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Is there anything new to learn about Oscar Wilde?

Oscar Wilde. Photo/Alamy

In a new biography, Matthew Sturgis shines light on Oscar Wilde's wits, writs, writings and woes.

With so much already known about the life of flamboyant Anglo-Irish writer Oscar Wilde, is there anything new to learn? Absolutely, argues Matthew Sturgis, making the case in an authoritative, even-handed and epic new biography.

Sturgis, an expert in late-Victorian culture and a board member of the Oscar Wilde Society journal The Wildean, notes that when he was in New York doing research for the project, he passed a pub sign proclaiming, “Work is the curse of the drinking classes”. The same day, at Columbia University, a student was wearing a T-shirt inscribed, “Genius is born, not paid”. Wilde’s wit, from more than 100 years ago, is ingrained in our contemporary language.

His life has been documented in book form many times, notably in Richard Ellmann’s 1987 Oscar Wilde, and he is back on screen being played by Rupert Everett in The Happy Prince. But, says Sturgis, a surge of new research and the digitisation of archives demand essential additions.

Moreover, he adds, books like Ellmann’s skipped over Wilde’s younger years and dashed towards his “Greek tragedy” – the sex scandals and his imprisonment – distorting his achievements. Instead, Sturgis sets out to craft a fuller picture with a historian’s careful eye.

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As he moves through Wilde’s childhood, education and career, he throws in a mass of detail that might be head-swimming for some, but pure manna for Wilde obsessives.

Sturgis marshals his wealth of material with tremendous clarity as he traces a life full of contradictions.

A consistent feature of the 700-plus pages of this book is lists: of literary and artistic influences, teachers, mentors, supporters and lovers and then, as Wilde’s life darkened, witnesses, active enemies, and friends who either helped or deserted him.

Throughout, the influence of his mother, Jane, a poet, was paramount. Jane held Saturday afternoon soirées – pretentiously known as “conversazione” – where young Oscar developed his passion for talking and showing off his “pungent wit”.

His father, a surgeon, presumed wealthy, was found upon his death to be penniless. Oscar, and his older brother, Willie, were dogged all their lives by money woes exacerbated by eye-watering extravagance.

At Portora Royal School near Enniskillen, then as a university student at Trinity College, Dublin, Wilde started cultivating a “look”, dressing smartly and sweeping his hair back from his “colourless moon-like face”. At Oxford’s Magdalen College, he developed his persona as an aesthete. He also discovered cash credit.

When pressed about his ambitions, he announced, “Somehow or other I’ll be famous … if not, I’ll be notorious.”

Sturgis then moves on to the “fame-notoriety” phase of Wilde’s life in London, normalised, for a while, by his 1884 marriage to Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons. But his gaze soon turned hungrily towards “marvellous boys”.

After he was seduced by a precocious 17-year-old, it was all on: Wilde described the “joy, the delirium”, as he embarked upon his secret passion for chasing young boys, often “renters”, titillated by the fact he was breaking the law.

His career as a writer – boosted by The Picture of Dorian Gray, published when he was 35 and described in reviews as morbid and dangerous – also started to ascend.

In 1891, Wilde’s fate shifted irrevocably when he met 20-year-old Lord Alfred Douglas, known as “Bosie”, who initially rebuffed his advances, then entered into an unstable infatuation “fired by a shared and predatory enthusiasm for sex with others”.

Wilde was living several lives: writer of successful plays such as Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, which still endure; lover of the rage-prone Bosie; heartless husband; and then the target of Bosie’s hated father, the “Mad” Marquess of Queensberry.

When Queensberry left a card at Wilde’s club denouncing him publicly as a sodomite (spelt “Somdomite”), Bosie goaded Wilde into launching a (failed) libel suit against him. Witness accounts from Wilde’s rent boys, bribed by Queensberry, led immediately to two trials in which Wilde was charged with gross indecency and to his subsequent almost-fatal imprisonment for two years. His first prison, Pentonville, imposed complete silence, an inhumane horror which overwhelmed his spirit.

Sturgis’ account of Wilde’s post-prison, self-imposed exile is wrenching. After an attempted reunion with Bosie in France and Naples, he ended his days in Paris, often alone, broke, drinking absinthe, begging Bosie for money (Bosie’s response called him “an old fat prostitute”).

When Wilde contracted meningitis, he ended his days in his hotel bed, telling a friend, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death.”

Wilde’s death, on November 30, 1900, received barely any attention in the English papers. This powerful, warts-and-all portrait brings him fully, marvellously back to life.

OSCAR: A LIFE, by Matthew Sturgis (Head of Zeus, $55)

This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.