Sugar-Coated Subversion

Nicholas Frankel, The Invention of Oscar Wilde

Reaktion Books, 288pp, £18.00, ISBN 9781789144147

reviewed by William Poulos

When I first arrived in London, I made the pilgrimage to Chelsea to see the house Oscar Wilde used to live in. While I was staring at it, a lady stuck her head out the window and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was admiring Oscar Wilde’s old house, and pointed to the blue plaque that says that the ‘wit and dramatist’ used to live there. She was shocked — she had no idea she was living in such an esteemed place. She gracefully let me take a photo of the house, but I left doubting Wilde’s prestige in the popular imagination.

The blurbs on the back of Nicholas Frankel’s new biography show that I was wrong to doubt: Stephen Fry refers to the idea of Oscar Wilde as ‘the global icon’, and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst describes Wilde as a ‘gay icon, influencer, playwright, wit’. People adore Wilde — no doubt about that. But now I wonder if they should.

That’s not to say that Frankel is iconoclastic. On the contrary, Frankel’s biography is sympathetic and laudatory, and a compelling introduction to Wilde’s life for those who don’t want to read the longer biographies by Richard Ellmann and Matthew Sturgis. Frankel shows us the many Wildes: the Irishman, the poet, the lecturer, the socialite, the novelist, the playwright, the prisoner, the exile. Yet two Wildes fittingly dominate: Wilde the aesthete and Wilde the homosexual.

The ‘invention’ part of the title suggests the influence of Romanticism on Wilde’s development. One of the key concepts in German Romanticism was Bildung, which literally means ‘formation’ but also refers to a mode of cultural and personal realization. The person who achieves Bildung, wrote the German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel, ‘contains a novel within himself’. ‘One should either be a work of art of wear a work of art,’ Wilde declared.

Wilde’s Bildung started early. His mother (born Jane Francesca Elgee) was a skilled translator and essayist, and wrote Irish revolutionary poetry under the pseudonym ‘Speranza’. His father, Sir William Wilde, was an eminent eye surgeon and an amateur folklorist, archaeologist, and demographer. As the son of two gifted parents, Oscar was often in the company of Ireland’s most distinguished figures as they gathered in the Wildes’ grand salon in Dublin. It was an intellectual hothouse. One wonders, though, how much Oscar learned from his parents. While a bachelor, Sir William Wilde fathered three illegitimate children by at least two different women. Later, a former patient and nanny, Mary Travers, insinuated that Sir William had given her chloroform and raped her in his consulting room. After she distributed a malicious pamphlet attacking the Wildes, Lady Wilde wrote a letter to Mary Travers’s father about the ‘disreputable conduct’ of his daughter. Mary Travers, having read this letter, sued Lady Wilde for libel, naming Sir William as a co-respondent. The trial in December 1864 eerily foreshadows the libel case that would ruin Oscar’s life and family in 1895. Sir William decided not to take the stand to defend his wife. Lady Wilde, when asked under oath why she didn’t respond to Travers’s letter complaining about Sir William’s conduct, replied ‘because I was not interested’. She lost the case.

This ordeal strained the Wilde family; luckily, Oscar was boarding at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen while it happened. He was a swot, winning scholarships to Trinity College, Dublin, and then to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he became a disciple of John Ruskin and Walter Pater. Pater’s book, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, was especially affecting: ‘not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end,’ the famous conclusion avers, ‘to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.’ Wilde burned, alright: he developed as an aesthete, became infatuated with Florence Balcombe (who later married Bram Stoker), won the Newdigate Prize for poetry, and graduated from Oxford with a rare Double First. Having ditched his Irish names and accent, he became a poet and journo in England. A great yarn-spinner and self-promoter, Wilde became famous enough to be lampooned before he had published any major work. Gilbert and Sullivan satirised him as the lily-wielding poet Bunthorne in their comic opera Patience. By late 1881, the opera had opened successfully in New York, and the producer paid Wilde for a lecture tour of the United States to help promote the show.

America’s rich and powerful treated him like the big kahuna of the Aesthetic movement. Drawing on the work of William Morris, one of Wilde’s lectures appealed to the democratic and egalitarian impulse of the New World: ‘. . . you will find the independence of art is the perfect expression of freedom. . . There is nothing in common life too mean, in common things too trivial, to be ennobled by your touch; nothing in life that art cannot sanctify.. The audience didn’t really like it or get it, though Frankel suggests that American women were more receptive to Wilde’s ideas than the men were. Wilde seemed to admire the women, too, praising their freedom in marriage: ‘In America, the horrors of domesticity are almost entirely unknown.’

After returning to England, he married the smart and lively Constance Lloyd. Scholars quibble about how much he actually loved her, and Frankel sensibly avoids a definite answer. (‘Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed,’ quips The Picture of Dorian Gray’s Lord Henry Wotton.) According to Wilde’s friend Frank Harris, Wilde soon found Constance ‘loathsome’ and ‘disgusting’ because of her pregnancies. In 1885, the year his first son was born, Wilde went to Cambridge University to visit the undergraduate Harry Marillier, and probably introduced him to the pederastic don Oscar Browning. ‘You too have the love of things impossible,’ he later wrote to Marillier, before forming a sexual relationship with another Cambridge undergraduate: the seventeen-year-old Robert Ross, who would later be his literary executor.

