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Wilde at Heart

By Oscar Wilde

Whenever a quizmaster asks you to identify the author of a pithy and witty quotation, if you don’t know the answer with certainty, then it’s a fairly safe bet that an educated guess, or indeed a stab in the dark, of either George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde will prove the correct response. But Wilde was so much more than just an endless simple source of harmless humorous diversion. He may have played court jester to the English, a fate Joyce chose to spare himself by living in Trieste, Zurich and Paris instead of in London, but he was tried and sentenced by that society, for taking the joke too far, for the ridicule of its sham of manners that lurked beneath the frothy surface of his plays. Like all first class comedians, he was deadly serious, although he would never have admitted to taking anything seriously. ‘Life is too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it,’ as he wrote in his first play, Vera, or The Nihilists. So here is a not terribly serious account of Wilde’s life and work.

 

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He was born on October 16th, 1854 to Jane Francesca Wilde, otherwise known as ‘Speranza’, and William Robert Wilde, who was later knighted. His mother had a sense of being destined for great things, and imparted it to her son. She also communicated to him her nationalism and her determination to embody it in verse. She wrote poems about the coming revolution, about the famine, and about the exodus from Ireland of the famished, which she submitted to Charles Gavan Duffy, editor of the Nation, (which had been founded in 1842), under the pseudonym of ‘Speranza’. His father was an eye and ear surgeon, and while he had his detractors, it is unlikely that anyone in Ireland, or even Britain, knew as much about the eye or the ear. His books Epidemic Ophthalmia (1851) and Aural Surgery (1853) were the earliest textbooks in their fields, and stood up well for years. However there is a story, typical of Dublin, that he operated on Shaw’s father to correct a squint, and the operation was so successful that the squint went straight to the other side of the eye. This may account for latent animosity between the two sons in later years, when Shaw held Wilde’s father responsible for blinding his own father. William Wilde also had a keen interest in Irish archaeology and folklore, and published books on these subjects. He married Jane Elgee on November 14th, 1851.
Wilde attended the same secondary school and university as another great Irish literary master, Samuel Beckett, going to Portora Royal School, near Enniskillen, in February 1864, and entering Trinity College in 1871. His name was inscribed in gilt letters on a scroll in Portora’s hallway commemorating academic prize-winners, but was removed in 1895 after his conviction for what were then sexual offences. Thus, the one name that might have meant something to Beckett on his arrival in the school in 1920 was not to be found. In recent years Wilde’s name has been regilded. Although, unlike Beckett, Wilde continued his academic education at Oxford, going up in 1874, he found scholarly life equally tedious, and left the college in 1878, loaded down with honours and prizes. Admittedly a fellowship at the university would have been handy for an increasingly financially hard pressed Wilde, but none were available in Classics at this time. Instead, he set himself up in London, the city where he was to make and break his name. But it is worth pointing out that, if he had wanted to, he had the abilities and qualifications necessary for an academic career, but that he chose instead to try to have his talent recognised on a broader stage, in a more public forum. This exemplifies Wilde’s position as one of the first writers or artists to collapse the supposed division between ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’. As well as being able to discourse on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon or Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, he could also announce his intention of ‘living up’ to his blue-and-white china, or declare that a doorknob could be as admirable as a painting. When he proclaimed the importance of the necktie, the boutonniere or the chair, he was formulating an important element of the sensibility we now call post-modern, that is, the equivalence of all objects, and was anticipating the democratic spirit of much of today’s aesthetics. With this, as with so much else, he was ahead of his time, and seems more our contemporary than our precursor. Were he alive today, he would probably be making films, or hosting a television programme.
He became friendly with Lily Langtry, the ‘professional beauty’ he encouraged to take up acting, and Sarah Bernhardt, who was already a successful actress. He wrote Vera, or The Nihilists, although the first London opening was cancelled because the anarchist element in the play was held to be inappropriate and unsavoury after the assassinations of Czar Alexander II in March and of President Garfield in September of 1881. But his first volume of poetry, tersely titled Poems, was published.
