The argument could be made that Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest literary artists of what we persist in calling the fin de siècle—that is, roughly, the period between 1880 and 1900—was at his greatest in two instances of aesthetic theorizing, namely the page-long preface to his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the pamphlet-length essay “The Decay of Lying.” It may seem paradoxical to lay so heavy an emphasis on a couple of snippets from an oeuvre that includes such theatrical masterpieces as The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, as well as the tormented prison testaments De Profundis and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” but then was not Wilde himself the supreme master of paradox? Indeed, turning the received wisdom of the ages upon its head, with the lightest and most elegant flick of an aphorism, was the very essence of his art.
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” the preface to Dorian Gray pronounces, with the serene authority of a papal bull—Wilde, with his love of pomp and swagger, held the papacy in fascinated and envious esteem—which raises the further question as to whether there might be such a thing as a moral or an immoral life. Late-Victorian England certainly had no doubt, after Wilde’s headlong plunge into disgrace in 1895, that he was to the highest degree an immoralist, to use his friend and admirer André Gide’s term, and for his crimes consigned him to two years’ hard labor, before stepping back with a snarl of disgust and a grim brushing of the hands.
And it was not just the haute bourgeoisie that rounded on him: numerous fellow artists deserted their former friend and colleague, not a few of them in terror of being themselves seized upon and hauled out of the closet. Henry James, who had met Wilde early on, in 1882, in America, and pronounced him “an unclean beast” whom he found “repulsive and fatuous,” was in equal measures shocked and gripped by the “very squalid tragedy, but still a tragedy” that began with Wilde’s committal for trial on charges of homosexual offenses in the spring of 1895. James wrote to a friend at the time: “[Wilde] was never in the smallest degree interesting to me—but this hideous human history has made him so—in a manner.” In a manner: in the barely breathed cadence both the terror and the wistfulness are clearly to be heard.
The burning question that was asked at the time, and it is a question that glimmers to this day, was why Wilde had not taken advantage of the chance to flee the country that was tacitly offered to him by the authorities on that fateful day—the adjective is unavoidable—April 5, 1895, when a warrant for his arrest on charges of homosexual crimes was held in abeyance for an hour and a half, time enough for him to take the steamer to Calais and immunity from prosecution. Even his mother had urged him to go, but go he would not. “I decided it was nobler and more beautiful to stay,” he told the love of his life, Lord Alfred Douglas. “I did not want to be called a coward or a deserter.” To the end he connived in and embraced his own downfall.
The facts of the affair have become the stuff of legend, so perhaps it is well to reiterate them briefly here. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854, to Sir William Wilde, a highly successful and fashionable eye and ear surgeon, and his admirable if slightly preposterous wife, Jane, who had Italian blood in her veins, and under the pseudonym Speranza wrote patriotic poetry—high-flown doggerel, most of it—for the nationalist press, which on one occasion almost earned her a prison sentence. What a thing it would have been for the highly respectable Wildes had she been convicted: two jailbirds in one family!
Young Oscar attended Portora boarding school in Enniskillen, then Trinity College, Dublin, and progressed on to Oxford, where he became one of Magdalen College’s dubious exquisites, gleefully dressing the part in flowing capes and floppy collars and adorning his rooms with ostrich feathers, fresh lilies, and much blue china. However, he also applied himself energetically to his studies, particularly in Greek and Latin—it was no idle boast when at the last he spoke of himself as having been “once a lord of language.”
At Oxford he came under new and, for the time, revolutionary intellectual influences, including John Ruskin and, in particular, Walter Pater, whose artistic doctrines were to be of the highest significance for Wilde in his life and in his art. Like all artists, of course, he must, if not strike dead the father—the Pater!—then at least deliver him a glancing blow. In the largely one-sided dialogue that is “The Decay of Lying,” dominant Vivian, who is Wilde’s mouthpiece, goes a delicate but decidedly measured step further than his mentor in the drive to relieve art of all supposed debt to mere utility and the commonplace world’s “turbid passions”:
Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new aesthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr Pater dwells, that makes music the type of all the arts.
