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.

In 1848, when Gavan Duffy, the editor of the Nation, was arrested, and Lady Wilde got the chance to write two editorials, she could not contain herself. In the first she said that ‘the long pending war with England has actually commenced’ and in the other she called ‘for a hundred thousand muskets glimmering brightly in the light of heaven’. This was included among the charges against Gavan Duffy, the Government having decided not to charge Speranza. She attended the trial, however, and roared from the gallery when the articles were mentioned, declaring that she had written them.

When she married William Wilde in 1851, he already had three acknowledged illegitimate children. ‘I wonder what Lady Wilde thought of her husband?’ John Butler Yeats wrote to his son in 1921. ‘When she was Miss Elgee, Mrs Butt found her with her husband when her circumstances were not doubtful, and told my mother about it – so that she could afford to be wise and tolerant.’ (Mrs Butt’s husband was the barrister and politcial activist Isaac Butt, who had defended Gavan Duffy.)

William Wilde’s nationalism was milder than his wife’s. In his first book, A Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, written when he was 24, he spoke of himself as an Englishman. Later he accepted the post invented for him as Surgeon Oculist in Ordinary to the Queen. (She must not have known about his dirty fingernails.) He accepted a knighthood in 1864.

Many accounts were subsequently written of the Wildes entertaining in their house in Merrion Square. Shaw remembered William Wilde ‘dressed in stuffy brown; and as he had the sort of skin that never even looks clean, he produced a dramatic effect beside Lady Wilde (in full fig) if being, like Frederick the Great, Beyond Soap and Water, as his Nietzschean son was beyond Good and Evil.’ Harry Furniss wrote that ‘Lady Wilde, had she been cleaned up and plainly and rationally dressed, would have made a remarkably fine model of the Grand Dame, but with all her paint and tinsel and tawdry tragedy-queen get-up she was a walking burlesque of motherhood. Her husband resembled a monkey, a miserable-looking little creature, who apparently unshorn and unkempt, looked as if he had been rolling in the dust … Opposite to their pretentious dwelling in Dublin were the Turkish Baths, but to all appearances [neither] Sir William nor his wife walked across the street.’

These accounts were written many years later – Shaw’s in 1930, Furniss’s in 1923. They do not tally with contemporary descriptions of the Wildes, which show that they were respected and admired. Sir William’s three early children remained a secret; he was considered one of the most eminent eye doctors of his age; his work as an antiquarian and chronicler of the Irish landscape and Irish folklore was an important and meticulous contribution to the growing awareness of an ancient Ireland. Also, Lady Wilde’s involvement with the Nation was seen as an aspect of her seriousness; her poetry and her translations were much praised. The company of both Sir William and his wife was in great demand and their Saturday afternoons were attended by more than a hundred people.

Their position in the city changed somewhat in 1864 when Oscar was nine. A patient of William’s called Mary Travers claimed that the doctor had given her chloroform and raped her. When Lady Wilde wrote a letter vilifying her, Mary Travers sued for libel. She won a farthing damages; and while the legal costs were high, Wilde won the support of the medical establishment. He continued practising as a doctor and in 1867 produced what Richard Ellmann considered his most cheerful book, Lough Corrib. In 1873 the Royal Academy of Ireland conferred its highest honour on him.

The Wildes, then, lived inside the established world and outside it. They had no difficulty with his knighthood, just as Lady Wilde never repudiated her fiery editorials. They were an essential part of Dublin society at the height of Victoria’s rule, yet they both flouted the rules of sexual morality. And neither managed to be discreet. Their allegiance was to an Ireland which had not yet come into place, a dream-Ireland of her poetry and his antiquarianism, and at the same time to their own sense of privilege and power, which derived from the very oppressor of the ancient culture they admired. Their dual mandate, the ambiguity of their position, allowed them to be noticed and remembered, allowed them to do whatever they liked, and allowed Lady Wilde in 1879, three years after her husband’s death, to follow her son and move her salon to London.

In all of Wilde’s letters which refer to his mother, there is not one word of mockery or disloyalty. Mostly he referred to her not as his mother, but as Lady Wilde. As a young man especially, he seemed to enjoy referring to her in all her grandeur and promoted her work whenever he could. To the English friends whom he met at Oxford, he also did an imitation of a perfectly law-abiding member of the group. In August 1876, when he was 21, he wrote to William Ward about their contemporary Charles Todd, later chaplain to the Royal Navy: ‘In our friend Todd’s ethical barometer, at what height is his moral quicksilver? Last night I strolled into the theatre about ten o’clock and to my surprise saw Todd and young Ward the quire boy in a private box together … Myself I believe Todd is extremely moral and only mentally spoons the boy, but I think he is foolish to go about with one.’

