Books for Wildeans, part one

There, there, JD Ellevsen, says one person consoling another. You might live long enough to read all the books about Oscar Wilde.

This is the first in a series about books for admirers of Wilde, prompted by a question from the Oscar Wilde Festival, Galway.

At the moment, I’m reading Oscar Wilde’s Chatterton by Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell and Max Beerbohm’s satirical sketches of the 1890s, Seven Men.

Two new and upcoming releases for Wildeans to note are Michael Seeney’s From Bow Street to the Ritz: Oscar Wilde’s Theatrical Career from 1895 to 1908 and Eleanor Fitzsimons’ Wilde’s Women.

Reviewed in this post:

  • The Street of Wonderful Possibilities
  • Wilde’s Last Stand
  • Son of Oscar Wilde
  • The Wilde Years
  • Robbie Ross.

The Street of Wonderful Possibilities: Whistler, Wilde & Sargent in Tite Street by Devon Cox

“It was to him that I owed my first knowledge of that forever enchanting little world-in-itself, Chelsea, and my first acquaintance with Walter Sickert and other august elders who dwelt there.” Max Beerbohm, Enoch Soames, from Seven Men

Fascinated by the fact that Oscar Wilde’s neighbours in Tite Street, Chelsea, included a friend and rival, one of his opponents, as well as the man who would sentence him to two years’ hard labour (Whistler, Harry Quilter and Justice Wills respectively), I was all-anticipation for the release of this book in my post Tite Street Titans.

Devon Cox does a marvellous job of recreating the Bohemian world of Tite Street and of introducing its residents and visitors from the Victorian era to World War II. The book is bursting with personalities. There are artists (James Abbott McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Frank Miles, Walter Sickert, Mortimer Menpes, Carlo Pellegrini, Archibald Stuart-Wortley, John and Marian Collier, Anna Lea Merritt, and more); writers; critics (Whistler and Wilde’s mutual antagonist Harry Quilter); actors and theatre lovers (Ellen Terry and Sir Percy Shelley); architects (Edward William Godwin); the elite and their less respectable companions (the Prince of Wales and Lillie Langtry, the forgers Charles Augustus Howell and Rosa Corder, social climber Lady Meux and Lady Archibald Campbell), as well as suffragettes.

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This is a generously illustrated hardback that would make a lovely gift for lovers of London’s artistic, social and literary history. The inclusion of maps and a chronology is a bonus. My only quibbles are these: the matt paper used drains some of the colour and contrast from the reproductions and the narrative becomes repetitive because it flashes back and forward in time. For example, Cox tells us on page 240 that in September 1930, Peter Warlock had found a flat “in the basement of No. 30 Tite Street.” Then on page 242, Cox states that “In September 1930 Warlock moved with Peache into a basement flat at 30 Tite Street.” This, combined with numerous typographical errors, makes me suspect that the book was rushed through the editorial process, which is a shame when Devon Cox’s research reveals so much of London’s history packed into a single street.

The nature of this multi-person biography means that Cox’s account of Wilde’s career and life may seem brisk to someone who has read one or more biographies, but Wildeans can escape to fin de siècle London via this atmospheric and handsome book.

Wilde’s Last Stand: Scandal, Decadence and Conspiracy During the Great War by Philip Hoare

“[Oscar Wilde] was not satisfied even that his evil influence should die with him; he left behind his works, so that his crimes may be perpetuated even after he was dead. And I tried to stop that.” MP Noel Pemberton Billing in court, 1918

Cover of Wilde's Last Stand by Philip HoareThis is a fascinating and appalling account of political opportunism, homophobia, xenophobia and philistinism.

Oscar Wilde was indignant when the Lord Chamberlain banned the performance of his play based on the biblical character of Salomé. The curse of Salomé struck again 18 years after Wilde’s death, when a production of the play became the focus of a libel trial during the Great War.

The Imperialist newspaper claimed in 1918 that Salomé threatened public morals and that its star (Maud Allan) and producers were part of a homosexual and lesbian ring of 47,000 influential people who were being blackmailed into spying for Germany, undermining England’s war effort.

As bizarre and hysterical as they may seem now, fascist MP Noel Pemberton Billing’s claims about “the Wilde cult” and “the Cult of the Clitoris” (allegedly cultivated by Maud Allen and Salomé) gripped the nation. In court, Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, was amongst those who lined up to denounce Oscar Wilde for corrupting England’s youth from beyond the grave. “Billing represented”, Philip Hoare says, “the voice of the outraged British middle class … the voice that calls for punitive measures against anything that threatens its own status quo.”

Until I read this, I had no idea how close England had come to succumbing to Fascist demagogues, nor that Wilde was blamed, almost 20 years after his death, for everything from war casualties to cocaine-snorting flappers. For the Victorians, Wilde was unmentionable after his fall. For the Edwardians, he was a bogeyman. In a short space of time, Wilde has morphed into an icon on T-shirts and aprons. What will his next incarnation be?

