A Little of this Honey

Frank Kermode

  • Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann
    Hamish Hamilton, 632 pp, £15.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 241 12392 5

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.

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[*] Since the book will obviously be many times reprinted it is worth pointing out such errors. The aesthetician Baumgarten is called ‘Baumgartner’ in text and index (pp. 31, 85, 596). The daughter of Herodias (Salome or Hérodiade) is called ‘Herodias’ (p. 320). ‘The cultivation of art apart from life is to build a fire that cannot burn’ (p. 300) is a sentence gone astray. I have also thought fit to read ‘tabus’ for ‘tabs’ in a sentence I proceed to quote, and to emend the punctuation of the last sentence of the book.