This page is an introductory extract from Neil Titley’s book:
THE OSCAR WILDE WORLD OF GOSSIP
A Subversive Encyclopaedia of Victorian Anecdote
The book is a hilarious collection of comic pen-portraits of Wilde’s 300 friends and enemies, linked by brief notes on his classic life story.
They include an international cast of theatricals, revolutionaries, barristers, prostitutes, American frontiersmen, politicians, mystics, writers, soldiers, pornographers, diplomats, adventurers, and confidence tricksters.
Simultaneously a ‘dip-in’ reference book and a continuous narrative, it is an exuberant compendium of malicious rumour, salacious detail, and backstabbing one-liners.
It is also the funniest book ever written about the Age of Wilde
The author, Neil Titley, has been performing his one-man show on Wilde for thirty years and has a wealth of experience and knowledge on his subject.
The book form consists of five sections – ‘Youth’, ‘Career’, ‘Triumph’, ‘Exile’, and ‘Epilogue’ – and has over 500 pages. It can be obtained by sending an e-mail to:
COMMENTS ON OWWOG’
Sir Michael Holroyd, biographer.
I have been through your subversive Encyclopaedia and enjoyed it. You are a true Wilde scholar and you have a sense of humour (which not all Wilde scholars have).
Gyles Brandreth, author and performer
I shall be reading it from cover to cover – and then I shall be dipping into it and, I fear, stealing from it shamelessly. It’s inevitable. Even just glancing at it last night I can see that it is stuffed with glorious things – old favourites, of course, but lots that is surprising and unexpected. I am very excited to have it – and grateful. And full of admiration at the work involved.
Mary Kenny, journalist and author
A fanogramme. Just to tell you that I find your Oscar Wilde book absolutely superb – lovely evening-time reading, to dip into that brilliant world of mid and late Victorian life. What a fascinating collection of characters, and what a huge amount of research you’ve done to bring them to us. It really is a peerless volume, quite special and out on its own. It is truly encyclopaedic. Congratulations.
Dr Thomas Arp, Emeritus Professor, Southern Methodist University, Texas.
I’ve been dipping into The World of Gossip in the months since Christmas, and it continually amuses and surprises. Has anyone picked it up for commercial publication?
Johnson Flucker – Chairman, Yale University Alumni
Regarding the OW Wilde World of Gossip: this book is a masterpiece. It appears you had this privately printed; if so, the book deserves wider readership. I know anyone who bought it would enjoy it tremendously.
Bill Bingham, radio broadcaster and journalist
Reading it is the curse of the sleeping classes…
Dr. Mark Evans, USA TV presenter
The huge Oscar Wilde book is a treasure trove of anecdotes, stories, and information. It’s spectacular.
Howard Hannah, Arts Editor Camden New Journal
I’ve got the Oscar Wilde World of Gossip, for which many thanks. It is absolutely magnificent. Is it still available in the bookshops/Amazon or whatever?
The first section ‘Youth’ is here – there are four more sections in the printed format.
The full list of characters depicted in the book is printed at the end.
PART ONE – YOUTH
SIR WILLIAM WILDE, Irish father of Oscar Wilde
(LAURA BELL, Irish courtesan)
LADY JANE ‘SPERANZA’ WILDE, Irish mother of Oscar Wilde
(CHARLES MATURIN, Irish writer)
GEORGE MOORE, Irish writer
(PEARL CRAIGIE, Anglo-American writer)
(AUGUSTUS MOORE, Irish journalist)
PROFESSOR JOHN MAHAFFY, Irish professor at Trinity, Dublin
(PROFESSOR ROBERT TYRREL, Irish professor at Trinity, Dublin)
JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS, English writer and critic
J.E.C. BODLEY, English student friend of Oscar Wilde
PRINCE LEOPOLD, English Royal family and student friend of Wilde
SIR DAVID HUNTER-BLAIR, Scottish student friend of Oscar Wilde
PROFESSOR BENJAMIN JOWETT, English professor at Oxford
JOHN RUSKIN, English art critic
REV. WILLIAM SPOONER, English tutor at Oxford
OSCAR BROWNING, English professor at Cambridge
FLORENCE BALCOMBE, Irish girlfriend of Oscar Wilde
(BRAM STOKER, Irish author and theatrical manager)
CARDINAL MANNING, English Catholic prelate
(CARDINAL NEWMAN, English Catholic prelate)
QUEEN VICTORIA, English Royal family
WALTER PATER, English professor at Oxford
LORD RONALD GOWER, English sculptor
RICHARD WAGNER, German composer
WILLIAM GLADSTONE, English statesman
BENJAMIN DISRAELI, English statesman
(COUNT OTTO BISMARCK, German statesman)
LORD HOUGHTON, English socialite and politician
(FRED HANKEY, English pornographer)
(HENRY ASHBEE, English pornographer)
SIR RICHARD BURTON, English explorer and writer
ALGERNON SWINBURNE, English poet
(ADAH MENKEN, American actress and courtesan)
(CHARLES HOWELL, English confidence trickster)
SIMEON SOLOMON, English artist
SIR JAMES RENNELL RODD, English diplomat
WILDE AND CIGARETTES
THE PRINCE IMPERIAL, French Royal family
(NAPOLEON III, French Royal family)
(EMPRESS EUGENIE, French Royal family)
(EMPEROR MAXIMILIAN OF MEXICO, French Royal Family)
FRANK MILES, English artist
SIR EDWARD BURNE-JONES, English artist
(GEORGE ELIOT, English writer)
(WILLIAM MORRIS, English artist and writer)
VIOLET HUNT, English writer
JAMES McNEILL WHISTLER, American artist
(HARRY QUILTER, English art critic)
SIR HENRY IRVING, English actor
(BARONESS BURDETT-COUTTS, English philanthropist)
ELLEN TERRY, English actress
SIR SQUIRE BANCROFT, English actor
LILY LANGTRY, English socialite and actress
(LADY GLWADYS LONSDALE, English socialite)
(PATSY CORNWALLIS-WEST, Irish socialite)
SERGEI STEPNIAK, Russian revolutionary
GENEVIEVE WARD, American actress
HELENA MODJESKA, Polish actress
SIR GEORGE DU MAURIER, Anglo-French cartoonist
(SIR EDWARD POYNTER, English artist)
(WILLIAM FRITH, English artist)
SIR FRANK BENSON, English actor
WILDE AND SPORTS
ROBERT BROWNING, English poet
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON, English poet
(JULIA CAMERON, English photographer)
SIR WILLIAM GILBERT, English light opera librettist
(SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN, English light opera composer)
(RICHARD D’OYLEY CARTE, English light opera promoter)
(GEORGE GROSSMITH, English singer and writer)
SIR EDMUND GOSSE, English critic and writer
(SIR LESLIE STEPHEN, English literary critic)
(ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON, Scottish writer)
(SIR LAWRENCE ALMA-TADEMA, Anglo-Dutch artist)
PRINCE OF WALES (later KING EDWARD VII), English Royal family
(DAISY, COUNTESS OF WARWICK, English socialite)
MATTHEW ARNOLD, English author and poet
(THOMAS HUGHES, English author of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’)
SIR FRANK BURNAND, English editor of Punch magazine
Sir William Wilde to Sir Frank Burnand
[On March 28, 1854, the Crimean War broke out between Russia on one side and Britain, France and Turkey on the other. During the ensuing Battle of Balaclava, (fought on October 25), the world witnessed one of the most spectacularly incompetent manoeuvres in military history, namely the Charge of the Light Brigade.]
