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Oscar: A life, by Matthew Sturgis

30 November 2018

Michael Wheeler on the price and the value of a new Wilde biography

THIS new biography is eagerly expected by scholars of the decadence of the 1890s and by the many Oscar Wilde fan clubs around the world. Richard Ellmann’s life, published 30 years ago in its familiar green wrapper, graces many a bookshelf. But Ellmann is not always accurate (the book was finished in haste at the end of his life), and much has been discovered since. More significantly, Matthew Sturgis is a biographer and a historian rather than a literary critic.

Sturgis exercises reserve and steely self-control in the earlier sections of the book, on Wilde’s Anglo-Irish formation, as he studiously ignores the carefully constructed figure of “Oscar” who awaits later in the story. In due course, his account of that figure — so famous that his given name was enough to identify him — is compelling. And latterly, of course, the broken Wilde was so infamous that a hypocritical age could wallow in self-righteous condemnation of the “Somdomite” (sic) whom the Marquess of Queensberry had set out to destroy.

Wilde was at once a genius and a poseur, a brilliant classical scholar at Trinity College, Dublin, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, who would play a part or assume a belief for a while and then drop it for something new and exciting.

At Oxford, he much admired Professor Ruskin, but was later to befriend his master’s enemies and describe the Professor’s beloved Switzerland as “that dreadful place, so vulgar with its ugly big mountains, all black and white, like an enormous photograph”. After playing the part of the wavering Roman Catholic convert as an undergraduate, he found it useful to play a new part as the spurned and lovelorn poet when Bram Stoker become engaged to Florence Balcombe, to whom he had been, at best, a half-hearted suitor.

Oscar Wilde on the front page of The Illustrated Police News (20 April 1895). From the book

We think of Wilde as primarily a dramatist, and many of the poses that he struck in London drawing-rooms prepared him for later triumphs on the London stage. But that success followed years of toil as a critic of art and literature, as a poet, and as a short-story writer. Similarly, his seduction by Robbie Ross occurred only after he had fathered a second beloved son, plunging him into a double life of secrecy and danger, which he courted.

This enigmatic and ambiguous figure is full of surprises and contradictions. In 1891, we find him holding up the example of Jesus as the great apostle of individualism, in his essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism”. With Ernest Renan hovering in the background, the message of Wilde’s Jesus is “Be thyself. . . You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. . . Your perfection is inside yourself.”

Little wonder, then, that his flirtation with Roman Catholicism, punctuated by earnest conversations with the admirable Fr Sebastian Bowden, of Brompton Oratory, proved to be an on-off affair, consummated only on his deathbed in Paris, when Fr Cuthbert Dunne interpreted his “signs” and “attempted words” as consent to conversion.

Engaging, very well written, and running to 722 pages, this book is a bargain.

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and chairman of Gladstone’s Library.

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