There is a moment in the life of Oscar Wilde that is difficult to interpret. In Paris in 1899, two years after his release from prison and seventeen months before his death, he wrote a short letter to Morton Fullerton, who worked in Paris for the London Times, asking for money. Fullerton, known for his charm and good looks, would later have an affair with Edith Wharton and had been the lover of the English writer and sculptor Lord Ronald Gower, often identified as the model for the louche and cynical Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is hard not to wonder why Wilde selected Fullerton and if Fullerton’s high-toned reply did not contain something more than a mere refusal. He ended it with, “I grope at the hope that meanwhile the stress has passed, and that you will not have occasion to put, malgré vous, either me or anyone else again into such a position of positive literal chagrin.”
Like many others, Fullerton may have felt a distinct chill at the prospect of being associated with Wilde. Since the two were never friends, and since Fullerton, as far as we can make out, had forsaken his homosexual life when he left England, one possible explanation for his haughty reply (to which Wilde responded, “In so slight a matter, my dear Fullerton, sentiment need not borrow stilts”) is that there may have been a faint whiff of blackmail in the request for money. Wilde wrote as a voice from Fullerton’s London years, and Fullerton in Paris had left all that behind to become an enthusiastic heterosexual.
When Wilde and his wife, Constance, came to Paris on their honeymoon fifteen years earlier, he bought a copy of Huysmans’s À Rebours, which had just been published, and he saw Sarah Bernhardt playing Lady Macbeth. Wilde would later write Salomé with Bernhardt in mind, and in The Picture of Dorian Gray he would have Dorian read a novel that closely resembled Huysmans’s: “The whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it.” In his biography of Wilde, Richard Ellmann writes, “Certain sections [of À Rebours] had a staggering effect upon Wilde. One was Huysmans’s description of Gustave Moreau’s paintings of Salome.” Other sections of the book “summoned him towards an underground life totally at variance with his aboveboard role as Constance’s husband.”
In between the honeymoon and the letter to Fullerton there is, for Wilde, a dream visit to Paris, the visit he might have made in 1895 had he fled instead of waiting to face trial. The friendships he might have enjoyed, the work he might have produced, are subjects best reserved for fiction. As Julian Barnes writes in The Man with the Red Coat, “All these matters could, of course, be solved in a novel,” and asks:
What would have happened if Oscar Wilde had taken advice, and the next boat train, rather than wait to be arrested? He might have enjoyed a cheerful French exile, like so many other scamps and scoundrels before him. He would not have been broken in health; but neither would he have written “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
Since The Importance of Being Earnest had, just months before Wilde’s arrest, been much improved by the actor/producer George Alexander, reduced from four acts to three acts while Wilde was cavorting in Algeria with Lord Alfred Douglas and André Gide, it is possible that Wilde could have sent him a play every year from 1895 on. Alexander could have skillfully wielded his scissors on each one.
Such speculations almost come naturally to a reader of Barnes’s book, which circles speculatively, indeed ruminatively, around the lives of a number of figures from the Belle Époque, the same figures who appear in an intriguing short section in volume 3 of Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James. In June 1885, John Singer Sargent wrote to James from Paris to say that he might spare some time for two friends who were coming to London: Dr. Samuel Pozzi, whose portrait Sargent had painted in 1881, and “the unique extra-human [Count Robert de] Montesquiou.” The two were joined by Prince Edmond de Polignac.
Montesquiou, Edel writes, “had in some measure furnished Huysmans his character of Des Esseintes in À Rebours,” and “was destined to become the Baron de Charlus in À la recherche du temps perdu.” Elements of Pozzi went into the making of Dr. Cottard in Proust’s book, and “elements of Polignac went into the fashioning of Bergotte.” Edel writes, “James spent two days with three of Proust’s characters…. It was a case of a great novelist consorting unknowingly with the real-life material of a novelist of the future.”
James did this again in August 1894 when he went to St. Ives to be near Leslie Stephen and his family, including his daughter, the future Virginia Woolf, “whose delicate beauty,” Edel writes, “struck the novelist from the first.” James’s visit was at the end of the Stephen family’s stay in Cornwall, as the summers there were edging their way into Virginia’s creative memory, associated with loss. James went for long walks with Leslie Stephen, who inspired Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, and he spent time in Talland House, which the family rented and was the basis for the house in which the Ramsays lived in the novel.