Nine days earlier, on October 16, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde had been born at 21 Westland Row, Dublin. Wilde: ‘A name which is destined to be in everybody’s mouth must not be too long. It comes so expensive in the advertisements’.
His parents were Sir William Wilde and Jane ‘Speranza’ Wilde (born Elgee).
SIR WILLIAM WILDE (1815-1876)
(Oscar: ‘Whatever was good enough for our fathers is not good enough for us’.)
Wilde’s father, a man of great vitality and the possessor of a beautiful speaking voice, was described also as resembling a monkey and derided for his dirt-encrusted appearance. His son Oscar may have been defending the family honour when in later years he said that: ‘I know so many men in London whose only talent is for washing. I suppose that is why men of genius so seldom wash; they are afraid of being mistaken for men of talent only.’
Sir William was a renowned eye and ear surgeon in Dublin, who, in his youth, travelled and studied in Egypt and Vienna. He founded St Marks Hospital, Dublin, in 1844 and worked hard to alleviate the sufferings of the 1845 Irish famine. He married Jane Elgee (‘Speranza’) in 1851, was appointed Surgeon Oculist to Queen Victoria in Ireland in 1863 and knighted the following year.
Not all of his patients were impressed by his skills. The writer GB Shaw complained that ‘The only occasion I saw Sir William was when he operated on my father for a squint and overdid the corrections so much that my father squinted the other way all the rest of his life’.
In 1864, he was accused of rape by a woman patient, Miss Mary Travers. In a complicated legal suit involving his wife, he was partially vindicated but his reputation (and dignity) suffered. A Dublin ballad about the affair circulated the streets: ‘An eminent oculist lives in the Square, His skill is unrivalled, his talent is rare, And if you will listen I’ll certainly try, To tell how he opened Miss Travers’ eye’.
The incident affected Sir William financially; the court costs were ruinous and, when he died twelve years later, his will provided very little substance for his family.
He sired six known children, three of them, Willie, Oscar and Isola, being legitimate and three, Mary, Emily and Henry, illegitimate. (Oscar: ‘A family is a terrible encumbrance, especially when one is not married’.)
Mary and Emily died in their early twenties, when they were burnt to death after their ball gowns caught fire at a party in 1871. Henry, cunningly surnamed Wilson (Will’s son), followed his father’s career and became a senior surgeon, but died in 1877 aged 39. Isola died of a fever aged nine in 1867, (Sir William: “It made me a mourner for life”). Two sons remained – Willie and Oscar Wilde.
The illegitimacy of three of Sir William’s children was quite normal in the 1830s; it was not until the later Victorian period that such a brood would become a matter of scandal. It was said of the great Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell that: ‘You couldn’t throw a stone in the County Kerry without hitting one of his bastards’.
Sir William also enjoyed other traditional pleasures. When Oscar won the Berkeley Gold Medal at university, Sir William invited dozens of guests to celebrate the event at a party at the Wildes’ summer home at Moytura. The alcohol with which they were served, (the infamous ‘poteen’), proved so potent that, in case the guests forgot in which bed they were meant to be sleeping, Sir William had to attach nameplates to each pillow.
One of Sir William’s mistresses was a teenager called
LAURA BELL (1829-1894).
Laura was a remarkably beautiful, passionate Irish girl, with a cascade of golden hair, large blue eyes and a perfect figure.
In 1849, aged 20, she left Dublin to become one of the most famous courtesans in London. She grew rich, was married to the Bishop of Norwich’s grandson, (until he shot himself), and owned a large mansion in Grosvenor Square. She still continued with her professional activities, until she became one of William Gladstone’s very rare successes in ‘saving fallen women’. He persuaded her to give up her promiscuous life style. As a result, she became a zealous Salvationist and moved to a small cottage in Hampstead.
Laura may have had an impact on world history beyond anything that might have been predicted. When he met her during her years as a prostitute in London, the Nepalese Envoy, a young prince called Jung Bahadoor, became infatuated with her. In their time together, she managed to charm over a quarter of million pounds out of him. In the interests of maintaining diplomatic relations, the British India Office was forced to reimburse the prince for Laura’s depredations.
However, when the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857 and Britain was in serious danger of losing control, it was Laura who interceded with her former lover and persuaded him to keep the famed Gurkha troops aloof from the struggle. Nepal stayed neutral and the Raj was saved.
LADY JANE WILDE (SPERANZA) (1826? – 1896)
Oscar’s mother was a woman of majestic self-confidence, even in adversity. Tall and broad, she sported over her prominent bosom a collection of dangling brooches, depicting family members; this gave her ‘the appearance of a perambulating family mausoleum’. She had a withering distaste for conformity: ‘It is only trades-people who are respectable. We are above respectability’.
As a young woman she had been involved peripherally in the 1848 trial of the Irish nationalist Gavin Duffy and later achieved some fame for writing revolutionary poetry. Bosie Douglas described her as ‘a parlour Fenian’. Her rebel fervour did not extend to rejecting the title of ‘Lady’, a status that Oscar himself was inclined to emphasise.
During the problems over the rape allegations against her husband, she sailed serenely above what she described as ‘the miasmas of the commonplace’, an attitude she replicated through the trials of her son. “When you are as old as I am, young man, you will know there is only one thing in the world worth living for and that is sin”.
After Sir William’s death, Speranza found herself in financial difficulties. One day a friend called at the family home in Merrion Square to find bailiffs pacing the hall. Speranza was upstairs reclining in bed, reciting Greek poetry, and ignoring the situation. She left Dublin in 1879 and moved to London, where she held court over afternoon salons. Some of her less respectful visitors described her as ‘looking like a tragedy queen at a suburban theatre’ while others thought she resembled her son Oscar in drag.
At one such event, the novelist Bram Stoker introduced her to a young woman who he described as ‘half English and half Irish’. Speranza replied: “Glad to meet you, dear. Your English half is as welcome as your Irish bottom”.
Speranza was particularly proud of her family connection to the writer
CHARLES MATURIN, (1782-1824)
author of the Gothic novel ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’. He had proved himself to be a suitably eccentric ancestor. Nominally a clergyman, he was far more interested in dancing, a contemporary comment being that ‘the ballroom was his temple of inspiration and worship’. Maturin preferred writing in company but, to prevent himself joining the conversation, would seal his own mouth with paste, and wear a cushion on his head to show that he was at work.
(Oscar Wilde used the name of Maturin’s fictional hero – (Sebastian) ‘Melmoth’ – as an alias when he left prison in 1897, although six months later he admitted in a letter that: ‘I have re-taken my own name, as my incognito was absurd’.)
1855 – 1864
[After the relatively peaceful period in international affairs following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the decade following Wilde’s birth saw the rise of a number of serious conflicts.
The Crimean War ended in April 1856, but was quickly followed by the Indian Mutiny, (1857-58).
In China, the Taiping Rebellion, which had been raging since 1850, continued to claim millions of lives. In 1860, Western forces attacked the capital Peking and sacked the Summer Palace.
The American Civil War began in 1861, (a struggle that was to kill almost 700,00 Americans). In South America, an alliance between Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay fought a horrific war against Paraguay between 1864 and 1870, resulting in almost total destruction of the latter country.
