A walk on the Wilde side
Put a well-stocked silver cigarette case in your pocket, but be sure to carry engraved spares. Bring plenty of cash, but keep it close to your heart; we’ll be dining with epicures and bluebloods but sleeping with blackmailers and thieves. Don a green carnation and grab a glass of absinthe. Light up a gold-tipped cigarette. We’re going to trawl the gutters and boutiques of London with Oscar Wilde.
Wilde’s preferred mode of transport was a cab (horse-drawn in his day), but if you aren’t a highly successful playwright, you might prefer the Tube.
We meet our London Walks guide, Sebastian*, at Green Park Station. This is a few minutes’ walk from Half Moon Street, once home to the loyal friend who now shares Wilde’s tomb, Robbie Ross.
Sebastian is unmistakable and suitably ostentatious in a cream suit, Panama hat, pale spats and a green carnation. Sebastian is here to show us the well-heeled side of Oscar Wilde’s London in St James’s and Mayfair. If the name ‘Mayfair’ hasn’t triggered associations with the expensive end of the Monopoly board, it may help to know that the Ritz is just across the street. You might prefer the Dorchester or Claridge’s, also in Mayfair.
While Sebastian waits for today’s tourists to converge, he gives us all a withering once-over before collecting his token fee. “Do you have a portrait in the attic?” he asks one grey-haired lady. When she doesn’t immediately respond in kind to his Dorian Gray allusion, Sebastian rolls his eyes and suggests she might be eligible for the senior’s discount.
Making our way from Green Park, we pause by Beau Brummell’s statue outside the Burlington Arcade. Brummell was a dandy par excellence and the Burlington Arcade was, in Victorian times, a gay pick-up joint, popular with guardsmen, so Wilde would probably approve.
In Chapter 3 of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton strolls from Curzon Street, Mayfair, over to the Albany to call on a bachelor uncle. When he leaves, he goes through the Burlington Arcade on his way to Berkeley Square, and makes another social call before heading to Hyde Park. In the next chapter, we learn he has been in Wardour Street, Soho, to buy brocade. Lord Henry’s route takes in gay cruising grounds and places associated with homosexuality or homosexual scandals, as Matt Cook explains in London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914.
We then stop at the Royal Arcade, where Wilde bought his provocative green carnations for his buttonhole. Provocative, because they were unnatural and because Wilde asked selected friends to wear them to a performance of one of his plays, sparking rumours as to its significance. Sebastian takes the opportunity to explain how much Wilde was spending on hotels, buttonholes, cigarettes and cabs, converting the amounts into today’s money. Although we don’t have to walk very far through Mayfair and Piccadilly, Wilde himself would never have followed this route on foot. As Algernon says in Act II of The Importance of Being Earnest, “No gentleman ever takes exercise. You don’t seem to understand what a gentleman is.”
Sadly, the St James’s Theatre has been torn down, but there is a bas-relief featuring an unflattering portrait of Wilde to mark the spot. There’s also a plaque which explains that Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh campaigned to save the theatre where Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest were first staged by George Alexander. Examining this lost piece of history, we’re almost opposite Christie’s auction house, where Wilde’s letters and books, once unmentionable, now fetch impressive prices.
Sebastian sports sharp sideburns and an equally sharp tongue; indeed he goes a little too far in emulating Wilde’s snobbishness. He is not enamoured of Americans and Australians and makes a joke about being sent to the colonies as punishment. “When good Americans die they go to Paris”, Sebastian adds, paraphrasing Wilde. “When bad Americans die, they go to America.”
St James’s Georgian mansions, gentlemen’s clubs, private galleries and expensive boutiques create a respectful hush. On our way to our next stop, we pass Jermyn Street, renowned for its fine clothing and accessories for wealthy men. We’re in the precinct of the Saville Row suit, which seems fitting, as Wilde was always flamboyantly and formally dressed.