The “new aesthetics” were perhaps not quite the novelty he claimed them to be—the art-for-art’s-sake movement was well underway when he published “The Decay of Lying” in 1889—but no one, not even Flaubert in his letters or Baudelaire in his journalism, had stated the case for art’s total autonomy with such point and assurance, and in such a consummately persuasive prose style. And then there is the breadth of reading, in classical and modern authors, on which much of Wilde’s argument is founded. He knew well whereof he so fluently spoke.
When he finished his studies, it was with the most concentrated single-mindedness and beadiness of eye that he set about making his way in the “world of letters,” as the literary egg-and-spoon race used quaintly to be called. Oddly, perhaps, for one so learned in and committed to the culture of Old Europe, it was in the New World that he forged—ah, how ambiguous that so innocent-seeming little word!—his first lavish success, when he undertook an American speaking tour, lecturing on, among other topics, the art of interior design. The trip was supposed to take up four months, but lasted a year. Though far from home, Oscar had arrived.
In his private life also he seemed to step onto the firmest of ground when in 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, a lawyer’s daughter with a not inconsiderable private income to sweeten the match. They moved into a nice house in Tite Street in London’s Chelsea, where they carried out much interior design and had two children, Cyril and Vyvyan—curiously, these were the names he gave to the pair of debaters in “The Decay of Lying,” though “Vyvyan” there is spelled “Vivian”—but the tender tethers of domestic bliss could not keep Oscar in check for long. As he wrote years later, “Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search for new sensation.” At first the depths of depravity in which he sank himself were not very deep. It is believed he had his first serious homosexual experience in 1886 with the French-born Canadian journalist and art critic Robert Ross, who was to remain one of his staunchest friends and supporters up to, and following, his death.
Here we must pause a moment. Shallow the depths may have been, but they were murky too. “Did Oscar Wilde think of himself as a homosexual?” Nicholas Frankel asks early on in Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentent Years, his fascinating study of the hitherto largely neglected last phase of Wilde’s life. Pointing out that the word “homosexual” first appeared in print, and then only as an adjective, in 1892, Frankel observes:
There must always be something anachronistic about speaking of any Victorian’s “sexual identity.” Sex—whether sanctioned or illicit—was something people engaged in, but it wasn’t yet seen as an expression of one’s sexuality.
All the same, it seems fair to say that Wilde knew his own nature, whatever term he might employ to describe it. “A poet in prison for loving boys loves boys,” he wrote matter-of-factly from Paris, after his release from incarceration and his reconciliation with Douglas—“Bosie”—and he went on to point out, in the dignified, melancholy tone of his last years, that if after serving his sentence he had altered his life and given up “boys,” it would have been to admit that “Uranian love is ignoble.” But which was it that drove him most desperately, the commitment to nobility and true love or the nostalgie de la boue that brought him to the muddied depths where boy prostitutes, or “renters,” paddled and plashed? Or were the depths the depths of the jungle? “It was like feasting with panthers,” he famously wrote from prison. “The danger was half the excitement.”
The particular “occasion of sin,” as the priests used to have it, that put him behind bars was darling Bosie. Douglas has been much maligned, and deservedly so, as many might think, though not Frankel, one of whose aims, in his quiet but persuasively revisionist account, is to scrape at least some of the slime from Bosie’s besmeared reputation:
The relationship between Wilde and Douglas is still widely misunderstood. Douglas has too often been represented as a callous and heartless Judas or Iago figure who spurred Wilde on to not one but two disastrous and fateful actions, before abandoning Wilde each time to face the consequences alone.
One must admire Frankel’s largeness of spirit in seeking to recuperate Bosie’s reputation, but he does not produce a great deal of evidence in support of his case. True, Bosie was more than the spoiled, sniveling brat that posterity has made of him—but not much more. He did push Wilde toward the edge of the precipice, seemingly without any care for the consequences, and even if, as Frankel writes, “he knew and loved Wilde more intimately than any other individual in the period with which we are concerned,” that love had as much in it of selfishness and irresponsibility as “Uranian” nobility.