In Poland, a nationalist insurrection was crushed by the Tsarist Russian army in 1863.
In Italy, Garibaldi continued his campaign to reunite the country, (capturing Palermo and Naples in 1860).
In Germany, Bismarck also carried out a policy of reunification. In 1864, war broke out between Prussia and Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein, resulting in the incorporation of the disputed province into the expanding German Empire.
(A popular joke circulated about the Schleswig-Holstein Affair that only three people understood what it was all about – Prince Albert who was dead, a German professor who had gone mad, and Lord Melbourne who had forgotten.)]
In June 1855, the Wilde family moved to No.1 Merrion Square, Dublin, where on April 2 1857 Oscar’s sister Isola born.
During the next few years, the Wildes spent their summer holidays in the Irish countryside, in such places as Lough Bray Cottage, Vale of Glencree, Co Wicklow, a fishing lodge called Illaunroe, near Killary Harbour, Co Galway, and the seaside resort of Dungarvan, Co Waterford, (where Oscar played occasionally with another child called Edward Carson).
After attending St Columba’ School in Dublin for eight months, in February 1864 Oscar followed in his elder brother Willie’s footsteps and became a boarding pupil at the Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh.
In 1864 Oscar’s father William was knighted, but by December both he and Speranza became embroiled in the Mary Travers trial.
Sir William began work on building Moytura House, near the village of Cong, Co Galway, where the Wilde family spent the summer of 1864.
Oscar learned some Gaelic while he was in the west of Ireland – his son Vyvyan later recalled him singing lullabies in the language. He also became acquainted with some of the other local children, among them George Moore.
GEORGE MOORE 1852-1933
On this and other summer holidays, Wilde involved himself in childhood games with George Moore, who lived at the nearby Moore Hall in Co. Mayo. Far from this leading to an adult friendship, the two men loathed each other. When asked if he knew George Moore, Oscar replied that: “I know him so well that I haven’t spoken to him for years”. For his part, Moore was equally sour: “There was Wilde, another Dublin jackeen who plagiarised wholesale, without admitting to his thefts”, and once spluttering: “That man will be eaten by worms”.
Moore had an unfortunate physical appearance, which his numerous foes enjoyed emphasising. His yellow thatch of hair was said to look as if it had been pitch-forked on to his head, while the American writer Gertrude Atherton described his face as looking like ‘a codfish crossed with a satyr’. Even the one person to whom Moore offered hero worship, the French painter Manet, could not create a flattering portrait of him. Manet: “Is it my fault if Moore looks like a squashed egg yolk and if his face is all lop-sided?”
Moore became a considerable literary force and was reckoned to be one of the four great Irish writers of the period, the other three being Shaw, Wilde and Yeats. He was the only one whose star waned with time, although his novel, ‘Esther Waters’, (among the first to treat the servant class as genuine characters rather than as background), was given the accolade of a Hollywood film adaptation.
He specialised mostly in realist novels, although he ruefully conceded the disadvantages of realism. When travelling with friends on an omnibus to Dulwich, he requested them all to alight at Peckham, explaining: “I’ve written about Peckham”. After inspecting this insalubrious London suburb, Moore groaned: “That is the fate of the realist! He writes about a field and a haystack in Peckham – and there are no fields or haystacks in Peckham”.
He attempted to write plays, found that he was incapable of constructing credible dialogue and gave up, admitting that: “You can’t fart higher than your arse, that I know”.
Some of his best work, though, appeared in his extraordinarily revealing autobiographies, his ‘Confessions’. The editor Frank Harris recalled that, as a schoolboy, Moore had refused to attend the Catholic confession. Harris: ‘He has made up for his recalcitrance since by confessing himself and his fleshly sins in print whenever he could get the opportunity’.
Moore, though hampered by his appearance, possessed enough sexual charisma to provide ample material for these revelations. And, if he ran out of reality, he could always fall back on fantasy. As Sarah Purser of Dublin reported: ‘Some men kiss and tell; Moore tells but does not kiss’. J.E.C. Bodley described him as ‘posing as an homme fatal’.
He spent some of his youth in Paris, aping the excesses of the Decadent movement, and self-consciously playing Gregorian chants on a harmonium while watching his pet python devouring guinea pigs. He returned to London bearing his first book of poems, ‘Flowers of Passion’, which dwelt at length on incest, lesbianism and cunnilingus, a volume unlikely to attract the approbation of 1870s Victorian England.
In 1874, Moore had a short-lived career in London theatrical management with a producer called Richard Maitland. His choice of partner was his downfall. Maitland had been involved in a production of an Offenbach show which depicted the adventures of a pair of Hussars in a girls’ school. The schoolgirls’ costumes were exceedingly brief and Maitland was ordered by the Lord Chamberlain’s office to add two inches to the length of the skirts. In revenge, Maitland advertised the show as having ‘costume design by the Lord Chamberlain.’ The resulting rage of this powerful pillar of the establishment meant that any future theatrical projects by Maitland and his associates were doomed.
By 1879, Moore had succeeded to one of the largest estates in Ireland. This coincided however with the rise of civil unrest of the Land League period, during which the estate tenants refused to pay rent and tended to shoot the agents sent to collect it. Moore was forced to take charge; as a self-proclaimed Parisian dandy, it was an unlikely role. He was terrified by his tenants. Even such local customs likely to work to his benefit appalled him. After his father’s funeral, one woman arrived to offer two chickens and her daughter as presents for the new squire. After an abortive attempt to enforce payment by hiring twenty cartloads of armed police, he handed the estate over to an agent and fled back to London. As George Bernard Shaw commented: ‘The only sensible institution in the Emerald Isle was absenteeism.’
Moore did return to his native land around 1900 but stayed in Dublin. He was no more popular in the city than in the country. At his home in Ely Place, he painted his front door in republican green; his neighbours, who favoured white front doors, complained to the landlord. Moore began a law action against them, whereupon they encouraged tomcats to howl outside his windows at night. Moore retaliated by hiring a pipe band to play outside their front doors.
Moore went through six cooks in three weeks. After a row, one cook called the police for protection. Moore led the constable to the dining room shouting: “Is there a law in this country to compel me to eat that abominable omelette?” and demanded the arrest of the cook. One Irish friend, Edward Martyn, said of Moore: “He’s a bit of a Bank Holiday sort of fellow, ye know”.
Moore’s most successful sexual ploy was to encourage female literary hopefuls to co-author new works with him. It was in this fashion that he tried to seduce Pearl Craigie.
[PEARL CRAIGIE (1867-1906)
who used the pen name of John Oliver Hobbes, had no doubts about her own talent: “Without vanity I may say that I am the one writer in England who could sign a Wilde comedy and pass unchallenged”. She was the heiress daughter of John Morgan Richards, an American who had amassed his fortune by selling Carter’s Little Liver Pills. Her mother proved to be an embarrassment as she had a tendency to chat to unseen Old Testament Prophets while dinner guests were present. Henry James was once spotted ponderously frowning at a large notice at the family home that read: ‘What Would Jesus Say?’
On another occasion, she sent a telegram to Rome reading: ‘Pope, Vatican. Stop War. Richards.’]