Thus James was, Edel writes, “encountering the living substance of future novels.” He was moving in a landscape and among characters without realizing that they were shadows waiting for a novelist to make them into substance, or to put it more plainly, that they were real people on their way to becoming fictional.
Barnes wrote about Moreau’s painting of Salomé in his first novel, Metroland, published forty years ago. The Moreau Museum in Paris was one of his protagonist’s “favourite haunts.” Thirty-five years later he saw Sargent’s portrait of Dr. Pozzi in the National Portrait Gallery in London, when it was on loan from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Pozzi, who was in his thirties when the picture was painted, hardly looks like a doctor at all. His long red dressing gown, his embroidered slippers and his fancy white undershirt, his thin, tapered fingers and his soft, distant gaze, suggest the stage rather than the stethoscope.
Instead of a figure out of Proust, Pozzi, as a doctor, seems more like a character from George Eliot, a Parisian version perhaps of Dr. Lydgate from Middlemarch (though Proust’s brother, Robert, in fact worked as Pozzi’s assistant). Like Lydgate, he was handsome and middle-class, but “not entirely without connections,” as Barnes says. He was interested in ideas and translated Darwin. In 1876, five years after Middlemarch was published, Pozzi went to Edinburgh, just as Lydgate had gone to France, where he met Joseph Lister, from whom he learned systems of hygiene to prevent wounds from getting infected. Later he set about transforming, Barnes writes, “French gynaecology from a mere subdivision of general medicine into a discipline in its own right.” His Treatise of Gynaecology, stretching to more than a thousand pages, was translated into many languages and “recognised worldwide as a standard text.”
But Pozzi’s fame went beyond his skills as a doctor. In a time of deep divisions between French conservatives and cosmopolitans, he belonged emphatically to the latter group. He became a representative of scientific progress; among his patients were the very fashionable; his art collection at the end of his life included a Tiepolo ceiling, a Géricault, some Guardis and Corots, two Delacroixs, Greek coins, and Persian miniatures. He sounds like a cross between Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray, and Wilde’s father, who was a famous eye and ear doctor and an equally famous philanderer. Pozzi was known to have an unhappy marriage and a rich love life. At the age of thirty-three, he had married a woman a decade younger, who was described as “young, very rich, and beautiful” (Barnes adds, “strange how that third adjective always adheres logically to the first two”). Soon the Pozzis moved into grand quarters in the Place Vendôme, where he also had his consulting rooms.
Among Pozzi’s lovers, rumor went, was Sarah Bernhardt, with whom he remained friends for half a century. As his fame grew, he was reviled by the right and loved by his friends. “You can see,” Barnes writes,
why Pozzi had become a natural target for the anti-Dreyfusard, anti-Semitic, royalist, nativist, Catholic right. He was, for a start, “not really French,” as his name admitted. He was not at all Catholic, being a Protestant turned atheist…. He was a committed Dreyfusard…. And this was a man who, on a regular basis, examined with his bare hands the naked private parts of good French Catholic wives and daughters, some of whom, as everyone knew, he went on to seduce.
In his autobiography, Robert de Montesquiou did not spare his enemies, but Pozzi was not among them:
As the sun rose, this man of rare good sense and rare good taste…saw the prospect of operations to perform, and his hospital to decorate, so that illness might be made beautiful…; and as, during the day, he was filled with knowledge and purpose, so, in the evening, he was filled with grace and charm.
While there were reasons to envy Dr. Pozzi, it is hard to think of any in the case of Montesquiou. Barnes writes of “a rare and unenviable fate” that
was already beginning to close in on the Count: that of being confused in the public mind—or at least the readerly mind—with an alter ego. His life, and afterlife, were to be dogged by shadow versions of himself.
One of these versions was Huysmans’s. Barnes points out the differences between Montesquiou and Des Esseintes (for example, “Montesquiou is social, Des Esseintes a recluse”) but writes:
Still Des Esseintes “was” Montesquiou: the world knew. And I knew too, because when I bought my Penguin edition of Against Nature in 1967, the cover was a headshot from Boldini’s portrait of Le comte Robert de Montesquiou.
Montesquiou also knew Proust, who nicknamed him “the Professor of Beauty” and in 1893 received a photograph from him with the dedication “I am the sovereign of transitory things.” When Montesquiou went to dinner at Proust’s parents’ house, the list of guests would first have to be submitted to him. “Flowers would be ordered,” Barnes writes, “the cook harassed by Mme Proust, and to keep their principal guest in good temper, he would be asked to lecture about art and taste over the dessert.” On one such occasion, Montesquiou turned to Marcel Proust and said, “How ugly it is here!”; so, too, Oscar Wilde in 1891, on being invited, remarked, “How ugly your house is!”
