Oscar Wilde was in the dock when he observed himself becoming two people. It was a Saturday in May, 1895, the final day of his trial for “gross indecency,” and the solicitor general, Frank Lockwood, was in the midst of a closing address for the prosecution. His catalogue of accusations, shot through with moral disgust, struck Wilde as an “appalling denunciation”—“like a thing out of Tacitus, like a passage in Dante,” as he wrote two years later. He was “sickened with horror” at what he heard. But the sensation was short-lived: “Suddenly it occurred to me, How splendid it would be, if I was saying all this about myself. I saw then at once that what is said of a man is nothing. The point is, who says it.” At the critical moment, he was able to transform the drama in his imagination by taking both roles, substituting the real Lockwood with an alternative Wilde, one who could control the courtroom and its narrative.
Martyrs don’t usually admit to feeling “sickened” by accounts of their own behavior, and any ambiguities or contradictions in their personalities tend to be glossed over by their hagiographers. Among Wilde’s modern biographers, faced with a subject whose life has been flattened out for exemplary purposes by various communities (gay, Irish, Catholic, socialist), it’s axiomatic to acknowledge his multidimensionality, his slipperiness. “Oscar Wilde lived more lives than one, and no single biography can ever compass his rich and extraordinary life,” Neil McKenna tells us at the beginning of “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde” (2005), before choosing just one of those lives to tell—Wilde’s sexual and emotional history. Biographers who do aim to “compass” the whole story, as Hesketh Pearson (1946), H. Montgomery Hyde (1975), Richard Ellmann (1988), and now Matthew Sturgis have sought to do, are obliged not only to recognize the many Wildes but to do something about them.
Ellmann’s method in his “Oscar Wilde,” a sympathetic humanist treatment long seen as the canonical one, is to frame Wilde’s life as a Greek tragedy and his self-contradictions as integral to the scale and the complexity of his heroism. His star rose, Ellmann argues, because he was capable of playing many parts; it fell because he defied a doctrinaire age and refused to relinquish the power to choose among those parts. What made him singular was his multiplicity. On trial, where others might have been cowed by the solicitor general’s attack, Wilde dodged it through what Ellmann calls a “triumph” of imaginative displacement. There’s a self-conscious literariness to this reading. The writer who “thought of the self as having multiple possibilities,” Ellmann suggests, was drawn in his work to motifs of duplication and duplicity: mirrors, portraits, doubles, dialogues.
Sturgis, a British critic whose previous work includes a biography of Wilde’s contemporary Aubrey Beardsley, sees Ellmann’s literary approach as having a “warping effect” on the facts. As a redress, he sets out to trace “contingency” rather than design, presenting Wilde’s self-divisions as the product of contextual necessities, not of liberated choice. Where Ellmann considers Wilde’s decision to remain in London rather than flee his arrest to be the sign of a hero’s preference for suffering, Sturgis, while granting Wilde “a touch of defiance,” argues that “inertia probably played a greater part.”
Sturgis’s “Oscar Wilde” (Knopf) should be commended for resisting its subject’s self-mythologizing; it’s exactly the kind of account that Wilde would have been least likely to compose. But by minimizing discussion of Wilde’s work, and the patterns of thought the work reveals, Sturgis underplays one of the most important means that Wilde possessed for organizing the contradictions of his personality. The refracted versions of self that appear in his writing allowed him to test out real-life modes of being; in turn, the acts of duplicity he practiced in his life generated daring new forms of artistic self-expression. Threatened with blackmail in 1893, over a stolen letter that he had written to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde responded by having its contents translated into French and published as a sonnet—an altered version of the real text, but perhaps no less authentic for being so.
Wilde grew up surrounded by complex, performative personalities. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a surgeon, a polymath, and a philanthropist whose terrific energy masked private bouts of depression. His mother, Lady Jane Wilde, was an Irish-nationalist poet who wrote under the pseudonym Speranza (“hope,” in Italian). She liked to claim that she was descended from Dante and had been an eagle in a previous life. Both parents were dazzling talkers; Wilde became one, too. As a schoolboy in Enniskillen, he amused classmates with his powers of exaggeration, and discovered the pleasure of having a willing audience. At Trinity College, in Dublin, he learned how to subvert expectation through the alchemy of paradox—to make “the Verities become acrobats,” as he later put it. Finishing his studies at Oxford, he held court at boozy Sunday-evening gatherings, “pouring out a flood of . . . untenable propositions,” according to one fellow-undergraduate. He showed promise as a poet, publishing in various literary magazines. When one of his poems was awarded Oxford’s prestigious Newdigate Prize, the university’s Professor of Poetry did him the customary honor of suggesting amendments to the text before it was published; Wilde listened politely and had it printed exactly as it was.