In these early letters he is a clean-living classical scholar, travelling with his professor, or sending his poems out to magazines, or going to his father’s house in the West of Ireland to fish, or making sure, after his father’s death in 1876, that the rents on property outside Dublin are ‘to be paid to me direct’. The only things he flirted with were Catholicism and, when he was 23, Florence Balcombe. When she became engaged to Bram Stoker and wanted one last meeting with Wilde, he wrote her a letter in a tone more pompous than Lady Bracknell at the height of her powers: ‘As for my calling at Harcourt Street, you know, my dear Florence, that such a thing is quite out of the question: it would have been unfair to you, and me, and to the man you are going to marry, had we met anywhere else but under your mother’s roof, and with your mother’s sanction.’

A year later, once he was installed in London, a new, less earnest tone entered the letters. ‘My dear Harold,’ he wrote to Harold Boulton (who was five years younger than Wilde), ‘I very often have beautiful people to tea, and will always be very glad to see you and introduce you to them. Any night you like to go to the theatre I will give you a bed with great pleasure in this untidy and romantic house.’ Over the next two years, he moved back and forth from being worldly to being world-weary. In the summer of 1881 he wrote to Matthew Arnold: ‘I have only now, too late perhaps, found out how all art requires solitude as its companion, only now indeed know the splendid difficulty of this great art in which you are a master illustrious and supreme.’ He enclosed his first book of poems.

He moved easily among the great and the good, writing to George Curzon, also five years his junior, to thank him for defending him at the Oxford Union, which had refused to accept a gift of Wilde’s first book of poems. ‘You are a brick!’ the letter began. In 1883 he wrote again to Curzon, who had returned from the East, hoping that he had ‘brought back strange carpets and stranger gods’. He promoted himself effortlessly. ‘If you get the opportunity, and would care for it, I wish you would review my first volume of poems about to appear,’ he wrote to Oscar Browning. And to Robert Browning: ‘Will you accept from me the first copy of my poems – the only tribute I can offer you in return for the delight and wonder which the strength and splendour of your work has given me from my boyhood.’ In the autumn of 1880 he wrote to Ellen Terry: ‘Dear Miss Ellen Terry, Will you accept the first copy of my first play’ – Vera – ‘a drama on modern Russia. Perhaps some day I shall be fortunate enough to write something worthy of your playing.’ Within a few months he was writing, ‘My dear Nellie, I wish you every success tonight,’ and ending: ‘your affectionate friend’. It was easy for Wilde to change, because his allegiances like those of his parents were so mercurial, his roots, unlike those of George Curzon or Harold Boulton, so shallow, his class and national identity so complex and easy to mould and manipulate.

By April 1881, when Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience was first performed in London, Wilde was well known enough for the character of Bunthorne, the ‘fleshly poet’, to be taken as a caricature of him, though he had not yet published his first book of poems. He was already famous for being famous before he set out for America on 24 December 1881, and there he became even more famous. His sayings, and even things he did not say, were widely reported. He toured there for a whole year, giving 150 lectures and making $6000. He had three standard scripts: ‘The Decorative Arts’, ‘The House Beautiful’ and ‘Irish Poets and Poetry of the 19th Century’. ‘Great success here,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘nothing like it since Dickens, they tell me. I am torn in bits by Society. Immense receptions, wonderful dinners, crowds wait for my carriage. I wave a gloved hand and an ivory cane and they cheer. Girls very lovely, men simple and intellectual. Rooms are hung with white lilies for me everywhere. I have “Boy” at intervals, also two secretaries, one to write my autograph and answer the hundreds of letters that come begging for it. Another, whose hair is brown, to send locks of his own hair to the young ladies who write asking for mine; he is rapidly becoming bald. Also a black servant, who is my slave – in a free country one cannot live without a slave – rather like a Christy Minstrel except he knows no riddles. Also a carriage and a black tiger who is like a little monkey.’ (‘Boy’ was champagne; ‘a black tiger’ a black groom in livery.) A month later, he wrote to another friend: ‘I travel like a young god.’ He met Walt Whitman (who kissed him); he met Henry James (whom he insulted); he almost met Jesse James (‘The Americans … always take their heroes from the criminal classes’); he had special clothes made (‘The sleeves are to be flowered – if not velvet then plush – stamped with large pattern. They will excite a great sensation’); he met miners (‘strong men wept like children’ when he spoke of Botticelli); and Mormons (‘very, very ugly’); and Indians (‘Their conversation was most interesting as long as it was unintelligible’). ‘Anything,’ he said, ‘is better than virtuous obscurity.’

Wilde arrived back in England on 6 January 1883 and not long afterwards went to Paris, where he spent three months blowing the money he had made and meeting the famous writers and painters of the day. He then returned to London. On 26 November 1883, Constance Lloyd wrote to her brother Otho: ‘Prepare yourself for an astounding piece of news! I am engaged to Oscar Wilde and perfectly and insanely happy.’ Wilde, who was 29, wrote to Lillie Langtry: ‘I am going to be married to a beautiful young girl called Constance Lloyd, a grave, slight, violet-eyed little Artemis, with great coils of heavy brown hair which make her flower-like head droop like a flower, and wonderful ivory hands which draw music from the piano so sweet that the birds stop singing to listen to her.’

