A riveting study of Oscar Wilde in his later years

Review by Rory Brennan

EXTRACT:

Oscar Wilde: the unrepentant years. Nicholas Frankel. Harvard University Press; 382pp; US$29.95 hb; 21cm; 978-0-674-73794-5.

Just as there are people we love to hate, there are those we love to love. This applies to writers too—who, after all, are people, even if they are sometimes treated over-deferentially. We may respect a writer as a weaver and wielder of words while thoroughly disliking him or her as a person. I’ll leave out examples; everyone will have their own list. Conversely, there are those writers we love to love and I strongly suggest that Oscar Wilde is one of these. Why? Firstly, he is seen as deeply wronged and brutally treated. In the century and more since his death he has changed from ogre to a sort of huge, humorous teddy bear, an affable dispenser of quips. These too are reasons he is greatly liked, even loved. His epigrams are sharp, pointed, funny, but never bitter or cynical in the manner of Swift or La Rochefoucauld. They do not excoriate, they do not denounce. His are gentle and often depend on the reversal of common assumptions, like work being the curse of the drinking classes. The grain of truth is there but its taste is not sour. Wilde makes us all Wildeans; we are in the gutter with him but gazing up at the stars as he advised.

This is a finely crafted and riveting study of Wilde. Frankel does not overstress, or, indeed, stress at all, his Irishness. His progenitors—Sir William, the surgeon and antiquarian, and Speranza, the nationalist ‘poetess’—are mentioned peripherally. His nationality is significantly mentioned when Wilde asks an editor of his plays to expunge Irishisms in the dialogue. Dublin, Portora, Trinity may seep through but the settings of this book are London, Paris, Italy, Switzerland and, of course, Reading. Wilde was accused of sodomy by the irate Marquis of Queensberry, father of Lord Alfred Douglas, his handsome, even pretty, lover.[…]

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May/June 2018(issue no.379)


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