Nicholas Frankel, Oscar Wilde:
The Unrepentant Years (Harvard University Press)
In February 1895, Dublin-born Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), then 40 years old, was at the top of his game as a poet, playwright and critic, known throughout the English-speaking literary world for his brilliant wit, glittering conversational skills and charming if flamboyant appearance. Two of his plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, were playing to packed houses in London’s West End, with the latter about to open in New York. Wilde was married to wealthy Englishwoman Constance Lloyd and the couple had two sons whom Wilde adored, ten-year-old Cyril and nine-year-old Vyvan.
Wilde’s marriage to Constance was by then more than a bit shaky, in no small part because Wilde had fallen passionately and recklessly in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, a brash, unpredictable, and frequently imprudent aristocrat, sixteen years younger than Wilde. Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury, heartily disapproved of the relationship between the two men, threatening at one point to “make a public scandal in a way you little dream of” if Douglas did not end it. This included showing up at Wilde’s house accompanied by a boxer, and almost disrupting the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, before Wilde got wind of his intentions and barred him from the performance. Then, on February 18, 1895, the Marquis left a calling card at Wilde’s home addressed to “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite,” misspelling “sodomite.” Against the advice of nearly everyone, including George Bernard Shaw, Wilde decided to sue the Marquis for criminal libel in an effort to put an end to the harassment, once and for all. It was not a good decision.
Douglas’ father employed spies to dig up evidence that Wilde was in reality a “sodomite,” a term frequently used in late Victorian England as a synonym for homosexual. His lawyers introduced romantic and suggestive letters from Wilde to the Marquis’s son. The court found the Marquis’s description of Wilde as a “posing sodomite” to be legally justified, and Wilde withdrew his suit. He was then arrested on charges of “gross indecency” under a loosely worded and subjective statute that made almost any private and consensual action potentially subject to criminal prosecution. After a sensational trial that aroused much interest in England and abroad, he was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison.
In Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years, Nicholas Frankel, Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, focuses upon Wilde’s last years, both his imprisonment, from May 1895 to May 1897, and the remaining three and a half years of his life, which he spent in exile in Dieppe, in Northern France, Naples, Sicily, and above all Paris, where he died in November 1900. Unlike more comprehensive Wilde biographies, Frankel argues that his “represents the first sustained effort to understand Wilde’s imagination through the prism of his final years” (p.16). Frankel provides a perceptive account of the unforgiving prison conditions that prevailed in late Victorian England, and much insight into the surprisingly open environment available to homosexuals on parts of the European continent as the 19th century came to a close.
But the sturdiest thread tying together Frankel’s biographical narrative is Wilde’s relationship with Douglas, the “defining love affair of his life. . . [which] lasted well beyond his imprisonment,” an affair that was “at times intense, passionate, petty, rhapsodic, tender, ill-tempered, and vituperative” (p.31). Wilde spent only limited time with Douglas after his release from prison, the rest seemingly in an endless pursuit of a variety of men – mostly younger men and boys. But even when the two were not together, Douglas dominated Wilde’s psyche.
Wilde fled Britain immediately upon his release from prison in May 1897, never to return. He realized then that he needed to “reinvent himself as someone who could live and write unapologetically in spite of the poverty, ostracism, and isolation that he already knew he would face upon release” (p.77). He never regained his full literary aplomb after his release from prison. But to emphasize this, Frankel argues, is to miss the import of Wilde’s post-prison years. Paradoxically, Frankel writes, imprisonment and exile liberated Wilde to “pursue an uninhibited life, and the pleasure he received in consequence could be enjoyed more fully, as a total experience of heart, mind, soul and body, with conversation as its medium and laughter its index . . . Wilde’s greatest achievement in exile was himself” (p.303).
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Wilde served his prison term in several jails (“gaols” in the British spelling). The prison system in Britain in Wilde’s day was known for being “harshly punitive,” centered on “hard labor, hard board, and hard fare” (p.36). The prison population included children as well as seasoned criminals. Almost every prisoner was held in solitary confinement, with one hour out per day, and no talking among prisoners allowed. There was little sense that prisoners could be reformed or rehabilitated.