Between his marriage in May 1884 and the beginning of his friendship with Alfred Douglas eight years later, Wilde’s letters display a mixture of domestic bliss and domestic unease, marital devotion and hints of what was to come. Early in December 1884, he wrote a brief note to Philip Griffiths, a 20-year-old from a wealthy family in Birmingham: ‘My dear Philip, I have sent a photo of myself for you to the care of Mr MacKay which I hope you will like and in return for it you are to send me one of yourself which I shall keep as a memory of a charming meeting and golden hours passed together. You have a nature made to love all beautiful things and I hope we shall see each other soon.’ A year later he wrote to a friend: ‘Some day you will find, even as I have found, that there is no such thing as a romantic experience; there are romantic memories, and there is the desire of romance – that is all. Our most fiery moments of ecstasy are merely shadows of what somewhere else we have felt, or what we long some day to feel … And, strangely enough, what comes of all this is a curious mixture of ardour and indifference. I myself would sacrifice everything for a new experience, and I know there is no such thing as a new experience at all.’

By December 1888, he was thanking Ross for the gift of a kitten. ‘The children are enchanted with it, and sit, one on each side of the basket, worshipping.’ Yeats in his Autobiographies wrote an account of a Christmas dinner Wilde invited him to, believing him to be alone in London. ‘He had just renounced his velveteen, and even those cuffs turned backward over the sleeves, and had begun to dress very carefully in the fashion of the moment. He lived in a little house in Chelsea … and I remember thinking that the perfect harmony of his life there, with his beautiful wife and his two young children, suggested some deliberate artistic composition … One form of success had gone: he was no more the lion of the season and he had not yet discovered his gift for writing comedy, yet I think I knew him at the happiest moment of his life.’

In the summer of 1891, when he had already published The Picture of Dorian Grey, Wilde met Douglas, who was 21 – Wilde was 36 – but their friendship did not begin until the following year. In May or June 1892 Wilde wrote to Ross: ‘Bosie has insisted on stopping here for sandwiches. He is quite like a narcissus – so white and gold. I will come either Wednesday or Thursday night to your rooms. Send me a line. Bosie is so tired: he lies like a hyacinth on the sofa, and I worship him.’ The following January, he was writing to Douglas: ‘My Own Boy, Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should have been made no less for music of song than for madness of kisses … I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.’

By March that year, Hyacinthus was making scenes: ‘Dearest of all Boys – Your letter was delightful – red and yellow wine to me – but I am sad and out of sorts – Bosie – you must not make scenes with me – they kill me – they wreck the loveliness of life – I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted by passion; I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me – don’t do it – you break my heart – I’d sooner be rented all day, than have you bitter, unjust, and horrid – horrid.’

The tone was set for the most famous gay relationship in history. The madness of kisses followed by the saying of hideous things – the distortions of passion. Oscar’s forbearance and Douglas’s bad temper both became famous; Oscar’s generosity with money and Douglas’s abuse of that generosity became the legend. ‘Being kept was part of the pleasure of being loved,’ Richard Ellmann wrote in his biography: ‘Wilde’s pleasure in the arrangement was perhaps a little less exquisite. Granted that he liked being abused a little, he could have foregone being abused so much. But Douglas enjoyed demanding ever higher flights of loving-kindness. When in 1894 his father threatened to cut off his allowance, Douglas encouraged him, and threw himself upon Wilde’s generosity. Since neither Wilde nor Douglas practised or expected sexual fidelity, money was the stamp and seal of their love.’ That passage, so full of judgment and certainty, tells us more perhaps about Ellmann than it does about Wilde or Douglas. It suggests that ‘since’ they were not faithful to each other, they could not properly love each other and that ‘since’ this was the case, the stamp and seal of their love would have to be something profane and abject and wrong.

It is much more likely that the stamp and seal of their love came from their enormous attraction to each other, their need for each other, and something difficult to define and explain which was at the core of homosexual experience in the era before gay liberation, and perhaps, to some extent, still is.

In most societies, most gay people go through adolescence believing that the fulfilment of physical desire will not be matched by emotional attachment. For straight people, the eventual matching of the two is part of the deal, a happy aspect of normality. But if this occurs for gay people, it is capable of taking on an extraordinarily powerful emotional force, and the resulting attachment, even if the physical part fizzles out, or the whole thing makes no sense to the outside world, is likely to be fierce and enduring. The relationship between Auden and Chester Kallmann can be understood in this context, or the relationship between James Merrill and David Jackson. This, more likely, was the stamp and seal of the love between Wilde and Douglas.

