Oscar wilde is one of literature’s most bankable brand-names. As the illustrations in Merlin Holland’s The Wilde Album demonstrate, this was as true in his fin de siècle as in ours. During Wilde’s lifetime, his celebrity was used to sell Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, Madame Fontaine’s Bosom Beautifier, Straiton and Storm’s cigars and, lastly and mostignominiously, copies of the Illustrated Police Budget. Today, his name is on bookmarks, greeting-cards, T-shirts, posters and album covers. At least five anthologies of his work appeared last October alone. The Telegraph still uses him as sexual deviancy’s whipping-boy (‘his behaviour often hovered dangerously close to being that of a paedophile,’ snorted Christopher Hart on the day Brian Gilbert’s movie Wilde was released).
Julia Prewitt Brown sees him as a philosophical heavyweight; and celebrates his ‘dodginess’ in order to instal him in a post-dualist tradition of aesthetic theory – a missing link between Kierkegaard and Adorno. For Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, he’s the original Queer wit, who would today have been the toast of Sussex University and Old Compton Street. Oscar Wilde, posing as a Post-Modernist. Like the most obliging of renters, Wilde will be anything you want him to be: socialist, socialite, pedagogue, paedophile, martyr, traitor, major minor writer. In an Omnibus programme broadcast late last year, Michael Bracewell claimed that he was ‘the century’s first pop celebrity’, and tried to persuade us that, in the manner of an Elvis or a McCartney, Wilde was a working-class lad made good. Cut to a shot of Bracewell looking uncomfortable in a gargoyled corner of Magdalen College, Oxford, empathising with ‘a boy from Ireland suddenly surrounded by lots of posh people’. It makes you wonder why Lord and Lady Wilde paid those school fees.
Merlin Holland’s essay on his grandfather in Peter Raby’s Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde illuminates these appropriations by charting a series of significant errors through multiple versions of Wilde’s history. Holland takes us back to one of the most familiar scenes from the life of Wilde: the bad moment outside Swan and Edgar’s. Richard Ellmann’s biography says that, as Wilde caught sight of ‘the painted boys on the pavement’ outside the department store, he was struck by an overwhelming sense of catastrophe. Holland traces the story back to 1930 and to Ada Leverson, who – he suggests – probably heard it from Reggie Turner. In her version, ‘a curious, very young, but hard-eyed creature appeared, looked at him, gave a sort of laugh, and passed on. He felt, he said, “as if an icy hand had clutched at his heart”. He had a sudden presentiment. He saw a vision of folly, misery and ruin.’ The sex of this ‘creature’ remains unrecorded; Hesketh Pearson’s 1946 biography makes it a woman. Stanley Weintraub’s 1965 biography of Turner slips the event back inside Swan and Edgar and transforms the ‘creature’ into a group of young male shop assistants. Ellmann puts them back on the street and reinvents them – unequivocally – as dolled-up rentboys. Holland investigates Ellmann’s footnotes, and returns to his source, a letter from Turner to A.J.A. Symons, which speculates about Wilde’s early homosexuality, but does not refer to the Swan and Edgar incident.
There have been at least three more versions of this episode since the Cambridge Companion went to press. Brian Gilbert’s film – which, rather mysteriously, refers in the titles to ‘an original screenplay by Julian Mitchell from Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann’ – shows a phalanx of unpainted male prostitutes, leaning on some railings. Watching for a cab, Stephen Fry’s Wilde makes eye contact with one of them. ‘Looking for someone?’ asks the lad (identified as ‘Rent-boy’ in the closing credits), and Fry stares helplessly across the street. Gilbert does all he can to italicise the moment, but since Fry seems to be following Clint Eastwood’s directorial dictum – ‘Don’t just do something, stand there’ – it’s difficult to read its significance. Is Oscar mortified? Aroused? Wilde the Novel – a version of the screenplay with quotation marks and supporting description by Stefan Rudnicki – helps to clarify what’s happening:
Oscar wanted to run away, to ignore the lad, but the handsome rentboy looked at him to knowingly, so openly, that Oscar for a moment couldn’t so much as move ... The easy camaraderie he had always enjoyed with younger men was an admitted fact, but there was something happening here that did not fit the mould Oscar sought.
