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’.

At the height of his fame and social success, Wilde’s position was similar to that of an artist in a totalitarian society. There is a terse prose-poem, ‘Pan Cogito’s Thoughts on Hell’, in which Zbigniew Herbert gives a parbolic account of such an artist’s position: ‘Contrary to popular belief, the lowest circle of hell is not inhabited either by despots, matricides or those who are seekers after flesh. It is a refuge for artists, full of mirrors, pictures and instruments.’ Here, Beelzebub guarantees his artists ‘peace, good food and total isolation from infernal life’. Wilde’s dedication to luxurious consumption (‘the clear turtle soup, the luscious ortolans ... wonderful pâtés, marvellous fine champagne’) resembles Herbert’s parable translated into capitalist terms. Had Wilde not made an essentially moral repudiation of prudential moderation and caution, he could have remained a gourmandising entertainer in the lowest circle of hell. But as he nurtured a deep hatred of his society and was drawn to attitudes which derive from anarchism, socialism and republicanism, he took the ironic and subversive temper of his dissidence to the logical extreme of martrydom and humiliation.

Such an assertion depends crucially on how we interpret certain moments that blip in and out of Wilde’s biography. Did he make an active decision not to flee the country after the failure of his case against Queensberry? Or did he simply dither until the detectives knocked on the door of Douglas’s suite in the Cadogan Hotel? The legal authorities hoped that he would flee and his friends repeatedly urged him to catch the Dover train. He kept saying ‘It is too late’ and ‘The train has gone,’ and he remained in the hotel all afternoon until the detectives arrived, either at 6.30, according to H. Montgomery Hyde, or ‘between 7 and 8 o’clock’, according to Hesketh Pearson. Hyde argues that Wilde ‘could not make up his mind what to do, until it was made up for him by the force of events’. Pearson evasively maintains that Wilde was ‘partially paralysed by the shock’ and ‘half-hypnotised by the picture of himself as one predestined to suffer’.

The jury at Wilde’s first trial disagreed and was discharged. Wilde was released on bail and a gang of Queensberry’s toughs hunted him from hotel to hotel. Shortly before 1 a.m. he arrived at his mother’s house in Chelsea. His elder brother opened the door and Wilde said: ‘Give me shelter, Willie. Let me lie on the floor or I shall die on the streets.’ Yeats, hearing of this, asked various Irish writers to give him letters of sympathy for Wilde and called at the house. Willie Wilde told Yeats he supposed they wanted his brother to run away and Yeats replied that he did not advise this and nor did the others. Willie then said that Oscar could escape but ‘he has resolved to stay, to face it out, to stand the music like Christ.’ Willie also said that although he and Oscar were on bad terms ‘he came to me like a wounded stag, and I took him in.’

Lady Wilde, his mother, appears to have exerted a strong influence at this crisis: she imagined him in the dock, defying the authorities rather like Robert Emmet, and she said she would never speak to him again if he fled the country. She was a famous patriotic poet (she published under the name ‘Speranza’) and was closely associated with the Fenian Movement. In 1882, Wilde told a lecture audience in San Francisco that Smith O’Brien, one of the leaders of the abortive uprising of 1848, was the ‘earliest hero of my childhood’, and he said that he had been trained by his mother to love and reverence the Fenians ‘as a Catholic child is the saints of the calendar’. Although this statement might appear to have been tailored for an Irish American audience, Wilde was to express a similar conviction seven years later in a bitter review published in the Pall Mall Gazette. Discussing J.A. Froude’s novel, The Two Chiefs of Dunboy: An Irish Romance of the Last Century, Wilde attacks Froude’s patronising ignorance and then states: ‘If in the last century she [England] tried to govern Ireland with an insolence that was intensified by race hatred and religious prejudice, she has sought to rule her in this century with a stupidity that is aggravated by good intentions.’ By current standards, this is an unusually extreme statement for an expatriate Irish writer to make, and one result of the more moderate and ambivalent contemporary attitude is that critics nowadays believe that Irish writers have always been similarly moderate. Thus the influence of the Fenians on Wilde, Yeats and Joyce has been overlooked or minimised, and their work has been distorted in order to make it more easily assimilable. It would appear that such a misreading will be rectified only when Irish Studies is established as an academic discipline which is similar to, but distinct from, American Studies and English Studies.