Shortly after his release, Wilde wrote a long letter to the Daily Chronicle, a paper interested in prison reform, documenting the “brutality of the current British prison system and the terrible cruelty that it inflicted on child prisoners especially” (p.97). He had kind words for the other prisoners, the “only really humanizing influence in prison.” By contrast, prison authorities were “obliged to execute some of the most inhumane regulations” and were the “source of mindless cruelty” (p.98). The letter, which Frankel describes as a “masterpiece of plain rhetoric” (p.99), had a clear effect on the 1898 Prisons Act, marking the beginnings of modern penal reform in Great Britain by setting the stage for the subsequent abolition of hard labor and the establishment of separate institutions for young offenders.
Wilde’s prison experience also produced “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a lengthy poem still today considered one of the most cogent analyses of prison conditions, an “indictment not merely of the late-Victorian prison system but of the society that convicted and imprisoned Wilde” and, indirectly, a “moving and unapologetic reassertion of Wilde’s sexual orientation” (p.169-70). The poem was based on the execution of fellow prisoner Charles Thomas Wooldridge, which had a “lasting effect on Wilde’s sense of himself and other prisoners as victims of a cruel, inhuman machine” (p.62). The Ballad of Reading Gaol ends with Wilde’s “personal views on the justice system and its antithetical character to Christianity” (p.179). The poem turned out to be the best selling of Wilde’s published writings in his lifetime and has never since been out of print.
Although Wilde had begun his prison sentence vowing undying love for Lord Douglas, thoughts of Douglas rendered him angry, alienated and depressed as his prison term progressed. At one point, he considered reconciliation with his wife Constance, who had officially barred him from seeing his children, in exchange for a small allowance upon his release. During the prison term, Constance temporarily put her divorce plans on hold, but shortly thereafter reversed herself, changed her name, and took her sons to Genoa, Italy, where she died prematurely in 1898. Wilde never saw his sons again, “arguably the most tragic element of his final years” (p.103), Frankel suggests.
In Frankel’s view, Wilde’s changing affections for Douglas were a reflection of his isolation and depression. Wilde wrote a lengthy letter to Douglas while in prison (toward the end of his term, he was accorded special writing and reading privileges). The letter has come to be known a De Profundis, much of which was Wilde’s expression of how he wanted to live and what he wanted to do upon release from prison. But the first third was full of vitriolic recriminations against Douglas. Prison regulations prohibited Wilde from sending the letter during his incarceration and Douglas claimed he never received a copy. Frankel sees the intensity of Wilde’s attack on Douglas as a “clue that Wilde still loved him and intended some kind of reconciliation with him upon release,” (p.77), but that he wanted to set the terms for that reconciliation.
Shortly after Wilde’s release in May 1897, the pair met in Rouen, Normandy, but it was a fleeting encounter. They met up again six weeks later in Naples, where they tried over the course of three months to reestablish their relationship. Naples in the last decade of the 19th century was a city to which Northern European homosexuals naturally gravitated. “Homosexuality was not a crime in Italy: Italian police, politicians, and prosecutors made little attempt to ban homosexual behavior, expel homosexuals expatriates, or otherwise harass them, and . . . Southern Italy provided an especially appealing destination for Northern homosexuals in flight from strict homophobic laws in their home countries” (p.129).
Wilde and Douglas rented a villa in Naples, and had four house servants. Wilde took Italian lessons from an Italian poet and translator. They both turned their attentions to writing, with Wilde completing the Ballad of Reading Gaol. Although they were happy together, the English community in Naples ostracized them. A representative of the British Embassy in Rome traveled to Naples to tell Douglas “discretely” that his cohabitation with Wilde was causing a scandal back home and pressured Douglas to “eject Wilde from the house” (p.153). Moreover, both men had extravagant tastes and money was a never-ending problem, one that put an end altogether to the sojourn in Naples.
Douglas received money from his mother, Lady Queensbury, now divorced from the Marquis, and Wilde had an allowance as part of his settlement with Constance. But Lady Queensbury threatened to cut off her son’s allowance if he continued to cohabit with Wilde. Douglas concluded that he had no choice but to leave Wilde, while demanding that his mother send Wilde £200. She did so, but only after receiving Wilde’s pledge that he would never again live under the same roof as her son. Although both Douglas and Wilde expected their relationship to continue in some form thereafter, in fact their time as a couple ended in Naples.
Wilde arrived in Paris in February 1898 and, with the exception of a two-month return visit to Italy from March to May 1900, remained there up to his death. Paris for Wilde represented the “glittering capital of the World Republic of Letters, and he had always enjoyed a greater sense of intellectual freedom and recognition in the city. . . [I]t was above all the contrast between English public condemnation and French acceptance of his most controversial works that led Wilde to feel more at home among the French” (p.194-95).