In May 1894 Moore, frantic for sex with Pearl, finally ran out of patience while walking in Hyde Park. She told him that she had decided to break off what little there was of their relationship. He later wrote that she ‘was enjoying my grief as she might a little comedy of her own invention’. As she walked slightly ahead of him, Moore let lose a mighty kick on her bottom ‘nearly in the centre, a little to the right’. He was even more irritated when she seemed pleased that she had forced him to act out of character.
Moore found a more acquiescent lover in Maud Cunard (1872-1948) who he described as ‘like a little white ferret’ in bed. But again he was denied full intercourse. While explaining that: ‘Kisses need not be confined to the mouth’, he continued: ‘For a whole year I was the lover of an American girl and when she married she was a virgin (technically)’.
This marriage was to Sir Bache Cunard, known as ‘Bang Bang’ for his love of shooting. After a short interval, Moore and Maud resumed their affair while Sir Bache was busy in on the Scottish moors. Moore said that he thoroughly enjoyed eating the grouse after first enjoying the wife of the marksman. Even this was not the happiest of liaisons, as Maud preferred younger lovers, excusing her absences on the grounds that she wanted to sleep with a youth ‘with skinny shanks’. While Moore was staying at the Cunard’s house, workmen spotted her in bed with the young conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham.
Moore, despite many women in his life, never seemed to find satisfaction. Once, after visiting a mistress, he arrived at WB Yeats’ flat and sank down on the sofa, sighing: “God, I wish that woman would wash”.
As he grew older his powers waned. In 1913 he was forced to admit to a female acquaintance: “How I regret, for your sake, that I’m impotent”. He found his only solace in voyeurism. One evening after dinner, Maud’s daughter Nancy Cunard agreed on request to strip off for his perusal. This had an unusual element in that, although it was never proved, it was highly likely that Nancy was his natural daughter.
Moore came to the conclusion that: ‘Woman is the sauce to the pudding of life, if you like; but the whole business of love and loving is overrated’. Perhaps one of the few topics on which he might have found agreement with Oscar Wilde was in his toleration of other people’s homosexuality: “I see no reason why those who prefer to drink salad oil to champagne should not be allowed to do so”.
Living up to the family motto, ‘Scratch a Moore and your own blood will flow’, George enjoyed savaging his contemporaries. He jeered at GK Chesterton’s Catholic faith ‘in the power of the priest to turn God into biscuits and wine every morning’, and revealed that Chesterton liked belching: “He told me he did”. He described Thomas Hardy as ‘the villager’, Joseph Conrad as ‘the sailor’ and Henry James as ‘the eunuch’. After viewing Claude Monet’s water lily pictures he said he found it difficult to find any difference between them and wallpaper. He reviewed a Parisian actress with: ‘In Jane Hugard, France has lost a fine concierge’.
His last words were a reaction to a visitor commenting on Joseph Conrad’s literary style. Moore jerked up off the pillows and exclaimed indignantly: “What style? Why, it is nothing but wreckage of Robert Louis Stevenson floating in the slops of Henry James!”
Although many people disliked George Moore, they disliked his brother
even more. His scandal sheet, ‘The Hawk’, annoyed many Londoners; he had a public fist fight in the foyer of Drury Lane Theatre with the painter Whistler, (admittedly not a difficult opponent to provoke); and in 1893, annoyed at finding that the courtesan that he had intended to enjoy was away from home, allegedly raped her maid instead. He was arrested but escaped jail owing to doubts over the true story.
But what upset Oscar Wilde’s brother Willie most was Augustus’s dress sense. Once, when they met at the Café Royal, Augustus was wearing a garish necktie and asked for Willie’s opinion. “Well, Gus, since you ask me, I should have thought that only a deaf man could wear it with safety”.
One day, Augustus stormed into the office of the editor Frank Harris and another partner declaring that they had cheated him over a money deal. Harris refused to reimburse him and Augustus stared at the two men with venom. Harris asked what the hell he was looking at. “I’m looking at you two”, said Augustus “and thinking that if you got a cheap Christ and put him between you what a damn fine Calvary you’d make”.
1865 – 1871
[The American Civil War ended in 1865, closely followed by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1866, in Chile, the Spanish Navy bombarded the port of Valparaiso, while in Mexico, the French-backed Emperor Maximilian was executed by nationalist forces in 1867.
In 1868, the British Army, under General Napier, invaded Ethiopia and rescued the British envoy Charles Cameron. In Canada, British forces suppressed a separatist rebellion led by Louis Riel in 1869.
The Suez Canal was opened in 1869.
In Italy, Garibaldi’s volunteers continued their campaign for unification at the Battle of Salo (1866) against the Austrians, and by capturing Rome in 1870 and incorporating the Papal States into the Kingdom of Italy.
Bismarck’s plans for the expansion of the German Empire were aided by the defeat of Austria at the Battle of Sadowa in 1866. In 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, ending in the total defeat of Emperor Napoleon III at the Battle of Sedan. The Germans proceeded to besiege Paris until it surrendered in 1871.
The socialist Commune then took control of the city for two months before being suppressed by bourgeois forces of the Third Republic in the bloodiest week in French domestic history. (25,000 Parisians were killed during the ‘Semaine Sanglante’, far more than died during the Reign of Terror.)
Oscar Wilde attended Portora Royal School near Enniskillen as a boarding pupil from 1864 until in June 1871.
Wilde had an ambivalent attitude towards education: ‘Education is an admirable thing, but it is as well to remember that nothing worth knowing can be taught’.
Oscar: ‘When I was young I thought the Wars of the Roses were to decide whether a red rose or a white rose was the most beautiful. I learned afterwards that it was just some vulgar dispute’.
His opinion of the teaching profession was equally tepid: ‘I am afraid we are beginning to be over-educated. Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching’.
(One of Oscar’s schoolmasters was the Rev. Edward Hardy, who later married one of Oscar’s cousins. In 1885, Hardy wrote a handbook on marriage. It included an account of the nuptials of a Hampshire rustic who, when asked if he would take his intended as wedded wife, replied: “Yes, all right, but I’d a sight sooner have her sister”.)
Later Wilde commented through one of his characters in ‘An Ideal Husband’: ‘I have forgotten all about my schooldays. I have a vague impression that they were detestable.’
The Wilde family, meanwhile, had been struck by tragedy, firstly in 1867 by the death of Oscar’s nine-year-old sister Isola. (Their mother Speranza took Oscar and his elder brother Willie to Paris that summer in an effort to raise their spirits.)
Then in 1871 Oscar’s natural siblings, Emily Wilde, aged 24, and Mary Wilde, aged 22, were burnt to death in a horrific accident.
In October 1871, having been awarded a scholarship, Oscar became a student at Trinity College, Dublin, (known by its fellow universities of Oxford and Cambridge as ‘the silent sister’). Two of the leading professors were Dr JP Mahaffy and Professor R Tyrrell.
Mahaffy said that the College was: ‘the only English foundation that ever succeeded in Ireland’.
Professor the Rev. SIR JOHN PENTLAND MAHAFFY (1839-1919)
JP Mahaffy was Wilde’s tutor at Trinity College and had a strong influence on Wilde’s early life. Firstly he nurtured the young student’s instinctive delight in wit and conversation: ‘Never tell a story because it is true: tell it because it is a good story’. Wilde called him ‘my first and best teacher. He was a really great talker, an artist in vivid words and eloquent phrases’. Mahaffy recognised that Irish society demanded spontaneous wit almost as a requirement of citizenship. (Wilde: ‘If only one could teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen, society here would be quite civilised’.)
