The Secret Life of Oscar Wide, by Neil McKenna
2004 Arrow Books
Reviewed by Tony Fenwick
I took this biography with me as holiday reading in Italy and in Cromer. Wherever people saw me with it they would comment – either in English or Italian – on what a genius Wilde was and gush over his way with words and his sense of humour. I wondered how many of them would gush after they had read this book, for it reveals the celebrated writer and nineteenth century wit to be dishonest with himself and others, a lush, a lustful predator of boys whose age did not concern him overmuch, a love-‘em and leave-‘em type who left many a boy broken-hearted, a misogynist who was particularly hurtful to his wife, a spendthrift, a bankrupt and a regular mendicant.
Harsh? Well, it’s all in Ian McKenna’s warts and all biography. But this is no hatchet job. Most of Wilde’s faults are contextualised by setting them against intervening circumstances, such as his own outgoing character, his Irishness that gives him an outsider status, his denial of his own sexuality and his sham marriage, his wife’s subsequent moral certainty and religious piety, his hounding by the provocative Marquis of Queensbury, the dodginess of many among the company he kept and, of course, his tempestuous ongoing love affair with the controversial Bosie. Most of all, however, Oscar’s life and his choices have to be seen in the context of its time. There was no rule book for the Uranians; no accepted set of behaviours for those who practised the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ and moreover, as the Dublin Castle scandal rocked Victorian society and led to the tightening of sodomy laws and Lord Alfred Douglas’ elder brother’s affair with the Prime Minister was becoming increasingly well-known, poor Oscar was sailing in treacherous waters without a navigation aid.
It is when Oscar is finally brought down by his own indiscretion during his cross-examination by Carson that McKenna really turns up the gas and makes us sympathise with him in his plight. After the ‘somdomite’ libel which shows Queensbury had a spelling problem, Oscar sues and, urged on by his lover Bosie, who wanted to pursue a personal vendetta against his father, he pursues a case which is doomed to failure. Within two days the case collapses and Wilde finds himself as defendant in a case brought by the Crown. He is in very serious danger of life imprisonment. As it is, the two year sentence he receives is almost too much for him and he scarcely survives.
The list of boys’ and men’s names in this biography is barely finite. Throughout his adult life, Oscar beds and shares a host of young males with a host of young males. His love affair with Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas is very real but Bosie has little lust for the older Oscar and most of their love making involves sharing younger males, together and separately. There are contrasts between Wilde’s praise of Uranian love and its higher plane with his being banned from the Savoy because of the Vaseline and faeces on the bed-sheets. For me the most disarming point of all is when McKenna produces evidence that Bosie has designs on Wilde’s eldest son. Of course, when all sexual activity between men is totally outlawed, as it was for much of Oscar’s life, there is no age of consent. But do we need an age of consent to recognise that there is something wrong with having designs on a nine-year-old?
The trick that McKenna uses in this work is that when Wilde is doing things we might consider problematic we see him as the third person, but when he is in trouble or he is behaving favourably we see the world through his eyes – he becomes the focaliser as if in a work of fiction. We feel his pain when he has suffered from another of Bosie’s tirades and we suffer with him at Wandsworth prison. This way we can marry the likable and the less likable side of Oscar’s nature and his habits.
McKenna uses the remaining letters that pass between Oscar and others to provide a chronicle of his life and his various relationships. In turn as he develops in maturity, his ideas are reflected in his novels and plays and his witticisms are related to experiences he is having at the time. Dorian Gray is about men falling in love with men – indeed John Gray, a lover of Wilde’s, signed himself Dorian – and Lady Bracknell is a product of the misogyny he was feeling at the time. Later, much is made of the cathartic process of writing De Profundis and the importance of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
A constant paradox throughout Oscar’s life is that, although his sexual practices are abhorrent to British law and to Victorian society, he gets away with it for so long. New York grows bored with his campness and Punch magazine in London very quickly infers the green carnation movement’s meaning. Once Oscar is in a relationship with Bosie their sexual behaviour becomes quite flamboyant, yet Queensbury’s early protestations and attempts to frustrate them seem to fall on deaf ears. Neil McKenna seems to suggest that Queensbury is such an unpleasant human being that no-one wants to indulge him and that the closeness of Oscar and Bosie’s circumstances to those of Lord Roseberry, the Prime Minister, and Bosie’s brother Drumlanrig raise fears that exposing the former relationship would lead to the unfolding of the latter, with disastrous consequences. Queensbury made no secret of his contempt for Roseberry.
But two things stayed with me after reading this very entertaining and compulsive biography: first; that although this happened in a darker and murkier past, many aspects of Oscar’s life and relationships would apply to many people today, and second; that everywhere else in the world was a safer haven for homosexual men in the late nineteenth century than Victorian England and its empire.