Before his eyes passed a panorama of destruction. He saw the edifice of his life, which he had so carefully raised, crack and split and crumble, only to expose another image behind it: this raised eyebrow, this knowing face, this mere rentboy. Impossible.
In the retelling, a vague premonition has become a terror-struck homosexual awakening. Bracewell’s Omnibus film makes further embellishments, and – like the histories of the Russian Revolution that took as reportage Eisenstein’s restaging of the storming of the Winter Palace – seems to have confused this scene in Gilbert’s biopic with historical record. Leaning on a wall of what was once Swan and Edgar, Bracewell tells how Wilde ‘caught a glimpse of the rentboys – the boy prostitutes – leaning against the railings of Piccadilly’. Though these railings come only from the movie, he gestures to the exact spot. ‘It was as though he knew he’d been hooked into the world of homosexual prostitution,’ Bracewell deadpans.
The progress of speculation towards fact is one of the most intriguing aspects of writing about Wilde – and too appropriate to condemn entirely. ‘The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it,’ Wilde claimed in The Critic as Artist. Though Wilde the movie is, for the most part closely based on Ellmann’s research, it rejects his belief that Wilde was a lifelong syphilitic – a charge which Christopher Hart resurrected in an attempt to cool ‘overheated talk of “Saint Oscar” ’. For less obvious reasons, Mitchell’s screenplay also toys with Ellmann’s most famous misapprehension – that Oscar dragged up to play the title role in Salome. ‘Sarah Bernhardt thinks she knows better than I do how to play Salome,’ purrs Fry’s Wilde, rehearsing the late 19th-century belief that sodomites were phenotypically male and psychologically female, and therefore buggers for a sequinned frock. The most brazen hijack of Wilde’s life is performed by Frank Harris’s biography, a generous, boastful book whose shameless exaggerations have the uncanny ring of authenticity. (True to the disingenuous spirit of the memoir, Robinson’s welcome reprint has ‘Now a major film starring Stephen Fry’ splashed across its cover.) Harris uses Wilde to bolster his own derogatory views of his contemporaries. They trade unflattering estimations of George Curzon and Hall Caine, among others, Wilde showing implausible enthusiasm in his agreement with Harris’s bitching.
Stephen Fry was cast in Wilde long before Mitchell had written the script and everyone from Chris Evans to Merlin Holland agreed that he was born to play the part. ‘Stephen Fry is Oscar Wilde,’ insists the Foreword to Rudnicki’s novelisation. Reviews of the film have elided the difference between actor and role. In the Evening Standard, Alexander Walker detected ‘a rehabilitation and a revelation. The rehabilitation is that of Stephen Fry. The truant stage actor returns to the top of the class with a dominating screen performance. His Oscar Wilde is the emotional and intellectual ballast in the story of a man who has the world at his command, but whose tragedy is his inability to command himself.’ Wilde and Fry have more in common than a flight in disgrace to the Continent: basic physical appearance; innumeracy; advertising work; a healthy distaste for the Daily Mail.
Describing his life up to the age of 18, Fry’s autobiography, Moab Is My Washpot, is punctuated with sub-Wildean aphorisms. ‘Life is sometimes novel-shaped,’ he observes, ‘mocking the efforts of those authors who, in an effort to make their novels life-shaped, spurn the easy symmetry and cheap resonance of reality.’ This pronouncement is made as the young Fry is on his way to Reading with a stolen credit card, just before his arrest in a Post House Hotel by two Wiltshire police officers. It’s not exactly the Cadogan, but the cheap resonance is there. Moab Is My Washpot is a very eccentric confessional, alive with the contradictions that make Fry such a beguiling popular-cultural landmark. He unloads his confessions of mendacity, thieving, sexual experimentation, teenage heartbrokenness and under-achievement as though he has no idea that they’re likely to be on the psychosocial CVs of half his readership.