Secondly, he helped persuade Sir William to send Oscar to an English university: “You’re not quite clever enough for us here at Trinity, Oscar. Better run up to Oxford”.
Thirdly, on tours in 1875 and 1877, he introduced Wilde to Greece, thereby steering him away from his interest in Rome and Catholicism. “No, Oscar, we cannot let you become a Catholic but we will make you a good pagan instead”.
Later, the friendship dwindled, as the extreme Unionist Tory Mahaffy clashed with the liberal, nationalist Wilde. The professor took particular exception when his former pupil dismissed one of Mahaffy’s books as ‘arid and jejune’. When Oscar was imprisoned, Mahaffy refused to sign the petition for clemency: ‘He was the one blot on my tutorship’. If the topic ever arose again, he would merely remark ‘We no longer speak of Mr Oscar Wilde’.
The Rev JP Mahaffy was Professor of Ancient History at Trinity and had a European reputation as one of the great classicists of his era. Once, when he was out with a shooting party, one of the hunters accidentally fired a bullet through the top of Mahaffy’s hat. Having examined the damage, Mahaffy grumbled: ‘Two inches lower, and you would have shot away ninety per cent of the Greek in Ireland.’
At 6ft 3 inches, he was the same height as Oscar, and had the robust looks of an accomplished sportsman. He was a brilliant cricketer who played for the All Ireland team against All England several times, and even acknowledged that WG Grace’s views on bowling were ‘worthy of attention’. He was not above employing psychological games to upset his opponents. If a batsman managed to hit one of Mahaffy’s balls to the boundary, Mahaffy would pace gravely down the wicket to the culprit and congratulate him. He coined the phrase: “That man was morally bowled”.
Although he took holy orders aged 25, Mahaffy was an unorthodox clergyman. He once crawled into a roomful of fellow churchmen wearing only a tiger skin rug. If pressed, he admitted to being a cleric: “but not in any offensive sense of the term”; and, when challenged by an evangelist with: “Have you been saved, Dr Mahaffy?” he replied: “Yes, but it was such a very narrow squeak that I never boast about it”.
In his official position at Trinity he was sometimes forced to exercise some spiritual authority. One day, he spotted an undergraduate who was not wearing the required academic gown. He beckoned the student over and declaimed: “Boy! Do you not realise that you are imperilling your immortal soul by being without a gown?” He paused then added: “And what is even worse, the fine is three shillings”.
When another student attempted to outwit the authorities by stating that his religious denomination was ‘sun-worshipper’, he found himself woken at dawn the next morning by the college porter with the words: “Dr Mahaffy’s compliments, sir, it’s time to say your prayers to the rising sun”. After a few days of this, the student converted to Christianity.
Mahaffy’s real teeth showed when dealing with fellow academics: ‘Extreme pugnacity is the essential feature of all true Irish scholars’. At a viva voce examination, he barked at an undergraduate: “Why was Dr Thornton made a Fellow of Trinity?” The confused student replied: “I don’t know”. “Correct. You get a mark for that. Nobody does”.
Another Trinity don announced pompously in the common room that: “They all know I am not for sale”. Mahaffy drawled: “Well, you have been a long time in the shop window”.
Mahaffy’s Achilles heel was that he was a snob. It was said that he only raised his eyes from Homer to examine invitations from the aristocracy. ‘Vice-regal tame-cat’, ‘Tuft-hunter’ and ‘Castle lackey’ were among the milder epithets bestowed upon him by George Moore. He was indeed the friend of several monarchs, amongst them the Queen of Spain and Kaiser Wilhelm II. This latter acquaintance led to Mahaffy’s worst moment.
When he was introduced to Queen Victoria in a line of guests at Dublin Castle, he overstepped the formal greeting by announcing grinningly: “Madam, I met your grandson the Kaiser recently”. She moved on, then turned to an aide and asked loudly: “Who is that man?” Afterwards, Mahaffy tried to save face by implying that Victoria was going senile. When that didn’t work and he remained the butt of facetious comment, he referred to the Queen as ‘having the manners of a badly educated washerwoman’.
For many years he had been denied the post of Provost of Trinity, one he regarded as rightfully his. When the office fell vacant in 1904, he had been passed over in favour of a Dr Traill. Wilde himself commented that: “Mahaffy’s unpopularity in Ireland, and in Trinity College Dublin especially, is something remarkable”. For ten years, he gritted his teeth and waited impatiently, wasting no opportunity to defame the usurper.
At a College dinner, he referred to Traill as ‘a beast’. When a colleague gave him a warning cough, Mahaffy added: “But fortunately a deaf beast”. In 1914, when Mahaffy heard the news that Traill was feeling unwell, he was heard to mutter: “Nothing trivial, I hope”. From then on he took to visiting the ailing provost every day to inquire as to his health; this altruism led to much satiric comment in the common room. Finally in 1914 Traill died, and Mahaffy succeeded to the provost-ship at the age of seventy-five, (a position he occupied till 1919).
Two years later and now seventy-seven, Mahaffy was forced to cope with probably the most exciting incident of his career.
Once before he had had a brush with Irish politics, when on May 6, 1882, he had been due to meet Lord Cavendish, the new Chief Secretary of Ireland, (a friend of the Wilde family who had dined at Merrion Square). Mahaffy was delayed at college, and rushed off to Phoenix Park to keep his appointment. Unable to find Cavendish, Mahaffy went back home. Later he heard the sensational news that the Chief Secretary and his aide Burke had been stabbed to death by assassins in the park. For years afterwards, he would relate with horror how there might have been a third victim.
However, in 1916, Mahaffy found himself commanding the forces defending Trinity College during the Easter Rising. In effect, these forces amounted to a few student cadets, some Australian troops on holiday, and the college porters, under the field command of a Professor Alton, an authority on Ovid. Having locked the gates, they exchanged a few desultory shots with rebels on College Green. Mahaffy decided to continue with the planned exams and provided lunch for the women candidates as the occasional bullet smacked into the wall. By evening, British troops relieved the siege.
The experience heightened his dislike of the Home Rule supporters: ‘Patriotism has many curious analogies to alcohol. If taken neat it is a deadly poison’.
Oscar’s other great Trinity influence was
Professor ROBERT TYRRELL (1844-1914).
A superb classical scholar, he was chosen in 1901 to be one of the first fifty members of the British Academy. He remained sympathetic to Oscar during the prison years and signed a clemency petition in 1896. Wilde said: “Mahaffy and Tyrrell were Trinity to me”. They were not so complimentary about each other. Their mutual dislike had been exacerbated by Tyrrell’s criticism of Mahaffy’s use of exclamation marks in published work.
Mahaffy at one time was suspended from preaching in the College Chapel after a theological dispute – whereupon Tyrrell complained that, as a result of this, he was suffering from insomnia during the services.
Tyrrell was a convivial man who enjoyed public houses. The sight of the alcohol-free ‘Temperance Hotels’ sent him into a rage: “There is no such thing; you might as well talk of a celibate brothel”. In one pub, he was interrupted during an interesting conversation by someone inquiring the way to the lavatory. Tyrrell said without turning: “It’s the first door on the right, marked ‘Gentlemen’. But don’t let that deter you”.
[In France, the policy of trials, executions, and deportations of Communards continued with vigour.]