The first of the “two disastrous and fateful actions” that Bosie took was to persuade Wilde to institute a libel case against his father, the truly vile Marquess of Queensbury—a Mr. Hyde without a Dr. Jekyll—who, knowing of his son’s relations with Wilde, left his calling card at Wilde’s club with a note scrawled across it accusing the fabulously famous playwright of being a “somdomite [sic].” Wilde, in defiance of the advice of many of his friends, went ahead and instituted proceedings for libel, which, as we know, proved a horrible miscalculation, and led to his being charged with acts of gross indecency and sent to jail.
It is likely that Wilde did not fully grasp what a jail sentence meant in those times. “Almost certainly,” Frankel writes, “he still held an exalted and Romantic view of imprisonment: he had once written that ‘an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.’” A terrible awakening was in store for him at Pentonville Prison, one of the harshest places of detention in Victorian England. “At first it was a fiendish nightmare,” Wilde told another loyal friend, Frank Harris, “more horrible than anything I had ever dreamt of.” On arrival he was made to “bathe” in a tub of filthy water; his hair, those ample locks of which he had once been so vain, was cropped short; and, clad in “the livery of shame,” he was thrust into a cell so confined and noisome he felt he could barely breathe:
But the inhumanity was the worst of it; what devilish creatures men are. I had never known anything about them. I had never dreamt of such cruelties.
It is to Wilde’s great credit that after his release he worked hard to bring about reform of the penal system and achieved considerable results. He was also a vigorous campaigner for the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, under which he had been convicted for homosexual activity. “I have no doubt that we shall win,” he wrote to the activist George Ives in 1898, “but the road is long, and red with monstrous martyrdoms.” Here it should be kept in mind that Wilde the arch-aesthete was also the author of the anarchist-influenced essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism.” Oscar was a man of many parts, not all of them effete.
By the autumn of 1895 Wilde was, in Frankel’s words, “nearing a complete breakdown.” Seriously debilitated by hunger, sleeplessness, and recurring illnesses, he was so weak that one morning he could not get out of bed, and when forced to he fell down repeatedly; in one of these falls he suffered damage to his inner ear, an injury that may well have contributed to his premature death from meningoencephalitis five years later.
As time went on his prison conditions did improve somewhat, thanks in part to the efforts of Ross and, especially, Harris, one of the figures in Wilde’s circle hitherto regarded as a rascal but who comes out of Frankel’s informed and engrossing book with a positively saintly aspect. In the summer of 1896, Harris secured an interview with Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise, the chairman of the Prison Commission, to plead for more lenient treatment for the suffering prisoner, who by now had been transferred from the Piranesian chamber of horrors that was Pentonville to the slightly less punitive Reading Gaol. To Harris’s pleasant surprise, Ruggles-Brise at once dispatched him to Reading to ascertain Wilde’s condition, physical and spiritual.
According to Frankel, “Harris’s visit of 1896 was a turning point in Wilde’s treatment during his two years in prison.” One effect, which was not to last, was Wilde’s pious and purely strategic repudiation of his notions of the nobility of Uranian love. At Harris’s urging, Wilde concocted a long and on the face of it heartfelt petition to the British Home Secretary pleading for early release. Frankel writes:
It begins by observing that, while he had no wish to palliate the “terrible offences” of which he had “rightly been found guilty,” those offences were “forms of sexual madness” and “diseases to be cared for by a physician, rather than crimes to be punished by a judge.”
The capitulation that this two-thousand-word document represents is thoroughly understandable, given Wilde’s plight, yet it is dismayingly sad to see such a proud man brought so low.
In the long, epistolary cri de coeur that is De Profundis, completed in 1897, Wilde excoriated Bosie as the cause of his ruin. Ironically, Bosie did not even know of the existence of this document until many years later. Wilde had left it in the care of Robert Ross, who published it five years after his death. So heavily censored was this version that Douglas himself was able to review it—in Motorist and Traveler!—without realizing that it had originated as a letter to himself.
Yet far from causing Wilde to regard Douglas as a baneful and destructive influence upon him, the torments of his two years in prison seem only to have intensified his passion for the handsome and not untalented young man. As Frankel writes, “The strictly sexual element in their love for each other had disappeared in the early years of their relationship…. But the two men still loved each other, and their continued friendship and affection was a public scandal.” In a letter to his mother, which Frankel has no hesitation in describing as “heartbreaking,” Douglas wrote: “I still love and admire him, and I think he has been infamously treated by ignorant and cruel brutes.”
