Nearly 120 years after his death, Oscar Wilde’s works continue to delight with their brilliant paradoxes and comic twists. His children’s stories, poems and political essays captivate us today just as they captivated his contemporary audience. The Picture of Dorian Gray has become a haunting classic. And a successful season of his plays at the Vaudeville Theatre culminates with Wilde’s greatest work, The Importance of Being Earnest, which starts on 20th July.
Then, of course, there is the Irish writer’s remarkable personal story. His tragic fall after his humiliating trial for “gross indecency” is a story as famous as any of his plays—perhaps more so. Wilde’s story has become a legend, retold a thousand times in books, on stage and screen. But Nicholas Frankel, a respected Wilde scholar, is sceptical of such myth-making. Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years takes the story of Wilde’s demise and turns it on its head.
The conventional view is that after his release from Reading gaol in 1897, Wilde was “a broken, tragic figure” languishing in self-pity, and pining for his ex-lover Lord Alfred Douglas. In miserable exile on the continent, he fell into a depression, no longer resembling the brilliant charmer he had once been, bouncing from run-down hotel to run-down hotel and despised by those he had once called friends. Wilde wasted away until his death in 1900, aged only 46, thus completing the tragic arc.
Certainly this is the narrative line pursued in The Happy Prince. This exceptional new biopic—a labour of love for Rupert Everett, who writes, directs and stars in the film—is a moving and unsettling portrayal of Wilde’s final days. Everett’s Wilde bumbles pathetically from one humiliation to the next: from public beatings by teenagers to begging for money from former admirers. He lives only a half life.
But Frankel’s excellent book argues that, far from being ruined, Wilde mounted a remarkable recovery after his release. He returned to top form, delighting company with his wit, which had not been blunted by prison. Frankel goes so far as to claim that it was during the last three years of his life that Wilde was finally allowed to become himself. Far from withering away, he staged a defiant comeback.
The premise of The Unrepentant Years is a bold one—but it’s not implausible. Wilde was a resilient man, who throughout his life shrugged off the judgment of men with smaller natures than him. If Frankel is right he was even more extraordinary than we previously imagined.
Frankel needs to work pretty hard to make his case. The last time Wilde saw his wife Constance was in prison, when she visited to break the news of his mother’s death. Wilde, who was legally forbidden from seeing his two children, wrote that he had “lost wife, children, fame, honour, position and wealth.” To signal his new life, Wilde re-baptised himself Sebastian Melmoth, after the beautiful tortured Saint Sebastian, and the character in Charles Maturin’s Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer, who sells his soul to the Devil.
And upon his release? There are a good number of accounts that paint Wilde in rather a dim light. After meeting him in 1899, the writer and artist Laurence Housman described him as “a man haunted.” Vincent O’Sullivan, one of Wilde’s earliest biographers, suggested that he spent so much time in Parisian bars because “he would go mad if he sat alone with his bitter thoughts.”
And Wilde really did return to Douglas, about whom he had written so contemptuously in his love-hate letter De Profundis. He became terminally ill and was unable to produce much new work of value. He died a different person altogether to the great man he had once been.
Frankel grants that the final years had tough moments for Wilde, and that his health declined at the end is a matter of documented fact. He does not seek to overturn every bit of evidence showing that Wilde was having a bad time of it. But he makes you see the same events in a different light. There were indeed moments of despair but also of joy, laughter and adventure, at least until his health deteriorated. Wilde refused to let the scandal in London defeat him.
Central to Frankel’s argument is that it was only in Paris that Wilde was finally able to live freely as a homosexual. He told- journalist Jacques Daurelle: “In Paris one can go where one likes, and no one dreams of criticising one.” Gay sex was not directly prohibited under French law. “In some respects,” Frankel says, Wilde “enjoyed a sexual freedom in exile that he had not experienced before prison.”
Wilde had longed for Paris for some time. He had once written to the French poet Pierre Louÿs that “Among the poets of France I shall find my true friends.” Frankel calls his chapter “the seduction of Paris” and Wilde certainly made the most of it, cavorting with as many young men as he pleased, as he relayed with relish to his longtime friend Robert Ross. Having suffered for his homosexuality, Frankel says, Wilde was now free to live as he wished.
