Oscar Wilde’s life – like his wit – was alive with paradox. He was both an early exponent and victim of ‘celebrity culture’: famous for being famous, he was often ridiculed and disparaged. His achievements were frequently downplayed, his successes resented. He had a genius for comedy but strove to write tragedies. He was a snob but was prone to great acts of kindness. Although happily married, he became a passionate lover of men. At the height of his success he brought disaster upon himself by defending his love for Lord Alfred Douglas. Having delighted in fashionable throngs, he died almost alone. In the first major biography of Oscar Wilde in thirty years, Matthew Sturgis brings alive the radical ideas and distinctive characters of the fin de siècle to write the richest account of Wilde’s life to date.
Oscar Wilde is a figure that still very much pervades our popular culture. Perhaps without even realising their origins many of us are familiar with his aphorisms and witty slogans. A particular favourite of mine is: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” and “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” This is a point that Matthew Sturgis makes in the opening to this impressive and incredibly immersive biography. Wilde was an individual that very much tried to be himself and was severely punished for being so.
One thing I had not fully grasped or understood before reading the book was just how famous Wilde was at the time of writing, both in Europe and America. His extensive touring and lecturing in America around the notions of aestheticism were truly fascinating. He was, for many, in the late 1890s the toast of London mixing and dining with the Victorian social elite. There were not many people who had not heard of the name of Oscar Wilde. I felt he walked a fine line between being a true genius and caricature something that he, no doubt, was aware of. He was often mocked by the press and other literary figures however many reported that once they met and spoke to him they were dazzled by his breadth of knowledge and intellect. His fall from grace was truly great and must have been incredibly shocking at the time.
The book was incredibly consuming and bought vividly to life how unique a character Wilde was. Someone who was incredibly generous and kind but also someone who could be (I imagine!) incredibly infuriating and exhausting. I was touched by his friendships with Robbie Ross and the Leversons who stood by him until the very end. His loneliness after his release from prison was poignantly drawn by Sturgis. The injustice of his treatment for being a homosexual was horrific and Wilde’s defiance in being who he wanted to be illustrated clearly was he is still held up to be an inspirational figure for some today. I thought Sturgis contrasted the trial of Wilde’s father, Dr. William Wilde, at the start of the book, on charges of inappropriate conduct with one of his patients. A charge he was ultimately cleared of. This forces the reader to consider the hypocrisy and the unjust nature of the world these men inhabited, as Wilde’s father almost certainly was exonerated due to his social standing.
One person I did not know much about was Oscar Wilde’s partner Alfred Lord Douglas. The images Sturgis puts within the biography show, quite hauntingly, a striking figure; one who was prone to extreme outbursts of anger and violence. The tumultuous nature of their relationship is evident and arguments between the two must have been explosive. It saddened me to read of the fleeting visits made by Douglas towards the end of Oscar’s life which worked to cement the pervading theme of loneliness once Wilde was out of prison.
The book was thoroughly researched and incredibly compelling to read. There is a sense of inevitable doom that increases as you read with Wilde’s outright rejection to be anything but himself a right we sometimes take for granted today. He was a truly unique individual and he shines through the pages of the book much like he would have done in all those Victorian drawing rooms.