Love in a Dark Time

Colm Tóibín

  • The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis
    Fourth Estate, 1270 pp, £35.00, November 2000, ISBN 1 85702 781 7

The first two months of 1895 were busy for Oscar Wilde. In late January he was in Algiers with Alfred Douglas. He wrote to Robert Ross: ‘There is a great deal of beauty here. The Kabyle boys are quite lovely. At first we had some difficulty procuring a proper civilised guide. But now it is all right and Bosie and I have taken to haschish: it is quite exquisite: three puffs of smoke and then peace and love.’ On Sunday 27 January André Gide, also in Algiers, was, according to his own account, checking out of the Grand Hôtel d’Orient when he saw the names ‘Oscar Wilde’ and ‘Alfred Douglas’ on the slate on which guests’ names were written. Theirs were at the bottom, which must have meant that they had only just arrived. His was at the top in one of his versions of the story; it was beside Wilde’s in another. In either case, he later wrote that he took the sponge, wiped his name out and made his way quickly to the railway station.

Gide, who was 25, had met Wilde before in Paris and Florence. He left three accounts of their meeting in Algiers; some of what he said was later hotly denied by Douglas. The first account, written the following day, was to his mother. He explained to her that he had, after much consideration, decided to return to the hotel and miss his train, as he did not want Wilde to think he was avoiding him. ‘This terrible man,’ he wrote, ‘the most dangerous product of modern civilisation – still, as in Florence, accompanied by the young Lord Douglas, the two of them put on the Index in both London and Paris and, were one not so far away, the most compromising companions in the world’. Wilde, he wrote, was ‘charming, at the same time; unimaginable, and, above all, a very great personality … It’s impossible to gauge what is the young Lord’s intrinsic worth; Wilde seems to have corrupted him to the very marrow of his bones.’

Two days later, Gide wrote once more to his mother: ‘One sees characters like this in a Shakespeare play. And Wilde! Wilde!! What more tragic life is there than his! If only he were more careful – if he were capable of being careful – he would be a genius, a great genius … I am happy to have met him in such a distant place, though even Algiers isn’t far enough away for me to be able to face him without a certain fear; I told him so to his face … If Wilde’s plays in London didn’t run for three hundred performances, and if the Prince of Wales didn’t attend his first nights, he would be in prison and Lord Douglas as well.’

Gide did not tell his mother what really happened to him in Algiers. He recounted it in Si le grain ne meurt, 30 years later, and said that it had been the turning point in his life. Wilde took Gide to a café in a remote part of the city, Douglas having gone to Biskra in search of a boy called Ali. As tea was being prepared for them, Gide noticed ‘a marvellous youth’ at the half-opened door. ‘He remained there quite a while, one raised elbow propped up against the door-jamb, outlined against the blackness of the night.’ When Wilde called him over, he sat down and began to play a reed flute. ‘He had an olive complexion; I admired the way his fingers held his flute, the slimness of his boyish figure, the slenderness of the bare legs that protruded from his billowing white shorts, one of the legs folding back and resting on the other knee.’

As they left the café, Wilde asked Gide if he wanted the boy. Gide nervously said that he did. Wilde, having made the arrangements, laughed uproariously as his suspicions about Gide’s sexuality were confirmed. They had a drink in a hotel, then made their way to a building where Wilde had a key to an apartment. The flute-player arrived, as did another musician for Wilde.

Gide held in his ‘bare arms that perfect, wild little body, so dark, so ardent, so lascivious … After Mohammed had left me, I remained for a long time in a state of quivering jubilation … Since then, whenever I have sought pleasure, it is the memory of that night I have pursued.’

Gide subsequently met up with Douglas who had Ali in tow, dressed like Aladdin, and aged, Gide told his mother, 12 or 13. All three stayed in the Hotel Royal in Biskra. In his conversations with Gide, Douglas ‘returned incessantly, and with disgusting obstinacy to things I spoke of only with the greatest embarrassment – an embarrassment that was increased by his total lack of it’. And yet Gide wrote that he found Douglas ‘absolutely charming’.

Wilde left Algeria on 31 January. On his way to London he stopped in Paris and saw Degas, who repeated to him a comment that he had made on the opening of a Liberty’s shop in Paris: ‘So much taste will lead to prison.’

On 3 January An Ideal Husband had opened in London with the Prince of Wales, Balfour and Chamberlain in the audience. It was an enormous success. The Importance of Being Earnest was to open on 14 February. Wilde attended rehearsals, and was persuaded by George Alexander, the actor-manager, who was producing the play and performing in it, to drop the act in which Algernon is almost arrested for debt. This play, too, was a huge success, with both critics and audiences. ‘Oscar Wilde,’ the New York Times announced, ‘may be said to have at last, and by a single stroke, put his enemies under his feet.’

