“The Sights and Sounds of Life”: On Matthew Sturgis’s Biography of Oscar Wilde

April 15, 2022   •   By Kaya Genç

Oscar Wilde: A Life

Matthew Sturgis

OSCAR WILDE DIED in a shabby Paris hotel room in 1900. “The melancholy end to a career which once promised so well,” The Times obituary observed. “Death has soon ended what must have been a life of wretchedness and unavailing regret.” A two-year prison sentence for gross indecency had shattered Wilde’s reputation in Britain. The author was broke, at the mercy of others, “dying beyond my means.” His remains were placed in an unmarked grave.

Seven years later, Americans began resurrecting him. In 1907, a New York publisher, ignoring British copyright, put out a 15-volume edition of The Writings of Oscar Wilde. On November 14, 1910, the Lyceum Theater on Broadway premiered Wilde’s 1895 play, The Importance of Being Earnest, a production that would enjoy a 48-performance run. Frank Harris’s 1916 biography became a best seller in the United States. American readers and theatergoers soon salvaged this foremost “canceled” author of his time.

Two decades before his death, North America had made Wilde a star. Touring the continent in 1882, the long-haired, sharp-tongued Oxford graduate delivered lectures to packed audiences. Wilde’s visit, according to the American historian Roy Morris Jr., was a “one-man British invasion, mounted eight full decades before his fellow Celts, the Beatles, conquered these same shores in 1964.” Wilde’s posthumous revival in America isn’t, therefore, surprising. Over the 20th century, Wilde, in his resurrected form, represented “the countercultural rebel, the homosexual ‘martyr,’ the victim of British colonial oppression, the proto-modernist, the proto-postmodernist, the precursor of ‘cool,’” writes Matthew Sturgis in his new biography. In its opening pages, the biographer explains Wilde’s enduring relevance:

Leaving my Airbnb in New York on my way to inspect a previously overlooked Wilde letter in the library at Columbia University, I passed a chalkboard outside an Irish bar scrawled with the legend “Work is the curse of the Drinking Classes.” Opposite me on the uptown subway sat a girl whose mobile phone case carried the slogan “To live is the rarest thing in the world.” And then, to make my morning complete, walking through the university portals was a student sporting a T-shirt that declared, “Genius is born, not paid.” All three quotations were duly — and (as is not always the case) correctly — credited to Oscar Wilde. Such encounters are by no means exceptional. Indeed, seeing the world through a Wildean prism, as I have done over recent years, rarely do I find a newspaper or magazine that does not contain a stray reference to Wilde or his work. And it is not simply his epigrams that have survived in the age of Twitter and shortening attention spans.

Sturgis, a British historian, spent seven years working on this tome. The Michigan-born American critic Richard Ellmann had devoted two decades to his posthumously published Pulitzer Prize–winning 1987 biography, and Sturgis writes in that volume’s imposing shadow (Edmund White called Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde “the best literary biography of the decade”).

Thirty-five years on, what to do with a life this well told is a conundrum biographers can’t avoid. Sturgis is the first to accept that he isn’t here to tell a new story. Neither does he defend a new position. His self-assigned task is to comb, to mend, to retell. In tandem with a “growth in knowledge about the incidents of Wilde’s life,” he proclaims, “it has become more and more apparent that Ellmann’s book — for all its many and great virtues — is not quite satisfactory.” (A handlist of corrections to Ellmann’s book, compiled by the German scholar Horst Schoeder, takes up more than 300 pages in its expanded edition in 2002.) Sturgis describes scholars having to “correct or amend the picture framed for them by Ellmann.”

¤

Oscar Wilde: A Life has the perfect pace. While reframing Wilde’s life, it displays an attention to detail that Tolstoy would relish. We learn that, during the time Wilde attended Oxford in the 1870s, a medieval air pervaded the town’s colleges and quadrangles, “its domes and towers, the honey-coloured stonework of its buildings.” As in a Balzac novel, readers can picture the hero making his way in the world: wandering Oxford’s cobbled thoroughfares, Wilde would reach Magdalen College, “bounded on one side by the crenelated wall of its little deer park and on the other by the stream of the river Cherwell.” During his first Oxford term, Wilde claimed that he was “the happiest man in the world.”