What’s most interesting about his casting as Wilde is that Fry is both a sexual rebel (his novel, The Hippopotamus, contains a scene in which a teenage boy with miracle-working sperm has sex with a horse) and a corduroy-wrapped, fogeyish ex-public schoolboy with excellent reactionary credentials. Though his Wilde is the first to clutch Robbie Ross’s buttocks on screen, Fry is easily the straightest film incarnation of Oscar – his most passionate kiss is reserved for his wife. What with that and Brian Gilbert’s resolutely conservative style of film-making, you could say that Oscar Wilde is being sold back to the middle-class consumers who, a hundred years ago, were titillated by the media coverage of his downfall.
Many of the new books on Wilde ask us to admire his modernity. Holland, for example, notes how his grandfather intended to rebrand himself, like Nigel Kennedy or the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, by ditching the rolling syllables of his full name: ‘As one becomes famous,’ Wilde wrote, ‘one sheds some of them, just as a balloonist, when rising higher sheds unnecessary ballast. All but two have already been thrown overboard. Soon I shall discard another and be known simply as “The Wilde” or “The Oscar”.’ In his documentary, Bracewell likens Wilde’s lily to a company logo, his conquest of the Fin de Siècle smart set to a Mick Jagger-style bender through ‘metropolitan psychedelia’. And if Wilde is a long-haired, clean-shaven pop celebrity, then he can’t be one of those mutton-chopped monsters who sent young boys up chimneys. One of Wilde’s most important functions in our culture is to act as a locus for our anti-Victorianism. Julia Prewitt Brown writes that Wilde’s ‘bodily pleasures offended the Victorians’. In the press release for Brian Gilbert’s film, Stephen Fry applauds Wilde’s epigrams as ‘reversals of Victorian platitudes’. The cover blurb for the Penguin anthology of quotations, Nothing ... except My Genius, describes Wilde as ‘lampooning the starchy morality of Victorian society’. ‘Playing Oscar’, Stephen Fry’s Foreword to this compilation, argues that ‘his imprisonment allowed Late Victorian England to roll up into a sack the work he had done and hurl it like a poxed odalisque into the Bosphorus.’ In the Introduction to his play Saint Oscar, Terry Eagleton celebrates Wilde as a ‘remorseless debunker of the high-toned gravitas of Victorian England’.
The Marquess of Queensberry, Sir Edward Carson, Max Nordau and the gloating, anonymous readership of small-minded newspapers like the Daily Mail: these are the villains of the Wilde story, but they may have more in common with us than its hero. Homophobia, for instance, is a modern phenomenon: before Wilde, there was really no such figure as the homosexual. Victorian men could be intimate without being labelled Mary-Anns, Inverts, Uranians or Similsexuals, terms that became popular only after the Wilde trials. Even if they went to bed with each other, 19th-century men were only performing certain acts, rather than betraying their place in a sexual taxonomy. ‘Wilde and his writings look queer,’ Alan Sinfield has written, ‘because our stereotypical notion of male homosexuality derives from Wilde.’ Joseph Bristow’s essay in the Cambridge Companion argues that ‘the very idea’ that Wilde was ‘in any respect “inverted” came as something of a shock to him’.
Victorian pornographic narratives were surprisingly willing to stage erotic encounters between consenting male adults. For instance, in a fairly representative slice of smut, Sub-Umbra; or, Sport Among the She-Noodles, the hero Walter offers his friend Frank the loan of his copy of Fanny Hill. Walter’s graphically illustrated edition is stashed in the secret compartment of his dressing-case. ‘Here it is, my boy, only I hope it won’t excite you too much; you can look it over by yourself, as I read the Times.’ Of course, it does excite him too much, and the pair are soon involved in ‘a mutual fuck between the thighs on the bed’ – the very act that Ellmann identifies as Wilde’s favourite position. For Walter and Frank, fucking your best mate is the mark of virility. It doesn’t make either man, as Forster’s Maurice agonised, ‘an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort’.
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