Sebastian is annoyed by my ever-present camera and, evidently believing that I must be taking video footage as well, bends down to leer into it, poking out his tongue and wriggling it around.
Down in the basement of the tobacconists James J Fox (19 St James’s Street, St James’s) is the Freddie Fox Museum, where we see a tin of Wilde’s gold-tipped cigarettes, another one of his indulgences. Sebastian, meanwhile, indulges himself by lecturing us on the rights of the individual to enjoy a cigarette or cigar in public without being harassed by a nanny state. “It’s not the tobacco that kills”, Sebastian growls, “it’s the chemicals they put in the cigarette paper”. Furthermore, Sebastian hectors, Wilde didn’t die from smoking, and he was a prolific smoker, a veritable chimney.
This five-minute rant on the right to nicotine is received by our little group of tourists with an intimidated silence. Is the performance for the benefit of the proprietors? Who knows? As we cluster around the glass cabinets celebrating another of James Fox’s clients, Sir Winston Churchill, someone asks quietly “How did Oscar die?”, so I tell them, hoping Sebastian won’t have me returned to the colonies in chains.
Wilde’s habit of getting both his necessities and his luxuries on credit contributed to his undoing, and the ledgers of the Freddie Fox Museum record his debt. Wilde bought silver cigarette cases and gave them away to rent boys who later blackmailed him. His spendthrift habit of giving expensive little presents to valets, grooms and office clerks would later scandalise a judge and jury.
Edward Carson, QC: What enjoyment was it to you, Mr Wilde, to be dining and entertaining grooms and coachmen?
Wilde: The pleasure of being with those who are young, bright, happy, careless and amusing.
Carson: Yes, but …
Wilde (emphatically): I don’t like the sensible and don’t like the old. I don’t like them.
4 April 1895, Central Criminal Court Proceedings, the Old Bailey, Regina v. John Douglas (Marquess of Queensberry), from Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess: The real trial of Oscar Wilde by Merlin Holland.
Wilde’s true crime, from a Victorian perspective, was not engaging in homosexual activities behind closed doors, which was common enough at the all-male boarding schools and universities his persecutors attended; it was publicly displaying his sexuality and disrupting the class system. Wilde was just as likely to be seen dining at the Savoy or the Café Royal with clerks as with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, third son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde even addressed both his lordship and the rent boys on a first-name basis, inviting everyone to call him Oscar, a Victorian social ‘crime’ that was raked over at the Criminal Court of the Old Bailey. It was nothing short of anarchy for men of different classes to eat at the same table, united not by social status but by desire.
But how did Wilde meet his friends of humble means? Let us leave Sebastian and the tour group temporarily and head to Westminster. It’s 1895, and at 13 Little College Street, the heavy curtains are always drawn and the air is perfumed. The owner, Alfred Taylor, maintains his privacy by having no servants. Wilde was cross-examined by Edward Carson, QC, over these seemingly trivial domestic arrangements at Little College Street because Alfred Taylor spent his days procuring young men for his friends, and was sentenced, like Wilde, to two years’ hard labour. Unlike the rent boys, who were granted legal immunity, Taylor refused to give evidence against Wilde, and was punished for his sense of honour.
Returning to St James’s, our London Walks guide Sebastian tells us that Wilde’s nickname for his 16 year-old butler Arthur was ‘Ginger’, which may have been a bit of Cockney rhyming slang (“Ginger Beer” for “Queer”). In his works and letters, Wilde used classical allusions, not earthy ones, to refer obliquely to Uranian love (homosexuality), but once his lover Lord Alfred Douglas had introduced him to male prostitutes (“renters”), Wilde may have got a kick out of showing off his street-smarts. Wilde said in his prison letter De Profundis that the danger of playing in London’s underworld “was like feasting with panthers. The danger was half the excitement.”