In the years which followed their meeting we get two versions of Wilde’s feelings for Douglas. In July 1894, he wrote: ‘It is really absurd. I can’t live without you. You are so dear, so wonderful. I think of you all day long, and miss your grace, your boyish beauty, the bright sword-play of your wit, the delicate fancy of your genius, so surprising always in its sudden swallow-flights towards north or south, towards sun or moon, and, above all, you yourself … London is a desert without your dainty feet, and all the buttonholes have turned to weeds: nettles and hemlock are “the only wear”.’ In April 1895, before his trial, he wrote to More Adey and Robert Ross from Holloway Prison: ‘Bosie is so wonderful. I think of nothing else. I saw him yesterday.’ A week later: ‘nothing but Alfred Douglas’s daily visits quicken me into life.’ A few weeks later: ‘Letter from Bosie, at Rouen, just arrived. Please wire my thanks to him. He has cured me of sorrow today.’ On 15 May, Douglas wrote to Wilde from Paris: ‘It is too dreadful to be here without you’ and ended: ‘I continue to think of you day and night, and send you all my love. I am always your own loving and devoted boy.’

In May 1895, when it was clear that he was going to go to prison, Wilde wrote two last love letters to Douglas. The second ended: ‘I decided that it was nobler and more beautiful to stay [and face the trial]. We could not have been together. I did not want to be called a coward or a deserter. A false name, a disguise, a hunted life, all that is not for me, to whom you have been revealed on that high hill where beautiful things are transfigured. O sweetest of all boys, most loved of all loves, my soul clings to your soul, my life is your life, and in all the world of pain and pleasure you are my ideal of admiration and joy.’

Five days later, Wilde was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour for ‘acts of gross indecency’. There are no more letters for almost a year. Between January and March 1897, Wilde worked on a long letter to Douglas, later known as De Profundis, the governor of Reading Gaol having given permission for the pages to be taken away each night and brought back in the morning. On his release Wilde gave the manuscript to Ross, who gave a copy to Douglas, who would claim that he never received it. Although it appeared in various versions after Wilde’s death, the complete text was not published until 1949.

The tone of De Profundis was calm; there was a hurt beauty in the sentences, and a sense of urgency, a sense of hard things being said for the first time. Wilde’s old skills with paradox, his ability to use words as a way of turning the world on its head, were no longer intended to seduce an audience but to kill his own pain and grief. He was ready to accuse, who was once so ready to praise and flatter. He had suffered too much to care if it all seemed too emotional, written not as art, but as matter. ‘If there be in it one single passage that brings tears to your eyes, weep as we weep in prison where the day no less than the night is set apart for tears.’ ‘The supreme vice’, he wrote in what is perhaps the most shocking sentence in the whole long letter, is ‘shallowness’.

He accused Douglas of distracting him from his art, of spending his money, of degrading him ethically, of constant scene-making, of deliberately mistreating him and then of thoughtlessly mistreating him. He went over Douglas’s bad behaviour, sometimes citing dates and places and details, but managing throughout to hold a tone which was fluent, to write a prose of sweeping cadences and measured elegance, to create a voice both indignant and controlled. ‘Had our life together been as the world fancied it to be, one simply of pleasure, profligacy and laughter, I would not be able to recall a single passage in it. It is because it was full of moments and days, tragic, bitter, sinister in their warnings, dull and dreadful in their monotonous scenes and unseemly violences, that I can see or hear each separate incident in its detail, can indeed see or hear little else.’

His cry from the depths was in places so sad that it would make you want to burst with laughter. He recalled Douglas’s fever while staying at that well-known Irish haunt, the Grand Hotel in Brighton: ‘Except for an hour’s walk in the morning, an hour’s drive in the afternoon, I never left the hotel. I got special grapes from London for you, as you did not care for those the hotel supplied, invented things to please you, remained either with you or in the room next to yours, sat with you every evening to quiet and amuse you.’ Soon afterwards Wilde himself fell ill: ‘the next two days you leave me entirely alone without care, without attendance, without anything. It was not a question of grapes, flowers and charming gifts: it was a question of mere necessaries: I could not even get the milk the doctor had ordered for me.’

‘Of course,’ he wrote, ‘I should have got rid of you.’ Instead, ‘through deep if misplaced affection for you: through great pity for your defects of temper and temperament: through my own proverbial good nature and Celtic laziness: through an artistic aversion to coarse scenes and ugly words … I gave up to you always.’

But he did not answer the question which every forlorn phrase of De Profundis begged: why did he not get rid of Douglas, walk away from him, grapes and all? Since Wilde’s good nature and his Celtic laziness, not to speak of his pity and his artistic aversion, did not cause him to remain with Constance Lloyd, what made him stay with Douglas? In De Profundis, he wrote about love. ‘You loved me far better than you loved anybody else. But you, like myself, have had a terrible tragedy in your life … Do you want to learn what it was? It was this. In you Hate was always stronger than Love.’ Why did it take two years’ hard labour for him to realise this? Why did he not put an end to what Ellmann calls his ‘berserk passion’ much earlier? In De Profundis, the love that dared not speak its name was love in a dark time, in what Ellmann called ‘a clandestine world of partial disclosures, blackmail and libel suits’. The emotions around the time when Wilde and Douglas found happiness with each other remain private and undocumented, yet this fierce attachment formed the basis for every decision made. And the emotion arising from those nights they first spent with each other, which does not speak its name much in De Profundis, made him and Douglas, despite all the treachery and all the badness, inseparable.

