by Richard Ellmann
Knopf, 632 pp., $24.95
The literature surrounding Oscar Wilde is vast, varied, and, on the whole, entertaining: it would almost warrant a full-length study in itself. Consider, for a start, the accounts by firsthand witnesses. They range in time and spirit—to cite only the full-scale books—from L’Affaire Oscar Wilde, an ignoble attack by an old enemy, André Raffalovich, rushed out within three months of Wilde’s conviction in 1895, to the admirable memoir by his son, Vyvyan Holland, published almost sixty years later. They include portraits by such oddly assorted people as André Gide, Frank Harris, the novelist Ada Leverson, the shrewd American expatriate Vincent O’Sullivan, the prolific Robert Sherard (a great-grandson of Wordsworth, which didn’t save him from being the dimmest of Wilde’s disciples). And Lord Alfred Douglas, inevitably, had his say several times over—although the first and worst of his retrospects, Oscar Wilde and Myself, was in fact ghostwritten by one of the more obnoxious journalists of his time, T.W.H. Crosland.
Then there are the later writers, many of them picturesque personalities in their own right. The first critical study, for example, which also contains some important biographical material, was published (in 1912) by a young journalist, Arthur Ransome, who went on to cover the Russian Revolution for the Manchester Guardian, married Trotsky’s secretary, and ended his days as a much admired author of children’s books. The first extended account of Wilde’s trials and the first bibliography of his writings (an amusing one, as bibliographies go) were both the work of Christopher Millard, the learned but fairly shady book dealer of whom A.J.A. Symons left a memorable portrait in The Quest for Corvo. Symons himself was working on a biography of Wilde at the time of his death—a substantial fragment survives.
All in all, Wilde the man must be a more familiar figure to the world at large then any other Victorian author, with the possible exception of Dickens. Yet curiously, there has never been a major biography, scarcely even an attempt at one. Some of his biographers—the highly readable Hesketh Pearson, the worldly Philippe Jullian, the diligent Montgomery Hyde—have their undoubted merits; the brief study by Louis Kronenberger is an excellent portrait in miniature. But until now there has been no book which you could unhesitatingly point to as the biggest and best.
And now there is. Richard Ellmann’s new biography would be in a class by itself if only on account of its scope, its detail, the thoroughness of Ellmann’s researches. But by the time he embarked on it Ellmann had also established himself, by as close as you are likely to get to common consent in such matters, as a master of the biographer’s art. Oscar Wilde is a distinguished book, and it would have been surprising coming from the author of James Joyce if it had been otherwise.
Ellmann has the first, indispensable virtue of telling his story well—not just the big story, but the lesser stories that lie coiled inside it. Comic stories and lurid stories; ugly moments and irresistible ones.
Many of the incidents he recounts would sound too good to be true if they weren’t properly documented: the meetings in Paris, for example, round about the time of J’accuse, between Wilde and Commandant Esterhazy, the forger in the Dreyfus Affair. Wilde—it was hardly his finest hour—was rather taken with Ester-hazy (guilt was so much more interesting than innocence), but the two men disagreed about which of them was the greater “martyr of humanity.”
Other episodes would be hard to surpass for solemn absurdity, like the row at the Oxford Union (though it had its rather ominous side, too) over Wilde’s first volume of poems, published several years after he had left the university. The Union librarian asked him for a copy; he sent one, with an inscription; the members of the Union held a debate, decided (for moralistic reasons posing as literary ones) that the book was an undesirable acquisition, and sent it back to him.
But then Oxford already knew all about him, or thought it did. He had started out there as he meant to go on, nonchalantly playing with attitudes and ideas, pushing aestheticism close to the point of parody, and the Wilde legend had begun to take shape while he was still an undergraduate. It had also begun to spread further afield. Thanks to a Du Maurier cartoon in Punch, at least one of his undergraduate mots, about finding it hard to live up to his blue china, passed into general circulation. At the age of twenty-three, he got himself put into a novel—the first of many such appearances—by a woman who wrote under the name of “George Fleming”; and by the time he published the poems that the Oxford Union rejected he was well on his way to becoming a full-blown metropolitan celebrity. It was around this period that a friend who was with him overheard someone say, “There goes that bloody fool Oscar Wilde.” “It’s extraordinary,” Wilde had commented, “how soon one gets known in London.”
Describing the character she based on Wilde, “George Fleming” wrote: “He listened like one accustomed to speak.” From the first, everyone recognized that he was an incomparable talker, and the force of his words comes through in most of the stories Ellmann retells. It is what keeps them fresh, however many times you have heard them before—though quite a few of them, one should add, are drawn from neglected or unfamiliar sources. The conversation Wilde had (in French) with the actor Coquelin, for instance, in the course of which Coquelin asked him about his verse drama The Duchess of Padua, and he explained that “La fin est assez tragique….” “The ending is quite tragic; my hero, at his moment of triumph, makes an epigram which falls flat….”