It’s a hot, sunny day in London but Sebastian builds the danger and impending doom of Wilde’s story. Sebastian points out that Wilde’s foe and Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry was staying at 14 and 15 Albemarle Street (then Carter’s Hotel, now Brown’s) specifically for the purpose of stalking Wilde, who could not go to his club (then at 13 Albemarle Street) or leave his hotel the Avondale (68a Piccadilly) without being observed. The Marquess left a card at the Albemarle Club, accusing Wilde of being a sodomite. Lord Alfred saw this as the perfect opportunity to see his despised father prosecuted for libel, and so began Wilde’s downfall.
Our tour with Sebastian ends at The Albany, once home to Lord Byron, where Sebastian recounts the pathetic tale of Lord Alfred’s life after Wilde. (In The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack Worthing’s address in town is B.4., The Albany, which was also the real-life address of George Ives, with whom Lord Alfred had spent the night. George Ives was what we would now call a “gay rights activist”, but “gay” and “gay rights” were not terms used by the Victorians. The play, from its title onwards, is full of in-jokes about homosexuality and Wilde’s circle.) Having once boasted of his intimacy with Wilde, Lord Alfred later converted to Catholicism, married, denied that he had ever been homosexual, and devoted most of his energy to persecuting Wilde’s loyal friend Robbie Ross, other gay men and anyone who displeased him. He eventually served prison time for libelling Sir Winston Churchill.
Sebastian concludes his thoroughly researched narrative and our group disperses into the bustle of Piccadilly.
Conveniently for tourists and booklovers, the Albany is opposite Fortnum & Mason and Hatchard’s Bookshop. The Wildes had an account at Hatchard’s and Constance, neglected by her husband Oscar, fell in love with the manager of this Piccadilly bookshop, Arthur L. Humphreys. Needing money for the household, Constance had compiled a book of her husband’s epigrams, Oscariana, and Humphreys was the publisher. The shop was established in 1797 and is an appropriate place to buy one of Wilde’s books.
My companion and I then made our way from crowded Piccadilly to the Café Royal at 68 Regent Street, where Wilde supped with respectable and not-so respectable companions. Verlaine, Rimbaud, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, Whistler and Yeats were patrons. The Marquess of Queensberry also dined there, if only for the opportunity to scowl thunderously at his son Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas for sharing a table with Wilde. Sadly, the Café Royal was boarded up at the time of our visit to London, but the renovations are complete and I’m told it’s glorious.
When Bosie and Wilde weren’t dining at the Café Royal, they could be found drinking champagne at the Savoy or at Kettner’s in Soho. No doubt Wilde told his wife that staying on the Strand or in Soho instead of at their Chelsea home allowed him to check on rehearsals for his West End plays, but the maids at the Savoy would later give evidence against Wilde, as would the rent boys.
Wilde’s debts with creditors such as the Savoy contributed to the loss of his library and manuscript collection, making The Importance of Being Earnest seem prophetic, or confessional, when Algernon is served a writ for unpaid bills owed to the Savoy.
Algernon: Well, I really am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for having dined in the West End.
Grisby: The bill is for suppers, not for dinners.
Algernon: I really don’t are. All I say is that I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs.
Grisby: The surroundings I admit are middle class; but the goal itself is fashionable and well-aired.
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act II
When he was arrested, Wilde’s creditors demanded immediate payment and the result was the auctioning off of the Wilde family possessions at bargain prices. It was one of the tragic contradictions of Wilde’s life that at the very point when he was the most successful playwright in London, with two sell-out plays running in the West End, he lost his freedom, his children, his social standing and his beloved book collection in swift succession. What a terrible journey: from supper at the Savoy to Holloway**, a prison in the suburbs.
© JD Ellevsen
*Sebastian was not our guide’s real name.
**Wilde was imprisoned at Holloway until his first trial. When he was convicted, Wilde was imprisoned at Pentonville, then Wandsworth and later Reading Gaol.
I went on the London Walks tour in May 2012 and highly recommend it. I’m not from the UK so if I have made any geographical errors about London, please help me correct them.