5 of the Most Scandalous Affairs in Literary History


Here’s Mallory Ortberg at The Toast with news of one of the most wonderful literary meetings in history:

History has reached out to you specifically and given you a gift. The gift is the knowledge that Oscar Wilde once put his hand on Walt Whitman’s knee and then they drank elderberry wine together; the gift is that the next day a reporter turned up and Whitman expounded at length on his big, splendid boy.

If it’s true that the two 19th-century literary icons did more than just brush each other’s knees in passing, then this is indeed quite an exciting revelation. It’s just as awesome as it is awkward to picture the dandy author of The Picture of Dorian Gray stroking the very long beard of America’s great bard; their encounter undoubtedly ranks as one of the better flings in literary history. But here are five more that ought to make your jaw drop even farther.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

It’s difficult to picture Wilde moving on from the handsome, young Douglas to the then-73-year-old Walt Whitman, but apparently Oscar didn’t discriminate.

The affair between Wilde and Douglas began in 1892, when Wilde was married with two sons, with many stops and starts due to a series of lover spats, including one in which Wilde was too critical of Douglas’ translation of his work. The romance slowly came to an end as Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, started to realize there was more than just friendship between his son and Wilde. In attempt to stop the affair, the Marquess publicly attacked Wilde, first by leaving a visiting card at Wilde’s club, the Albemarle, that read: “For Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite” (yes, he misspelled “sodomite”). Wilde then turned around and had Queensberry arrested and charged with criminal libel. The only way for Queensberry to win his innocence was to prove that Wilde was, in fact, a sodomite, and things only got messier from there…

Charles Dickens and Ellen “Nelly” Ternan

The 45-year-old author of Great Expectations and Victorian-era celebrity’s affair with the 18-year-old actress ended Dickens’ marriage to his wife of 22 years when Catherine Dickens opened up a package delivered to their home by a jeweler, thinking it was something for her, when actually it was a gold bracelet meant for Ternan with a note written by her husband. In order to maintain his fame and good reputation, Dickens kept the affair going in secret until his death in 1870.

Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine

A well-known tale so melodramatic it bears repeating: The young poet Rimbaud writes to the older, established Verlaine, who is married to a pregnant 17-year-old. They meet, Verlaine describes Rimbaud as having “the real head of a child, chubby and fresh, on a big, bony, rather clumsy body of a still-growing adolescent.” The two start drinking a lot of absinthe, smoking a bunch of hashish, and boning. Things don’t take long to deteriorate, and eventually, during a fight, Verlaine fires two shots at his lover, hitting Rimbaud in the wrist. Verlaine was eventually charged with wounding with a firearm and sentenced to two years in prison. Rimbaud would go on to write A Season in Hell, including many references to his former lover and their wild affair.

Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont and Lord Byron

We know that when the Shelleys and Mary’s half-sister Claire visited the wild Lord Byron in Lake Geneva in 1816, Mary began working on what would become Frankenstein; but the rumors that the quartet also had some swinging orgies during the visit are still repeated to this day.

Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren

Forget Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, because The Second Sex author and the Chicago writer hooked up like no other chronicler of American lowlifes and Parisian writer/philosopher before or after. The whole thing wouldn’t be so scandalous, except for the fact that Beauvoir had a longstanding (albeit open) relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, but obviously also harbored strong feelings for her lover in America, as as evidenced by the last line of her breakup letter to Algren: “Well, all words seem silly. You seem so near, so near, let me come near to you, too. And let me, as in the past times, let me be in my own heart forever.”