This is not to say that the discussions of individual works don’t contain some excellent literary criticism and literary history. In the section on The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, Ellmann comments acutely on Dorian as “aestheticism’s first martyr,” on the disparity between the manifesto for aestheticism in Wilde’s preface and what the book actually says. He also reveals how far the story, in its original version, enshrined a deep desire to take revenge on Whistler—an understandable desire in view of the malice that Whistler had shown him.
But on the larger questions Ellmann simply claims too much. He asks us to think of Wilde as “conducting, in a most civilized way, an anatomy of his society, and a radical reconsideration of its ethics”—not only in “The Critic as Artist” and “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” but in all his major works. He accepts Wilde’s view of himself—as expressed, at its most exalted and self-pitying, in De Profundis—as occupying a “symbolical relation” to his time. The chief objection to such an approach, if you disagree with it, is that it draws attention away from Wilde’s essential nature and his real strengths. His first big success, the American tour, didn’t happen to him by accident: the audiences who flocked to his lectures weren’t going to see the author of a volume of rather feeble poems (the only book he had published at that time), they were going to see Oscar Wilde. Before all else, he was a personality; and his personality was that of a performer, a popularizer, an improviser, a star.
These qualities got into his writing as well as his conversation—they are what keep it alive—and they seem to me incompatible with the kind of depths that Ellmann thought he could discern in him. Like Ellmann, Vincent O’Sullivan was reminded of Nietzsche when he thought about Wilde; but by way of a contrast, not a parallel. Nietzsche, he wrote, “must have had as intense an inner drama as Saint Teresa.” Wilde, on the other hand, “was totally devoid of an interior life. He was a man of the city, and of the heart of the city—the market-place.”
Naturally Ellmann was well aware of the extrovert, audience-seeking aspects of Wilde. What’s askew with his portrait here is a question of misplaced emphasis rather than omission. But he does, I think, come close to ignoring a lesser but by no means insignificant Wildean trait. Bernard Shaw once observed that Wilde was “a snob to the marrow of his being,” and if the comment jumps out at the reader when Ellmann quotes it, it’s not because it says anything that isn’t obvious, but because Ellmann himself does not pursue this line anywhere else in the book.
Shaw wasn’t complaining; he went on to say that it was all the more handsome of Wilde to have unhesitatingly signed his petition on behalf of the Chicago anarchists, at the time of the Haymarket affair—the only man of letters in London who did. But snobbery is a complicated business. Wilde’s humanitarian impulses do him credit, but he probably found signing the petition a good deal easier than going out to dine with a supposed social inferior would have been—and he set his dining-out standards uncommonly high. There are many stories about the pride he took in his social position; he dearly loved rank and pedigree, and it is hard to believe that there was no connection between the fascination Lord Alfred Douglas exercised over him and the Douglas title.
Not that he was more of a snob than, shall we say, Yeats or Henry James—he was just more blatant about it. And snobbery doesn’t seem the worst of sins in a man who was for the most part (and far more than most other writers) notable for good humor and generosity. Still, it was an important part of his character, and in a full-dress biography it deserves to be properly explored.
There is one other major price to be paid if you treat Wilde and all his works, or most of them, too reverentially. The whole shape of his career is bound to seem less extraordinary than it actually was. For suppose he had died a few months short of forty, in the early summer of 1894 rather than in 1900. He would be remembered as a wit, and as a personality of his period; his early plays would occasionally be revived, and almost always prove to be a disappointment; Dorian Gray would sometimes be recommended, but seldom read; now and then literary historians would discuss the essays in Intentions or the stories in The Happy Prince. It would all add up to a fairly thin slice of immortality.
In August and September 1894, however, he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, and earned himself a place among the classics. In May 1895 he was sentenced to two year’s hard labor, and assured himself of an immense worldwide reputation. The Importance of Being Earnest is the one work by Wilde that it is impossible to imagine ever growing stale, and the one instance where almost everyone will rejoice to concur with Ellmann’s estimate. Indeed, his remarks are, if anything, somewhat restrained, though he makes a number of interesting points about the presence of Wilde’s anxieties in the background of the play. (In the first draft Algernon was even going to be taken to prison, for bad debts.) That Wilde should have written The Importance of Being Earnest while he was heading for the great crisis of his life is remarkable—but not more remarkable than that he should suddenly have soared into a realm as absolute as the world of Alice in Wonderland, a comic heaven of which his earlier plays don’t give you more than the faintest hint.