The iconography of Wilde’s downfall – wounded stag and Christ – which Yeats designs in Autobiographies links him to Parnell and to a potent combination of Paterian aestheticism, homoeroticism and Christianity. Yeats is using that metaphor of the hunted animal which Richard Ellmann has shown to be a traditional image that was ‘applied to Parnell in his last phase’ and adopted by both Yeats and Joyce. In Ulysses, Joyce designs an analogy between Parnell and ‘our saviour’, while the aesthetic identification with Christ can be seen in this passage from a sermon which Pater’s ex-pupil, Gerard Manley Hopkins, delivered in 1879: ‘There met in Jesus Christ all things that can make man lovely and lovable. In his body he was most beautiful ... They tell us that he was moderately tall, well-built and slender in frame, his features straight and beautiful, his hair inclining to auburn, parted in the midst, curling and clustering about the ears and neck as the leaves of a filbert, so they speak, upon the nut.’ In De Profundis, Wilde insists rather too self consciously on his imitation of Christ and it would appear that both he and Hopkins saw Christ as the perfect aesthete. Thus Wilde had to make a conscious decision to ‘stand the music’: had he fled, he would have betrayed both his art and his maimed nationhood.

Like Hopkins, Joyce and Yeats, Wilde possessed a temperament that was fundamentally hard-line, theological, extreme and incapable of moderation or compromise. Wilde directed his intellectual ‘keenness’ against the philistine complacency of the Victorian middle class, and in The Importance of Being Earnest he turns a nihilistic upper-class English irony against the stodgy certainties of Victorian Britain: ‘Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.’ It seems that the ironic artist admires the sort of people who might, say, shelter Lord Lucan and regard the police as comic and tasteless vulgarians. Yet at the same time Wilde is asking his audience how they can belong to such a class-ridden and hypocritically moralistic society. Why does the middle class – a class that preaches hard work to the working class it exploits – not realise that the upper class regards its values with derision?

Wilde’s essential disaffection from the values of his society is the real subject of some hostile verses which were published in Punch two weeks before his first trial:

Is this your ‘Culture’, to asphyxiate
  With upas-perfume sons of English race,
With manhood-blighting cant-of-art to prate,
  The jargon of an epicene disgrace?

For Punch, Wilde and the Aesthetic movement are part of a conspiracy to corrupt ‘our boys’, and its anonymous versifier concludes his prejudicial attack by exclaiming:

If such be ‘Artists’, then may Philistines
  Arise, plain sturdy Britons as of yore,
And sweep them off and purge away the signs
  That England e’er such noxious offspring bore![*]

This is the obverse of Wilde’s threat, after the banning of Salomé, to take out French citizenship. Punch is suggesting that artists are foreign subversives who ought to be forcibly repatriated.

It would be a mistake to enforce a simple polarity between ‘plain sturdy Britons’ and decadent aesthetes, because there is an interesting passage in De Profundis where Wilde anticipates that particular form of English sensibility which belongs to Edward Thomas, the Georgian poets and the early Lawrence:

We call ourselves a utilitarian age, and we do not know the uses of any single thing. We have forgotten that Water can cleanse, and Fire purify, and that the Earth is mother to us all. As a consequence our Art is of the Moon and plays with shadows, while Greek art is of the Sun and deals directly with things. I feel sure that in elemental forces there is purification, and I want to go back to them and live in their presence ... I tremble with pleasure when I think that on the very day of my leaving prison both the laburnum and the lilac will be blooming in the gardens, and that I shall see the wind stir into restless beauty the swaying gold of the one, and make the other toss the pale purple of its plumes so that all the air shall be Arabia for me.

Wilde’s Paterian prose has the texture of some cheap alloy and is unable to grasp the natural authenticity it invokes. Nevertheless, in this anticipation of Thomas’s aesthetic ruralism and Lawrence’s evangelical prose, his idea of freedom ceases to be urbane and becomes temporarily romantic and Wordsworthian.