During this period Oscar Wilde inhabited rooms in the Trinity College buildings known as ‘Botany Bay’. His academic success was crowned in 1873 when he won the prestigious Berkeley Medal.
As well as experimenting by growing a beard, he became influenced by the works of J.A. Symonds.
JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS 1840-1893
After Wilde became interested in the writings of Symonds, notably ‘The Renaissance in Italy’, they corresponded and later exchanged books of poetry. Symonds took the young Oscar seriously, though referring to him as ‘Boy’. But by 1889, Symonds was disturbed by the publication of Wilde’s ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’, saying it was ‘very audacious… and unwholesome in tone’ – ‘If the British public will stand for this they can stand anything’. Symonds was himself homosexual and this judgement on ‘Dorian Gray’ echoed a previous hypocrisy from his schooldays.
Symonds attended Harrow School in the 1850s – the world partly described by one of its masters, Dean Farrar, in his novel ‘Eric, or Little by Little’. What Farrar did not describe was the almost unbridled homosexual antics at the school, where the prettiest boys were bullied into public acts of obscenity, where such characters as ‘Cookson, the red-faced strumpet’ and ‘Bum Bathsheba’ Ainslie of the ‘opulent posterior’ became the prey of the dormitories, and where ‘one could not avoid seeing acts of onanism, mutual masturbation, and the sports of naked boys in bed together’.
What finally outraged Symonds was the revelation that the headmaster, the Reverend Dr Charles Vaughan, also was involved. Despite the fact that Vaughan used to stroke Symonds’ thigh while reading his essays, it was only when a fellow pupil, Alfred Pretor, disclosed that he had received love letters from the headmaster that the penny dropped. ‘I was disgusted to find such desires lurking in a man consecrated by the Church, and entrusted with the welfare of 600 youths’.
On leaving Harrow, Symonds told his father of the situation; Dr Symonds then wrote to Vaughan informing him that he would keep silence only if Vaughan never again attempted promotion in the Church. Vaughan’s wife begged Symonds’ father to be merciful but to no avail. Vaughan resigned, only to be offered the bishopric of Rochester. Dr Symonds promptly warned him off and Vaughan realised that his career was finished.
Symonds was not the only person to report on the almost unbelievable situation in the English Victorian public schools. An article in the New Review in 1893 claimed that ‘the morals of the English public school were comparable with those of Sodom and Gomorrah’. W.T. Stead in 1895 wrote: ‘Should everyone found guilty of Oscar Wilde’s crime be imprisoned, there would be a very surprising emigration from Eton, Harrow, Rugby and Winchester to the jails of Pentonville and Holloway’. Raymond Asquith, the son of the future Prime Minister, reported that, at a mass lecture to Oxford students on the dangers of sodomy: ‘We were told that the Headmasters, in league with the Government, were proposing to increase the legal penalty from 2 to 14 years; whereat a perceptible shudder ran through the audience, of whom some 85%, by the lowest estimate, were liable for incarceration on that charge’. Frank Harris also wrote that: ‘If the mothers of England knew what goes on in the dormitories of these boarding schools throughout England, they would all be closed, from Eton and Harrow, upwards and downwards, in a day’.
However, Symonds’ public-spiritedness in exposing his headmaster was not matched by his own future behaviour. Within a short time of his gaining a chair in poetry at Oxford he was ousted in turn because of his fondness for young boys. He made desperate attempts to conform by marrying and fathering four girls, (one of whom, Madge, carried on the family tradition by becoming one of Virginia Woolf’s lovers).
His efforts came to nothing, as he was unable to cure his passion for young guardsmen ‘in scarlet uniforms’. In this he was not alone. During the late nineteenth century, many soldiers were part-time male prostitutes – the NCOs vied with each other to break in the new recruits. This phenomenon became known as ‘scarlet fever’. The public parks were used for these encounters and one barrister complained bitterly that since the improvement of lighting in Hyde Park, he had lost more than £2000 in fees.
The turmoil of Symond’s inner conflicts, resulting in both a nervous breakdown and the onset of pulmonary tuberculosis, led to his retreat from England to the Swiss resort of Davos. Here, he found contentment, his health improved, he became the father of British tobogganing, and, in 1881, found a long-term love with a Venetian gondolier called Angelo. On their occasional travels they behaved as man and valet. (Angelo once found himself alone, to his horror, at the mercy of twenty-five housemaids while staying at Castle Howard, Yorkshire.)
Symonds spent his last years up in the Swiss mountains, where he was visited by Margot Asquith, Raymond’s young stepmother. She climbed up the steep hillside to his house, handed her letter of introduction to the maid and settled down to wait for the aged writer to emerge. After an hour, no one had come. Then she heard the ‘shuffle of slippered feet’, someone pausing at the door, and Symonds’s querulous voice calling from the next room: “Has she gone yet?” Margot was forced to reply: “No, I’m afraid I’m still here”.
By 1900, Oscar Wilde was complaining that all the gondolas in Venice appeared to be staffed by male prostitutes. “Is it due to Symonds?”
[In Britain, Benjamin Disraeli was returned as Prime Minister, having defeated Gladstone at the General Election. Gladstone commented: “We have been borne down in a torrent of gin and beer”.
In Spain the Carlist War broke out.
In West Africa, the British Army crushed the Ashanti nation in modern day Ghana and occupied the capital, Kumasi.]
In June Oscar visited London, where he joined Speranza and Willie and heard that he had won a Demyship in Classics to Magdalen College, Oxford.
In July 1874, he went to Genoa with his mother and returned via Paris, where they stayed at the Hotel Voltaire.
On August 24, Oscar was introduced to J.E.C. Bodley at the Dublin Horse Show.
On 17 October, aged 20, Oscar left Dublin to enter Magdalen College, Oxford. Wilde: ‘I was the happiest man in the world when I entered Magdalen for the first time. Oxford was paradise to me’. ‘It is the capital of romance, in its own way as memorable as Athens, and to me it was more entrancing’.
On 24 November, Wilde failed his Responsions, an exam that was designed to judge whether an undergraduate was suitable for a degree. Only nine other students failed Responsions over Wilde’s entire four years at Oxford. What sank Oscar was that the exams included Mathematics, a subject in which he had no interest or ability. Even in 1898, when he was trying to balance his woeful finances, he admitted: “I never could understand mathematics, and life is now a mathematical problem”. In his story, ‘The Happy Prince’, he took a sideswipe at the subject: ‘The Mathematical Master frowned and looked very severe, for he did not approve of children dreaming.’
However, Wilde survived the exam and soon he became immersed in college life. J.E.C. Bodley, Prince Leopold and David Hunter-Blair were among his many friends.
JOHN EDWARD COURTENAY BODLEY 1853-1925
One of Wilde’s closest friends at Oxford was his fellow student Bodley, a breezy young buck who attended Balliol College. Together they indulged in such antics as invading a performance of Tyrolese singers at the local theatre for ‘a grand bally-rag’ before being thrown out by ‘a rush of affrighted stage carpenters – and curtain’. Afterwards three of the Tyrolese accompanied Bodley and Wilde to the Mitre pub where they attempted yodelling before ‘proceeding home erratically’.
Bodley also introduced Wilde to Freemasonry, and initiated him into the Apollo Lodge.
