Oscar Wilde’s death has been claimed as a martyrdom by so many worthy causes that it’s easy to forget that what really did him in was vanity, lousy taste (in boyfriends, at least), and a secret hunger for bourgeois respectability. Four days after the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest on February 14, 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry, the unbalanced and vindictive father of Wilde’s 24-year-old lover, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, left a calling card at Wilde’s club addressed to “Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite sic.” The day after Wilde received the card, he requested a warrant for the marquess’s arrest on the charge of publishing a libel against him. One small problem: Wilde was a “sodomite.” Married to Constance Lloyd in 1884, he had his first affair with another man in 1887; a few years later, he fell stupidly in love with the spoiled, blond-and-blue-eyed Bosie, who introduced him to the world of male prostitutes. Wilde’s friends were realistic enough to see that a public trial would surely put the playwright, then at the pinnacle of his success, at risk of exposure and disgrace, and they advised him to tear up the card and leave the country. He didn’t. The result was that he not only lost his suit against Queensberry but was subsequently tried and convicted for “acts of gross indecency.” Two years of hard labor broke spirit and health; increasingly destitute and forsaken, he ended up in Paris, where he died, almost exactly a hundred years ago, on November 30, 1900, at the age of 46.
Anyone who’s been seduced by the glitter and brilliance of Wilde’s work – the popular comedies, as shiny and intricate as Fabergé eggs; the moody and still shockingly unsentimental Picture of Dorian Gray; the razor-sharp epigrams that have never lost their edge (“In the old days men had the rack, now they have the Press”) – is likely today to ask the questions that Wilde’s friends and supporters asked in 1895. Why did he pursue a suit so risky as to be suicidal? Why, when it became clear that the police would arrest him, did he stay in England when, it seemed, even the authorities were trying to leave him time to escape to France? Barbara Belford’s new biography of Wilde comes closer than most to offering a satisfying answer to those questions – that with Wilde, the first modern media celebrity, a hubristic belief in his own self-proclaimed “genius” required notoriety at any cost.
Unfortunately, Belford’s book is so uneven that its vices end up obscuring its virtues. Little in her book will come as news to Wilde fans. Once again, you get the bohemian Dublin childhood (Wilde’s flamboyant mother is a Freudian’s dream); the intellectual precociousness of his school years; his marriage to the almost masochistically loyal Constance and his affairs with younger men; the growing success of the poems, novel, and plays that appeared from the mid-1880s through the mid-1890s; the dizzying popularity and, suddenly, the crushing disgrace. If you sense more obligation than inspiration in Belford’s retelling of this tale, it’s not entirely her fault: Richard Ellmann’s meticulous 1987 life of Wilde has left little new ground for biographers to cover. The most substantive “new” point she makes has to do with whether Wilde contracted syphilis in college.) Lacking Ellmann’s rich documentation, Belford’s narrative often feels hectic – it’s annoyingly easy to lose track of what year you’re in – and there are maddeningly superficial references to events (a meeting with Proust, the alleged explosion of Wilde’s body on his deathbed) that she never bothers to tell you about in full, as if she knows we’ve read it all before and doesn’t want to bore us.
The real interest here lies in the refreshingly anti-hagiographic emphasis on Wilde’s life as “a triumph of flippancy over genius.” “What has he done, this young man, that one meets him everywhere?” the Polish actress Helen Modjeska mused in 1880. The answer was, essentially, “Nothing”: Wilde was twentysomething at the time, had published nothing of note, yet was already such a celebrity for his “aesthete” posturing that he was booked for an American lecture tour. Wilde’s writing seems to have been less the inevitable product of urgent creative impulses than the means to achieve his real goal of “success, fame, or even notoriety” with the least amount of effort. (He “could not endure the sedentary toil of creative art,” his friend Yeats observed.) No wonder his plays, however delightful, are like theatrical soap bubbles: shiny outsides with nothing inside – nothing, that is, but Wilde himself. He “peoples his plays with male and female editions of himself,” his brother Willie grumbled. A genius above all at talking (not with but at people: “incapable of friendship” was Shaw’s verdict), Wilde found a genre that allowed him to transcribe his brilliant conversation – to be, as Belford rightly emphasizes, the real “objet d’art.”
Given Belford’s perspective, it’s especially unfortunate that her book is marred by many annoying stylistic tics. Among these are some heavy-handed, CliffsNotes-y attempts to connect Wilde’s life and work; inappropriate interjections about what Wilde “should” have done at this or that point; and a prose style that her fastidious subject would surely have had a field day with. “The language was mostly verbal,” she writes. (Nu?) Worse, her laudable desire to “reclaim Wilde in all the brilliant details of his contradictions” often confusingly gives way to the usual cheerleading for Wilde as “the bravest of men in his refusal to pretend to be other than what he was.” But it was pretending to be just that, of course, that led to Wilde’s downfall. “Everyone turns out to be someone else,” Wilde wrote; this is true of no one so much as Wilde the gay-culture hero. He suffered and died, after all, not because he was some kind of gay-rights activist avant la lettre – living “out, loud, and proud” right under Victoria’s nose – but, if anything, because he wanted to remain comfortably in the closet and have his double life. And, as you can’t help inferring from Belford’s persuasive portrait of her publicity-drunk subject, because he couldn’t resist another opportunity to show off, to glitter.
This he did, at a fatal price. “The chance of an epigram makes me desert truth,” Wilde once told Arthur Conan Doyle; how ironic that it was a truthful epigram that undid him. Asked at his trial if he’d kissed a certain boy, an ostentatiously amused Wilde replied, “Oh, dear, no … He was unfortunately extremely ugly”; the inadvertent suggestion that he would have kissed the boy had he been pretty was, in effect, the turning point of the trial. Whatever its faults, Belford’s book does provide a coherent context for seeing Wilde’s behavior in this climactic act of his life for what it sadly was: the fatal triumph of flippant epigram over real genius. For that reason if for no other, this biography should help raise a brand-new question about Wilde: Isn’t it time for a saint who was martyred for substance rather than style?