‘The only beautiful things,’ Wilde had said in ‘The Decay of Lying’ (1889), ‘are the things that do not concern us.’ In time he discovered that no aspect of this sentence was true. For good reason, he had ceased to care about beautiful things and developed a serious need to deal precisely with what concerned him. And since De Profundis was his best prose and The Ballad of Reading Gaol his best poetry, the story of his downfall is not interesting simply for its own drama but for what it did to him as an artist, how it forced him to abandon everything he believed in to find a new tone. ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,’ Auden said of Yeats. For Wilde, disgrace and two years in prison hurt him into a new style, direct, confessional and serious. His words now were arrows rather than feathers. He retained, however, aspects of the genius he declared when he first passed through customs in America: a sense of shape and form, an ability to create memorable phrases. He knew how to harness his old skills so that he could haunt the world with the experience he had been through.

Wilde wrote no plays after being in prison. The four best ones, written between 1891 and 1894, seem to have been effortless and this, most of the time, is unfortunate: they needed more effort. Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband depend too much on the jokes; the plotting is often clunky and the tying up of the plot seems lazy and mechanical like a bad French farce. Wilde was not good at creating character, and in these years he would, in any case, have despised the idea. This did not prevent him carefully considering other writers’ characters. It is interesting how close Mrs Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan, for example, is to Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady (‘oh so flat “fizz”,’ James wrote of the play in 1911), or how close the character of Hester in A Woman of No Importance is to many of James’s heroines or how close Lady Bracknell is to Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

It is important to remember that these plays were written by an Irish nationalist living in London in the few years after the fall of Parnell, when two of the most virulent strains of hypocrisy ever known – English hypocrisy and Irish hypocrisy – joined forces for the first and only time in history. Wilde had been a supporter of Parnell and had attended meetings of the Parnell Commission in the late 1880s, when the leader was accused of collusion with political violence. An Ideal Husband placed at its centre a story of corruption in the British Cabinet. Wilde’s last play, however, his most perfect work, did something more powerful and subtle. It dealt with two subjects about which he had strong and complex feelings in 1894 – England and marriage. It mattered enormously to him that both should fall into decay. His play was set among an idle and cynical English ruling class, and it is a play about love and marriage where love is governed by whim and marriage is mercenary. His genius in The Importance of Being Earnest was to weave all this so tightly into the fabric of the play that the audience wouldn’t notice it. They would notice instead the jokes and the perfect patterning, every piece of action mirrored, the development of the plot ingenious and perfect. The audience would not notice the poisoned arrows buried in the feathers.

The plays seem haunted now by the story of the life. When Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest says that his brother ‘expressed a desire to be buried in Paris’, Dr Chasuble replies: ‘In Paris! (Shakes his head.) I fear that hardly points to any great state of mind at the last.’ Later, Gwendolen says: ‘And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate.’ And since Wilde’s greatest public humiliation occurred, as he recounted in De Profundis, at a railway station where he was jeered by a crowd while being taken from one prison to another, Lady Bracknell’s line ‘Come, dear, we have already missed five, if not six, trains. To miss more might expose us to comment on the platform’ may affect the audience in a way that Wilde never dreamed of. Both Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance rehearse the issue of morality and forgiveness. In An Ideal Husband Lady Chiltern says that life ‘has taught me that a person who has once been guilty of a dishonourable action may be guilty of it a second time, and should be shunned.’ When Lady Windermere is asked if she thinks that ‘women who have committed what the world calls a fault should ever be forgiven,’ she says: ‘I think they should never be forgiven.’ ‘And men?’ she is asked. ‘Do you think that there should be the same laws for men as there are for women?’ ‘Certainly!’ she replies. ‘If we had these “hard and fast rules”, we should find life much more simple.’

In November 1895 Henry James refused to sign a petition for mitigation of Wilde’s sentence. Through his friend Jonathan Sturges, he made clear that ‘the petition would not have the slightest effect on the authorities here … and that the document would only exist as a manifesto of personal loyalty to Oscar by his friends, of whom he was never one.’ In his biography, Ellmann wrote: ‘People not familiar with prisons had no idea what their procedures were. That is perhaps the only excuse for Henry James, who wrote to Paul Bourget that Wilde’s sentence to hard labour was too severe, that isolation would have been more just.’

Close to Wilde’s release date, the governor of Reading Gaol said to Ross: ‘He looks well. But like all men unused to manual labour who receive a sentence of this kind, he will be dead within two years.’ Wilde couldn’t sleep on the board provided; he couldn’t eat the food and suffered from dreadful diarrhoea. He was alone for 23 hours a day, and was not allowed to speak during the hour of exercise. For most of the time he had no writing paper, and was allowed two books a week from the library, but the library was useless. He had problems with his ears and his eyes. He had to work at picking oakum, or at the treadmill. Letters and visits were strictly limited. He and his friends made various efforts to have his sentence commuted, but he served two years almost to the day. In October 1895, five months into his sentence, Arthur Clifton, whom Wilde wanted to become, with Constance, guardian of his children, visited him: ‘He looked dreadfully thin. You can imagine how painful it was to meet him: and he was very much upset and cried a good deal: he seemed quite broken-hearted and kept on describing his punishment as savage … He was terribly despondent and said several times that he did not think that he would be able to last the punishment out.’