In 1882, Bodley hinted, in a teasingly malicious article, that Wilde had ‘assumed a guise which sturdier minds still look upon as epicene’. Oscar felt betrayed by this, although they remained on good enough terms for Bodley to invite him to a Parisian banquet in 1891. Bodley took the opportunity to try to warn him that a book such as ‘Dorian Gray’ might be misconstrued, advice that Wilde ignored.
In 1899, after prison, Bodley met Wilde in a Paris street and invited him to his family home. Oscar, ashamed in the presence of his old Oxford friend, turned down the offer.
Bodley spent much of his life as amanuensis to prominent men, but was most unlucky in the figures he chose to serve. The first was the politician Sir Charles Dilke. Despite Dilke’s initial dissatisfaction with Bodley’s habits, (‘Bodley ought to be in bed by half past twelve – not sit up till five in the morning to dance and flirt…. Nothing on earth can get him up before 9.30am. … How to get rid of Bodley?’), he steadied his behaviour and became a good secretary. Then Dilke’s career collapsed in disgrace, and Bodley was out of a job.
A warm friendship with Cardinal Manning should have led to Bodley being chosen to write Manning’s official biography, but when Manning died, Bodley was abroad and another writer grabbed the opportunity.
Most prestigiously of all, Bodley was chosen to write the official record of the coronation of King Edward VII. Having worked hard on this project, he received only a minor grade of the Victorian Order as recompense. Bodley considered that the Victorian Order had only been created to reward the more obsequious members of provincial public bodies and their ilk. In a fury, he returned the medal by registered post to the King, thus ending any chance of future promotion.
His one real success came after 1890 when he settled in France. Through his books he became an acknowledged authority on French politics and culture. Charles Maurras said of Bodley: “he became almost a Frenchman without ceasing to be an Englishman”. One of his more perceptive comments was made on the Franco-Russian treaty: ‘The real strength of the Franco-Russian alliance is the complete ignorance which the contracting nations have of each other’.
He finally retired to the south coast of England where he described himself as ‘the only Christian in Brighton’.
PRINCE LEOPOLD 1853-1884
The youngest son of Queen Victoria, Prince Leopold was a student at Christ Church College, Oxford, and, as a friend of J.E.C. Bodley, became well acquainted with Wilde.
Leopold was present, accompanied by Mrs Liddell and her daughter Alice (later of ‘Wonderland’ fame), when Oscar was deputed to read the lesson in college chapel. Oscar launched into his own choice of ‘The Song of Solomon’, before being halted abruptly by Dean Bramley hissing: “You have the wrong lesson, Mr Wilde. It’s Deuteronomy XVI” – a much less racy Biblical passage. (Wilde: ‘I always read the lessons with an air of scepticism’).
They were fellow members of the Masonic Apollo Lodge, and later he visited Wilde’s London lodgings at Salisbury Street.
Leopold’s birth was unusual in that Queen Victoria used chloroform for the first time during a royal delivery. A court wit spread the rumour that, if Leopold had been a girl, he would have been called ‘Anaesthesia’.
He had the misfortune to be born with haemophilia, a handicap that he did his best to overcome. Raised in Balmoral and becoming secretary to his mother in 1876, Leopold was a spirited youth who was bored by court life. He enjoyed theatre and built a large library, (with a pornography section acquired under the literary guidance of Lord Houghton).
A welcome break came when he met and fell for the society beauty, Lily Langtry, although, when he placed her portrait over his bed, it was removed on the orders of Queen Victoria. He managed to persuade Lily to join him on board a yacht off the Isle of Wight. She had to hide below deck until they were out of sight of the imperial telescope at Osborne House.
He escaped surveillance in 1880 when he visited his sister Princess Louise and her husband the Marquess of Lorne in North America. Together they went to Washington for President Garfield’s inauguration, where the brasher American newspapers referred to them as ‘Vic’s Chicks’. By pure coincidence, Leopold owned a dog called Vic. Unused to such headlines, a puzzled Queen Victoria wrote to Leopold: ‘How odd of them to mention your dog?’
Leopold died of internal bleeding in 1884 after a banging his knee while on holiday in the south of France. He was thirty-one.
Right Rev. SIR DAVID HUNTER-BLAIR 1853-1939
Hunter-Blair was a fellow student, nicknamed ‘Dunskie’ by Wilde. He was an intelligent man who saw through one of Oscar’s characteristic poses early on. All his life Wilde adhered to the aristocratic opinion that achievements could only be justified if they were accomplished with ‘effortless ease’. It was the success of this apparent flippancy that later so exasperated his more pedestrian theatre critics. Wilde: ‘Cultivated idleness seems to me to be the proper occupation for man’. But Hunter-Blair said that, behind Oscar’s affectation of indolence: ‘I knew of his hours of assiduous and laborious reading often into the small hours’.
Hunter-Blair was not impressed by Wilde’s Newdigate Prize-winning poem ‘Ravenna’, which contained the lines: ‘On and on/ I galloped, racing with the setting sun’. As Florence Ward revealed in 1876: ‘Wilde is a most shocking rider, and tumbles off nearly every time he goes out’. When Oscar declared that he had written the poem ‘from the bottom of my heart, red-hot from Ravenna itself’, Hunter-Blair spluttered: “Humbug! You went there lounging on the cushions of a stuffy railway carriage”. Oscar, for once, was stumped.
Unlike most of Wilde’s student friends, Hunter-Blair was a very serious-minded young man. In 1870, by chance he had been in Rome on the day that the King of Italy launched an attack on the Pope. The Papal army was heavily outnumbered and, after a few hours of cannon fire, the Pope surrendered the city. During the fighting, Hunter-Blair volunteered to transport casualties by wheelbarrow from the front line to a nearby convent. Impressed by ‘the young Protestant Englishman’, the Pope sent for him. Hunter-Blair: ‘I found myself invested, much to my surprise, with the Maltese Cross’.
By 1875, he converted to the Catholic faith and set out to persuade Oscar to do likewise. Although he was attracted by the outward forms of Roman religion, Wilde was reluctant, not least because parental opposition would have left him disinherited. When, in 1877, Hunter-Blair sent him the money to visit Rome, Wilde travelled first to Greece under the ‘pagan tuition’ of Mahaffy. When at last he did arrive in the Eternal City, while very impressed by the Holy Father, he was even more impressed by the tomb of John Keats. An irritated Hunter-Blair gradually gave up his efforts at conversion. Wilde: ‘Poor Dunskie: I know he looks on me as a renegade’.
Hunter-Blair was a baronet in his own right, came from an important Scottish family, and attended school at Eton. The proximity of the school to the royal castle of Windsor meant that the pupils had some contact with Victoria’s court. Occasionally Hunter-Blair and other boys were allowed on to the castle terrace, where, with the Queen and her household, they could listen to the Guards Band playing popular music. After enjoying one piece, the Queen sent a Maid of Honour to find out the title. The Maid returned and answered with embarrassment: “The band master said, Ma’am, the name of the tune is ‘Come Where the Booze is Cheapest’.”
The Etonians were asked sometimes to provide their own spectacle for visiting dignitaries. On one occasion, during the State Visit to Windsor of the Sultan of Turkey, they presented a military tattoo. Unfortunately, their rifles were old muzzle-loaders, and, when they were ordered to fire a saluting volley, many of the boys were so confused that they forget to remove the ramrods from the rifle barrels. The sky above the parade ground turned into a shower of hurtling ramrods. The Sultan was reputedly ‘most impressed’.
