Richard Ellmann’s Life of Joyce, generally regarded as the best literary biography of our time, was the work of his middle years. The last third of his own life was largely given to this biography of Wilde, which was in some ways a very different sort of undertaking. There were surviving acquaintances of Joyce, but nobody who knew Wilde is available for questioning; the material, though copious, must be sought in libraries. But Ellmann was an exceptionally gifted researcher, never bragging about his finds, just folding them quietly into his narrative, as he does in this book.
For such a labour one would need not merely an admiration for the subject but a temperamental affinity, such as Ellmann obviously had with Joyce. He loved the clutter of Joyce’s mind – that ‘mind of a grocer’s assistant’ – and he also knew how to value the passion for occult patterns underlying the mess. In Wilde he chose another Irish subject: but the fantasy is different, the blarney more scented, and the achievement, in the opinion of many, of a less incontestably high order. Wilde’s life, spent in a more or less continuous blaze of publicity, was far more absurd, far more spectacular, and finally far more luridly tragic, than Joyce’s. His perfect biographer might be rendered incapable of writing the book by the very qualities that made him a suitable choice.
Hesketh Pearson, who wrote the best biography before this one, was advised by Shaw not to attempt it. For, as he saw it, everything that could be said had already been said – by Frank Harris and others, including Shaw himself; and although Wilde was ‘incomparably great as a raconteur, and as a personality ... these points cannot be reproduced.’ There is obviously some truth in this; we can hardly imagine what it must have been like to know Wilde and to hear him talk, for all the evidence suggests that there has never been anybody like him. There is nothing Ellmann or anybody else can do except report such talk as has survived – mostly epigrams and paradoxes, now for the most part too well known, too machine-made, and too often imitated, to induce hysteria. How, then, can a biographer justify going ahead? Ellmann’s solution, broadly speaking, is twofold: to add to the stock of information about Wilde, and to treat him as both a great writer and a misunderstood moral genius.
The second of these is the more controversial project. This biography is at its magnificent best in its last third, for Wilde wrote very little after his disgrace, and could only with difficulty be proposed as at that stage a model of conduct, so the literary and ethical issues aren’t so controversial. The section Ellmann entitles ‘Disgrace’ covers only the last six of Wilde’s 46 years, but it occupies a quarter of the book. It could scarcely have been better done. The narrative is familiar in outline, but here the detail is everything. Even in our time, inundated as we are with accounts of even worse suffering and even worse desolation in even worse prisons, this account of Wilde at hard labour, sick, starving, cold and solitary, fills one with pity and disgust. The governor of one of his gaols is reported as saying that no middle-class person of sedentary habit (and middle age) could expect to live more than another two years after serving a sentence of two years at hard labour, and after reading this book one can believe it. Wilde, though fat, was tall and strong, and he lived on for four years: but in some respects it was only half-life.
In describing that famous fall – the three trials and their sequel – Ellmann has more to add than his own reflections. For example, it was known that the Marquess of Queensberry, the ‘infamous brute’ whom it was Wilde’s worst bit of luck to cross, also had it in for Lord Rosebery, who at the time of the Wilde libel action was Prime Minister. Queensberry had followed Rosebery to Homburg, stalking him with a dogwhip (presumably, says Pearson, because he didn’t happen to have a horse with him), and grievous bodily harm was prevented only by the personal intervention of the Prince of Wales. Queensberry’s resentment was reasonably supposed to have arisen from the suicide of his son Lord Drumlanrig, private secretary to Rosebery, but its precise cause was the Marquess’s suspicion that his son had been Rosebery’s lover. The suicide may have been occasioned by fear of blackmail, or possibly by a desire to save Rosebery from a politically ruinous scandal. His tenure as prime minister was brief and insecure, and though it did occur to him to come to Wilde’s assistance at the time of the libel action, he refrained for fear of losing the imminent general election. Later, when the jury disagreed at Wilde’s first trial, there was a chance that the matter might end there, but ‘the abominable rumours against Rosebery’ were held to necessitate a second trial. Ellmann typically puts this little horror – or bad-luck story – together from a contemporary item in the New York Times, a manuscript journal in the library of the University of Texas, and a published letter of T.M. Healey’s.