On his release he wrote to the Daily Chronicle about his time in prison. ‘On Saturday week last I was in my cell at about one o’clock occupied in cleaning and polishing the tins I had been using for dinner. Suddenly I was startled by the prison silence being broken by the most horrible and revolting shrieks, or rather howls, for at first I thought some animal like a bull or a cow was being unskilfully slaughtered outside the prison walls. I soon realised, however, that the howls proceeded from the basement of the prison, and I knew that some wretched man was being flogged … The next day … I saw the poor fellow at exercise, his weak, ugly, wretched face bloated by tears and hysteria almost beyond recognition … He was a living grotesque. The other prisoners all watched him, and not one of them smiled. Everybody knew what had happened to him, and that he was being driven insane – was insane already.’

After his release he wrote to and tried to help several of his fellow inmates. In a letter to a friend, he explained that ‘you must understand that I have the deepest desire to try and be of a little help to other fellows who were in trouble with me. I used to be utterly reckless of young lives: I used to take up a boy, love him “passionately” and then grow bored with him, and often take no notice of him. That is what I regret in my past life. Now I feel that if I can really help others it will be a little attempt, however small, at expiation.’

In March 1898, less than a year after his release, as reform of the prison system was being debated – reforms were implemented later that year – he wrote to the Daily Chronicle once more. ‘There are three permanent punishments authorised by law in English prisons. 1. Hunger 2. Insomnia 3. Disease … Every prisoner suffers day and night from hunger … The result of the food – which in most cases consists of weak gruel, badly-baked bread, suet and water – is disease in the form of incessant diarrhoea … With regard to the punishment of insomnia, it only exists in Chinese and English prisons. In China it is inflicted by placing the prisoner in a small bamboo cage; in England by means of the plank bed. The object of the plank bed is to produce insomnia. There is no other object in it, and it invariably succeeds … Deprived of books, of all human intercourse, isolated from every humane and humanising influence, condemned to eternal silence, robbed of all intercourse with the external world, treated like an unintelligent animal, brutalised below the level of any of the brute-creation, the wretched man who is confined in an English prison can hardly escape becoming insane.’

In the months after his release Wilde had trouble convincing those around him that he had been broken by his experiences. In June, three weeks after his release, he wrote to Frank Harris: ‘You must try to realise what two years’ cellular confinement is, and what two years of absolute silence means to a man of my intellectual powers.’ A prisoner’s punishment, he continued, ‘lasts intellectually and physically, just as it lasts socially’. In February 1898, he wrote again to Harris, who had suggested that he write another play: ‘As regards a comedy … I have lost the mainspring of life and art … I have pleasures, and passions, but the joy of life is gone. I am going under: the morgue yawns for me.’ In August he wrote to Ross: ‘I don’t think I shall ever write again. Something is killed in me. I feel no desire to write. I am unconscious of power. Of course, my first year in prison destroyed me body and soul.’

After his release, he went to France and worked on The Ballad of Reading Gaol and tried to deal with the two people whom he had most loved – Constance and Alfred Douglas – as they tried to deal with him. In De Profundis, he wrote about his mother’s death while he was in prison: ‘I had disgraced that name eternally. I had made it a low byword among low people … My wife, at that time kind and gentle to me, rather than that I should hear the news from indifferent or alien lips, travelled, ill as she was, all the way from Genoa to London to break to me herself the tidings of so irreparable, so irredeemable a loss … You alone stood aloof, sent me no message, and wrote me no letter.’ ‘You’, of course, was Douglas.

Early in his prison sentence Wilde was declared a bankrupt and his possessions were sold, including the rights to his plays. His mother had been buried in a pauper’s grave. Constance had left England and changed her name to Holland. In the vast correspondence between all the main players in Wilde’s life, a short letter from Constance, written to a fortune-teller in April 1895, is perhaps the most poignant: ‘My dear Mrs Robinson, What is to become of my husband who has so betrayed and deceived me and ruined the lives of my darling boys? Can you tell me anything? You told me that after this terrible shock my life was to become easier, but will there be any happiness in it, or is that dead for me? And I have had so little. My life has all been cut to pieces as my hand is by its lines.’

