OSCAR WILDE: A LIFE by Matthew Sturgis, Knopf, 864 pages, $ 40
Oscar Wilde’s birthday is October 16, 1854, and there’s an easy way to celebrate and give yourself a gift: Get a copy of Oscar Wilde: A Life by Matthew Sturgis, an authority on the 1890s whose previous work focused on artists Walter Sickert and Aubrey Beardsley. Without supplanting the beautifully written Richard Ellmann Oscar wilde, Sturgis’ biography is now the most comprehensive one-volume account of the iconic gay writer, esthete, spirit and martyr of the turn of the century. It draws on the most recent handwritten discoveries and scholarship, but remains deliberately faithful to the life of Wilde, unlike Ellmann’s magnum opus, which includes substantial commentary on major works.
In the last of these works, the overly long poem “The Ballad of the Prison Reading,” Wilde ponders gloomily about the impending execution of a young soldier who murdered his beloved. Many people will recognize his most famous phrase: “Yet every man kills the thing he loves. But what does this mean, Lord Alfred Douglas once asked its author? As Sturgis writes, Wilde responded to Bosie (his nickname for his young boy lover) by whispering, “You should know.”
In 1895, repeatedly encouraged by Bosie, Wilde brought a lawsuit against the father of the first, the Marquis of Queensberry (whose rules of professional boxing are named) after the bellicose nobleman accused him of being a ” sodomite ”. Three riveting attempts followed. Despite Wilde’s demagoguery and equivocation, there was no doubt about the testimony of various rent-boys detailing the carnal competition. In May, Wilde was duly convicted of violating the “gross indecency” law and was sentenced to a maximum of two years of hard labor, largely in Reading Prison.
In moments of pity, the prisoner C. 3.3, as Wilde was referred to, sometimes compared himself to a brutally downcast tragic hero or even a persecuted Jesus Christ. In the past, the triumph followed the glorious triumph. Just before Wilde’s audience drama, his most witty play, The importance of being serious, had opened (during a snowstorm in February) to a success that has never diminished. Five years earlier, in 1890, his Faustian shocker, Dorian Gray’s photo, has garnered over 200 reviews in its magazine version alone. The game and the novel explore the delights – or depravities – of a secret life. Even his essays from the late 1880s and early 90s provocatively speculated on our need for masks, the transgressive nature of art, and Shakespeare’s possible infatuation with a boy-actor.
Not just a writer, however, Wilde was also a celebrity, known for his outrageous after-dinner epigrams and paradoxes, such as these quips from his disturbing comedy, Lady Windermere’s fan: “I can resist anything but temptation” and “In this world there are only two tragedies: one does not get what one wants, and the other gets it.” Wilde, in his twenties, had already perfected the delivery of his statements – the slow enunciation, the relaxed hand gesture – while also lecturing on aesthetics and interior design in America. There, too, he was kissed by Walt Whitman, attended a voodoo ceremony in New Orleans, and contemplated Niagara Falls: the most vivid, disappointments of American married life.
As Sturgis reminds us, Oscar has always been a golden boy. His parents hosted Dublin’s first art fair. Desperate to be famous, Wilde then moved to London, where the increasingly flamboyant dandy paid homage to company hostesses, great “influencers” and international beauties like actress Sarah Bernhardt. Yet, as Sturgis reminds us, when he married Constance Lloyd, it was a true love match – at least until Wilde started practicing what he had mostly read until now.
“Panthers’ Feast” – that is, cavorting with Douglas and the shady company – opened Wilde to blackmail, arrest and utter ruin. When he lost the Queensberry case, he considered, but couldn’t cope, committing suicide. While he languished miserably in Reading Gaol, his once proud mother passed away, he was forbidden to see his two beloved sons Cyril and Vyvyan, and his heartbroken wife changed the surname to Holland. Plus, Wilde’s unpaid debts and legal costs left him in dire straits. The contents of his elegant Tite Street home – around 2,000 pounds, all the furniture, even the children’s toys – were auctioned off for paltry sums. Unsurprisingly, the loathsome Bosie never visited him in prison, didn’t even write. In his misery, Wilde eventually wrote a multi-page heartfelt cry to Douglas, “De Profundis”, which bitterly traced the story of their tumultuous relationship.
Yet three months after his release, finding his creative spark extinguished and seeing no future to speak of, Wilde is slowly and inexorably brought back to Bosie. The couple lived together from time to time in Italy until Wilde eventually moved to Paris, surviving on a small stipend and gifts from friends. When, despite surgery, a suppurative ear infection spread to his brain, he died at the age of 46 on November 30, 1900, at the dawn of a new century.
Today, Wilde’s reputation is no longer tarnished by his homosexuality; it is browned by it. As Sturgis writes in his preface, we find his “provocative individualism, his refusal to accept the limiting constraints of society, his sexual heresies, his political radicalism, his commitment to style, and his astute engagement with what ‘we now call’ celebrity culture. ‘ Enchanting, fundamentally kind but unforgivably cruel to Constance, a born entertainer, quick-witted but weak or indecisive when it mattered most, he was also a mass of contradictions and ambiguities. But then aren’t we all?