By Matthew Sturgis
In her new collection of stories, “The Master of Chaos,” the British Guyanese writer Pauline Melville has one of her Georgetown heroes speculate on the difference between chance and fate. “Chance is random. Fate is not. Fate has a plan and fate wins in the end. But chance allows you to think you are escaping fate for a little while.” In trying to tell the story of Oscar Wilde, successive biographers have faced the problem that the impact of Wilde’s downfall is so dramatic and so powerful in its resonance for future generations that it’s hard to avoid writing as if his destiny were preordained, and as if chance had played no part. At the height of his unique fame as a dramatist, Wilde was sent to prison on a charge of gross indecency with rent boys. He then died within a few years of exile at the age of 46. Icarus metaphors abound. In popular myth, Oscar Wilde was always heading toward destruction, and there was nothing much he could do about it.
Matthew Sturgis is a historian, and he believes that with “Oscar Wilde: A Life” he may be able to refresh the narrative by eschewing interpretation. He prefers instead to do what Wilde used to call “grubbing up a lot of musty facts.” The purpose of Sturgis’ exhaustive scholarship is that the prosaic may better inform the poetic. He even stops to tell you the name of the shop where Wilde bought his student glassware, and attention is given to the playwright’s brief, and hitherto unexplored, passion for golf. Clearly, Sturgis is more interested in what Wilde did than in what Wilde means. He wants, he says, to put Wilde back into the 19th century. But his choice of strategy faces a second problem. No writer of English was ever better at acute and devastating self-dramatization than Wilde himself. Sturgis may not want to draw lessons, but Wilde did. Not only did Wilde know better than anyone else what he was up to. He also had a pretty shrewd idea of how everyone else was going to view him.
Born to a prominent, and prominently eccentric, Irish Protestant family in Dublin in 1854, and with a mother, “Speranza,” who had exposed the horrors of the Irish famine and excoriated the British government for its indifference, Wilde arrived with a fully formed and mistrustful attitude to the London society he was so keen to conquer: “Virtue in the English sense … is only caution and hypocrisy.” When, before long, he found himself being criticized on the familiar grounds of being famous for no other reason than being famous, he responded — like Andy Warhol years later — with a benign sweetness and humor that suggested a man who perfectly understood the rules and how to break them. Attacks against him never stuck because he wouldn’t rise to them. When George du Maurier parodied him in a cartoon as the “aesthetic” poet “Jellaby Postlethwaite,” Wilde’s good nature had him offering to sit for the cartoonist, so that he might achieve a better likeness.
Admittedly, it did take Wilde a little time to discover his métier. He edited a woman’s magazine, did a long lecture tour of America talking about art, and offered a couple of serious-minded melodramas before realizing that his gift was for writing social satire for the theater, at which he had an unbroken line of success. Among his contemporaries he was the first to grasp that “we shall never have a real drama in England until it is recognized that a play is as personal and individual a form of self-expression as a poem or a picture.” But although Sturgis is able to annotate Wilde’s professional progress, his sexual self-understanding, both before and after his marriage to Constance Lloyd, remains obscure. He loved his wife, and he most certainly loved his children. But for all Sturgis’ diligent researches, we still don’t know by what process and in what circumstances Wilde met his first male lover, Robbie Ross.
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.”