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…

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