Proust offered Montesquiou a “parallel, invented [version] of himself” as he created the figure of Charlus in his novel, the first volume of which was published twenty years after his first meeting with Montesquiou. In those years, Barnes writes, the novelist “had copied the Count’s mannerisms, hoovered up his stories of aristocratic life…flattered him, dined him, quarreled with him, flattered him again.” With the publication of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs in 1919, in which the figure of Charlus appears, Montesquiou, Barnes writes, discovered the “final shadow self which would accompany him to the grave and beyond.” A year before his death, he observed, “I ought to start calling myself Montesproust.”
There were, Barnes writes, “worse fates to attend one after death than to be taken for a major character in a masterpiece.” One of these might be to be taken for a minor character, a fate that befell Prince Edmond de Polignac, that third visitor to London in 1885. Polignac, whom Proust described as “a disused dungeon converted into a library,” had met Montesquiou in Cannes in 1875 when the latter was nineteen and he was forty-one. They were both homosexual and closeted, with the doors of Montesquiou’s closet, Barnes writes, “decorated…with flowers and verses and surprising colours, as if this were normal.” Over sherry, they read to one another. And they took walks together. Later they fell out.
Polignac appears under his own name in À la recherche du temps perdu. While Leon Edel claimed that “elements” of him went into Proust’s “fashioning” of the character of Bergotte, there is only a small amount of evidence for this.
Barnes goes into detail about these three men—Pozzi, Montesquiou, Polignac—not to demonstrate how much Proust and Huysmans drew from life in the making of their novels, or indeed how little, but to meditate on the way in which fact and fiction intermingle and then diverge and how fragile and perhaps even phony is the concept that characters in fiction can be better understood by knowing who, in life, they might be based on.
It is possible still to visit the apartment on Bellosguardo above Florence that was once inhabited by the Bostonian Francis Boott and his daughter, Lizzie, and to notice how close the apartment and the gardens are to those of Gilbert Osmond and his daughter, Pansy, in James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Lizzie was an only child, as was Pansy; Boott was a widower and something of a dilettante, as was Osmond. Lizzie, however, was more engaging and less simpering than Pansy, and her father was known to be kind, which Gilbert Osmond was not. And unlike Osmond, he was rich.
But how much or how little the fictional characters and the real ones had in common is hardly the question. James made use of the apartment and the garden as setting. He also made use of the configuration of father and only child—a daughter—in Washington Square and The Golden Bowl in addition to The Portrait of a Lady. He liked the shape of the relationship; it was something he could work with. Yet scene by scene and sentence by sentence, his imagination was autonomous. He was not concerned to reflect life or to bring the inner and outer worlds of his friends to the page.
When The Portrait of a Lady began to appear in serial form, one of James’s friends wrote to say that she saw he had used his dead cousin Milly Temple in the making of Isabel Archer. James replied loftily:
But the thing is not a portrait. Poor Minny was essentially incomplete and I have attempted to make my young woman more rounded, more finished. In truth everyone, in life, is incomplete, and it is [in] the work of art that in reproducing them one feels the desire to fill them out, to justify them, as it were.
James wished to be savored by readers unsullied by base curiosity, not to be pursued by literary detectives. Barnes points out how rich a world Proust created for the literary detective, how many Parisian doctors as well as Pozzi could be mentioned if one were searching for models for Dr. Cottard, “and similarly half a dozen other social hierarchs on whom he drew for Charlus…. There can be a trainspotter side to this aspect of Proust-reading.” He understands that connecting putative originals to characters might be an impediment to reading:
It ought to be the case that the greater the novelist, the more powerful the characters he or she creates, the more real and vivid they stand in our imagination and memory, the less we ought to be interested in the paler figures who once trod the earth and from whom these enduring characters might in some way have sprung.
Barnes is right; we ought not to do this, despite the temptations. One of these, I should say, hangs ripe from the tree in his own book when he quotes a letter from Montesquiou to a young man called Delafosse whom he wishes to drop, sounding uncannily like Charlus:
All the houses that have been opened to you by my sovereign protection will be shut to you and you will be reduced to strumming some Moldavian or Bessarabian clavichord for a pittance. You have only ever been an instrument of my thought, you will never be more than a musical mechanic.