Among other things, it shows that Wilde was not as fortunate as he may have imagined to have very grand acquaintances, the first claim on whose attention is likely to be the need to look after themselves, and the second to look after their own very grand acquaintances.
He had also to learn some hard lessons about his less noble friends. Always ready to cast himself in some mythological role, he had in his time been Narcissus, St Sebastian, Marsyas (the musician who was flayed alive for challenging Apollo); he was in the end to see himself as Timon. He fits the part pretty well. Having in happier times been prodigally generous, he was reduced in his last years to begging. When he stopped Nellie Melba in a Paris street and asked her for money, she gave him what she had in her purse. But Henry James’s friend Morton Fullerton made a more typical response – he must have written this letter with Shakespeare’s play open on his desk:
I am distressed to have left your touching appeal unanswered for so long. But I have been on congé in the patrie of Stendhal, and had cognizance of your gène only yesterday. You do me too much honour in asking me to come to the rescue of an artist such as you. And if I could have known of the situation 3 weeks ago when I had money in my pocket I should not have hesitated for a moment, especially as I had just received your play [Earnest] and was in the state of mind of one who says without thinking: ‘it is worth its weight in gold.’ But at present, after an expensive journey, I am unable, with the best goodwill in the world, to seize the event and to accept the rôle in this particular comedy – I use the word in its Hellenic and Gallic sense, bien entendu, in the sole sense in which it exists for the admirers of Lady Windermere’s Fan and of The Importance of Being Earnest, etc.
Presumably there was no point in appealing to James himself, since he called Wilde an ‘unclean beast’ and refused to sign a clemency petition. There were closer friends who shunned him: Beardsley, for instance, who owed him so much; John Gray, an early lover, for whose Silverpoints, prettiest of Nineties poetry-books, Wilde had paid; Lilly Langtry, to whom he had, at one time, brought a daily lily, and who claimed to have sent him money without having actually done so. Beerbohm did not spurn him but kept his distance. Of his old friends Robbie Ross, who had introduced Wilde to homosexuality at the age of 32, stood by him to the end, and he was supported by Reginald Turner and Frank Harris. They were joined by Jean Dupoirier, proprietor of the Paris hotel in which Wilde died, and perhaps of all his friends the most disinterested and serviceable.
It is easy to say that Wilde brought his distress on himself. The penury of his last years was in part due to his inability to live other than extravagantly, and in even greater part to his resuming relations with Lord Alfred Douglas – not only because the allowance from his wife was expressly conditional on his not doing so, but because, as he knew very well, Douglas was sure to bring him further disasters. It was the clearest possible proof of Wilde’s self-destructiveness that knowing all he did about the treachery of this lover he should again put himself in his hands.
If one emotion prevails over all others in Ellmann’s book it is loathing and contempt for Bosie, Wilde’s great love and worst enemy – a callous bully, cruel in his rages and coldly exploitative, pretty and vain, autocratic and whining, jealous and promiscuous. Ellmann has no difficulty in bringing out the young man’s close resemblance to the father he loathed, and against whom he unscrupulously used Wilde.
Ellmann conceived the whole life as tragedy, finding even in the triumphant part of it many premonitions of disaster. He attaches great importance to the fact that Wilde contracted syphilis while at Oxford, and has no doubt that the disease contributed to his early death: indeed he remarks that this ‘conviction is central to my conception of Wilde’s character and my interpretation of many things in his later life’. Wilde presumably thought himself cured, but it could no doubt be argued that he still feared the disease, and that the fear affected the writing of Dorian Gray, for instance.