What was Wilde’s hair color back then? Sturgis knows the answer: “Referred to as ‘fair’ during his schooldays, it had clearly darkened over time. It was subsequently described variously as ‘of an indistinctive brown colour’ and ‘mouse coloured and stringy.’” Did Wilde enjoy sports? He disliked rowing, responds Sturgis, for “he did not see the point in going backward to Iffley Lock every evening.” Vivid backdrops accompany his portrayal of Wilde’s student years. On cold days, when there was skating outside, the door of W. D. Allen, a young history tutor of Wilde’s, “would be closed, and a card with some excuse pinned to it.” Wilde’s Latin teacher, John Young Sargent, held “drowsy evening tutorials around his fire, at which he often seemed to be thinking less of his charges ‘than of a silver tankard of beer which was warming on the hearth.’” We meet Wilde’s intellectual idols, including John Ruskin, who walked on Magdalen Bridge with his eyes closed. When asked the reason, Ruskin replied that he had just “seen a very beautiful sunset and wished to keep it in his mind’s eye, uncontaminated by any other sights, until he could be alone in his rooms.”

Some granular details, however, seem redundant. Do we need to know that “the nineteen-month-old Winston Churchill lay, unaware, in the nursery” of Blenheim, during Wilde’s outing there for a picnic in June 1876? Or that Lady Wilde, his mother, suggested supplementing his youthful diet with “chopped nettles,” which could be eaten “like spinach”? Or that his brother Willie’s fiancée kept her ring after he broke off their union?

In his diary, Wilde listed his favorite poets as “Euripides, Keats, Theocritus and myself.” His favorite occupation? “Reading my own sonnets.” The sweetest word in the world? “Well Done!” And the saddest? “Failure!” Sturgis excavates remnants of Wilde’s self-making as the prophet of the Aesthetic Age. “Greek rugs” decorated his room. He hosted “Beauty Parties,” to which he invited the daughters of Oxford dons. Lilies populated his surroundings; a perfect dinner party, he thought, had to feature “very little to eat, very little light, and a great many flowers.” When he attended George Eliot’s funeral in Highgate Cemetery in 1880, Wilde took along “a large wreath of lilies, which he attempted — with limited success — to attach to the coffin as it passed by on its carriage.” 

After Oxford, Wilde sought to play the role of cultural critic. It didn’t work. Placing his writing in the great monthly journals Blackwood’s, The Nineteenth Century, and The Fortnightly Review remained a distant dream. So, he changed course. Looking for a job, he considered a school inspectorship. Based on his experiences in Greece and Italy, he offered his services as a “traveling tutor.” These plans also faltered. It was Wilde’s personality that charmed people, not his services.

Eventually, Wilde settled on lecturing in America. New York, “with its broad grid-patterned streets,” enchanted him. He later remarked that “[e]verybody seems in a hurry to catch a train” there. But did he really tell a New York customs officer, “I have nothing to declare, except my genius”? Sadly, Sturgis whispers in a footnote, there is “no evidence” for that. “This line — one of the most repeated of Wilde’s sayings — was first recorded in Arthur Ransome’s 1912 book, Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study.” Wilde’s friend Robert Ross probably told it to Ransome; Wilde possibly made the comment to Ross in the first place, “perhaps because he really did say it at the time or because he wished that he had said it.”

Not all Americans were impressed. According to Henry James, Wilde was but “a fatuous fool and a tenth rate cad.” Sturgis summarizes their differences crisply: “James was diligent, diffident, and discreet, while Wilde was effusive, effeminate, and attention-seeking.” And the root of James’s anger? It might be the response Wilde gave him when James talked of his nostalgia for London during a meeting. “Really? You care for places?” Wilde said. “The world is my home.”

