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Oscar Wilde

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.

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.

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