With a thriving and extensive homosexual subculture, centered on cafés and bars near the Champs Elysées, Paris had “long possessed a reputation for openness and toleration, especially in the eyes of the British” (p.193). Homosexuals bonded socially as well as sexually in late 19th century Paris, Frankel writes, “relatively untroubled by any fear of police repression and scrutiny” (p.207). Many of the active homosexuals were quite young, between 14 and 20. Wilde called meeting with these young men “feasting with panthers,” and made no effort to hide his determination to continue such “feasting,” now that he lived singly, with no social standing to protect and hence little reason to be furtive. “Within days of his arrival in Paris, Wilde began a series of open, public liaisons with young men offering him personal and sexual companionship” (p.207).
Frankel gives particular attention to a friendship of another sort which Wilde struck up in Paris, with Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the man later determined to have framed Captain Alfred Dreyfus. L’Affaire Dreyfus, with its clear anti-Semitic overtones, was at its height when Wilde arrived in Paris in mid-February 1898 (I reviewed three books on the Dreyfus affair here in February 2012). Esterhazy’s combination of “charm, bravura, and obvious criminal guilt fascinated Wilde” (p.12). Although his friendship with Esterhazy has since elicited “severe moral disapproval,” Frankel sees it as “perfectly consistent with much that Wilde had written and done at the height of his social and literary success” (p.231). Esterhazy, with his “frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind,” represented the “true liar” (p.231) whom Wilde had celebrated in his writings. But the friendship ended suddenly when the proof against Esterhazy became irrefutable and he fled France – for England.
Paris provided opportunities for Douglas and Wilde to see one another “without attracting the disapproving attentions of English journalists” (p.212). They met frequently, often dining out together, although Frankel finds it unlikely that they had a sexual relationship during this time. Both were pursuing younger men; they often shared partners. And they continued to quarrel over money, with Wilde pressing the case that Douglas should be supporting him financially. Douglas initially rejected Wilde’s entreaties, but he sent Wilde about £125 in the last months of 1900. In August of that year, Wilde and Douglas dined together for the last time, at the Café de la Paix near the Opéra, their preferred dining site.
The saddest element of Wilde’s final year in Frankel’s view was that he “could no longer write. For at least two years after his release, he had remained determined to prove that he still possessed literary genius and that prison had not killed his creative spirit” (p.261). Although his arrival in Paris in February 1898 had coincided with the publication in England of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, with significant critical and commercial success, Wilde came to the realization in Paris that there would be no “artistic resurrection.” He would “never again recover the social and literary standing he had lost” (p.205).
By 1900, Wilde had become increasingly unable to “step out of the wreckage his life had become: he could no longer write creatively, his health was declining, and he was rapidly losing the confidence of some of his most loyal friends and supporters” (p.258). He succumbed to “fits of lassitude and self-pity” (p.205), with depression, sadness and drinking to excess dominating his last year. Wilde by then was a “physically altered person” who had “put on weight, and his once luxurious hair was thinning and turning grey. He had grown distinctly deaf . . . and he now often spoke with his hand in front of his mouth to hide his bad teeth” (p.257). But if he could no longer write, he could still tell beautiful stories to anyone willing to listen, talking with a “brilliance and fertility of tongue and imagination that nobody could match” (p.262).
In early September 1900, Wilde suffered a fatal relapse of an ear infection that had afflicted him while in prison and went untreated. The only solution was a radical operation with a high risk of permanent hearing loss. Wilde submitted to such an operation on October 10, 1900, creating an open wound that left him in constant pain and required daily dressing and cavity packing. Although he realized some improvement toward the end of October, in November the infection spread to his brain. He died on November 30,1900, in his Paris hotel room, six weeks short of his 46th birthday, alone and with little fanfare. Douglas paid about £20 in funeral costs.
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Queen Victoria died less than two months after Wilde. Their deaths together, Frankel contends, marked the end of the Victorianism with which Wilde had always been at odds. Frankel concludes his thoughtful biography by noting that Wilde had served as the “harbinger of new attitudes that would eventually come to replace the repressive Victorian laws and morality surrounding matters of sex and gender” (p.294-95). His imprisonment and exile may have liberated future generations more than they liberated Wilde himself.
Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D.C., USA
June 26, 2019