Review by Suzi Feay
There have been many biographies of Oscar Wilde. Emer O’Sullivan justifies hers by presenting him not in brilliant isolation but as part of an eminent Anglo-Irish family — just one actor in a compelling intergenerational tragedy. His father was the prominent Dublin doctor and folklorist Sir William Wilde, and his mother Jane was better known as the firebrand political poet “Speranza”. Together with Oscar’s feckless brother Willie, they rose to dizzy prominence and fell to ignominious depths.
Overall it’s a melancholy story; only William senior got off relatively lightly, dying in 1876 aged 61 while still a revered public figure. Even so, he and his wife had suffered a mortifying libel case, a tragic irony in view of the one that was to bring about his son’s downfall in 1895. The young Oscar was sent hurriedly away to school as the scandal broke; just as his own sons Cyril and Vyvyan would be whisked off in their turn to escape their father’s shame.
William was a Victorian polymath, spewing out learned books. A renowned expert in aural medicine, he was appointed Queen Victoria’s doctor in Ireland (not much work involved there, since she never visited the country). As passionate a patriot as his wife, he devoted his spare time to compiling Irish folklore and helped inaugurate the Celtic Revival, the movement that sought to reclaim the dignity of Irish history and culture. Jane had advocated direct action in the uprising of 1848, and her poems made her a national heroine.
Oscar and his elder brother Willie thus grew up in an unconventional, liberal milieu of ardent talkers and writers. This early training surely helped Oscar to become one of the era’s finest conversationalists. Jane, a noted bluestocking, held celebrated salons in the Wilde house in Dublin’s Merrion Square, where wit and erudition rather than social status took precedence. Her son’s noted sympathies in later life towards clerks and telegraph boys perhaps partly had its root in Jane’s egalitarianism.
The brothers lived for pleasure; Willie seems to have had some of Oscar’s brilliance without even his minimal work ethic
After Sir William’s death, the family fortunes faltered and the three Wildes moved to London. Except for brief periods when Oscar’s plays were hits, financial security eluded them all. The brothers rebelled against Victorian “earnestness” (memorably parodied by Oscar in his most celebrated play) by living for pleasure; Willie seems to have had some of Oscar’s brilliance without even his minimal work ethic. Both were riddled with laziness, charm and complacency.
Without being in any way a feminist biography, The Fall of the House of Wildevividly brings out the crushing despair of Oscar’s devoted wife Constance, and the slow slide into destitution of the formerly bejewelled and dazzling Jane. The erstwhile darling of Dublin, the revolutionary poet was finally forced to petition an indifferent English government for a tiny pension. At least when we read of the bitter desolation of Oscar’s latter years, we are consoled by his sparkling talent and continued fame. But nothing leavens the misery when reading about Jane’s bravely endured penury, or Willie’s alcoholism. Willie’s lively journalistic pieces lived for a day and Jane’s poems, briefly quoted here, don’t invite further investigation. I couldn’t help thinking their sad stories would be better left in obscurity.
As O’Sullivan notes, the family ultimately paid a high price for promoting “liberal values at odds with contemporary mores”. Oscar came to personify the fin de siècle; as his friend, the poet Richard Le Gallienne, explained: “In [Oscar] the period might see its own face in the glass. And it is because it did see its own face that it first admired, then grew afraid, and then destroyed him.”
When Sir William Wilde died, his funeral cortège was, as a newspaper reported, “one of the most imposing that had been witnessed in [Dublin] for a long time”. Sir William was lowered into a vault with plenty of room for his family to join him in due course. In a telling aside, O’Sullivan adds “except none would do so”. Oscar Wilde of course rests beneath a noble monument at Père Lachaise in Paris. Learning that Jane and Willie lie in unknown, unmarked graves leaves the reader with the saddest pang of all.
The Fall of the House of Wilde: Oscar Wilde and His Family, by Emer O’Sullivan, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 512 pages
Wilde about Paris – An Irishwoman’s Diary about Oscar Wilde’s life in exile
Legions of artistic and literary ghosts haunt the streets of Paris, their presence signalled by plaques on the facades. The one outside L’Hôtel, at 13 rue des Beaux-Arts in the sixth arrondissement, records that Oscar Wilde spent the last two years of his life here.
