Husband Lord Alfred Douglas

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12 John St, London WC1N 2EB, Regno Unito
Weston Hall, Weston Longville, Norwich NR9 5JG, Regno Unito

Olive Eleanor Custance[1] (7 February 1874 – 12 February 1944) was a British poet and wife of Lord Alfred Douglas. She was part of the aesthetic movement of the 1890s, and a contributor to ''The Yellow Book''.

She was born at 12 John Street, Berkeley Square, Mayfair, in London, the eldest daughter and heiress of Colonel Frederick Hambleton Custance, who was a wealthy and distinguished soldier in the British army. Custance spent the much of her childhood at Weston Old Hall in Norfolk, the family seat.

Custance joined the London literary circle around such figures as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson and John Gray in about 1890 when she was only 16. At this time she became infatuated with the poet John Gray and wrote some of her first poetry about him. Heavily influenced by French poets such as Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud and by the decadent mood of that period, she quickly rose to prominence as a poet. In 1901 she became involved in a relationship with the overtly lesbian writer Natalie Clifford Barney in Paris, which Barney later included in her memoirs. Barney, and a friend of hers, Renée Vivien, were keen to win Custance as a partner, and indeed Custance remained on close terms with Barney for years. Custance and Barney exchanged love poems, including Custance's poems 'The White Witch'. [2] Vivien's roman à clef ''A Woman Appeared to Me'' (1904) also recounts her brief relationship with Custance.

In the spring of 1901, Olive Custance had travelled to Paris with her mother and the neighbour Freddie Manners-Sutton, the 21 years old son and heir of the Viscount of Canterbury. There he tried to court Custance's friend Natalie Clifford Barney, but she did not return his affections. He would remain a life-long bachelor. After Manners-Sutton went home, Custance had a brief fling with Barney, who shared her desire to transcend the rigid gender roles of society. Although she experimented with lesbian eroticism, Custance's real attraction was not to women but to men with feminine qualities. Before she met Lord Alfred Douglas, she had for years been infatuated with the poet John Gray.

During her brief affair with Barney, Custance also instigated a courtship with Lord Alfred Douglas by writing to him admiringly in June 1901, six months after the death of Oscar Wilde.[3] The two corresponded under the nicknames of the 'Prince' (for Douglas) and 'Princess' or 'Page' for Custance.[4]

However, in late 1901, in an odd turn of events, Custance became engaged to George Montagu, who had been at school with Douglas. It was a short engagement because when Douglas returned from a trip to the USA (where, as he had written to her teasingly, he was looking for a rich heiress to marry) the two of them ran away and married each other on 4 March 1902. Custance's father did not approve of Douglas. They had one child, Raymond Wilfred Sholto Douglas, born on 17 November 1902. The marriage was stormy after Douglas became a Roman Catholic in 1911. They began to live apart in 1913, after the couple lost a custody battle for their only child to Custance's father.

In 1913 Douglas was charged with libelling his father-in-law who had always disapproved of him and seems to have been a major reason for strain on their marriage. The couple again lived together for a time in the 1920s after Olive also converted to Catholicism in 1917.[5]

Their only child, Raymond, showed signs of instability in his youth. For a time he served in the army, but was confined to mental institutions for long periods. This placed further strain on the marriage, so that by the end of the 1920s they had separated again and Custance had given up her Catholicism. However, they did not divorce, and in 1932, she followed Douglas to Hove, taking a house near his.[6] In the final 12 years of her life, they saw each other almost every day. In 1931 Douglas had already written that their marriage held firm despite "the welter of mud and stones" hurled at it by their enemies.[7]

Custance continued to write and publish poems in local newspapers and journals, often of a patriotic nature (during World War II) but these have not been collected. She died on 12 February 1944 holding Lord Alfred Douglas' hand; Douglas himself died the next year, on 20 March 1945. Their son Raymond survived to the age of 61; after several lengthy episodes of mental instability throughout his lifetime, he died unmarried on 10 October 1965.

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