Here as elsewhere Ellmann likes to underline the evidence that Wilde had forebodings of some future disaster, which induced him to live fully and dangerously in the present. And he certainly did take risks even before he became a practising homosexual. In an Oxford where you could be charged with the offence of ‘keeping and reciting immoral poetry’ it was risky to make a cult of St Sebastian, and Matthew Arnold’s university was hardly the place to announce that the right way to live was to do as you like, and get what you want. Even in the larger world of London there were limits, and he achieved celebrity by continually flirting with them. When, in 1881, Gilbert satirised him in Patience, he was still only 26, and had published little except his first book of poems. He owed his fame to his daring in dress, talk and conduct. Such fame is inseparable from envy, and the friends made in the course of such a life could easily turn into bitter enemies, as Whistler did. No wonder Wilde had forebodings, especially when he became more or less openly and indiscreetly homosexual.
There is a sonnet in which Wilde quotes the plea of Jonathan: ‘I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in my hand, and lo! I must die.’ In the Bible story Jonathan has broken Saul’s prohibition against eating, the announcement of which he’d missed. He doesn’t die, because the people rally and save him. Wilde’s poem is ostensibly about spoiling one’s life by preferring pleasure to arduous study, but Ellmann thinks he is surreptitiously hoping that like Jonathan he can have his taste of honey and still be saved. It seems more likely that the poet was remembering Jonathan’s earlier remark: ‘how my eyes have been enlightened because I tasted a little of this honey.’
Taken together, the texts fit nicely the image of the poète maudit, death being the price of his gift, and sex the agent of death. This is how Wilde might wish to see himself; he can hardly, even in his most extravagant daydream, have expected to be saved by the people. The point is that he was in this instance matching himself with a fashionable stereotype rather than anticipating doom and possible redemption.
Even if Wilde himself hadn’t had premonitions, there would still have been, in the ordinary way of things, events in his life to which a biographer can give the quality of tragic portents. Ellmann describes Wilde’s visit to a prison in Nebraska, his consultation with a palmist called Cheiros, and several other incidents, in those terms. Once he found on a tomb the epitaph une heure viendra qui tout paiera – incidentally, the words are badly mistranslated in the text.The motto is rather menacing, certainly, but it is, after all, a threat of very general application.
Still, there were doubtless hints and warnings of varying gravity, and it was Wilde’s way to carry on being outrageous or funny rather than heed them. Whether this justifies the claim that he was ‘conducting, in the most civilised way, an anatomy of his society, and a radical reconsideration of its ethics’, does seem a bit doubtful. Ellmann twice brackets Wilde with Blake and Nietzsche; along with them ‘he was proposing that good and evil are not what they seem, that moral tab[u]s cannot cope with the complexity of behaviour. His greatness as a writer is partly the result of the enlargement of sympathy which he demanded for society’s victims.’ It is true that Wilde was at his best a generous and a gentle man: he would take off his coat and give it to a naked beggar, and he was properly appalled by the meanness and cruelty with which society treated the unlucky or the criminal. But he himself would presumably have denied that these or any other virtues had any relevance to art. To call The Picture of Dorian Gray a critique of aestheticism that ‘went far beyond Whistler and Gautier’ is not necessarily false, and it may not even be false to say that ‘by cunning and eloquence Wilde restored art to the power that the romantic poets had claimed for it, able once again to legislate for the world’: but Wilde might have thought it odd, and so will many of his readers.
The best of Wilde, outside the theatre, is to be found in such essays as ‘The Truth of Masks’, ‘The Critic as Artist’ and ‘The Decay of Lying’, which are not simple in tone, but do seem to place a barrier between art and action, or legislation in any normal sense of the word. I risk the rejoinder that the implied legislative programme was meant to serve the interests not of action but of contemplation, described by Wilde as ‘the proper occupation of man’. All the same, the state of the world was manifestly hostile to contemplation, and therefore required action: a requirement on which Wilde reflects at some length in ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’. One way of finding out whether one agrees with Ellmann’s estimate of Wilde as an ethical force is to reread this essay, the rather camp arguments of which are here rehearsed with what seems like unqualified approval. For Ellmann was determined to prove that Wilde was a sage, a heroic figure, ahead of his time – the portent of a future ethic, as well as the agent of his own destruction.