In his attempt to morph from a lecturer into an author, Wilde bought a “burnous” that was “intended to inspire him to heights of Balzacian industry and production. It proved very effective.” He savored the Comédie Humaine, believing that “the only real people are the people who never existed.” Among Wilde’s strange reading habits was tearing a little piece of the page, “rolling it into a pellet and putting it in his mouth.”

Oscar’s marriage to Constance Lloyd bolstered his role as the prophet of Aestheticism. “The House Beautiful,” their new Chelsea home at 16 Tite Street, London, had a front door painted in gloss white. In the hallway, visitors encountered white-framed engravings of “Apollo and the Muses” and “Diana and Nymphs Bathing,” representing the couple. The drawing-room ceiling was “paneled in squares of dull-gold ‘Japanese leather-paper’ — and from four pendants hung large blue and white barrel-shaped Japanese paper lanterns.”

His striking home was cozy, but Wilde’s reputation remained that of a society figure, a “sayer of smart things.” His first published fiction was a translation — a short story by Turgenev that he rendered from the French. To his delight, The Pall Mall Gazette hired him as a book critic. Over the next five years, Wilde’s unsigned reviews included “sprightly critiques of epic poems, Irish legends, etiquette manuals, verse anthologies, handbooks on oil painting, historical biographies, collected letters, popular novels, and more.” Cushioned by the luxuries of married life but still striving for money, Wilde soon “found himself beguiled by an image of defiance — against convention, against nature, against morality, against the grain.” À rebours, the 1884 decadent novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, inspired him in this endeavor, and Wilde began sleeping with men. He described the experience as being “like a madness,” an urge that makes people “sicken suddenly with the poison of unlimited desire.”

The fall of Wilde’s family life began with trifles. The Tite Street house was robbed one night while he and the children slept upstairs. Christening cups and much of Constance’s jewelry was stolen. Later, plugged drains forced the family to move out to Norfolk for a bit. Wilde’s new friend Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensberry, joined the couple there. The young lord soon installed himself in their family life, accompanying Wilde on his “golf outings.” Constance “lamented, laughingly, that she was becoming ‘a golf widow.’”

Back home in London, Wilde’s gay life flourished in the city’s most luxurious hotel, the Savoy. Built by Richard D’Oyly Carte in 1889 “from the profits of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas — and of Wilde’s American lecture tour,” the Savoy featured electric lifts; César Ritz managed its operations; the kitchen was run by the legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier. Taking adjoining rooms, Wilde and Douglas became habitués, running up large bills in the restaurant. (Their orders included “clear turtle soup — the luscious ortolans wrapped in their crinkled Sicilian vine leaves,” and “the heavy amber-coloured, indeed almost amber-scented champagne.”) Constance, now entirely abandoned, arrived one day “in tears at Wilde’s rooms, bringing the post from Tite Street. To the suggestion that he might return home, he replied that he had been away so long that he had forgotten the number of the house.”

When Alfred’s atheist father learned of the affair, he wasn’t pleased. In 1882, he had “famously interrupted a performance of Tennyson’s The Promise of May to protest against the treatment of atheism in the piece.” Now Queensberry seemed determined to stop what he considered another show staged to scandalize him. His calling card, left at Wilde’s club, assailed the author as a “somdomite” [sic] and led to a libel case, the most famous of its kind in the Victorian era.

As material evidence — from stains on hotel bedsheets to racy witness statements — meticulously gathered by detectives proved his homosexuality beyond doubt, Wilde’s reputation was dragged through the mud. He was canceled with great fanfare. “Six prominent Bodley Head authors cabled John Lane,” notes Sturgis, “stating that unless he at once removed Wilde’s name from the Bodley Head catalogue […] they would withdraw their books. Lane hastened to comply.” Bankruptcy, prison, and exile soon followed. Among the items displayed in the general sale of Wilde’s belongings was Thomas Carlyle’s writing desk, sold for £14, as well as toys from his children’s nursery. Wilde’s name was blotted out from the Golden Book of Churchill Masonic Lodge, where he was a member.

