Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wilde In The Streets

Here's another review for Gay Community News, published in the January 15-21, 1989 issue. The caricature above is by Max Beerbohm, a younger contemporary and friend of Wilde's who outlived him by more than half a century.

Oscar Wilde

by Richard Ellmann
New York
: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988
680 pp.

Oscar Wilde's London: a Scrapbook of Vices and Virtues 1880-1900
by Wolf Von Eckardt, Sander L. Gilman, and J. Edward Chamberlin
Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1987
285 pp.

The Oscar industry grinds on, and its two latest offerings demonstrate the range of its products’ quality.

The idea behind Oscar Wilde’s London is a good one. “This book is not about Oscar Wilde,” the authors assert in the Introduction. “It is about the city that made Oscar Wilde.” If, like me, you’re a bit vague on the actual conditions of late Victorian Britain, a social history sounds like just the thing to help understand how Wilde perceived himself and was perceived in his day. Biographers fill in quite a bit of this background, but there are many details -- such as the fact that when Wilde arrived in London in 1879, electric street lights were just beginning to be installed there -- which don’t belong to biography proper but help to understand its subject.

The best thing about Oscar Wilde’s London is its illustrations, particularly the many photographs, most of which are so clear and sharp they might have been taken yesterday. Not just of the famous, they include some fascinating pictures of daily life by one Paul Martin (see pp. 19-20, 94), whose work I’d like to know better. The text is less impressive. The chapters on London’s growth, on the poor, and on sports and popular entertainment are pretty good. But the book seems rather poorly organized. It offers no information on how the three authors divided up the writing among themselves, and at times I had the feeling that it had been pasted together too quickly. Topics are sometimes dropped almost in the middle, with the outcome of one or another controversy omitted as though everyone knew it. There are also some odd errors which suggest a lack of care in fact-checking. The message on the infamous visiting card left for Wilde by the Marquess of Queensberry, which led to Wilde’s downfall, is quoted here as “To Oscar Wilde posing as a sodemite (sic)” (73). Queensberry did indeed misspell the key word, but I’ve always seen it rendered “Somdomite”, and had thought the error was almost as well-known as some of Wilde's epigrams. (According to Richard Ellmann’s new biography, the actual message was “To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite”.) I felt that the connection with Oscar Wilde was too tenuous, more of a marketing hook than a unifying principle for the book. Still, Oscar Wilde’s London is worth a look, and it includes a long reading list which should be useful to anyone who wants to explore the subject more thoroughly. See if your library has it.

The late Richard Ellmann completed Oscar Wilde just before his death in 1987, and while it is neither as exhaustive nor as definitive as his famous biography of James Joyce, this new biography is notable for its warmth, good judgment, and good writing. It is the least homophobic of any book on Wilde by a straight author that I’ve seen: not just free of amateur psychoanalysis but a bit disdainful of that popular biographical perversion, and downright scornful of the hypocrisy which destroyed Wilde's life and career. Nowadays we ought to be able to take such an attitude for granted, but unfortunately it’s still rare enough that Ellmann deserves notice for it.

Ellmann, in fact, writes as an unabashed fan of Wilde, and this makes his book even more refreshing. He has many touching stories to tell about Wilde’s generosity and kindness (see especially pp. 412-13), even in areas where other biographers turn up their noses: “What seems to characterize all Wilde’s affairs is that he got to know the boys as individuals, treated them handsomely, allowed them to refuse his attentions without becoming rancorous, and did not corrupt them” (390). He praises Wilde’s defense of ‘Greek love’ at his trial: “For once Wilde spoke not wittily but well.” Ellmann also credits those courageous souls who helped Wilde when he needed it most. Frank Harris, who is often portrayed (not entirely without reason) as a major buffoon in books about Wilde, has a shining moment of humanity that makes up for a lot of silliness. Believing that Wilde had not committed the acts of which he was convicted, Harris arranged to borrow a yacht to smuggle him to the Continent. When he told him of the plan, “...Wilde broke out and said, ‘You talk with passion and conviction, as if I were innocent.’ ‘But you are innocent,’ said Harris, ‘aren’t you?’ ‘No,’ said Wilde. ‘I thought you knew that all along.’ Harris said, ‘I did not believe it for a moment.’ ‘This will make a great difference to you?’ asked Wilde, but Harris assured him it would not” (468). There are people today who couldn't rise to so much humanity. By way of contrast, the painter Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones “hoped that Wilde would shoot himself and was disappointed when he did not” (479).

There is one area where Wilde’s generosity failed, however, and since no one ever seems to comment on it, I'd like to. Ellmann seems not much bothered by the clear indications that Wilde married because he needed money and public proof of heterosexual normality, and though he was charmed and attracted by Constance Lloyd, he doesn’t seem ever to have taken her seriously. He evidently began to neglect her almost at once, first for his rounds of socializing and travel, then for the young men who occupied his real sexual and romantic interest. After Wilde’s downfall, “Paul Adam, in La Revue blanche of 15 May 1895, argued that Greek love was less harmful than adultery” (482). But Wilde’s love for Alfred Douglas was adulterous, to say nothing of all those hardened little hustlers to whom he was apparently rather kinder than he was to his wife and children. While he was in prison, a reconciliation was arranged which Ellmann seems to think could have succeeded, but it was forestalled by the return of Douglas and by Constance’s death in 1898. I don't doubt that Wilde was so grateful for his wife’s willingness to forgive him that he really believed he loved her, and would change his ways forever. But I also don’t doubt that once he’d regained his freedom, he would have allowed boredom to set in. Despite this, Wilde doesn't come off badly compared to his heterosexual contemporaries -- how many of them went to prison for marrying money or neglecting their wives? -- or to many gay men and lesbians before and since who’ve made the mistake of marrying heterosexually to get a hostile society off their backs. The more so if Ellmann is correct that Wilde had no overt sexual experience with men before his marriage, and some experience with women; that’s a classic formula for disastrous self-deception.

It’s unfortunate that Wilde was unable to pick up the pieces of his life and career after his imprisonment. He had a social conscience, encouraged by his Irish nationalist mother, and had done some interesting political writing; he wasn’t quite the mindless butterfly he sometimes pretended to be. As we watch around us the ominous rise of the same forces that destroyed him, he no longer seems as quaint as he did in the 1970s, and his life has much to teach us. Ellmann’s biography is probably the one to read, and now that it‘s out in paperback it’s the one to own: humane, learned, affectionate and smoothly written, Oscar Wilde is a model of the biographer’s art.