What we are here told about Wilde’s family may help us to form more mundane estimates. His parents were distinguished and somewhat bizarre. His father was a famous Dublin doctor, a man of many interests and evident vitality, who fathered three bastards in addition to his legitimate family, and managed to conceal the identity of their mother or mothers from everybody, including even Richard Ellmann. Wilde’s mother was a nationalist poet, good-hearted, flamboyant, and with a bravura dottiness that Wilde must have inherited. She called herself ‘Speranza’, and claimed a previous existence as an eagle, telling the youthful Yeats that she therefore needed to ‘live in some high place, Primrose Hill or Highgate’. Her elder son Willie was a witty scamp, famous in the Dublin pubs. Asked what he was working at, he would reply: ‘At intervals.’ Max Beerbohm said he was very like Oscar, with the same ‘coy, carnal smile’. He was completely unreliable and irresponsible, but unlike his brother got into scrapes rather than catastrophes.
Oscar lacked Willie’s malice, and his underhand ways, and also had more conscience about work. His career at Oxford left him little time for reading, but despite a failure in Divinity and a period of rustication he took a double First in Greats, aided no doubt by his famous skill as a fast reader (it is said that he could read a novel in three minutes). To have done so well at university, in the perfectly ordinary sense of the phrase, gave him much satisfaction, for at this stage, and possibly later as well, he retained some conventional values. However, as Ellmann puts it, he ‘created himself at Oxford’, and he did it not by writing Greek proses but by fine talk, fine clothes and a risky degree of impudence. The strain of prudence was, however, not extinct, and it showed up when he drew back at the last moment from conversion to Rome, fearing he might lose a legacy by going ahead with it. He contented himself instead with membership of a very fancy Masonic lodge.
Ellmann duly documents these and other contests between inclination and prudence, in which, as time went by, prudence had fewer and fewer successes. Yielding to Bosie’s false persuasions at the time when he could have withdrawn his action against Queensberry was a crucial defeat for prudence; taking Bosie back after prison was another. But even in the days of his triumph – on the American tour, and in the days just before the disaster, when he had two successful plays in the West End – Wilde was always finding or putting himself in positions where such contests were inevitable. Ellmann often, and rightly, reminds us of his virtues – he was only occasionally overbearing or coarse, and he was always generous; delight in his company was universal, and we see its signs wherever the biographer follows him – at his mother’s salons, in Whitman’s house, at Mallarmé’s mardis, in cafés with the young Gide and Pierre Louÿs.
His power to inspire affection was extraordinary, and it depended on more than wit and fancy: he made people love him. But he also gave envy some wonderful opportunities, and knew that he was doing so. ‘Of course I knew there would be a catastrophe, either that or something else,’ he told Gide after his release from prison. ‘To go any further was impossible, and that state of things could not last ... there had to be some end to it.’ He may not have expected that his admirers would so firmly disown him, or that the envious could be so malignant. But like his biographer, he came to see that the shape of his life was determined by its end, and was therefore tragic.
Macaulay in a famous passage spoke of the British public savaging Byron in one of its ‘periodical fits of morality’: ‘He was excluded from circles where he had been the observed of all observers. All those creeping things that riot in the decay of nobler natures hastened to their repast; and they were right, they did after their kind. It is not every day that the savage envy of aspiring dunces is gratified by the agonies of such a spirit, and the degradation of such a name.’ Ellmann catches Macaulay’s mood, and it becomes our own, as we read the book – indeed it must, in some measure, whenever we think of Wilde. It is the fate of a very few writers to have led lives so remarkable that we think first of their fates and only then of their works. Merely to have written The Importance of Being Earnest must constitute a claim to immortality: yet when our thoughts turn to Wilde we are likely first to remember how he was tormented by a crazy nobleman, spat on at Twyford Junction, alienated from his children, and left to die in exile. After that, we may have some thoughts about epigrams, green carnations, lilies and decadence, and only then of the books and plays.
Ellmann has not sought to diminish the pity of it all, but he has tried, sometimes, perhaps, with rather too heavy a hand, to remind us of the writer, and to persuade us that decadence may be the other face of renovation. ‘He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s. Now, beyond the reach of scandal, 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, and so right.’ It is deeply satisfying that Dick Ellmann should have ended his work with that generous sentence.