Ellmann gives a particularly full and interesting account of Wilde’s earlier stays in France (the ones before his imprisonment); he brings the all-important Irish background convincingly to life; his narrative of the famous American lecture tour, complete with details of Wilde’s earnings, is virtually a small book in itself. He is excellent, too, on most of the supporting cast in the drama, on characters as different as the funny-ferocious Mahaffy, who taught Wilde Greek at Trinity College, Dublin (“You’re not quite clever enough for us here, Oscar. Better run up to Oxford”), and Robert Ross, the dapper Canadian aesthete who was responsible for first introducing Wilde to homosexual pleasures (or so they both claimed—Ross was only seventeen at the time) and who wrote his own cheerful epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in hot water.”
It has to be said, however, that there is one figure to whom Ellmann conspicuously fails to do justice. If Robert Ross was the first man Wilde slept with, the most important of his male lovers—”his principal young man,” says Ellmann—before he met Lord Alfred Douglas was John Gray: giving the hero of Dorian Gray the same surname, amounted, in Ellmann’s phrase, to “a form of courtship.” Gray, who came from a working-class background and who left school when he was thirteen, wanted to be a writer. Initially he was overwhelmed by Wilde, and no doubt Bernard Shaw was justified, from his own vantage point, in describing him as “one of the more abject of Wilde’s disciples.” This is the view that anyone would be likely to carry away from Ellmann’s account.
What Ellmann utterly fails to convey is that Gray was also a poet of startling and stirring originality. On the contrary, he can write that Alfred Douglas was “even less talented” that Gray, which is a little bit like saying that Ella Wheeler Wilcox was even less talented than Marianne Moore. (In his recent Oxford Book of Victorian Verse Christopher Ricks rightly allots more space to Gray than to any other poet writing in the 1890s apart from Hardy and Housman.)
The treatment of Gray is very much an exception. Far more characteristic is the insight that enables Ellmann to see that even the tenth Marquess of Queensberry wasn’t quite the simple brute of legend (“Insofar as he was brutal, he practiced a rule-bound brutality”); and if he doesn’t quite succeed in solving the problem of how to be fair to Lord Alfred Douglas, he does manage to sum him up with some elegant formulations (“Douglas liked to live on a knife edge, and to have company there”).
And what of Wilde himself? When it comes to the facts, Ellmann is conscientious, without letting his conscientiousness bog him down. When it comes to interpretation, the psychological patterns he traces tend to be all the more persuasive for his refusal to overstate the case. Take the question—an inescapable one—of how far Wilde sought out his own doom. There was a precedent, of sorts, in his immediate family; an example, at least, of choosing to stand up and face the music rather than taking cover. In 1848, when the Irish nationalist Gavan Duffy appeared in court in Dublin on a charge of publishing seditious articles, Wilde’s mother, who had written them anonymously, created a sensation (something she was never averse to doing) by interrupting the proceedings and announcing, “I, and I alone, am the culprit, if culprit there be.”
Ellmann weighs up the influence of the flamboyant Lady Wilde on her flamboyant son; he also quotes the story (possibly apocryphal, since the source for it is Frank Harris) of Wilde at the age of fifteen following a current trial and telling the other boys at school that he would like nothing more than “to go down to posterity as the defendant in such a case as ‘Regina versus Wilde.”’ Later, he shows himself alert to the element of self-destructiveness in Wilde, the recurrent determination to play with fire.
But he doesn’t take the idea of self-destructiveness too literally, or treat it as though it explained everything. Wilde may have felt “ennobled by victimization,” he writes, but “he liked better not being victimized”; and in an eloquent passage on the fatal decision to go ahead with the libel action against Queensberry, he talks of Wilde’s “half-wish to kill the success he loved.” No more than a half-wish, with Wilde “meaning or almost meaning to pull back at the last.”
Here, as elsewhere, Ellmann shows the mixture of sensitivity and good sense that readers of his earlier books have come to expect of him. And yet it seems to me that he also misreads certain fundamental aspects of the story. In the first place, he gets Wilde’s achievements out of proportion and takes his ideas far too seriously. Creaking boulevard plays and minor essays are analyzed with an intensity that they don’t deserve—but perhaps it is enough to quote the judgment, to my mind a bizarre one, that “Wilde was a moralist, in a school where Blake, Nietzsche, and even Freud were his fellows.” The basis for such a view is that Wilde “was proposing that good and evil are not what they seem, that moral tabs cannot cope with the complexity of behavior.” But so do countless other writers, and it does not necessarily make them Blakes or Nietzsches.