Wilde’s aestheticism and dandyism was lampooned in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience, in the character of Bunthorne. When the show opened in New York, its producer, who also managed lecture tours, decided that Americans needed a chance to see and hear the leading exponent of aestheticism, the purported model for Bunthorne, because Americans had had little direct information about the type. And so it was that Wilde, a young man with expensive tastes but little money, set off for what promised to be a lucrative tour of the United States.
He arrived in New York on January 2nd, 1882, where, on passing through customs and being asked if he had anything to declare, he replied, or was reputed to have replied (no contemporary account records it), ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius.’ His schedule was gruelling, and he lectured on ‘The Beautiful’ all over the country for most of the year, only finishing in mid-October. Even then, he was not yet ready to go home, and stayed on in New York until December 27th. During this time he met, among many others, Walt Whitman and Henry James. He also earned and spent a great deal of money.
After using the profits from his American venture to finance a few months in Paris, he decided it was time he set about finding a wife. Constance Lloyd, three years younger than Wilde, was interested in music, painting, embroidery, could read Dante in Italian (and did), was logical, mathematical, shy yet fond of talking. On leaving the house where he first met her, he said to his mother, ‘By the by, Mama, I think of marrying that girl.’ Although their courtship was interrupted by Wilde’s absence for the opening of Vera in America, and on more lecture tours, they were married on May 29th, 1884, and honeymooned in Paris. They had two sons in quick succession: Cyril born on June 5th, 1885; and Vyvyan on November 5th, 1886.
In 1886 lecturing gave way to journalism as a means of supplementing Constance’s income, and over the following two years Wilde wrote a series of about a hundred reviews, his principle outlet being the Pall Mall Gazette. The skill and buoyancy of Wilde’s reviews did not escape attention, and even Shaw commented on the high quality of Wilde’s journalism. More to the point, he was offered and accepted a job as editor of a new magazine, The Lady’s World, and finding that many women resented the title, prompted changed the title to The Woman’s World. He reduced the discussion of dress, and relegated it to the end of each issue, and introduced articles on the education of women, and on all the things that women did with their time. The Woman’s World had an intellectual quality that The Lady’s World had lacked. There were articles on feminism and woman’s suffrage, with women taking both sides of these questions. As always, Wilde’s only fault lay in being ahead of his time. After that profusion the reviews came to a virtual end, with almost the same abruptness as the lectures, and he gave up the editorship in 1889. Journalism was for his brother, Willie. For Oscar it had served its purpose. For his reputation as an author was beginning to grow, with the publication in May 1888 of his first collection of stories, The Happy Prince and Other Tales.
Without Wilde the 1890’s could not have found its character, but for him the decade ended in 1895. The Picture Of Dorian Gray, his first novel, was published on June 20th, 1890, as part of the July issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, and in book form in April 1891. It caused quite a stir, and it is safe to say that after its appearance Victorian literature had a different look. No novel had commanded so much attention for years, or awakened such contradictory sentiments in its readers. His next play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, was a great success with the public, and made Wilde the most sought after man in London. However Salome, which followed, could not be produced because of an old law that forbade the depiction on stage of Biblical characters, so the text was published instead, in French. A Woman Of No Importance opened on April 19th, 1893, and though the reviews were mixed, there was a general awareness that Wilde had made a place for himself. But whom the gods wish to destroy, they first rise up, and Wilde, as a good classicist, should have know from the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides and from Homer’s Iliad, that for the prosperous man who has everything and then grows blasé, like Agamemnon, Nemesis awaits inexorably, just around the corner.
Lord Alfred Douglas, otherwise known as Bosie, was not the first, nor indeed the last, young man to catch Wilde’s eye, but it was the most enduring of his homosexual relationships. They met through a mutual acquaintance, Bosie’s cousin Lionel Johnson, who on learning that Douglas was absorbed in Dorian Gray, brought him to Wilde’s house to meet him. From November 1892 to December 1893, when a three month respite began, Wilde’s life was inseparable from that of Douglas. During this period Wilde came to realise that Douglas was not only beautiful, but reckless and unmanageable. He had a ferocious temper, and even Max Beerbohm, who liked him, said he was ‘obviously mad (like all his family, I believe.)’ When not in a fury Douglas could be ‘very charming’ and ‘nearly brilliant’. His father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had married his belligerence and his litigiousness in framing the Queensberry rules for boxing. He disapproved of Wilde’s association with Bosie, and set about destroying it.