There is no evidence that Wilde went home to his wife and children on his return from Algiers: he seems to have remained in various hotels in London. Around 17 February he wrote to Douglas, who was about to leave Algiers: ‘you will of course stay with me till Saturday. I then return to Tite Street, I think.’ Tite Street was the family home; he did not return there.

The spectre of Wilde haunted Henry James in the first two months of 1895, and James’s correspondence gives us a much richer sense than Wilde’s does of what the opening of a new play could mean at the turn of the 19th century. ‘Who shall deny the immense authority of the theatre,’ he wrote, ‘or that the stage is the mightiest of modern engines?’ James’s play Guy Domville opened at St James’s Theatre on 5 January, and was also produced by George Alexander, who obtained the rights to The Importance of Being Earnest only because the James play had failed. On the opening night of his play, James had ‘the luminous idea’ of sitting through An Ideal Husband at the nearby Haymarket, which had opened two days earlier. ‘This is a time,’ he wrote to his brother, ‘when a man wants a religion.’

The fact that An Ideal Husband was ‘played with every appearance (so far as the crowded house was an appearance) of complete success’ gave James ‘the most fearful apprehension. The thing seemed to me so helpless, so crude, so bad, so clumsy, feeble and vulgar.’ His own play was a disaster and the crowd booed him when he appeared on stage. ‘The vulgar, the altogether brutish rumpus the other night,’ he wrote to Morton Fullerton, ‘over my harmless and ingenious little play was the abomination of an hour – and an hour only. Deep and dark is the abyss of the theatre.’ On the night his play closed James wrote to the actress Elizabeth Robins: ‘It has been a great relief to feel that one of the most detestable incidents of my life has closed.’ On 22 February he wrote to his brother: ‘Oscar Wilde’s farce which followed Guy Domville is, I believe, a great success – and with his two roaring successes running now at once he must be raking in the profits.’

At the same time, possibly the same day, Wilde wrote to George Alexander asking for more money. ‘I am already served with writs for £400, rumours of prosperity having reached the commercial classes, and my hotel is loathsome to me. I want to leave it … I am sorry my life is so marred and maimed by extravagance. But I cannot live otherwise.’

Wilde now attracted envy and praise instead of the mockery and the contempt he was used to from the public and the press for being a dilettante; he had full houses in two London theatres; his exotic foreign travel and the loathsome hotel helped further to unsettle him. From everything we know of him in those two months, it is easy to conclude that his spirit, his uneasy and ambiguous sense of himself, knew no rest. Even had he not been involved with Douglas and his father, the Marquis of Queensberry, it is likely that any decision he made at this time would have been misguided.

Wilde’s relationship with both men is well documented in his letters. Another crucial aspect of the story, however, is almost entirely missing. Only three letters to his wife Constance survive. One is from 1884, the year of their marriage, written from Edinburgh. ‘O execrable facts, that keep our lips from kissing, though our souls are one … I feel your fingers in my hair, and your cheek brushing mine. The air is full of the music of your voice, my soul and body seem no longer mine, but mingled in some exquisite ecstasy with yours. I feel incomplete without you. Ever and ever yours Oscar.’ The second was written in February 1895, when the trouble was beginning: ‘Dear Constance, I think Cyril better not come up. I have so telegraphed to Mr Badley. I am coming to see you at nine o’clock. Please be in – it is important. Ever yours Oscar.’ (Cyril was their ten-year-old son; Mr Badley his headmaster.) The third was written in April 1895, possibly on the last day of Queensberry’s trial, and read: ‘Dear Constance, Allow no one to enter my bedroom or sittingroom – except servants – today. See no one but your friends. Ever yours Oscar.’

Wilde had wanted to stay in London for all the rehearsals of The Importance of Being Earnest, but had, on Douglas’s insistence, gone to Algiers. ‘I begged him to let me stay to rehearse, but so beautiful is his nature that he declined at once,’ Wilde wrote to Ada Leverson. Douglas stayed in Algiers until 18 February, and so missed the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. His father had planned to be there, however. ‘Bosie’s father is going to make a scene tonight,’ Wilde wrote. ‘I am going to stop him.’ He asked the manager of St James’s Theatre to write to Queensberry saying that ‘you regret to find that the seat given to him was already sold.’ Queensberry’s money was to be returned and trouble thus forestalled. Prevented from addressing the first-night audience, Queensberry ‘left a grotesque bouquet of vegetables’ for Wilde and ‘prowled about for three hours, then left chattering like a monstrous ape’.