The idea that Wilde used models for his characters is a way of suggesting that he took the London world he inhabited seriously. While he knew Lord Ronald Gower, he actually invented Lord Henry Wotton, and, having invented him, recreated him in the guise of Viscount Goring in An Ideal Husband, Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance, and Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere’s Fan, all men whose aphorisms often gatecrash the party of Wilde’s plays, adding a weary, louche, and cynical tone to the efforts at earnestness, or indeed drama, going on all around.
The opening two sections of The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Lord Henry and the painter Basil Hallward and Dorian meet, do not need to be based on anything. The characters can be read as three versions of Wilde himself at play, each outdoing the other. (It is only Parker the butler who has to be imagined.) Or perhaps more fruitfully these scenes can be taken as Wilde’s effort to do in fiction what he later claimed to have done in drama: “I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or sonnet.” In other words, Wilde’s emphasis in the novel on character and inner life was less than his emphasis on surface and scene. He wanted to make fable and fantasy and comedy. If he based his characters on anything, it was on his own wit and his own glittering dreams. His flair at containing multitudes was greatly augmented by his wavering interest in other people.
Barnes is withering at the thought of people approaching a novelist with a story on which to base a work of fiction:
There is nothing more useless than someone else’s already highly worked-up anecdote…nor does a novelist “study” a real-life person with any deliberate intent to copy and paste them into a novel. The whole process is usually much more passive, sponge-like and haphazard than that.
Even novels that have as protagonist a so-called real person, someone who lived in history, can never claim, with any seriousness, to be an actual portrait of that person. The facts of that person’s life—where they went, whom they loved, what letters they wrote—might be useful as a way of structuring a book, but the levels of feeling and the shaping of experience come from sources more mysterious than the facts, and have an aim that stretches beyond the urge to inform or reflect or be true to a life that was lived long ago.
Part of the problem, as Wilde knew, was that nonfiction, as it is called, or history, is often made up of events that are highly unlikely. Or as Barnes writes, “Nonfiction is where we have to allow things to happen—because they did—which are glib and implausible and moralistic.” It is only in fiction that the facts have to be plausible.
In his Something to Declare: Essays on France and French Culture (2002), Barnes does not suffer biographers gladly: “After the morticians, along come the biographers.” He quotes Flaubert: “I have no biography” and “I…believe that a writer should leave behind nothing but his works.” Barnes does not heap praise on those brave enough to attempt a biography of Flaubert. Sartre, for example, “seared the novelist with a terrifying theoretical grid—like an imperious chef branding false scorch-marks on to a steak after it’s been cooked.”
In The Man in the Red Coat, Barnes returns to the subject: “‘We cannot know.’ …Biography is a collection of holes tied together with string, and nowhere more so than with the sexual and amatory life.” Although we are led to believe that Dr. Pozzi was a seducer and that Montesquiou was “a flamboyant homosexual,” Barnes makes clear how little real evidence we have for either of these: “We may speculate as long as we also admit that our speculations are novelistic, and that the novel has almost as many forms as there are forms of love and sex.”
Fiction has a way of making things seem true. For example, Huysmans wrote in À Rebours about Des Esseintes acquiring a tortoise and decorating its shell with jewels. This “bedizened tortoise was,” Barnes writes, “supposedly part of the information pack about Montesquiou which Mallarmé passed to Huysmans.” But Huysmans’s biographer says that all Mallarmé saw was “the remains of an unfortunate tortoise whose shell had been coated with gold paint.” And Montesquiou’s biographer, in turn, says that the whole story of the tortoise was “an invention of [the poet] Judith Gautier.” However, in his own book Montesquiou attests to the existence of “that magnificent and misfortunate amphibian whose truth I do not in the least deny.” The only way to the truth is to ask the tortoise, and the tortoise may not have ever existed.
“There is gossip,” Barnes writes,
and then there is sexual gossip. The thing about sexual gossip is that more or less everyone believes it (even when they pretend not to) because it always seems plausible…. The sexual habits of human beings are a mystery, yet one which when “solved,” appears to solve the wider mystery of the human personality.
