Shadow Selves

Dr. Pozzi at Home; painting by John Singer Sargent
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
John Singer Sargent: Dr. Pozzi at Home, 1881

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…

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