About a year before Wilde started this affair, Britain’s Parliament passed the Labouchere Amendment which outlawed ‘gross indecency’ between men. Frankel claims that Wilde then saw himself as a member of a British underclass, and links this to the double lives of the characters in Wilde’s short stories. By the 1890s, Wilde’s fiction was becoming increasingly spicy; an editor censored his original manuscript of The Picture of Dorian Gray to make it ‘acceptable to the most fastidious taste’. The ‘fastidious taste’ was partly built on anxiety: in 1889-90, the police found that telegraph messenger boys were working overtime as prostitutes at a male brothel in London’s Cleveland Street. The clients came from Britain’s aristocracy and establishment; naturally, not one of them was successfully prosecuted. The press smelled a cover-up.

It was in this context that Wilde further censored his own novel, muting some of Basil Hallward’s declarations of love to Dorian Gray. He also followed the publisher’s suggestion by making the ending more ‘moralistic’ — not, one would think, the acts of an uncompromising rebel against Victorian piety, or one who believes in absolute artistic expression. He did, however, seem to make up for this by adding a preface which states that ‘the artist can express everything’ and that ‘there is no such thing as a moral book. Books are well written, or badly written’.

Wilde’s aphorisms are more recognisable than his monogrammed shirts. They aren’t confectionery phrases; they’re sugar-coated subversion: ‘Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas’; ‘the English are always degrading truths into facts.’ Wilde was a serious thinker: ‘The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism,’ he wrote, is ‘the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others.’ Wilde recognised the squalid life of someone forced to work for a baron, a magnate, an oligarch. Frankel rightly illustrates that Wilde’s irony and paradoxes are crucial to his subversive non-fiction writing such as ‘The Decay of Lying’ and ‘The Critic as Artist’, which I think are Wilde’s best works.

Well, they’re the best behind The Importance of Being Earnest. In Earnest, Wilde’s combination of wit, paradox, and satire is at full strength. He impugns the English aristocracy, the Anglican church, the attachment to money. Earnest is also about the polarity between private and public lives: Algernon Moncrieff invents a ‘permanent invalid called Bunbury in order that I may go down into the country’ to avoid social or familial duties. (The term ‘Bunbury’ generates much comment. Here is my contribution to Wilde scholarship: while in the United States, Wilde met John Boyle O’Reilly, who had been a member of the Fenians. For this crime, he was transported to Bunbury, Western Australia, from where he later escaped.) Frankel sees Earnest as an encoded dramatisation of Wilde’s secret life as a lover of males; while writing the drama, Wilde abandoned his family and his draft to pursue a different sort of play with a local boy.

Wilde was fascinated with young literary men. Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’) apparently read The Picture of Dorian Gray nine times and met its author in 1891: ‘I did with him and allowed him to do just what was done among boys at Winchester and Oxford,’ Douglas later recalled. Wilde had paid boys for sex before he met Douglas, but with him he became reckless, taking rooms at London’s Savoy Hotel to host male prostitutes. (Douglas had an adjoining room.) The two even went to Algiers (‘the Kabyle boys are quite lovely,’ Wilde wrote) for a fortnight of sex tourism.

Less than a month later, while Earnest was all the rage, Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, left a card ‘for Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]’. Wilde sued him for libel. Assured of success, he and Douglas went for a week-long holiday, and then arrived at the trial in an expensive carriage. Wilde was digging his own grave and asking for a bigger shovel.

His libel suit failed. In the subsequent criminal trials, he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years with hard labour. He languished in prison, and his writings from there are among his most moving. Upon release, he adopted the name Sebastian Melmoth. (His wife and children, whom he never saw again, also changed their names to avoid any association with him.) In Rouen he met Douglas, who returned to England after his mother threatened to cut his allowance. Wilde died, probably of an inner-ear infection, and was buried outside the city limits of Paris.

Ten years ago, I would have yielded to no one in my admiration of Wilde. Now, I’m not so sure. Any reader of this biography would have trouble labelling Wilde an ‘icon’: the champion of free artistic expression who censored his own work; the critic of the establishment who lived in the best hotels and ate at the best restaurants. One should pause before calling him a champion of ‘gay rights’: followers of Foucault would question (as Frankel sometimes does) whether there’s such a thing as a consistent, ahistorical concept of ‘homosexuality’, and one should hesitate before celebrating a man who left his family to fornicate with prostitutes. The Romantic and Aesthete who believed the artist could find beauty in anything, Wilde couldn’t find beauty in his own Chelsea house or in his marriage. You might not think his decision to abandon them was a moral failure. But by his own standards, it was an artistic one.

William Poulos is Review 31's poetry editor.