To me one of the saddest tragedies of a literary figure was the downfall of Oscar Wilde. At a time when his play The Importance of Being Earnest was delivering its initial laughter on the London stage, Oscar was arrested for his homosexuality, imprisoned, and ruined. In his last years, he never stopped making people laugh, but he never wrote for humor again, and he died at forty-six. As an outstanding literary figure of his age and a real celebrity, he deserves and has gotten fine biographies, especially that of Richard Ellmann in 1988. But Oscar was more than an author and celebrity. Neil McKenna’s new book, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde: An Intimate Biography (Basic Books) looks not only at Oscar’s homosexuality, but at his commitment to the cause of the rights of homosexuals. “Gay Rights” in our time may still be controversial, but no one is shocked to learn that there is such a movement. In Oscar’s time, homosexuality was criminal, a crime some thought worse than murder, and to have insisted on legal and social rights for homosexuals would have instantly brought on all the ostracism the Victorians could muster. Nonetheless, along with being unable to repress his own homosexuality, Oscar was unable to refrain from flaunting it, making it at least a subtext within his works, and campaigning in his fictional prose and poems for acceptance of homosexuality as a way of life. Oscar was a sexual revolutionary, a leader of others in the cause, and this large and well-researched biography concentrates on this aspect of an astonishingly complex, flawed, and lovable figure.
Oscar’s father was the subject of sexual scandal, the heterosexual kind, and his mother wrote inflammatory poems urging Irish rebellion. He was born in 1854 in Dublin, and his short life was entirely encompassed within the reign of Queen Victoria. It may have been a time of repression, but there was still plenty of homosexual expression, especially in the boys-only schools. It was also a time when the first homosexuals were coming out. A German lawyer named Karl Ulrichs pamphleteered endlessly for his cause, declaring that since homosexuality was hereditary, it should not be a crime. He insisted that homosexuals should be able to marry, and he championed the Uranian cause, that being the term by which he (and eventually Oscar’s cohorts) would designate themselves. Other writers on the subject took the less radical view that homosexuality was a psychological disturbance, a medical matter rather than a legal one. This led to the term “psychological” becoming a code word for “homosexual,” and Oscar would use it all his life to stand for the complex feelings that led men to have sex with other men. Toward the end of the 1870s, Aestheticism promoted a new gospel of beauty through art, idealism, and politics, and Oscar and others turned to this cause as well, with the idealism and attention to beauty permanently identified with the Uranian cause.
McKenna has shown Oscar’s place in such causes; they had nothing like an elected leadership, but since Oscar wrote and was widely quoted, and since he wore his tonsure and clothes in the most exuberantly Aesthetic fashion, he was a beacon followed by many. McKenna looks at all his major works to find that Oscar was from an early start arguing for his true nature and the acceptance of it. The Portrait of Mr. W. H. is ostensibly about the shadowy figure to whom Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets, but it purports to be a fictional proof that Shakespeare had loved, and loved sexually, a boy actor. “It was an audacious and insidious act of literary insemination,” McKenna says. The Picture of Dorian Gray is full of homoeroticism. Oscar fashioned Dorian on John Gray, one of his lovers, and all within his circle knew the attribution. Oscar changed the character’s name to that of a tribe of ancient Greece around Sparta that were famous for institutionalizing the love between an older teacher and a younger pupil. The novel’s three main characters, all male, have various attractions to each other, and although love is mentioned, explicit sexual linkings are not. However, it is easy to see that Oscar was promoting his own way of life; not only is one of the lines in the book among his most quoted “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” but he also wrote, “To realise one’s nature perfectly that is what each of us is here for.” Even the outrageously daffy and light The Importance of Being Earnest had code words that were heard by those with ears to hear them. When Lady Bracknell learns that Algy’s imaginary friend Bunbury has “exploded”, she exclaims, “Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage? I was not aware that Mr Bunbury was interested in social legislation. If so, he is well punished for his morbidity.” McKenna points out that “social legislation” was a euphemism for the movement that would ban laws governing sex between men, and “morbidity” was pejorative for such sex, emphasizing disease and death.
Oscar married when he was thirty, and had two sons, but the marriage was a failure. By the time it had occurred, he was fully aware of his attraction to men instead of women, and W. H. Auden wrote that marrying was “certainly the most immoral and perhaps the only really heartless act of Wilde’s life.” However, he was, at least initially, strongly attracted to the beautiful Constance, and may, like many homosexuals, have been seeking marriage as a “cure”. In a honeymoon letter to a friend, Oscar wrote that he had “not been disappointed in married life,” by which he meant sex, but this was a cover up. He had been disgusted by his own dalliances with women in the past, and became especially dismayed when Constance was pregnant. The cure was completely unsuccessful; no one knows how much Constance knew about Oscar’s other life, but even before his prosecutions, his absences from home to stay in hotel rooms and his bringing young men to stay in their house must have registered with her. Oscar was bored by marriage to Constance, but was invigorated by the lust, frustration, and irritation that his great love Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”) gave him through the rest of his life. The two of them shared mountains of fine food, oceans of champagne, and battalions of lovers; McKenna’s descriptions of Oscar’s sexual appetites (anatomical details are not spared) are positively heroic.
Oscar was undone by Bosie’s father, the insanely homophobic Marquis of Queensbury, who was furious at Bosie and Bosie’s homosexual brother, and had been further enraged by being abandoned by his second wife a few days into the marriage; the wife soon sought an annulment on the grounds of his “frigidity and impotency”. Oscar had been getting away with leading a vigorous homosexual life even in Victorian times, and could have continued, inspiring only the level of scandal that he obviously enjoyed. Queensbury’s intervention ended all that. The sad story has been told many times before, and McKenna has made quick work of the trial and incarceration. More important to this biography is the circumstantial evidence presented here that Queensbury was threatening to expose leading politicians, including the prime minister, as sodomites unless Oscar was imprisoned. It may well be that Oscar was thus a political martyr, but McKenna shows that in his ill-judged counterattacks on Queensbury, he was acting out “both an expression of his love for Bosie and an article of his Uranian faith,” making him a martyr for love and for homosexual expression as well. He had chances to flee before his prosecution, and not only could he not abandon Bosie, but, as he wrote, “To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble.”
We think of homosexuality in different terms now, but Oscar’s battles have been largely won. There was no overt struggle for gay rights in his time, but even so, Oscar’s efforts in the cause have been underestimated until now. He famously said, “I have put my genius into my life but only my talent into my work.” The genius into life led inevitably to tragedy, and this is a great tragic story, the kind Oscar would have appreciated. He also would have appreciated the book’s concentration on how he lived in his unparalleled way, always to excess. McKenna’s is the book to read to bring Oscar the reformer and martyr to our times.
© 2006 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.