“A few American friends” attempted to save Wilde by paying his bail. But he ended up serving his full term of two years. A visitor to Reading Gaol, where he was held, saw Wilde’s “hands disfigured, the nails broken and bleeding from the oakum picking” (hard labor to which he was sentenced). In confinement, he suffered numerous woes: “[H]is want of writing materials; the harshness of the regime; and, particularly, a persistent pain, and occasional bleeding, in his right ear.”

As his release neared, Wilde listed toiletries he wanted to be readied: “some ice French soap” (“either ‘Peau d’Espagne’ or ‘Sac de Laitue’ would do”), “Eau de Lubin” toilet water (“a large bottle”); and, to treat his graying hair, a “wonderful thing called Koko Marikopas, to be got at 233 Regent’s Street […] the name alone seems worth the money.” These luxury items were meant to help scrub the prison experience from his body. Seeing a budding tree on the platform of a railway station just after his release, Wilde threw open his arms and cried: “Oh beautiful world! Oh beautiful world.”

Sturgis treats Wilde’s final years as a period of liberation. (That’s the main argument of Nicholas Frankel’s 2017 book, Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years, which tells the story better.) Wilde’s spirit “was unfurling with each new hour of freedom. He relished the beautiful spring weather, the sea breeze, the apple blossoms in the Normandy orchards, the sights and sounds of life.” He savored the “sun and the sea of the beautiful world” and his “regular morning swim” on the Berneval plage. On sadder days, Wilde considered death, visiting public gardens in Naples that were popular with suicides. Meanwhile, his Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) sold 5,000 copies in just a few months and became the most successful of his books.

Wilde devoted the rest of his life to absinthe and idle chatter. Gossiping with the Paris correspondent of The New York Times, he helped reveal that Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, not the Jewish officer accused of being a spy in an atmosphere of intense antisemitism, was the real culprit in the Dreyfus Affair. By repeating Esterhazy’s private confession in a Paris café, writes Sturgis, Wilde “gave the initiative to the Dreyfusards and set them on the way to ultimate victory.” Yet he remained bitter toward those who didn’t support him in his prison years, declining an invitation from Émile Zola, whom he dismissed as “a third-rate Flaubert.” His new life plan was to “retire to some monastery, some grey stoned cell where I could have my books, write verses, and reverently smoke my cigarettes.” When dusk fell, he picked up young men. Shortly before his ear infection killed him, Wilde told his friend Frank Harris: “I am going under. The morgue yawns for me.”

¤

What did Wilde make of biographers? “It is always Judas who writes the biography,” he quipped once. It wasn’t a moralizing statement. Wilde preferred untruthfulness to exactitude. Becoming the subject of a hagiography would bore him, but a dull, domesticated Wilde is wild no more. In his 1891 essay “The Critic as Artist,” the most succinct articulation of his aesthetic views, Wilde urged critics to misinterpret their subjects. A work’s subject needed to mirror the critic’s position — it was just an occasion to express a profound truth.

Held to Wilde’s standards, Sturgis fails. Yet, in his self-set task to debunk the myths that have grown up around Wilde (“spurious anecdotes, invented epigrams, inaccurate newspaper reports, misremembered incidents”) and to retell his life in the light of newly unearthed material, Sturgis triumphs. He manages to “view [Wilde] with an historian’s eye, to give a sense of contingency, to chart his own experience of his life as he experienced it.” Closing his book, I recalled the last sentence of Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde, which quotes Borges’s verdict on the author: “[S]o generous, so amusing, so right.” Wilde still has “a way of being right,” Sturgis observes in his own book’s finale, a way that is both “astonishing and delightful.” Surprising for a book that sets out to replace Ellmann’s, Oscar Wilde: A Life ends up echoing it.

¤

Kaya Genç is LARB’s Istanbul correspondent.