Defiant but defeated

A photo by JD Ellevsen of Nicholas Frankel's book Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years

I read Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years in great anticipation. The author, Nicholas Frankel, is the editor of The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition (also published by the Harvard University Press), which I highly recommend.

I should explain that I read books about Wilde and his circle in a very particular way, for pleasure but also in the search for insights or new information that may inform my novel-in-progress. Conversely, I avoid some books (usually novels) because I fear they will influence me too greatly. I’ve amassed a collection that includes everything from Angela Kingston’s Oscar Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction to Matt Cook’s London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885–1914, yet I want more.

In The Unrepentant Years, Frankel creates a coherent narrative of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment and final years in peripatetic exile, drawn mostly from correspondence and personal accounts. He gives us a nuanced interpretation of Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, who is usually blamed for ruining and abandoning Wilde. (Douglas had pressured Wilde to prosecute Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, a court case that ended in Wilde’s own arrest.)

Wilde’s damning account of Douglas’s behaviour, as Frankel explains, was tainted by his need to retain the support of Douglas’s rivals and critics, such as Wilde’s wife Constance and his former lover Robbie Ross. (To my mind, nothing can excuse Douglas for wasting his inheritance on race horses while rejecting Wilde’s pleads for an allowance as the behaviour of “an old fat prostitute”. Douglas may have been very young, but he was no blameless innocent.)

Frankel also gives us an insight into Wilde’s intentions and method in composing The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and how Wilde tried to reconcile his political aims with his aesthetic theories. I would have liked to have seen more analysis of Wilde’s views on the artist and the purpose of art in De Profundis. Prison changed some of Wilde’s views and confirmed others.

Photo by JD Ellevsen of Nicholas Frankel's Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years

The publisher’s blurb, however, claims that Frankel will “challenge the prevailing, traditional view of Wilde as a broken, tragic figure”, but it is impossible to interpret Wilde’s final years in any other light. Wilde missed his sons, whom he never saw again. Wilde was ostracised, often lonely, depressed, in poor health and beset by money worries—often self-inflicted but nonetheless real. He grieved for his mother, was unable to write new material after The Ballad of Reading Gaol … How could Wilde’s post-prison existence be seen as anything other than tragic?

Respectable people refused to be seen with Wilde or to invite him into their homes, yet Wilde was criticized for being seen in cafés and bars with the only people who would accept him: mostly bohemians, exiles, criminals, ‘out’ homosexuals, drunkards and other fringe-dwellers. Wherever he went in Europe, Wilde was shunned and in debt.

Those who were sympathetic and generous grew tired of Wilde’s constant requests for money and his insistence on keeping homosexual company. Others, like Frank Harris, paid his debts and kept him company but their support was conditional. As soon as it became evident that prison had killed the West End’s goose-that-laid-the-golden-comic-egg, these friends drifted away. Only a few people stood by Wilde as he lay dying of encephalitis.

Wilde remained defiant and subversive for a couple of years, but in the end—as friends, money and hope ebbed away—he drank heavily and waited for death to claim him, telling his loyal friend Robbie Ross that he “did not care if he only had a short time to live” (Robert Ross to More Adey, 14 December 1900). This undermines Frankel’s impassioned Epilogue, in which he declares “Wilde was not a martyr to Victorian morality: he was its enemy …”

I may not agree with Nicholas Frankel’s assessment of Wilde’s final years, but I hope that his scholarship leads more readers to The Soul of Man Under Socialism, The Portrait of Mr W.H., De Profundis, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and essays such as The Decay of Lying, allowing them to discover Wilde the intellectual and dissident, before exile silenced him.

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