Son of Oscar Wilde by Vyvyan Holland

“[W]e had known what it was to have our father feted and admired, and now to have to deny him and to lock up all our knowledge of him in our hearts was a terrible burden for children to bear.” Vyvyan Holland

Son of Oscar Wilde by Vyvyan HollandVyvyan Holland’s memoirs are comparable to Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, in which Gosse tries to understand his Victorian father while breaking free to create an identity and life of his own. Together, they document Victorian childhood from diametrically opposed perspectives: life with a puritanical, fundamentalist Christian father and life with a liberal humanist father who was condemned by Christian society.

When Oscar Wilde was convicted for “gross indecency”, his wife Constance and sons Cyril and Vyvyan became social lepers. Vyvyan tells the story of how they were forced into exile in Europe, pressured to abandon the surname Wilde and made to move from place to place to escape people who recognised and condemned them.

Vyvyan’s pain is made worse by his incomprehension. He doesn’t know what his father Oscar has done, where he is, or even if he’s alive. All Vyvyan knows is that is mother and brother are carrying a terrible burden and that his guardians forbid him to mention, let alone love, his own father.

It is evident that it took Vyvyan Holland great courage to write his memoirs after decades of enforced silence and shame. He writes with a restraint that makes it all the more poignant for the reader.

This moving and personal account, which reveals Wilde the loving and playful father, lightens when Vyvyan meets Wilde’s loyal friend and literary executor, Robbie Ross. Ross ensures that Vyvyan comes into his rightful literary inheritance and introduces him to the few remaining people who spoke kindly of his father.

The Wilde Years: Oscar Wilde and the Art of His Time, edited by Tomoko Sato and Lionel Lambourne

The Wilde YearsImmerse yourself in the Wildean era through artworks. This is a beautiful exhibition book, worth owning for its reproductions alone. There are photos of Wilde and his peers, as well as artworks by Edward Burne-Jones, James McNeill Whistler, Max Beerbohm, George Du Maurier, Aubrey Beardsley, George Frederic Watts, William Rothenstein, Giovanni Boldini, Toulouse-Lautrec, Jacques-Emile Blanche and many others.

The Wilde Years features interesting essays by the editors, Merlin Holland, Michael Barker, Jonathan Fryer and Declan Kiberd on Oscar Wilde and self-promotion, popular culture, Anarchism, Decadence and Salomé.

There’s also a chronology that displays events from Wilde’s life alongside artistic, cultural, political and social events, as well as short biographies of the artists and personalities.

In short, this is a fantastic visual resource that includes the historical and cultural context.

Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde’s devoted friend by Jonathan Fryer

Robbie Ross on cover of Jonathan Fryer's biography

Robbie Ross on the cover of Jonathan Fryer’s biography. The pastel portrait is by William Rothenstein, 1899.

Having already read Richard Ellman’s biography of Wilde, Vyvyan Holland’s Son of Oscar Wilde, Phillip Hoare’s Wilde’s Last Stand, Wilde’s prison letter De Profundis and other works, I was well aware of the important role Robbie Ross had played in preserving Oscar Wilde’s literary legacy.

As I mentioned in At Oscar Wilde’s tomb, after years of effort, Ross got the Wilde estate out of bankruptcy, secured the copyright for Wilde’s children, stemmed the flow of pirated editions and oversaw the production of the first legitimate edition of Wilde’s collected works. Ross prevented Lord Alfred Douglas from destroying the manuscript of Wilde’s letterDe Profundis (as Ross named it) by bequeathing the original to the British Museum. Ross was a loyal friend to Wilde in adversity and was persecuted as a result by Lord Alfred Douglas and Noel Pemberton Billing.

What I learnt from Fryer’s biography was how Ross had persisted in his efforts to rehabilitate Wilde’s posthumous literary reputation despite the enormous risks for him personally and professionally. I also learnt more about Ross’s other important roles. He was a mentor to the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and became a significant figure in the art world, helping various institutions assess and acquire important artworks. I was also intrigued to learn the astonishing number of literary and artistic figures who counted Ross as a friend, and that H.G. Wells, like Wilde, had asked Ross to be his literary executor. What makes Ross so interesting is that unlike Wilde he managed to successfully straddle two worlds: the respectable, Establishment milieu of the Asquiths and administrators and the demi-monde of Bohemian homosexuality.

Ross seems to have spent most of his short life helping writers and artists personally and professionally and we ought to celebrate his contribution to the arts more often. I would like this book to have been longer, and—as odd as this may sound coming from a Wildean—to have gone into more depth about Ross’s work and friendships beyond his duties to Oscar Wilde.

Future posts

In future posts in this series: books by Merlin Holland, Angela Kingston, Robert Hichens, Frank Harris, Joan Schenkar, Thomas Wright, Douglas Murray, Simon Callow, Neil McKenna, Geoff Dibb, Matthew Sturgis, Charles Ricketts and more.

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