’s eyes.
Dowson’s last volume of poetry, Decorations: in Verse and Prose, was published by Leonard Smithers in December 1899. The final text in it is a poem in prose entitled The Princess of Dreams, a short allegory full of bitterness and disappointment. In it the hero attempts to free the princess he saw in a dream, but he fails, and at the end he becomes doubtful about her:
But there are some who say that she had no wish to be freed, and that those flowers de luce, her eyes, are a stagnant, dark pool, that her glorious golden hair was only long enough to reach her postern gate.
Some say, moreover, that her tower is not of ivory and that she is not even virtuous nor a princess.
Ernest Dowson died on 23 February 1900, in the care of his friend Robert Sherard. He was buried in Ladywell Cemetary. Adelaide Foltinowicz had two daughters, Amelia Adelaide Winifred, born on 5 August 1900, and Catherine, born on 15 December 1902. In the summer of 1903, she had an abortion, which led to complications and septicaemia, and she died on 13 December at 19 Sherwood Street, the place where her father had held his restaurant.
- Ernest Dowson: Verses and Decorations: in Verse and Prose, in Ernest Dowson Collected Poems, Robert Kelsey Rought Thornton and Caroline Dowson (editors), Birmingham University Press, 2003; also in The Poems and Prose of Ernest Dowson, With a Memoir by Arthur Symons, Project Gutenberg Ebook.
- The Letters of Ernest Dowson, Desmond Flower and Henry Maas (editors), Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1967.
- Ernest Dowson and the ages of woman, 5 April 2015.
- Adelaide, the love in the life and poetry of Ernest Dowson, Part I, 12 June 2015.