Wilde had learned French from the family Bonne. “He spoke it well, I imagine with an Enniskillen accent,” says David Charles Rose, the retired Irish academic and author of Oscar Wilde’s Elegant Republic; Transformation, Dislocation and Fantasy in fin-de-siècle Paris.
Wilde had attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, then Trinity College Dublin and Magdalen College in Oxford.
“He said that Greek and French were the only two languages a civilised man should speak,” Rose continues. “When he came to Paris in the 1880s, Wilde bought up unsold copies of his 1881 collection of poems and sent them with elaborate inscriptions to the people he wanted to meet, including Mallarmé and Zola. When he arrived in Paris, he presented himself at their door and was greeted with, ‘Cher poète, cher maître’.”
In a huff
Wilde saw the great French actor Sarah Bernhardt onstage in Paris, London and Nice. She wanted to play the lead role in a London production of Salomé, which Wilde wrote in French. But the lord chamberlain refused to give the play a licence and Bernhardt left in a huff.
“After Salomé was banned, Wilde talked seriously of taking up French citizenship, because in France they appreciated artists, and England was too philistine,” Rose says.
Wilde lost his defamation case against the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie. The writer’s friends begged him to flee to France.
“If that had happened, his life could have been so different,” Rose says wistfully. “It was possible to acculturate oneself in Paris. A lot of English and American writers did that.”
In 1895, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labour for “gross indency”. William Butler Yeats launched a petition in his favour. “He hardly got any signatures at all, so it rather fell through,” Rose says.
When Wilde was released from prison on May 18th, 1897, he sailed immediately for France. “I’ve often fantasised about him being met by WB Yeats and Lady Gregory at the prison gates and whisked off to a little cottage on the Coole Park estate, where he could have lived out his days”, Rose says.
Wilde used the name Sebastian Melmoth, after a novel written by his great-uncle, for the last three years of his life in France. He wrote his masterpiece,The Ballad of Reading Gaol, with its timeless refrain of “each man kills the thing he loves”, in the seaside village of Berneval-le-Grand.
He and Bosie were briefly reunited in Naples. But Wilde’s wife and Bosie’s mother threatened to cut off their allowances, and the lovers separated out of financial necessity.
Back in Paris, “A lot of people whom Wilde had previously known dropped him or made it clear that they did not want to see him,” Rose says. “Sometimes he avoided people because he was embarrassed.”
Homosexuality was not the problem. “The fact he’d been in jail was, and the fact he was bankrupt. He was in disgrace, déclassé, says Rose. “He did tend to pick up rent boys on the boulevards, which embarrassed his more strait-laced friends.”
Wilde hailed the French writer André Gide one day, as Gide passed a cafe terrace. “Gide sat with his back to the pavement, and Oscar said ‘No. Come and sit next to me’,” Rose recounts. “Gide did not want to be seen sitting next to Wilde, but he obeyed. That was the last time they saw one another.”
In fin-de-siècle Paris, Wilde slept late, drank brandy for breakfast and spent his days moving from cafe to cafe, or writing in his hotel room. It was fashionable to s’encanailler – frequent the riff-raff – in cabarets in Montmartre like Le Rat Mort and Le Moulin Rouge, where Wilde went to smoke and drink.
Wilde’s health had been broken by his stay in prison and he had written himself out. “This poverty really breaks one’s heart: it is so sale [filthy], so utterly depressing, so hopeless. Pray do what you can,” he wrote to his publisher.
But Wilde kept his sense of humour. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” he quipped on one of his last forays outside the hotel. “One of us has got to go.”
Today you can rent the suite where Wilde died at L’Hôtel for € 850 a night. The former dosshouse where Wilde died on November 30th, 1900, is Paris’s smallest five-star hotel. A green peacock mural decorates the wall behind the bed. When Wilde was an Oxford student, he had decorated his room with peacock feathers.