Books May 2003

Not Green, Not Red, Not Pink

Oscar Wilde cannot be simplified into an Irish rebel, a subversive socialist, or a gay martyr

In a famously grim saying, the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight's time concentrates the mind wonderfully. So does imprisonment for two years "kept to hard labour." Alone in his prison cell in 1895, Oscar Wilde was bewildered by the terrifyingly sudden ruin that had pulled him down from the heights. It had taken years to find his true métier, which was theater rather than poetry or fiction, and comedy rather than tragedy. An Ideal Husband had opened that January at the Haymarket Theatre, before a glittering first-night audience that included the Prince of Wales. Wilde had dined afterward with his friends Max Beerbohm and Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and Lord Alfred Douglas, the captivating young "Bosie," with whom his life had been entwined for more than two years past and with whom he had shortly departed for Algiers and the pursuit of pleasure. Wilde was back in London for his last first night.

On February 14 The Importance of Being Earnest opened at St. James's Theatre. It was a change in manner and tone from Wilde's previous work and also quite different in terms of literary quality from anything he had written before. He had been famous for years; now it seemed that at the age of forty, he was at last securely established for life. Everyone knows the tragedy of hubris and nemesis that followed. Insulted by Douglas's crazy father, Lord Queensberry, who addressed him with angry illiteracy as "Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite," Wilde brought a prosecution for criminal libel, a refinement of English law by which a convicted defendant could be imprisoned. But Queensberry's counsel produced devastating evidence to incriminate Wilde, who was imprisoned less than fifteen weeks after that glorious Saint Valentine's Day. Treadmill, foul diet, and insomnia broke Wilde in body and spirit. He died within four years of his release, aged forty-six.

Everyone also knows Wilde's saying that he had put his talent into his books and his genius into his life, and it's true that few other writers have ever devoted so much energy to inventing and promoting themselves as personalities. "Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde," as he was known at Oxford, shortened by stages to the universally recognizable "Oscar," wasn't so much a writer of books and plays as an artifice, which was now shattered. And in silent solitude he brooded incessantly on his fate. What he could not have foreseen was the way in which he would become an object of literary grave-robbing, with interested parties trying to appropriate his shroud—and forever projecting their own interests and obsessions on him. For the hundred years since his death "Oscar Wilde" has meant less an oeuvre than a study in reputation; and even now disentangling the man from tendentious interpretation is a tricky job.

The most definitive and scholarly biography of Wilde is Richard Ellmann's informative if somewhat imperceptive life of 1987, which drew heavily on Wilde's letters. Batches of these had been published over the years before 1962, when the first proper collection appeared. Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, it was a superb book, and a landmark in one other way. Wilde's younger son, Vyvyan Holland (Wilde's unhappy wife, Constance, had hurriedly changed the family name when he was imprisoned), was then still alive, and his grandson was at school at the time. After some agonizing by the family, it was decided that there should be no censorship on grounds of taste or morals, although the law under which Wilde had been convicted was still in force, and the frankness with which some of the letters treated homosexuality was at the time still very unusual in print. Hart-Davis had tracked down every letter he could, but the latest edition, edited by Merlin Holland (the grandson in question), includes several hundred more, making it, with its full and illuminating annotation, in its way the best of all biographies of Wilde.

One of Ireland's countless gifts to English letters, Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 (two years before Bernard Shaw, eleven before W. B. Yeats, and twenty-eight before James Joyce; has any other city ever produced such a crop within the space of three decades?). From Trinity College, Dublin, he proceeded to Oxford and a brilliant English debut. After graduating he was at loose ends, going to "the Hicks-Beachs' in Hampshire, to kill time and pheasants and the ennui of not having set the world quite on fire as yet," but he hadn't long to wait. The early letters give a portrait of the artist as a young man on the make, as he buttonholed the fashionable and tried to fashion himself. All the while he was tuning his first public performance, as an "aesthete." When Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan's still enjoyable musical satire on aestheticism, opened in New York in September of 1881, its producer asked Wilde to give a lecture tour in America, by way of promoting both the show and himself; as if to illustrate his own principle that all publicity is good publicity, Wilde accepted.

At that time traveling the American lecture circuit was a combination of author tour, op-ed column, and talk show, and Wilde was in his element from the moment he arrived, in January of 1882: "For lecturing in Chicago I received before I stepped on the platform a fee of 1000 dollars ... I have a sort of triumphal progress, live like a young sybarite, travel like a young god." He met everyone from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Jefferson Davis, and captivated Colorado miners along with Beacon Hill high society. All this required not only brazenness but lack of a sense of the ridiculous. He dressed up in a ludicrous costume of his own devising whenever possible; one letter to his American lecture agent includes the wondrous sentence "They were dreadfully disappointed at Cincinnati at my not wearing knee-breeches."

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Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a regular contributor to The Atlantic. He has just finished writing a history of the Tour de France.

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