OSCAR WILDE by Viking, $7.95
In the course of his spectacular, shocking career, Oscar Wilde made many friends and many more enemies. To those he loved he wrote letters so revealing that he was being blackmailed years before his trial, while at the same time those in the inner circle like Whistler, Frank Harris, G.B.S., Max Beerbohm, and André Gide were writing about him with an insight and judgment that have been sustained. Not since the death of Lord Byron had any writer so defied the canons of England’s society. Wilde’s disgrace, which in the 1960s might have prompted indignation, though hardly enough to prevent his being knighted, was, in the London of the 1890s, so outrageous that Thomas Hardy was heard to remark, “This is a black day for English letters.” In his extravagant dress, his homosexuality, his defiance of society, Ins advocacy of the Art Nouveau, Oscar Wilde has much in common with the young rebels of our time.
Of the many books about him the two best are Frank Harris’ contemporary account, and the vivid portrait by Hesketh Pearson, published in 1946. To them I must now add a third, Oscar Wilde by Philippe Jullian, a biography that is comprehensive in the truth it draws from many sources, some long hidden; eminently fair in its characterization; and remarkably perceptive in showing, as no other has done so well, the French influence in the work of Wilde’s maturity. The translation by Violet Wyndham is excellent.
The steps by which Oscar rose to be the leader and the symbol of the Mauve Decade are fascinating to follow. Mr. Jullian has spared no detail in describing the potential of this large, pale young man, the best Hellenist of his generation, winner of the Newdigate Prize for poetry at Oxford, a climber who rightly calculated that “to get into Society nowadays one has either to feed people or shock people,” an aesthete praised by Walter Pater. From Dublin, where he had been born of a gifted, lecherous father and a bohemian mother, he had won his way into the paradise of Oxford, with its beautiful young Greeks, its indolence and enviable wealth. His checked suits and velvet jackets were bizarre; he boasted of his collection of blue china and was powerful enough to hurl downstairs the Blues who came to smash it. To a friend striving to convert him to Catholicism, he wrote: “If I could hope that the Church would wake in me some earnestness and purity, I would go over as a luxury, if for no better reasons. But I can hardly hope it would, and to go over to Rome would be to sacrifice and give up my two great Gods: ‘Money and Ambition.’ ”
His conquest of London was artful, and it was achieved as much by his getup, his acting, and his dazzling conversation as by what he wrote. He studied diction, learned to modulate his rich voice, and his talk combined “what I love best in the world, Poetry and Paradox dancing together.” His lecture trip to America, which extended from Fifth Avenue to the mining camps, earned him few pounds but much notoriety. So in London did his friendships with Sarah Bernhardt and Lily Langtry and his feud with James Whistler. He was the leading spirit in the “Souls,” that gifted assortment of intellects, and with his marriage to Constance Lloyd, violeteyed but uninspiring, in the spring of 1884, he had reached a bold if precarious position. Their house on Tite Street became a showplace. Writes Mr. Jullian, “That a Society so sure of itself should have allowed an unknown Irishman to laugh at it was, because he had achieved for it something beyond price in rescuing it from boredom.”
The marriage paled, and in the process provided him with some of the witticisms for his plays; after the birth of his second son he found in Paris the excitement no longer to be had at home. He found and borrowed source material from Balzac and Gautier for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and scenes and even words for the plays were borrowed from Dumas Fils, although their meanings were reversed.
It is ironic that in the same month that saw the publication of Dorian Gray Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas, that white and golden undergraduate for whose love he would risk everything. Oscar had meddled with homosexuality before, and “Bosie” was certainly no ingenue, but now with the infatuation of age and the exuberance of royalties, this affair became more than a passing scandal, and when Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, provoked court action and his bloodhounds produced the evidence at court, Oscar’s rhetoric was no defense. The account of the trial, of Oscar’s demoralization in jail and his curious humility in the aftermath are masterly.
IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE by Rumer Godden. Viking, $6.95
Since the Middle Ages women have taken refuge in convents because of the debris of their past. In This House of Brede, a novel of sensitive dedication, Rumer Godden tells why Mrs. Philippa Talbot, in her early forties and the ranking woman administrator in the Ministry of Trade and Information, applied for admission to Brede Abbey in Sussex, an “enclosed” order of English Benedictine nuns, and how her life was shaped in the solemn but at times emotional quiet of that monastery. What prompted Philippa to take the step is best explained by the novelist, but the tempering of her spirit is what gives the story its immediate warmth, for now this tall elegant woman, with her gift for language and swift executive ability, must learn to obey, not command; she must learn the ritual and the chants, for which she has no voice; and most difficult of all, she must learn to hold her tongue when crises for which she thinks she sees the solution arise.