Constance had money, and Robert Ross arranged with her that Wilde should have an allowance. The details of this arrangement caused Wilde much grief in his last days in prison. In short, he believed that it was not enough and that there were too many strings attached. One of these strings was that she could withdraw his allowance if he created a scandal or spent time with disreputable people – i.e. if he returned to Douglas. And Douglas, who believed that he had suffered just as much as Wilde, wanted to return to him. On 4 June 1897, Wilde wrote to him from the Hôtel de la Plage, Berneval-sur-Mer: ‘Don’t think I don’t love you. Of course I love you more than anyone else. But our lives are irreparably severed as far as meeting goes.’ However, on 15 June he wrote again: ‘You ask me to let you come on Saturday: but dear honey-sweet boy, I have already asked you to come then: so we both have the same desire, as usual.’ He suggested that Douglas use the name Jonquil du Vallon, as he was using the name Sebastian Melmoth. (Charles Maturin, who wrote Melmoth the Wanderer, was Wilde’s great-uncle.) Two days later he changed his mind again: ‘Of course at present it is impossible for us to meet … Later on, when the alarm in England is over, when secrecy is possible, and silence forms part of the world’s attitude, we may meet, but at present you see it is impossible.’ On 24 August, he wrote to Ross: ‘Since Bosie wrote that he could not afford forty francs to come to Rouen to see me, he has never written. Nor have I. I am greatly hurt by his meanness and lack of imagination.’ A week later, he wrote to Douglas: ‘My own Darling Boy, I got your telegram half an hour ago, and just sent you a line to say that my only hope of again doing beautiful work in art is being with you … Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don’t understand us … Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world.’

Three weeks later, from Naples where he had gone with Douglas, he tried to explain what he had done to Ross: ‘When people speak against me for going back to Bosie, tell them that he offered me love, and that in my loneliness and disgrace I, after three months’ struggle against a hideous Philistine world, turned naturally to him.’ He wrote many letters defending himself, including one to his publisher Leonard Smithers: Douglas, he said, ‘is witty, graceful, lovely to look at, loveable to be with. He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him – it is the only thing to do.’

Wilde and Douglas moved in these months from being an interchangeable Frankenstein and the monster to becoming Romeo and Juliet. Among those who wanted to break up their relationship and put an end to them setting up house in Naples were Douglas’s mother, who controlled his income, Douglas’s father, who still could not control his rage, and Constance, who believed that Wilde had sacrificed himself because of Douglas’s irrational hatred for his father. In early October Wilde wrote to Ross: ‘I am awaiting a thunderbolt from my wife’s solicitor. She wrote me a terrible letter, but a foolish one, saying “I forbid you” to do so and so: “I will not allow you” etc: and “I require a distinct promise that you will not” etc. How can she really imagine that she can influence or control my life? She might just as well try to influence and control my art … So I suppose she will now try to deprive me of my wretched £3 a week. Women are so petty, and Constance has no imagination.’

Constance wrote to her friend, Carlos Blacker: ‘I have today written a note to Oscar saying that I required an immediate answer to my question whether he had been to Capri or whether he had met anywhere that appalling individual. I also said that he evidently did not care much for his boys since he neither acknowledged their photos which I sent him nor the remembrances they sent him. I hope it was not too hard of me to write this, but it was quite necessary.’

Wilde remained unrepentant. On 16 November, he wrote to Ross: ‘My existence is a scandal. But I do not think I should be charged with creating a scandal by continuing to live: though I am conscious that I do so. I cannot live alone, and Bosie is the only one of my friends who is either able or willing to give me his companionship.’ Two days later Constance wrote to her brother: ‘I have stopped O.’s allowance as he is living with Lord Alfred Douglas, so in a short time war will be declared! His legal friends in London make no defence and so far make no opposition, as it was always understood that if he went back to that person his allowance would stop.’ Wilde was indignant: ‘I did not think that on my release my wife, my trustees, the guardians of my children, my few friends, such as they are, and my myriad enemies would combine to force me by starvation to live in silence and solitude again.’

As the arguments went back and forth about his relationship with Douglas, Wilde wrote a long letter to his publisher about the design of The Ballad of Reading Gaol and the wording of the dedication. Wilde believed, he said, that dedicating the poem to R.J.M. – the prisoner awaiting execution in the poem – would be enough and then added: ‘Alfred Douglas thinks that if I don’t put that R.J.M. died in Reading Prison people might think that it was all imaginary. This is a sound objection.’ These two sentences are significant, because they are the only time we get Douglas in these years (or indeed any years) not screaming, or complaining, or causing grief, or not being madly loved. This is a brief glimpse of ordinary life between Wilde and Douglas, discussing something of interest to Wilde which Douglas, who also published poetry, knew something about.

By February they had split up and Wilde was in Paris. On 4 March, Constance wrote to Carlos Blacker: ‘Oscar is or at least was at the Hôtel de Nice, rue des Beaux-Arts … He has, as you know, behaved exceedingly badly both to myself and my children and all possibility of our living together has come to an end … if you do see him tell him that I think The Ballad exquisite, and I hope that the great success it has had in London at all events will urge him on to write more. I hear that he does nothing now but drink and I heard that he had left Lord A. and had received £200 from Lady Q. on condition that he did not see him again, but of course this may be untrue. Is Lord A. in Paris?’

