Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde By Richard EllmanOscar Wilde is a comprehensive (my paperback copy is well over 600 pages long with the index) and acclaimed biography by Richard Ellmann. The book took two decades to complete and was only finished shortly before the author’s death. Ellman completed the biography in the face of incurable illness and his affection and love for the subject shines through this astonishingly erudite and very sympathetic account of the writer’s life. ‘Oscar Wilde,’ writes Ellman. ‘We only have to hear the great name to anticipate that what will be quoted as his will surprise and delight us. Among the writers identified with the 1890s, Wilde is the only one who everybody still reads. The various labels that have been applied to the age – Aestheticism, Decadence – ought not to conceal the fact that our first association with it is Wilde – refulgent, majestic, ready to fall.’ The book is split into five sections (BEGINNINGS, ADVANCES, EXALTATIONS, DISGRACE, EXILE), each of which consists of chapters and is like a mini-book in itself. In the acknowledgements at the beginning of the biography, Ellman tells us that he was able to quote and draw on numerous unpublished materials relating both to Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas and the scope of the work certainly validates this claim.

Although the Oscar Wilde story has been told before, Ellman’s take is as weighty and intelligent as any previous telling of this tale and it helps that this is a modern and sympathetic work, a few more vintage Wilde biographies seeming somewhat dated now with their ‘of the time’ ruminations on Wilde’s sexuality as if being gay was akin to madness or something. This is a very literary work too in addition to the biographical elements with Ellman quoting extensively from Wilde’s writing and the poems that inspired him. The author’s critical analysis of these works is always comprehensive and remarkably lucid. I often find the initial pages of biographies, with intricate family trees and schooldays, somewhat of a slog, but Ellman manages to get Wilde into his Oxford days and early emergence as a unique and rather brilliant figure relatively quickly considering the immense scope of the book. Wilde was born in Dublin and attended Trinity College, arriving at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1874 where he soon stirred things up and began to become famous. ‘This outrageous Irishman,’ writes Ellman. ‘Who declared he was a socialist and hinted he was a homosexual, while patently mocking wise saws on all subjects. He declined, in a public and ceremonious manner, to live within his means, behave modestly, respect his elders, or recognize such entities as nature and art in their traditional apparel.’

Ellman does a great job in detailing Wilde’s steady rise to fame as he embarks on a literary career and lecture tours of the United States. ‘It is a vulgar error to suppose that America was ever discovered,’ says Wilde. ‘It was merely detected.’ One of the great things about the book is that it will satisfy the critical gaze of most academics but also manages to convey the most important things about Oscar Wilde – the fact that he was kind and great company, and, most of all, very funny. Many a dull and dusty dining-table of the era you imagine was suddenly brought to colourful life by a visit from Oscar Wilde. ‘Of all writers, Wilde was perhaps the best company,’ says Ellman. ‘Always endangered, he laughs at his plight, and on the way to the loss of everything jollies society for being so much harsher than he is, so much less graceful, so much less attractive. And once we recognize that his charm is threatened, its eye on the door left open for the witless law, it becomes even more beguiling.’

“Ellman’s account of Wilde the ruined man in exile is very poignant and sad.”

The pivotal moment in the Wilde story is course meeting the handsome young Lord Alfred Douglas, the pair soon embarking on a surreptitious love affair despite the fact that Wilde was married with two sons. Douglas’s father, the eccentric and nutty Marquess of Queensberry, eventually confronts Wilde, leaving a card at his club that reads ‘To Oscar Wilde posing as a Sodomite’. Queensberry was a ‘complex brute’ rather than a ‘simple brute’ according to Ellman. Wilde sued for libel but lost the case in an infamous trial and served hard time in Reading Gaol, never physically or mentally recovering, his reputation ruined, eventually dying in exile abroad when still only in his forties. ‘The relationship between Wilde and Douglas was intense and romantic,’ writes Ellman. ‘But they pursued more transient attachments. Douglas was fascinated by young men who would prostitute themselves for a few pounds and a good dinner. He introduced Wilde to this world.’ This increasingly complicated portion of Wilde’s life is gripping at times as it unfolds and the biography – I feel – becomes more readable and accessible when the real melodrama of the subject’s life enters the book. ‘English society tolerated homosexuality only so long as one was not caught at it,’ says Ellman.

Ellman’s account of Wilde the ruined man in exile is very poignant and sad. Wilde spent his final years aimlessly wandering around the Continent where he cadged meals in cafes and yearned for company, consumed by loneliness. Reading this section, you wish you could go back in time and drop in on old Oscar for a cup of tea to cheer him up. His rapid decline in health, not helped by the harsh conditions of prison, was, according to Ellman, chiefly down to syphilis – although this claim is disputed by others. ‘I am convinced that Wilde had syphilis,’ says Ellman. ‘And that conviction is central to my conception of Wilde’s character and my interpretation of many things in his later life.’ Ellman’s dissection of Wilde’s poems, stories and plays are always lucid and clever and he has plenty to get his teeth into in the final third of the book too in addition to charting the moving, downward trajectory of the writer’s once glittering and engagement packed life. The Ballad of Reading Gaol and of course De Profundis, his extraordinary reproach to Lord Alfred Douglas.

This is a classic biography about a vivid and fascinating subject. Ellman’s academic approach and love for Wilde makes this a must buy for anyone interested in the writer. ‘Now, beyond the reach of scandal,’ writes the author. ‘His best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing…’

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Oscar Wilde
by Richard Ellman

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