What Miss Godden does so well is to submerge the reader in this monastic community of ninety-six nuns. “Well, there are ninety-six of us,” said Dame Ursula, “Sixty-two dames, or fully professed choir nuns, and twenty-one claustral sisters. You will meet the juniors and novices afterwards. . . .”
Philippa aspired to be a choir nun (the claustral sisters were in charge of the garden, the kitchen, the poultry and bees, the Marthas of the order), and her impressions of the elders in her days of adjustment are sharp. It is one of Miss Goddcn’s accomplishments in all her books to make us aware of the many voices in her story, and here she is at her best in delineating the authority and compassion of Lady Abbess Hester; the open heart of Dame Maura, the precentrix, who is in charge of the choir; the tart, red-eyed skepticism of Dame Agnes Kerr; the shining faith in prayer of Dame Beatrice, the sacristan. Dame Agnes, echo always speaks her mind, distrusts Philippa from the startthis woman from London is too old, too habit-ridden, too self-willed, she thinks, to adapt herself to the community, and the conflict between these two strong personalities is always close to the surface.
During Philippa’s noviceship the Abbess is felled by a stroke, and on her deathbed she pleads for forgiveness. The councillors at her bedside are stunned until, in a magnificent scene, Dame Catherine, the most forceful of them, bends over, and in her direct way, quiets the troubled mind. In the election that follows, Catherine becomes the new Abbess, and in her assumption of office the mystery which had been torturing her predecessor becomes clear.
Catherine and Philippa are of course the key figures, Philippa as she experiences the trials and the submivsiveness of the novice; Catherine as she takes into her hands the many threads of this feminine, self-sufficient, debt-plagued community dedicated to love and peace. There are mam stirring scenes: the eventual Clothing of the lovely novice Cecily; Catherine’s anger as she breaks her cross; the vital impact of the visiting sculptor Duranski. In Brede Abbey as in the college of C. P. Snow’s imagining there are the aspirations, the struggle for power, and the balm of friendship common to us all.
PRIME TIME, by Alexander Kendrick Little. Brown, $8.95
In the rise and fall of American radio and television Edward R. Murrow stood for the best. His integrity, the fairness of his judgment as a commentator, and the quality he demanded of his network made him as indispensable to American broadcasting as Lord Reith was to the BBC. When we of the Peabody Committee found it mandatory to give him his third Award, we had made a special silver medal—no one else has ever received one—as if to retire him from competition. But only the network could do that, and when Stanton broke with Morrow and then with Fred Friendly, CBS lost its sovereignty, and television was on its way to becoming the most costly and debased medium of advertising in America.
It is hard not to be didactic when one thinks about Ed Murrow, his performance, his ideals, and his death, and Alexander Kendrick, who was one of his team, does not resist the temptation in his human, episodic, valiant biography, Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow. Ed did not believe that the medium was the message, or that communication was to be confused with communications. In his CBS office hung a quotation from Thoreau: “It takes two to speak the truth—one to speak and another to hear.”
His magnificent repotting of the war showed that millions were listening, and on that crest Ed evolved See It Now, the most searching of television documentaries. “He was,” writes Kendrick, “a disturber of the peace and a collector of injustices. Radio and television are by their very nature ephemeral. He endowed them with a sense of permanent substance by giving them a purpose.” The great programs dispensed justice, as in the Radulovich case, which Murrow and Friendly advertised in the New York Times with their own money when both sponsor and network refused to publicize it. Five months later came the famous confrontation with Senator Joseph McCarthy, and when, speaking in equal time, the senator demolished himself in public view, millions of Americans agreed with Ed’s conclusion: “ This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.” But neither CBS nor Madison Avenue would continue to risk such controversy.
The contour of Ed Morrow’s career is familiar. What is not familiar is how he got his start as a Bachelor of Public Speech at Washington State University and how much he learned from his favorite teacher, Ida Lou Anderson, a cripple, who inspired him with the meditations of Marcus Aurelius and who taught him how to use his spendid voice. (It was she listening in the Far West who told him to pace his famous opening: “This ... is London.”) Kendrick measures his man in a multitude of episodes: Ed’s courage in reporting action from the foxholes, from bombers or tanks; his enormous capacity for gaining the confidence of men as different as Winston Churchill, Robert Oppenheimer, Tito, and Omar Bradley; his genius for expressing so much in concise, sharp-edged sentences; his God-given candor and smile which won him friends everywhere. This is a long book, charged with partisanship, in which the man himself emerges.