Barnes read in an art magazine that Pozzi was “not only the father of French gynaecology but also a confirmed sex addict who routinely attempted to seduce his female patients,” yet finds that “there is not a single recorded note of female complaint against him.” He accepts that this may be an example of the sort of power Pozzi wielded. However, “Pozzi never emerges from documents of the time as the kind of ruthless libertine—indeed ‘sex addict’—into which he is being transformed by a twenty-first century coarsening of language and memory.”
Barnes has a good time writing about the ways in which Sarah Bernhardt’s sexuality was described. She was, it seemed, both insatiable and frigid. It was not perhaps she herself as much as the public’s interest in her private life that could not be satisfied. In 1892 Edmond de Goncourt recorded the rumor that she had undergone surgery that would allow her to have an orgasm, but Barnes has his doubts.
Goncourt also noted in his diary that Montesquiou’s first heterosexual encounter was with a female ventriloquist who “threw her voice to make it sound as if a drunken pimp had come in, and was threatening her aristocratic client.” Barnes has two problems with this. One, there is no other source. Two, it contradicts a better story in which the count’s first such encounter was with none other than Sarah Bernhardt:
And this story comes in two different versions. In one they rolled around on cushions together for a while, after which the Count vomited solidly (or liquidly) for twenty-four hours. In the second, they actually went to bed together, after which Montesquiou vomited for an entire week. We cannot know.
Bernard Berenson even cast doubt on Montesquiou’s homosexual activities: “In my long acquaintance with Montesquiou, I never noticed the side for which Charlus is famous: sodomy. And Lord knows, at that time, young as I was, I made homosexuals’ mouths water.” He does not mention any vomiting.
Barnes is fascinated by facts that turn out to be untrue and by unlikely but provable connections between people and things. Early in the book, he notes that Léon Daudet, who wrote many volumes of memoirs, remembered being given a curated tour by Montesquiou of items in his famous collection. One of them was “the bullet that killed Pushkin.” Later in the book, Barnes looks at the list in which this item was included and decides that it is all too unlikely. Perhaps, he concludes, Daudet made it up, and it was only “a sly and mocking fantasy.” Moreover, after being rebuked once for telling lies, Daudet, the son of the novelist Alphonse Daudet, replied, “If I never lied, I would be a mere railway timetable.”
While Barnes is concerned in this book to find things that don’t add up, he also relishes the moments when a clear, connecting line can be drawn. For example, Wilde bought À Rebours on his honeymoon. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, he allowed the book to corrupt his protagonist. In his trial, when Edward Carson asked Wilde if À Rebours was an immoral book, Wilde replied, “Not very well written, but I would not call it an immoral book. It is not well written.” Carson continued slowly and forensically to tease out the question, asking, “A well-written book putting forth sodomitical views might be a good book?” And thus the book Wilde bought on his honeymoon helped to cause his downfall.
Wilde and Pozzi, and perhaps even Montesquiou, admired Bernhardt; Pozzi and James were both painted by Sargent; Wilde and Montesquiou had the same response to the interior décor at the Prousts. Barnes enjoys these connections. But in ways that are subtle and sharp, he seeks to puncture easy associations, doubtful assertions, lazy assumptions. He is interested in the space between what can be presumed and what can be checked.
Within that space, however, interpretation, even surmise, are often claimed as necessary but are always suspect. As a way of introducing Morton Fullerton’s turning down Wilde’s request for money in 1899, Ellmann wrote, “A letter from the journalist Morton Fullerton, a friend of Henry James, suggests the kind of nastiness to which Wilde exposed himself by his importunities.” The idea of blackmail does not occur to Ellmann. Nonetheless, a belief that Wilde’s letter contained veiled blackmail may be given further traction because Fullerton was indeed blackmailed by a former female lover while he had his affair with Edith Wharton.
But this happened later, after Wilde’s death. And there may be a simpler explanation for the “nastiness” of Fullerton’s letter, one that would satisfy Barnes’s wish that we should only connect when we have enough evidence, or else we should write novels. There is a famous letter written by James to Fullerton in September 1900: “I want in fact more of you…. You are dazzling…you are beautiful; you are more than tactful, you are tenderly, magically tactile. But you are not kind. There it is. You are not kind.” Looking at this letter beside the one Fullerton wrote to Wilde nine months earlier, it is tempting to conclude that Fullerton’s letter was not from a man who was being threatened with blackmail but from a man who was not kind. But as Barnes would point out, who can say what James actually meant when he wrote, “You are not kind”? Being James, he might not have meant quite the opposite, but many suggestive things in between.