Already remarkable-looking—too tall, ungainly, with an unfashionably clean-shaven face—Wilde made his image into a performance. Closely following Aesthetic trends, he acquired ruby champagne tumblers and green Romanian claret decanters for his student rooms. He considered painting the ceiling gold. He cultivated an obsession with flowers, surrounding himself with lilies and declaring to a friend that he had once “lived upon daffodils for a fortnight.” (Not yet possessing, as Sturgis writes, “the full courage of his absurdities,” he had to backtrack: “I don’t mean I ate them.”)
As a young man in London, Wilde worked harder on his individuality than on his poems. At a costume ball given by the painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema, he alone showed up unmasked. For the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery, in 1877, the subject of his first piece of art criticism, he made himself, as Ellmann writes, “part of the spectacle,” sporting a coat cut to resemble the outline of a cello, whose shape he said had come to him in a dream. In 1880, when a caricature of a typical Aesthete was published in Punch, Wilde saw an opportunity to raise his profile: though he hardly resembled the slender figure in the drawing, he put it about that he was the cartoonist’s model. Those who wondered why he merited increasingly frequent mentions in the society columns (“What has he done, this young man, that one meets him everywhere?” the actress Helena Modjeska asked) missed the point: Wilde’s early success was in being, rather than in doing.
His literary career advanced slowly. Early dramatic projects failed or stalled. “Vera; or The Nihilists,” a melodrama set in Russia, was met with what Sturgis calls a “chorus of indifference” in London, and was panned after its première in New York, in 1883. To make ends meet, Wilde found work as a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette and as the editor of a society monthly, The Lady’s World. Success came when he developed a style that fused personal and literary forms of experimentation. “All art is to a certain degree a mode of acting,” the unnamed narrator of his short story “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” (1889) argues. It is “an attempt to realise one’s own personality on some imaginative plane.”
Like Wilde’s critical dialogues, “The Decay of Lying” (1889) and “The True Function and Value of Criticism” (1890), “Mr. W.H.” constructs its argument through adversarial exchanges, juxtapositions that sharpen individuality. The story takes the concept of the pose—the trying on, in one’s sensual or intellectual life, of a novel obsession—and assesses its value as a tool of self-development. The story’s interlocutors feverishly adopt a theory of the homoerotic origins of Shakespeare’s sonnets, then suddenly reject it. “Something had gone out of me, as it were,” the narrator says, explaining his change of heart. The intensity of his absorption seems to determine the brevity of its duration: “Perhaps, by finding perfect expression for a passion, I had exhausted the passion itself.” In “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” published in 1890 to appalled reviews, Wilde’s protagonist discovers that the search for new ways of being and feeling in the world entails an endless oscillation between “ardor” and “indifference.”
It was the same “curious mixture” of qualities that Wilde had described in a letter several years earlier, writing to an early object of his fascination, a teen-ager named Harry Marillier. Wilde began acting on his yearning for young (and very young) men just when his life seemed, for the first time, to be approaching conventionality. Married to a beautiful bohemian, Constance Lloyd, with one son and another on the way, and considering, à la Matthew Arnold, a sensible career as a school inspector, he was seized by a desire that he later described as “a madness”—a compulsion to seek out and exhaust the potential of new identities.
In his work, Wilde considered the question of whether such duplicity added to the sum of his personality or split it in two. “There are certain temperaments that marriage makes more complex,” Lord Henry Wotton, the careless dandy of “Dorian Gray,” muses. “They retain their egotism, and add to it many other egos. They are forced to have more than one life.” When Dorian explores this expansive way of being through a series of sensual preoccupations—perfume, jewelry, embroidery—Wilde’s sentences are rich with their own sensory texture, studded with allusions and embedded in histories, as if their author, too, were luxuriating in alternate worlds. Reviewing “Dorian Gray,” the Pall Mall Gazette snarled that, in Wilde’s rendering, corruption seemed “scintillant, iridescent, full of alluring effects.”
