Oscar and Constance

Tom Paulin

  • The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde by Peter Ackroyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 185 pp, £7.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 241 10964 7
  • The Importance of Being Constance: A Biography of Oscar Wilde’s Wife by Joyce Bentley
    Hale, 160 pp, £8.75, May 1983, ISBN 0 7090 0538 5
  • Mrs Oscar Wilde: A Woman of Some Importance by Anne Clark Amor
    Sidgwick, 249 pp, £8.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 283 98967 X

In the spring of 1882, Oscar Wilde travelled to a huge mining town in the Rocky Mountains called Leadville, where he lectured the miners on the ‘secret of Botticelli’. A fortnight later, he gave a lecture at the State University of Nebraska. Afterwards the students took him out to the State penitentiary where he saw:

Poor odd types of humanity in hideous striped dresses making bricks in the sun, and all mean-looking, which consoled me, for I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face. Little white-washed cells, so tragically tidy, but with books in them. In one I found a translation of Dante, and a Shelley. Strange and beautiful it seemed to me that the sorrow of a single Florentine in exile should, hundreds of years afterwards, lighten the sorrow of some common prisoner in a modern gaol, and one murderer with melancholy eyes – to be hung they told me in three weeks – spending that interval in reading novels, a bad preparation for facing either God or Nothing.

With hindsight, it is easy to regard this flip moment from a letter to Helena Sickert as one of those luminous recognitions in which a writer discovers both a subject and a proleptic image that fits him to his biography. Wilde was to become a ‘common prisoner’, wear convict dress, read Dante in Reading Gaol and write a great and scarifying ballad about a murderer’s execution. However, what fascinated him in 1882 was the image of that tidy, white, utilitarian building with books of poems inside it. What relation could Dante and Shelley possibly have to its state architecture? What relation had his lecture on Botticelli to the society of Leadville? What was his own relation to Late Victorian society?

Joyce’s answer to the last question was that Wilde made the mistake of becoming ‘court jester to the English’. Although Joyce praised Wilde for his distinctive qualities of ‘keenness, generosity and a sexless intellect’, he aligned him with Sheridan, Goldsmith and Shaw in seeing him as a clown figure. The implied parallel is with Tom Moore, that paradigm of the Irish artist as entryist, entertainer and harmless fool. But the comparison cannot explain the tragically symbolic pattern of Wilde’s life: that story of ‘my Neronian hours, rich, profligate, cynical, materialistic’, followed by his trials, conviction, imprisonment, exile and death.

Before Wilde’s self-destructive vanity and narcissistic love for Lord Alfred Douglas impelled him to prosecute the Marquis of Queensberry, his position had been that of an ironic dandy in a brutalised and hypocritical society. Wilde defined dandyism as ‘the assertion of the absolute modernity of Beauty’ and by this definition the dandy lives at the very forefront of the spirit of the age. Nowadays the ethic of dandyism – living at the sharpest, the most advanced, pitch of consciousness – is represented by punk rockers, whose heroic nihilism reflects and mocks certain dominant social values. There is a strong self-punishing, sometimes suicidal element in dandyism and as a result its apparent superficiality can become a form of extreme and exemplary integrity. Describing himself and his fellow convicts in De Profundis, Wilde exclaims:

Our very dress makes us grotesques. We are the zanies of sorrow. We are clowns whose hearts are broken. We are specially designed to appeal to the sense of humour.

Like punks, the convicts reflect back by means of their grotesque dress their victimisation by an ugly and unjust society. And Wilde moves immediately from this to describe how he stood for half an hour handcuffed on the centre platform at Clapham Junction, ‘in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob’.

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[*] Quoted by R.K.R. Thornton in his recent and helpful study, The Decadent Dilemma (Arnold, 215 pp., £19.50, 10 March, 0 4131 6372 0).