Wilde knew the relationship with Douglas was destructive, but found it impossible to break it off. It says much for his concentration on his art that, although embroiled in emotional difficulties with Bosie, and the turmoil of being pursued all over London by Queensbury and his henchmen, he managed to produce both An Ideal Husband and, what is undoubtedly his greatest play, The Importance Of Being Earnest. Of the former, Shaw wrote, ‘I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will.’ Of the latter, the New York Times announced, ‘Oscar Wilde may be said to have at last, and by a single stroke, put his enemies under his feet.’ All his enemies except one, Queensberry. For the society whose hypocrisies he had anatomised now turned those hypocrisies against him. Victorianism was ready to pounce.
The facts of Wilde’s prosecution of Queensberry for criminal libel, and his own subsequent prosecution for acts of gross indecency, are well known. Having been denied entrance to the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest on February 14th, 1885, Queensberry left a card at Wilde’s club, bearing the inscription, ‘To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite’. In court he said that the words were ‘posing as a Somdomite,’ an easier accusation to defend. In either case, his spelling was somewhat askew. Wilde was goaded by Bosie into taking a case. He even convinced his mother and brother to pay Wilde’s costs. (They never did.) As new evidence about Wilde’s proclivities came into the hands of Queensberry’s solicitor, and Edward Carson, a fellow-student of Wilde’s from his Trinity days, was engaged as barrister, all of Oscar’s friends urged him to drop the case. But he was equally urged by Douglas not to play the coward, and was rushed along, by solicitor, barrister and lover, into a situation from which there could be no retreat.
In many ways, Wilde was a convenient man-in-the-middle in the war of hatred between a son, Lord Alfred Douglas, and a father, the Marquess of Queensberry, a ball to be batted between them. But he was also to become a scapegoat for a diseased society. Queensberry was a very rich man, and could have lost a dozen libel cases without flinching, and would have probably persisted in hounding Wilde whatever happened in court. Moreover, from his point of view he could of course claim that he was the victim rather than the aggressor, in that he was only fulfilling his duty as a father in trying to save his son. From Wilde’s point of view, it was intolerable that a boor and a bully should dictate his conduct. His life with Douglas, including the publicity of their romantic passion, reflected his intention to oblige a hypocritical age to take him as he was.
Having lost his libel suit, he was arrested on the charge of committing indecent acts. At his first trial the jury failed to reach a verdict, and a new trial was ordered. The possibility of jumping bail arose, and was encouraged by some of his friends, but he chose to stay for the second trail, perhaps under the influence of his mother, who declared, ‘If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son. It will make no difference to my affection. But if you go, I will never speak to you again.’ Since the reverberations of the case reached as far as the highest in the land, with the Prime Minister, Rosebury, rumoured to be having a relationship with one of Queensberry’s other sons, Drumlanrig, it was inevitable that Wilde would be retried, and that when retried he would be found guilty. Drumlanrig had been found shot dead on October 18th, 1894, and although the newspapers reported a shooting accident, suicide was generally suspected. Drumlanrig may have been afraid of blackmail over his relations with Lord Rosebury, of which his father had long been suspicious, and (unlike his brother) feared he would bring down the then Foreign Minister as well as himself. The solicitor-general, Sir Frank Lockwood, even told T M Healy that he would not have put Wilde on trial again were it not for ‘the abominable rumours against Rosebury.’ All the witnesses for the prosecution had been receiving £5 a week at the expense of the Crown, from the beginning of Wilde’s prosecution of Queensberry until his own conviction, an unusual practice which indicates just how firmly the establishment was resolved to make him take all the blame. His counsel opined that, ‘This trial seems to be operating as an act of indemnity for all the blackmailers in London,’ and it was obvious that the witnesses could better have been the accused rather that the accusers. They had nothing on Wilde, for otherwise they would have blackmailed him relentlessly. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to two years hard labour.