On 18 February, as his son travelled back from Algiers, Queensberry left the famous card for Wilde with the note: ‘To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite’. He left it at Wilde’s club and Wilde didn’t get it until 28 February. Up to this point Wilde’s letters either seek to advance his career (and the tone much of the time is shameless) or they are flippant and mocking and funny (and shameless). A letter to Robert Ross, written from the Hotel Avondale in Piccadilly on the day Wilde got Queensbury’s note, has a new tone, which will slowly become that of the last five years of Wilde’s life. It is petulant and self-pitying; it lacks all the style, irony and sense of mischief which Wilde had been working on for twenty years. It is as though he has ceased to be the Platonic conception of himself and become Sir William Wilde’s son, full of his own importance and only too ready to be wronged. ‘Dearest Bobbie, Since I saw you something has happened. Bosie’s father has left a card at my club with hideous words on it. I don’t see anything now but a criminal prosecution. My whole life seems ruined by this man. The tower of ivory is assailed by the foul thing. On the sand is my life spilt. I don’t know what to do.’

What to do seemed very clear. Ross told him to take no action. And it is significant that Wilde did, in fact, consider going to Paris after he got Queensberry’s card but was prevented from doing so by the hotel manager because the bill hadn’t been paid. (On his return to London, Douglas had come to stay with Wilde at the Avondale Hotel, and together they ran up a bill of £140, the hotel impounding Wilde’s luggage until it was paid.) He was not wholehearted in his search for justice, or indeed disgrace. But Douglas was mad for action and Wilde swore out a warrant for the arrest of Queensberry at Marlborough Street police station on 1 March 1895. A few weeks later, when Wilde and Douglas had returned from a stay in Monte Carlo and when it was clear that Queensberry was in possession of compromising letters, Wilde met Frank Harris and George Bernard Shaw at the Café Royal. When Harris vehemently sought to persuade him to drop the case and leave the country and Shaw agreed, Wilde seemed to be coming around to their view. (‘You are sure to lose it,’ Harris told him. ‘You haven’t a dog’s chance and the English despise the beaten.’) Just then, however, Douglas arrived and berated Harris for his advice. When Douglas stormed out of the restaurant, Wilde followed, saying: ‘It is not friendly of you, Frank, it really is not friendly.’ He was not going to take their advice. Within weeks of Queensberry’s victory at the Old Bailey, Wilde himself was standing trial.

How somebody as worldly and bright as Wilde, so alert to the laws of the ruling class and at the receiving end of so much advice and so vulnerable to blackmail and so broke, could have been led so easily towards his downfall remains a mystery. But there are crucial aspects of his make-up and background, especially in the quality of his allegiances, which require explanation. Above all, there is his strange and fierce attachment to Alfred Douglas.

The Wildes were part of a small breed of Irish Protestants who, in the second half of the 19th century, supported the cause of Irish nationalism and yet remained both members of a ruling class in Ireland and comfortable with the governing classes in London. Their addiction to the cause of Irish freedom gave them an edge, lifted them out of their own circumstances and led to an astonishing individuality and independence of mind. Out of that we get the poems of Yeats and the journals of Lady Gregory. Out of that, too, we get Sir William Wilde and his wife.

‘Of late years,’ Yeats wrote in The Trembling of the Veil (1922), ‘I have often explained Wilde to myself by his family history.’ Yeats recounted an old Dublin riddle: Question: ‘Why are Sir William Wilde’s nails so black?’ Answer: ‘Because he has scratched himself.’ ‘They were famous people,’ Yeats wrote, ‘and there are many like stories; and even a horrible folk story … that tells how Sir William Wilde’ – who was an eye surgeon – ‘took out the eyes of some man … and laid them upon a plate, intending to replace them in a moment, and how the eyes were eaten by a cat … The Wilde family was … dirty, untidy, daring … and very imaginative and learned.’ Lady Wilde, according to Yeats, ‘longed always perhaps, though certainly amid much self-mockery, for some impossible splendour of character and circumstance … I think her son lived with no self-mockery at all an imaginary life; perpetually performed a play which was in all things opposite of all that he had known in childhood and early youth.’

Lady Wilde wrote poetry under the name Speranza, telling a fellow poet: ‘You, and other poets, are content to express only your little soul in poetry. I express the soul of a great nation. Nothing less would content me, who am the acknowledged voice in poetry of all the people of Ireland.’ Grandiloquence came naturally: ‘I should like to rage through life – this orthodox creeping is too tame for me – ah, this wild rebellious ambitious nature of mine. I wish I could satiate it with Empires, though a Saint Helena were the end.’ Her patriotic poems were published in the Nation, which was founded in 1842 and had become the publication which above all others ignited and inflamed Irish nationalism.

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