Constance was well informed. Wilde had, in fact, received £200 from Lady Queensberry, and it was true that he did nothing in Paris but drink. But Lord A. was not in Paris. ‘I have a sort of idea she really wants me to be dead,’ Wilde said to Carlos Blacker about Constance, while Constance wrote to Blacker saying: ‘Oscar is so pathetic and such a born actor, and I am hardened when I am away from him. No words will describe my horror of that BEAST, for I will call him nothing else A.D… . I do not wish [Oscar] dead, but … I think he might leave his wife and children alone.’ Soon, Wilde began to think over what had happened between himself and Douglas in Naples and wrote to Ross: ‘I know it is better that I should never see him again. I don’t want to. He fills me with horror.’

Constance died in April at the age of 40. ‘My way back to hope and a new life ends in her grave,’ Wilde wrote to Harris. But when Ross came to visit he noted that ‘Oscar of course does not feel it at all.’ He had no access to the children, and he never saw them again. He was granted £150 a year from Constance’s estate. ‘He really did not understand how cruel he was to his wife,’ Ross wrote after his death. In Paris he began to see Douglas again, but the meetings were sporadic and difficult.

Many of the letters from his last three years are about money. He was always waiting for money, writing for money and running out of money. He was petulant and knew how to complain. But there are also brilliant passages, worthy of the old days, but with a new anger and edge: ‘I never came across anyone in whom the moral sense was dominant who was not heartless, cruel, vindictive, log-stupid, and entirely lacking in the smallest sense of humanity. Moral people, as they are termed, are simple beasts. I would sooner have fifty unnatural vices than one unnatural virtue. It is unnatural virtue that makes the world, for those who suffer, such a premature Hell.’ He continued, or so he said, his unnatural vices, writing to Ross from Rome in April 1900 about a young seminarian he had befriended: ‘I also gave him many lire, and prophesied for him a Cardinal’s hat, if he remained very good, and never forgot me. He said he never would, and indeed I don’t think he will, for every day I kissed him behind the high altar.’ Five days later he had more news: ‘I have given up Armando, a very smart elegant young Roman Sporus. He was beautiful, but his requests for raiment and neckties were incessant: he really bayed for boots, as a dog moonwards.’

In October 1900, Wilde became ill. In late November, Ross, who later wrote that he had always promised to bring a priest to Wilde when he was dying, came to Paris and found a priest who baptised Wilde into the Catholic Church and gave him the last rites. As Wilde lay dying in his hotel room, Ross and Reginald Turner ‘destroyed letters to keep ourselves from breaking down’. Douglas came to Paris for the funeral. He was to live until 1945.

Wilde was buried first at Bagneaux outside Paris in a cheap grave, but in 1909 he was reburied in Père Lachaise with a sculpture by Jacob Epstein as his gravestone. Ross’s ashes were interred there when he died in 1918. In 1899 Wilde had written to Ross after visiting Constance’s grave in Genoa: ‘It is very pretty – a marble cross with dark ivy-leaves inlaid in a good pattern. The cemetery is a garden at the foot of the lovely hills that climb into the mountains that girdle Genoa. It was very tragic seeing her name carved on a tomb – her surname, my name not mentioned of course.’ In 1963, the words ‘Wife of Oscar Wilde’ were carved on the headstone. A memorial to Lady Wilde was incorporated into the family grave in Mount Jerome in Dublin in 1996 and a headstone erected over her grave in Kensal Green in London in 2000. In 1995, Oscar Wilde was included in a window in Westminster Abbey. As the centenary of his death approached, statues to commemorate him were erected in Dublin and London.

The personal became political because an Irishman in London pushed his luck. He remains a vivid presence in the world a hundred years after his death. He played out the role of the tragic queer. He was witty, the greatest talker of his generation, skilled in the art of the one-liner, the quick aside. But he was also untrustworthy and he was doomed. He stole some years of pleasure and fame to be rewarded with the plank bed, the treadmill and an early death. He was also an Irish nationalist and socialist wandering among the rich and powerful in London salons, eventually being punished for his cheek. His letters show how ambitious he was, and pompous, and how funny he also was, a lord of language as he said himself, and how savagely he was destroyed by his two years in prison. He invented self-invention. He was pure Fin-de-Siècle in his tone and manners until his tone and manners were forced to change. A few times in his short life he created works which were either brilliant ideas, or masterpieces of tone and cadence, or formally flawless.

In the summer of 1947, shortly before he was awarded the Nobel Prize and four years before his death, Gide went to Oxford to receive an honorary doctorate. Part of his reason for going there was to visit Wilde’s rooms in Magdalen College. Gide had signed the clemency petition in 1895 and, after Wilde’s release, had gone to visit him at Berneval on the French coast. In Wilde’s last years in Paris, however, Gide had seen him only twice. Although he had given him money, he had been embarrassed by him, by his seediness and his reputation for consorting with local rent boys. Gide, despite everything, had become respectable. At their first meeting, he had tried to sit opposite Wilde with his back to the street so no one would see him. Now he walked into the rooms in Oxford where Wilde had begun the transformation of himself. He stood and looked around as an undergraduate cricket team, who were having a party in the room, fell silent. He paid no attention to them; he ran the fingers of one hand along the wall, saying nothing, trying to conjure up the fearless presence who had guessed the truth about him and changed his life more than fifty years before.