Thus his incarceration began, at Pentonville, Wandsworth and Reading. He suffered greatly under the harsh prison conditions, and his troubles included constant hunger, insomnia because of a plank bed, and dysentery. His transfer to Reading proved to be the single most humiliating experience of Wilde’s prison life. Handcuffed and in prison clothing, he had to wait on the platform at Clapham Junction from 2.00 to 2.30 on a rainy afternoon. A crowd formed, first laughing and then jeering at him. One man recognised him, and spat at him. ‘For a year after that was done to me,’ Wilde wrote in De Profundis, I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.’
For much of his prison sentence Wilde was not allowed pen and paper, but this changed in the last few months with the advent of a new governor who was more enlightened and humane than the previous incumbent. De Profundis, one of his greatest works and one of the greatest works in the language, is the product of this period, the three months before his eventual release. It is a dramatic monologue, addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas, which moves from the discovery of pleasure to the discovery of pain to the discovery of consolation. But the most important thing about De Profundis is that it is a love letter. Wilde complains of neglect and arranges a reunion. He writes: ‘And the end of it all is that I have got to forgive you. I must do so. I don’t write this letter to put bitterness into your heart, but to pluck it out of mine. For my own sake I must forgive you.’ Much of the animus against Douglas in De Profundis was dissipated by the time Wilde finished writing it. His repudiation of Douglas was complete enough for him to feel drawn towards him once more.
He was released from prison on May 19th, 1897, and after a day in London, where he applied to the Jesuits for a six month retreat but was refused, he left for the north coast of France, staying initially in Dieppe, and later in the small village of Berneval. He kept Douglas at arm’s length for a while, but eventually met him in Rouen at the end of August. They lived together in Naples for a couple of months, but the arrangement did not work out, partly because their respective families contrived to keep them apart by cutting off their incomes and offering financial inducements if they ceased cohabiting, and partly because they simply could not get along with each other. Douglas sponged off Wilde, as usual, and now that he was twenty-seven and beginning to lose his looks, he began craving and seeking social acceptability and respectability. Wilde went to live in Paris, where he ended his days, in illness and penury. Although some old friends stayed loyal, many avoided him. For the three and a half years he lived after his release from prison, he saw pass before him a multitude of people he had known earlier, who evaded him.
There was one last triumph, the publication of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which was well received. The author’s name appeared on the book as C.3.3., Wilde’s prison number, although everybody knew who had written it. It was the only writing he was to do during his exile on the continent, but had been taking shape in his mind long before he left prison.
He died on November 30th, 1900, at the Hotel d’Alsace, Rue des Beaux-Arts, and was buried at Bagneux cemetery on December 3rd. He was forty-six. In 1909 his remains were moved to Pere Lachaise, when the celebrated funerary monument by Epstein was placed there. In The Importance of Being Earnest, in one of those eerily prophetic lines that run through all of Wilde’s work, Jack says of his supposedly dead brother, ‘He seems to have expressed a desire to be buried in Paris’, to which Mr Chasuble replies, ‘In Paris! I fear that hardly points to any very serious state of mind at the last.’
‘The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed,’ Wilde said of Parnell, but he could just as easily have been talking about himself. It was that later literary product of Portora and Trinity, Beckett, who adjured us to: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ It is both easy and futile to play the game of ‘What if?’ What if Wilde had not been exposed and had not gone to prison? What if he had lived for another thirty years? Would he have continued to create sublime poems, plays, novels and criticism? Keats and Shelley died young, as romantic poets were meant to, but the substantial bodies of work they produced in such short lives lives on. Wordsworth lived on into old age, until it almost seemed as though he would never die, but after the exuberance of his early youthful output, produced little of lasting quality for the rest of his life. It is one of those imponderables as to whether Wilde was only beginning his artistic journey, or whether his life’s work was complete. But what he has left us is enough in itself, and has survived, as he claimed it would. At least, through his demise and death, Shaw got a career, as London’s most provocative Irishman.
In his great biography of Wilde, the best available, the American scholar Richard Ellmann sums up Wilde’s life and work better than I ever could:

"We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitised and standardised, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s. Now, beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right".

First published in The World of Hibernia


 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

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