On the subject of Wilde’s homosexuality Ellmann seems to me eminently sane. Perhaps a little too sane, since it was a subject on which Wilde himself was prepared to be a little crazy; but still, sanity is never to be despised. One question on which he throws more light than his predecessors is how far the world at large guessed at Wilde’s inclinations in the early stages of his career. Given the innocence or ignorance of the period, this isn’t easy to decide, but it seems clear from the quotations Ellmann gives, culled from letters and diaries, that there were always plenty of suspicions, and it is fairly safe to assume that many more unpleasant remarks were made than have ever found their way into print.
What is also clear is that for those in the know The Picture of Dorian Gray and Wilde’s public persona by the time he wrote it, at the beginning of the 1980s, represented a partial coming out. In the Latin hymn that Lionel Johnson composed in praise of Dorian and his creator—“Hic sunt poma Sodomorum,” “Here are apples of Sodom”—you can see the first beginnings of Wilde’s transformation into what Auden was to call him sixty years later, “the patron saint of the Homintern.”
Ellmann’s account of Wilde’s behavior in the last months before his downfall is arguably more sparing than it might have been. He doesn’t find space, for example, for Tom Kennion, the young man about whom Wilde wrote so enthusiastically to Ada Leverson (“tall as a young palm tree”), although Kennion might reasonably have rated a mention as the companion whom Wilde took to the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest. And there were other companions who are passed over in silence, like the one who (according to Rupert Croft-Cooke) was still wafting around London at the end of the Second World War, proudly repeating that Wilde had told him he had the most beautiful feet in Europe.
Ellmann gives you a pretty good idea of Wilde’s recklessness, even so; and when it comes to Wilde’s provocations in court, he only has to quote. “Did you ever kiss him?” “Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it.” This was asking for trouble in a big way, and trouble duly came. The record of Wilde’s imprisonment makes the shameful reading that it always has, even allowing for the fact that in the last few months of his sentence he was granted exceptional privileges; and the new details that Ellmann supplies—the nasty-minded report to his superiors from a prison chaplain, for instance, alleging that Wilde’s cell smelled of semen—do little to lighten the picture.
In his way, Wilde was as much of a propagandist as any of the more earnest campaigners for sexual enlightenment among his contemporaries, the John Addington Symondses and the Edward Carpenters. It was as a propagandist, flaunting what he could probably have got away with in private, that he came to grief; and after that, his career as a patron saint was guaranteed. That career isn’t part of Ellmann’s subject, but if it had been he could have provided countless examples of what Wilde, with De Profundis as his last testament, came to mean to other homosexuals (and not only to them) as a hero and martyr. A characteristic instance is that of Hart Crane, whose first published poem was called “C.3.3.,” which readers were meant to recognize as Wilde’s number in Reading Gaol.
To the extent that we are asked to think of Wilde as an exemplary figure, it is only fair that we should also be asked to think of his victims—his wife and children. These matters, too, are complicated. It is easy to say that he shouldn’t have got married, but at the time he did he was only partly aware of his true nature. It would be easy to portray him as a disastrous father, and leave it at that, if it weren’t for the evidence in Vyvyan Holland’s memoir of how much affection his sons retained for him after his downfall, despite all the disruption and bewilderment that it brought into their lives.
At the same time Vyvyan could also write of his elder brother that, after he had learned about his father’s troubles, at the age of nine, “the hackneyed expression ‘he never smiled again’ was for him almost true”; and the effect of those troubles on Wilde’s wife was deadly. Constance Wilde emerges from the story as a singularly touching figure, and not only in the last stages of her life. One of the few things in the book that make one dislike Wilde is his lack of sympathy, early in their marriage, when she tried to tell him about the unhappiness of her upbringing. “He could not be bored with people who went back to their childhoods for their tragedies.”
Constance was only forty when she died. And her husband, dead at fortysix? In spite of all the humiliations and hardships that Ellmann records, the dominant impression left by Wilde’s last years is one of renewed vitality and determined frivolity. He may have been a broken writer, but he was far from being a broken man, and Ellmann’s account strikes me as a bit dour. I miss in it such things as Wilde taking in his stride both Ubu Roi and its author (“In person he is most attractive. He looks just like a very nice renter”—i.e., a male prostitute). I miss the Wilde who, when someone indignantly reminded him that the actor Charles Brookfield had scoured the West End for evidence against him at the time of the Queensberry scandal, simply said, “How absurd of Brookfield!”
Still, “La fin est assez tragique.” Wilde died a hard death, and Ellmann describes it well. Reading it, you feel a double sense of melancholy; it is sad to part company with Wilde under such painful conditions, and sad to think that Ellmann himself—a much missed figure—died not long after the book was finished.