I am writing to tell you about the latest big fat biography of yourself, you, Oscar Wilde. You’ve probably already read Oscar: a Life by Matthew Sturgis, but if not do. It’s a vast catalogue of your life, a huge collection of facts all gathered together in a single volume and narrated with lively enthusiasm by historian Matthew Sturgis. Even for people not inclined to read or to learn more about your sainted self, it’s an easy page turner. Like you, the book is an astonishing achievement, exhaustive, charming and compelling, and only minorly flawed by the publisher’s sloppy production.
The book tracks the timeline of your life with immense detail. Your upbringing in Ireland and time at Portora School are carefully documented, along with masses of skinny on your relatives, family, friends and contemporaries. Your brilliance and sometime (fleeting) sportiness are shared, as are the details of your move to Trinity College Dublin and thence to Oxford. It was at Oxford that your identity as an artist started taking tangible shape, along with your previously under-developed abilities to command attention, involvement and direction. You’re soon drawn to London and its fashionable society, a larger and more demanding stage where you continued to thrive rising slowly through the soup. But you had no readily accessible means of earning a decent living, despite winning the Newdigate Prize for Ravenna in 1878 and publishing Poems in 1881. Transition was needed from poet, to performer, author and playwright, and was soon in motion.
The brilliant idea of an American tour was almost a disaster following your first performance in New York City in 1882. D’Oyly Carte had wisely hedged his gamble with only a single booking for the preening society aesthete with unproven oratory skills. Subsequent tentative dates were only to be confirmed following responses to the initial outing. Despite a rough start, the lecture and the jokes worked out and you grew over the coming months into a polished and popular performer.
It was clear from the outset that Oscar Wilde’s outwardly shifting persona would respond to the demands of audience as it did throughout the 1882 US tour. But persona and audience morphed in tandem throughout your life. Aspiration and vanity, victories and collapses, your evolving sexuality from heterosexual, bisexual to homosexual, shaped your identity and presentation. A pattern in others’ of cautious or bold risk-taking, mirrored your own mercurialism. It traces across your life: diminished risk to publish or stage your work as your reputation grew; increased risk to commercial ventures of your notoriety and attendant outrageousness. No rules.
Mr Sturgis presents a clear picture of your obvious brilliance and magic, and also of your vulnerability to flattery and beauty. No surprises there. And throughout his work Mr Sturgis energetically corrects errors in literary critic Richard Ellman’s definitive biography, published after Ellman’s death in 1987. But the huge numbers of typographic errors publisher Head of Zeus has allowed in Oscar: a Life rather undermines one’s confidence in these corrections. I am sure someone has already pointed them out, but throughout the text’s 720 pages there is barely a chapter without mistakes: your funeral was on the 3rd December, not the 3rd November. Is it Salomé or Salome? And shouldn’t pronouns and verbs agree?
We learn that intellect untamed searches always for innovative ideas, insights and perspectives no matter how grungy their habitats or philosophy (remember the Decadents?). Pushing the ideas of others to their limits, challenging social convention and expectations whether in poems or fashion or home décor began with you, you, Oscar Wilde. And it’s what all of us now aspire to. Aesthetic traditions, their particularities, expression, are conversely universal and unique, for individuals are simultaneously ordinary and exceptional. Whatever the green eyed James Whistler charges, your aesthetic persona and expression are more than a reworking of someone else’s philosophy. Thankfully this comes through in Oscar a Life.
It’s also clear that your genius morphs with your humanity, kindness and individualism subverted, or glittered, with vanity and ego. The emergence of the Oscar Wilde persona began early, grew as your genius became apparent, was amplified by fame and then started to distort. But never, ever did your brilliance, underlying decency and generosity of spirit diminish. Throughout the public scenes, trials and imprisonment, consideration for others was always there. It too often got lost in the torrent of passion for Bosie and his evil influence and subculture corruption. Denial and shame made you spiteful sometimes, as guilt and embarrassment periodically trumped kindness. This was particularly and horribly evident in your dealings Constance and others whom you should have trusted more. But you know this.
Knowledge, carnal or otherwise, was always your fuel but sadly wisdom too often lingered a little too long, as it does for most of us. Our shared frailty is why people still read and enjoy your work, why love for Oscar Wilde is spread so far and wide. You are not forgotten and your influence persists, variously cloaked in notoriety and hero worship. It’s acknowledged by those who know you. It’s obviously unacknowledged by those who are unknowingly beholden to you, but they are many.
You show us the origins of much that distresses modern life: performance and identity, the need for audience and attention, the desire to be heard and taken seriously, understanding what it is to be as one and as one of many. The paradoxes in which you so delight are clear in both biographies. Truth and lies, male and female, brutality and gentleness, hypocrisy and faith, the secptic and the trusting, mirrors all. But the paradoxes are clearest in your works. They veil our ugliest traits, our vanities and deceits, ignorance and denials. In the darkly radical The Picture of Dorian Grey and the evanescent humour of The Importance of Being Earnest our own hypocrisies are played out.
You were not self-destructive (too vain for that), but rather caught in a vortex of events, shocked and horrified at your own reversal, that your gainsayers really did mean it. That this time there was no chance of rebounding. You knew disaster was coming but instead stood fast, brave, and faced it. It was a matter of honour and truth, of the artistry of life in black and white and of your own integrity in the dock. You stood on a stage of your own construction and were not cowed when enemies tried to dismantle it. Not then, not now.
– A Woman of Even Less Importance.
PS “…No longer now shall Slander’s venomed spite
Crawl like a snake across his perfect name,
Or mar the lordly scutcheon of his fame. …”