Peter Ackroyd is aware of Wilde’s relation to the Young Ireland movement, and in his fictional account of Wilde’s last months in Paris he makes a courageous attempt to align his subject with the Irish libertarian tradition. Wilde’s enemies ‘mocked me also because my utter want of seriousness represented a terrible threat to all their values. I was a Nihilist of the imagination, in revolt against my period – although I could hardly be accused of shedding blood, I used the weapons which were closest to hand, for they were those which my own class had fashioned for me.’ Ackroyd, however, adds to his imitation of Wilde’s prose an explicatory earnestness which leaves nothing to the imagination: ‘I am Solomon and Job, both the most fortunate and the least fortunate of men. I have known the emptiness of pleasure and the reality of sorrow.’ Ackroyd’s Wilde presents himself as the victim of several melodramatic situations. He is the illegitimate son of Smith O’Brien and he is also the victim of an Establishment cover-up designed to placate Queensberry by enforcing Wilde’s prosecution. Lord Drumlanrig, Queensberry’s eldest son, was Lord Rosebery’s private secretary and in the novel Queensberry threatens to reveal evidence of a homosexual relationship between them. This is a clever idea – Rosebery was Prime Minister from March 1894 to June 1895 and Drumlanrig was killed when his gun exploded in October 1894. In Ackroyd’s version Drumlanrig believes he has betrayed Rosebery and commits suicide. Sadly, Ackroyd wastes this provocative narrative opportunity by devoting only a few sentences to the scandal which he has so tantalisingly manufactured. Although it is pointless to accuse a novelist of getting his facts wrong, it is hard to see why A211, the Reading convict named Prince about whom Wilde wrote angrily to the Daily Chronicle, should appear as ‘King’ in this story. Wilde’s account of this prisoner’s treatment is so horrific that it would have been an act of piety and compassion to get his name right. There are other moments which are similarly inauthentic and the result is another exercise in Victorian pastiche, a genre which deserves to be neglected for a century or two.

In a keenly symbolic image Ackroyd’s Wilde states: ‘I was the Juggernaut, heaped with flowers, which crushes all those who come near it.’ This image belongs to a mode of existential feminist biography which could give an account of Constance Mary Lloyd’s experience. As the ground of a biographer’s attitude to subject and personality, it might help to detach Constance from her subordinate biographical role and centre the major narrative attention on her. Although it is possible to intuit the terrible personal tragedy which she suffered, neither of her biographers is able to create an autonomous personality, an integrity of experience, or equivalent centre of self, which was uniquely her own.

Joyce Bentley offers this account of the Wildes’ honeymoon: ‘Constance, looking radiant and wearing an exquisite creation which set every head turning, was enjoying herself immensely. Accompanied by the impeccably dressed Oscar, swinging a silver-topped cane, she presented herself to the public at large. The Eiffel Tower, the Bois de Boulogne, the Sacré Coeur: Constance was familiar with them all, but, heightened by the consciousness of love, they achieved another dimension of splendour.’ Anne Clark Amor’s prose is less pestered with clichés, but she, too, sees Constance through Oscar, instead of establishing her as a separate personality. Thus Amor says at one point, ‘The name of Mrs Oscar Wilde really counted for something now in women’s political circles,’ and like Bentley she appears to find Oscar much more fascinating. Constance Wilde did publish some journalism, but her life and opinions are much less accessible than her husband’s and she is accordingly much more difficult to establish in print. I suspect that Lady Windermere is a version of her and wish that her biographers could have brought Constance to life. Both write in a breezy manner which conceals the suffering of someone Wilde broke on the wheel of his egotism. Oscar’s tragedy has attracted prolonged attention, but Constance’s deeper tragic experience still awaits a chronicler who has a more complete feminist vision. Feminist biography is a new and inspiring literary mode which aims to alter current perceptions and create permanent aesthetic forms. By rigorously respecting the autonomy of its subject, it can create an absolutely modern style, an innovating beauty. Meanwhile, Bentley and Amor help us to recognise something of the suffering Wilde caused when he unleashed ‘the tiger, Life’ on his family.

[*] 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).