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Book Review: ‘Oscar Wilde,’ by Matthew Sturgis

From his first encounter, in 1891, with the 20-year-old Lord Alfred Douglas, a.k.a. Bosie, the more profound mysteries of Wilde’s life begin to pile up. Everyone knows that it was Bosie, with his “frank paganism,” who first introduced Wilde to rough trade, and meanwhile drew him into a family quarrel with his father, the Marquess of Queensberry. And they also know that it was Bosie who goaded Wilde into his disastrous private prosecution, when Wilde had been accused by the marquess of posing as a sodomite. Given the obvious dangers of a course that so many friends warned him against, admirers ever since have been divided. How could anyone so self-aware be so self-ignorant in his devotion to Bosie’s beauty, when no one knew better than Wilde the flaws in Bosie’s character? Or was Wilde more than half in love with tragedy? Had he already started to identify with the Jesus myth, which would come to dominate nearly all his thinking — to the point of a Catholic conversion at the last? Did he, in fact, like Christ, embrace his fate knowingly?

When Sturgis is faced with these questions, his approach breaks down altogether. The most argued point for all Wilde students is why, after the collapse of his prosecution, he refused the chance offered by the authorities for him to take a boat train to France. Why did Wilde seemingly prefer martyrdom to exile? Sturgis’ explanation that his choice to stay put in the Cadogan Hotel and drink hock and seltzer was largely down to inertia seems as bizarre as his repeated insistence that Wilde was little interested in politics — an odd suggestion to make about the man who wrote “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Yes, Wilde’s interest in creating a society free of commercial competition was indeed that the individual should thereby flourish. He saw socialism as a means of enabling things that mattered to him more. But anyone who recalls Trotsky’s argument that under socialism, the ordinary working man and woman would be elevated to be on a par with Aristotle, with Goethe and with Marx, will recognize that these two wildly dissimilar characters are ringing the very same bell.

Sturgis is unwise in his introduction to criticize Richard Ellmann’s great 1987 biography for seeing the dramatist not just through artistic, but through overly modern eyes. But how else are we to see the man who wrote prophetically of his homosexuality: “I have no doubt we shall win, but the road is long, and red with monstrous martyrdoms”? By far and away the most compelling chapters in Sturgis’ book center on the practices and customs in his three jails — Pentonville, Wandsworth and Reading. But their urgency lies in the exact descriptions of how the different regimes of different governors had the effect of transforming Wilde’s early despair at incarceration into his later coming to feel that his suffering had a principally spiritual dimension. When you read of the subtle in-house borderlines between the humane and the cruel, and of their crucial effect on Wilde’s survival, you immediately want to rush out to the nearest prison and offer them to today’s staff as a manual of instruction.

Throughout history, Wilde’s reputation has been contested. Henry James dismissed his work as “repulsive and fatuous,” while Noël Coward, no doubt for reasons of his own, was content to call him “a tiresome affected sod.” Those of us who love him are most moved by his generosity. He really did give extravagant sums of money to every beggar he passed, and was bewildered when, in his last years, acquaintances did not show him the same largess he had once extended to strangers. The act of exercising practical, daily kindness was at the heart both of his beliefs and of his way of life. He brought to literature a liberating philosophy that struck hard at Victorian society, but also at our own. He did not believe that morality consisted of judging other people’s faults. He believed it consisted in judging your own. He complained of prison that “it is supposed that because a thing is a rule it is right.” But Wilde, in his own thinking about all aspects of life, never made any such supposition. Hence the willful glory and radical wit of his work. Instead, he chose to follow the harder course of examining his own behavior, and to forgo the much easier pleasures of condemning others. Who can imagine that such a determination does not have something to say to us, right now, in the way our societies currently behave? As Ellmann memorably concluded just over 30 years ago: “He occupied, as he insisted, a ‘symbolical relation’ to his time. … He is not one of those writers who as the centuries change lose their relevance. Wilde is one of us.”

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