Yet the ethics of self-indulgence in the novel aren’t so straightforward. When Dorian, having discarded his faithful lover, Sibyl Vane, wanders home in the dawn light through Covent Garden, Wilde’s imagery is still sensual, but its shades are paler, and come with signs of decay: the sky resembles a “pearl . . . flushed with faint fire,” the pillars of the portico are a “grey sun-bleached” hue, “iris-necked” pigeons hop around the market stalls, and bunches of cherries contain “the coldness of the moon.” All around Dorian, ordinary people—drivers, carters, flower boys, stallholders—are seen conducting their uncomplicated lives. If we’re being asked to adjudicate between ways of being, which way do we lean? The Covent Garden portrait is deliberately ambiguous: gleaming in the light, but fading, too.
To those, like the Pall Mall Gazette reviewer, who called “Dorian Gray” “morbid”—depraved or unhealthy—Wilde responded by redefining the word. “What is morbidity but a mood of emotion or a mode of thought that one cannot express?” he asked in his 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” “The artist is never morbid. He expresses everything.” Contradiction was merely authentic self-expression, the mark of living fully and refusing to deny oneself. During the early eighteen-nineties, Wilde’s “everything” included grand country-house parties and glittering opening nights with the aristocracy, but also assignations with factory clerks and music-hall hopefuls. In life, though he might be reckless—barely hiding his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas or with the boys he entertained at cafés and hotels—he was obliged to keep these worlds as far apart as possible. In art, he discovered, he could not only release but unite them.
“The Importance of Being Earnest,” first performed in 1895, was a breakthrough, and the secret to its innovation was in bringing opposites together. In Wilde’s hands, the familiar double plot and the theme of mistaken identity became something new: duplicity was transformed into a kind of displaced truthtelling. Traditionally, comic dénouements expose facts or identities that have been obscured by characters’ deceptions. (This was how Sheridan’s “School for Scandal,” which partially inspired “Earnest,” worked.) In Wilde’s farce, by contrast, the final act reveals an unexpected correspondence between the deceptions and the facts. Jack has pretended to have a brother when, in reality, he does have one; he has pretended to be called Ernest when, in fact, Ernest is his name. False—or supposedly false—poses come to be seen as creative and necessary: they both generate the plot and resolve it.
The opening night of “Earnest,” on Valentine’s Day, 1895, came very close to being its last. Douglas’s romance with Wilde had long been opposed by his father, the irascible Marquess of Queensberry. That evening, the Marquess sought to gain entry to the theatre with an accomplice, who wielded “a grotesque bouquet of vegetables” in lieu of congratulatory flowers—a dramatic flourish that Wilde might have admired if he hadn’t been its target. It was the latest episode in what Sturgis describes as a sustained “campaign of harassment,” and Wilde hoped that it might be sufficient grounds for prosecution. His lawyers discouraged him, but opportunity presented itself again, a fortnight later, when he found a card from the Marquess, left out for him at a London club, with his name and the misspelled word “Somdomite” scrawled across it. The following day, urged on by Douglas, Wilde sued the Marquess for libel. When the trial fell apart, the tables turned, and criminal charges were brought against Wilde himself.
The trial, perhaps inevitably, tends to be read as the climactic scene in the tragic drama of Wilde’s life. But it’s more often used to distill his character than to dramatize its contradictions: to perform a humanist rescue of Wilde, as in Ellmann’s portrait, or to point the finger of judgment at his puritanical adversaries. A major achievement of Sturgis’s book is the nuance it restores to this episode. Drawing on material discovered and published in the past twenty years, Sturgis gives center stage to all the young men, professional rent boys and others, whose histories have previously been obscured by the emotional extremity of the affair with Douglas. For Ellmann, the nature of these relationships could be summed up in a few words: sex exchanged “for a few pounds and a good dinner.” But the libel trial wasn’t the elevated referendum on Platonic male love that Wilde had imagined it could be. His own solicitude for Douglas meant that his lover was kept out of the witness box; instead, the arguments against him leaned heavily on statements gleaned from boys he’d picked up.