Laughter in exile
Wilde also had some “true friends” of the platonic kind during this period, ones who, like him, were willing to “flout the general opprobrium” out of loyalty to him. He still very much moved in artistic circles. Wilde often dined with publisher Leonard Smithers (whom he called “the most learned erotomaniac in Europe”) and the aesthete Reggie Turner (played by Colin Firth in the film). Add to this the poets Jean Moreas and Ernest La Jeunesse.
What did Wilde himself think of his time in France? Frankel quotes from a letter he wrote to actress Fanny Bernard Beere shortly after his release, where he described himself as being “dazed with the wonder of the wonderful world,” adding: “I feel as if I had been raised from the dead.” Excerpts like these do encourage us to see that Wilde had a “euphoric enjoyment of his new freedom.”
As for the relationship with Douglas, Frankel says that Wilde “knew exactly what he was doing.” He even goes so far as to argue that “the ill-fated reunion of Oscar Wilde and Bosie Douglas… is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented events in the history of literature.” In Everett’s film Wilde tragically yearns for Bosie who is, as usual, portrayed as a jealous monster. But Frankel believes that Wilde’s decision to reignite the romance—which lasted, on and off, until the end of his life—was the decision of an adult in his right mind. A mistake? Possibly. But one Wilde made in full possession of his faculties. As Wilde himself said of the reunion, “my eyes were not blinded.”
Douglas, for his part, wrote that Wilde in his last years retained “an extraordinarily buoyant and happy temperament, a splendid sense of humour, and an unrivalled faculty for enjoyment of the moment.” And Douglas knew Wilde as well as anyone.
That “enjoyment of the moment” line is striking. “Pleasure is the only thing one should live for,” Wilde wrote in 1894, and it was a fundamental tenet of his aesthetic philosophy. Wilde had an “undiminished capacity for enjoyment” in these final years, claims Frankel. He dedicated himself to the hedonism championed in Dorian Gray with “single-mindedness and conviction.”
“The keynote of Wilde’s exile,” writes Frankel, was “laughter.” Even if that’s overdoing it, he marshals some good evidence. Sources are dug up, accounts listed. Much of Wilde’s correspondence with his friend Ross was light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek; his letters are laced with bon mots: “Laughter is the primeval attitude towards life,” he wrote, “a mode of approach that survives only in artists and criminals.” Wilde, of course, was both.
And what of the work? There was one piece of note in these years: The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which Frankel describes as “arguably the best and most important of Wilde’s poems.” Wilde also prepared some other of his works for publication, but the prolific years of the early 1890s, during which he produced four plays and one novel, were a distant memory.
In one of those great plays, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Lord Darlington says that “there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.” Maybe Wilde really did spend the years up to his death becoming himself, luxuriating in his new-found freedom.
Frankel makes us reflect on what it means for a man to hit the depths and come back again—a correction to the tragic myth of Wilde, but perhaps replacing it with another, that of a liberated Wilde finally being allowed to put all his genius into his life.
Does this revisionist account convince? Almost, but not quite. Frankel is too selective: one suspects that his desire as a Wilde fan to believe his own account is blinding him to potential holes in it.
In truth the end of Wilde’s life feels paradoxical: there is so much evidence showing it was an unhappy time, as has been so thoroughly documented by his biographer Richard Ellman and others. But there is much evidence here that shows the opposite: Wilde had moments of joy, laughter and friendship right to the end. So the reader is left bemused about how to reconcile so many seemingly credible—but fundamentally contradictory—accounts from different sources.
How thoroughly Wildean. The master of the paradoxical aphorism was himself a paradox: the Irishman who assimilated into English life; the socialist who dined at the Savoy; the satiriser of Victorian high society who yearned to join its ranks; the elegant wit with the whiff of scandal. As long as he kept those contradictions balanced, keeping the scandals private, he was able to have his cake and eat it. But his reckless love ruined him.
Frankel’s achievement is in challenging us to rethink a legend we thought we knew so well. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if the traditional account of Wilde’s rise and fall retains its popularity. Some myths are too good to be proved untrue.