Although he is the only writer from the England of the 1890s still widely read, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde may be better remembered for what he said than for what he wrote. It is a fitting fate for a man who once told French novelist
André Gide: “I have put only my talent into my works. I have put all my genius into my life.” Wilde was a minor poet, an engaging critic and a marvelous comic playwright. He was also a man who, in his own words, had a “symbolical relationship” to the art and culture of his age. But with his outrageous epigrams, his dandified dress and his oddly swaying gait, he was a walking affront to Victorian morality. His life, with its meteoric success, and equally sudden and total disgrace, can be seen as the archetypal Victorian morality tale.
The question is whether so familiar a story needs retelling. Richard Ellmann, who died last May after devoting much of his life to the genius of the Irish—he wrote on W.B. Yeats and James Joyce—lays such doubts to rest. His Wilde is a man considerably more complex and likable than the public poseur. Although Wilde’s career seems to have illustrated the importance of not being earnest, there is a serious, admonitory side to his art. He present-
ed himself as an apostle of pleasure, but in both his life and his created world there was considerable pain.
Wilde came about his singular and eccentric personality honestly. His father, Sir William, was a distinguished Dublin surgeon who raised three illegitimate offspring in addition to Oscar and another son. Oscar’s mother, Speranza, was a nationalist poet who believed herself to be distantly related to
the medieval Italian poet Dante. Young Oscar, palpably bright, ended up at Oxford University, where he worked hard at appearing not to work hard. He left the university with an English accent, a double first in classics, the coveted Newdigate Prize for poetry—and a case of syphilis.
At a surprisingly young age, Wilde was a celebrity, famous simply for being famous. He was only 27, with a single slim volume of verse to his credit, when he set out on a lecture tour of North America. His topics—art and beauty—were unremarkable. But Wilde, decked out in silk stockings and knee breeches, doling out genial, elegant insults to his hosts, was a hit on the lecture circuit from New York to Truro, N.S. The press variously mocked and lionized him but never failed to take notice. It was, in fact, some time before Wilde’s achievements caught up with his reputation.
That reputation had always included the hint of homosexuality, even though Wilde had married conventionally and
produced two children. According to the author, Wilde—who had always sought the company of young men— was seduced by Robert Ross, son of an attorney general of Canada. Wilde was 32 at the time, Ross 17. Ross was to remain Wilde’s lifelong friend, showing a strain of constancy that was in marked contrast to the character of Wilde’s most famous lover, Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas. Bosie was vain, shallow and, when crossed, extraordinarily vindictive. Bosie used his affair with Wilde to provoke his equally vindictive father, the Marquis of Queensberry.
Wilde sued unsuccessfully for libel after the Marquis called him a “posing Somdomite [sic]” and was later prosecuted for homosexuality in two criminal trials that ended in a two-year prison sentence. The trials took place at the same time as Wilde’s greatest success, The Importance of Being Earnest. But it could be argued that Wilde upstaged his own theatrical creation in the dock of the Old Bailey.. His defence of what was euphemistically called “the love that dare not speak its name” was a masterly performance Q that ultimately did him no good ^ at all.
8 Wilde lived out his last years § in Paris in a haze of absinthe § and disgrace. People shunned 8 him either because they loathed his homosexuality or did not want to be asked for money. He 3 was, he said, “dying beyond my means.” The syphilis was taking its course, but Wilde still exhibited flashes of the old wit. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he told a friend. “One or the other of us has to go.” Wilde died on Nov. 30, 1900, contradicting his own prophecy that he would not outlive the century—because, he said, “ the English people would not stand for it.” The virtue of Ellmann’s book goes beyond the meticulous recounting of Wilde’s life. It is a critical biography that lucidly charts Wilde’s intellectual growth from posturing estheticism to something more compassionate and profound. He offers a brilliant reading of that strange and subversive story The Picture of Dorian Gray and everywhere illuminates the love of paradox and contradiction that was at the centre of Wilde’s credo. Above all, he brings home the full force of Victorian hypocrisy. Wilde lived at the wrong time—he is a thoroughly modern man—and his life turned out to be the tragedy he never wrote.
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