BOOK REVIEW - RICHARD ELLMANN – OSCAR WILDE 1987 Penguin Books.
The definitive biography of Wilde, charting his dramatic rise and tragic fall from grace, with many wonderful quotations from his work. Ellmann has a theory that Wilde’s death may have been due to syphilis contracted from a youthful flirtation with a female prostitute – surprising, given his reputation for homosexuality. His family background was already illustrious, and Wilde excelled at literary criticism, developing a powerful theory of aesthetics, arguing that life imitates arts rather than the other way round. His own approach to fashion and social standing was very much modelled on this.
America was only just waking up to aesthetics, and Wilde secured a speaking tour, much as Charles dickens had done some years before. Wilde was quite scathing about Dickens, writing that ‘A man would have to have a heart of stone not to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.’
The tour was not a rousing success, as Wilde was as likely to give offence by his cutting wit, as secure friends. He seems to have had a passionate meeting with the elderly Walt Whitman, though Henry James despised Wilde.
The plays received mix criticism too, but Wilde secured the support of leading actresses of the day, including Sarah Bernhard and Lillie Langtree, and wrote for both. Wilde had to write Salome in French for Bernhard to avoid conflict with the British censors.
His affair with the Ganymede-handsome Lord Alfred Douglas proved to be the seed of Wilde’s downfall, as Douglas, known as Bosie, was in serious conflict with his father, the appalling and brutal Marquee Of Queensbury, who set out to destroy Wilde to get at his son. Queensbury openly accused Wilde of sodomy and Wilde rashly tried to sue him for Libel, despite a great deal of evidence to support Queensbury’s case.
Britain’s sodomy laws had become a virtual charter for blackmail and libel, and Wilde had taken part in many affairs, as well as using many male prostitutes. Some of the men he had been involved with would give testimony against him, and some even shared his imprisonment for their involvement. Bosie was able to keep back from the case and it said that on the eve of the first trial (there were three) the ferry to Calais, which normally carried about 60 passengers at that time of year, suddenly carried 600 men into exile and hiding.
Wilde tried to use the courts to show off his literary skills, and at one point scored points by pointing out that a gay poem he was accused of penning was actually the work of Shakespeare. .
The tide rolled against him though, and he went to prison, at Pentonville and most famously, Reading Jail. He suffered terribly there, and witnessed the persecution of child prisoners and the execution of a murderer, which he challenged in his last great work, the poem called The Ballad Of Reading Jail.
Prison destroyed Wilde, who left it with considerable weight loss, susceptibility to infection, and bankrupt. Many of his friends of old avoided him in France where Wilde drifted from house to house, eventually dying in a lonely bedsit, a few months after his nemesis, Queensbury also died a sad lonely death, alienated from all of his own family.
A powerful, ultimately tragic tale, about love, art, literature, beauty and human prejudice and cruelty. It is Wilde’s writings that really shine through though, making his plight all the more terrible.
© Copyright. Arthur Chappell
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