The scandalous reunion became public when they settled together in Naples, a city Wilde described with relish as “evil and luxurious” and where the recidivist pair, despite a chronic shortage of funds, ate well, drank copiously, and diverted themselves in hot pursuit of boys. This was the second of the two “disastrous and fateful actions” that Frankel considers to have been unjustly blamed on Bosie; to the contrary, he insists—perhaps a little overstrenuously—that the “ill-fated reunion of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in Naples is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented events in the history of literature,” even though it “put paid to whatever hopes of respectability and a decent livelihood Wilde nurtured.”
Respectability: the word immediately conjures the thought of Wilde’s wife, Constance, baffled by the calamity that had befallen her and her children, and always expressive more of sadness than anger or vituperation. Her harshest action was to forbid Wilde access to their two sons, and he went to his grave without ever having a glimpse of them again, except in photographs that she sent him. This was one of the deprivations he found hardest to bear—“what I want is the love of my children”—and for which he could not bring himself to forgive his wife. All the same, he fully realized the dreadful wound he had inflicted on this decent and much put-upon woman: “I don’t mind my life being wrecked,” he wrote to a friend, “that is as it should be—but when I think of poor Constance I simply want to kill myself.”
Wilde’s friends urged him to begin writing again in those last, forlorn years, and he even signed contracts for new work, but it was only a ruse to get hold of some cash, of which he was ever in need—in Paris after his release from jail he stopped his old friend the singer Nellie Melba in the street and, almost weeping in shame, asked her for money. Although he was destitute, he still insisted on living the life of the hugely successful playwright he had once been. “My work was a joy to me,” he wrote: “when my plays were on, I drew a hundred pounds a week! I delighted in every minute of the day.” But was it precisely there, in the joy, the boundless delight, the bullion in the bank, that he had prepared his own ultimate failure? After his release he tried, in Naples and elsewhere, to rekindle the spark of glory, but in vain; all was ashes. “Something is killed in me,” he told Ross. “I feel no desire to write.” And he added: “I don’t think I am equal to the intellectual architecture of thought.”
This last is a highly significant observation, perhaps more significant and more revealing than he realized. Had he ever allowed himself to be the equal of what was required by the excess of literary talent that had been bestowed on him? Had he lived up to his own austere demands, which he set out so dogmatically, despite the lightness of expression, in the preface to Dorian Gray and “The Decay of Lying”? Certainly the plays are great, in their way—Salomé in particular shows him for the subversive artist he could have been, had he had the nerve for it—but somehow they are not quite enough, not quite the fulfilment of his genius. He had, throughout his life, talked away too much of his talent; as one observer put it, “He wasted himself in words.”
There are hints that he knew, or at least suspected, that at the deepest level he had faltered in his task. When he published a revised version of The Importance of Being Earnest, he dedicated it to the ever-faithful Ross, but remarked wistfully that he “wish[ed] it were a more wonderful work of art—of higher seriousness of intent” (italics added). Likewise, of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” he pointed out that it was “drawn from actual experience” and therefore “a sort of denial of my own philosophy of art.”
Could it be, then, that it is precisely in his philosophy of art, rather than the works of art he produced out of it, that his true achievement rests? His plays and his fiction sparkle, they coruscate with brilliant gleams and glitters, but even at its best, his is an art of talking heads, of heads that talk in defiance of that “higher seriousness of intent” that must inform even the lightest work—contrast Wilde and Chekhov, and marvel at what the latter could make out of characters just as flimsy-seeming as the former’s incessantly and sometimes insufferably witty marionettes.
It is a common notion that Wilde set going the conflagration that destroyed him out of a surfeit of success—“a hundred pounds a week!”—but it is also possible to think that what kindled the flame was the awareness of failure smouldering in him from the outset. When Gide asked him if he had been aware that it would all come to ruin, his reply resonated with ambiguous emphasis:
Of course! Of course I knew that there would be a catastrophe… I was expecting it. It had to end that way. Just imagine: it wasn’t possible to go any further, and it couldn’t last. That’s why, you see, it has to be ended.
An artist’s aesthetic will not be denied; that way the profoundest depths await.