At Oxford, Hunter-Blair delighted in college folklore. He particularly appreciated the efforts of an early nineteenth century don who had spent much of his time improving the Anglican rituals of the university. By 1844, the don had reformed the former annual May Day morning ceremony at the top of Magdalen Tower by replacing it with the devout singing of a Latin hymn by a gowned choir. Previously the ceremony had consisted of having a brass band playing while the choristers hurled rotten eggs on the crowd below.
Hunter-Blair had little time for what he considered to be a blemish on Oxford – to wit, Keble College. Oscar entirely agreed: ‘In spite of Keble College, Oxford still remains the most beautiful thing in England’.
One of their complaints was Keble’s insistence on ‘high thinking and low living’. In practice, this meant that the college meals were frugal in the extreme and during Lent positively spartan. One unfortunate undergraduate was hauled up before the Warden for admonishment. “Mr. Wills-Smythe, in this college we provide, at breakfast, fish for those gentlemen who desire to fast; cold meat for those who would like to fast, but do not feel quite equal to it; and hot meat for those who are incapable of abstinence. I observed this morning, Mr. Wills-Smythe, that you partook of all three!”
Another Keble student, this time an American, fell foul of the authorities when he failed to attend Anglican chapel. The Warden was duly upbraiding the man when, to the Warden’s horror, the student disclosed that he was a Mormon Latterday Saint. He was immediately evicted from Keble. Hunter-Blair reported that later the man was admitted ‘without question into a certain college where, it was said, the presence of a saint of any kind would be a phenomenon absolutely unprecedented’.
In 1878, Hunter-Blair joined the Benedictine Order and later became the Abbot of the Fort Augustus Monastery and College in Scotland. He travelled in Brazil and Canada during his religious duties. For an abbot, he had an unusual relish for horrific anecdotes, of which two of the most gruesome he came across in Canada. Both concerned the British army stationed there.
While on sentry duty at Niagara Falls one bitter winter night, a soldier of a Highland regiment over-indulged in whisky, missed his footing, and slid over the brink of the precipice. Freezing as he fell, his body hit a whirlpool below on which ice never formed. As there was no possible way to recover the corpse, it slowly gyrated round and round in the eddy, still accoutred in bonnet, kilt and plaid, until it slowly disintegrated months later in the spring thaw. It remained a hideous reminder to the rest of the regiment of the dangers of alcohol; they had only to peep over the edge of the rapids to see the revolving remains of their comrade.
The other incident happened to an Irish sergeant who was captured by Red Indian braves, dragged off to their camp and told that he was to die by excruciatingly slow torture. He attempted to gain reprieve by promising his captors that, if they spared him, he would reveal a miraculous plant that he had found in the woods. This plant, if rubbed on any part of the body, rendered the wearer invulnerable to wounds.
Impressed by his claim, the tribesmen agreed. Under escort, the sergeant gathered the plant, then offered to test the miracle himself by rubbing it on his neck and defying the strongest warrior to decapitate him. The offer was accepted, the blow was struck, and the sergeant’s head rolled away. The Red Indians then realised that they had nobody left to torture to death, slowly or otherwise.
Among the academics at Oxford, Wilde became particularly friendly with John Ruskin. He was also acquainted with two other renowned Oxford figures, Dr W Spooner and Jowett of Balliol.
PROFESSOR BENJAMIN JOWETT 1817-1893
‘First come I, my name is Jowett,
There’s no knowledge but I know it;
I am Master of this College
What I don’t know – is not knowledge.’
As Master of Balliol College, Oxford (1870-1893) and Vice Chancellor (1882-1886), Benjamin Jowett was not directly involved with Wilde’s career, although there was a peripheral connection. In 1876, an acquaintance of Oscar’s called William Hardinge, (also known as ‘the Balliol Bugger’), was revealed as having written some homosexual sonnets; he also possessed letters from the Oxford don, Walter Pater, ending in ‘Yours lovingly’. A shocked Jowett expelled Hardinge from the college on a charge of ‘keeping and reciting immoral poetry’.
Another link with Wilde was that Jowett was an enthusiastic supporter of College amateur theatre, particularly of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. It was with his direct encouragement that the 1880 ground-breaking production of the ‘Agamemnon’ of Aeschylus, (with which Oscar was closely involved), was performed in Balliol Hall.
Jowett was famed as an inspirational teacher in Oxford and had a wider reputation for his Greek translations, particularly of Plato. Although popular with the public, his books were criticised for inaccuracy by other scholars. Aware of his failings, he once asked the brilliant but highly unstable poet Algernon Swinburne, (who had left Oxford without a degree), to stay at Balliol and correct the proofs of Jowett’s new book.
One morning Jowett was conducting a tutorial in his rooms while Swinburne sat working in a small adjoining study; the connecting door between them was open. As Jowett was exercising his powers of sarcasm over the deficiencies of his students’ essays, he was interrupted by a roar of laughter from Swinburne next door: “Another howler, Master!” Jowett rose and closed the door, meekly murmuring: “Thank you, Algernon”.
Perhaps his great contribution to public life was his belief in choosing and grooming his brightest pupils for future high Imperial office; among those handpicked were such men as Asquith, Milner, and Curzon. It was to some extent Jowett’s work that by 1892, of the two Houses of Parliament, 250 were Balliol men. This practice led to criticism that he was only interested in mass-producing ‘prancing pro-consuls and magnificent Viceroys’
To his less favoured students, who nicknamed him ‘Little Benjamin’, he was a distant and off-putting figure. His faith in the Socratic teaching method – ‘lying in wait for you to say something foolish, then snapping you up’ – prompted some students to suggest that he should emulate his hero by swallowing hemlock. Rennell Rodd complained that: ‘Jowett would occasionally invite me to go for a walk with him and scare me to death by his long silences or his monosyllabic replies, which seemed to petrify all attempts at intimacy’.
One day he invited a student to breakfast in his rooms. They ate in total silence. In an attempt to jolly things along, the student remarked that it seemed to be a nice day outside. There was no response and the room fell silent again. At the end of the meal, as the student was leaving, Jowett growled: “That was a very foolish observation”.
To another undergraduate, who approached him to confide his doubts as to the existence of a God, Jowett snapped: “If you don’t find a God by five o’clock this afternoon, you will be sent down!”
Only rarely did Jowett display a softer side. Margot Asquith became friendly with him at the end of his life. She knew by repute that Jowett, in his youth, had fallen deeply in love with Florence Nightingale, the famous Crimea nurse. Her refusal of marriage had broken Jowett’s heart and he remained a lifelong bachelor.
One day Jowett asked Margot whether she had ever heard that he had once loved somebody. She did not reveal that she knew about the Nightingale episode but said that she had heard some rumour to that effect. Daringly she asked: “What was your lady-love like, Master?” After a long ruminative pause, Jowett replied: “Violent. Very violent”.
JOHN RUSKIN 1819-1900
John Ruskin was a major influence on Wilde’s intellectual development and they remained friends long after the Oxford days. As late as 1887, Oscar asked Ruskin to be godfather to his second son, Vyvyan; Ruskin declined on account of his age.
In 1869, Ruskin had become the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. He was renowned as a Romantic visionary who thought that the role of art should be central to society and who saw the capitalist degradation of the worker into little more than a robot as a destructive evil. Ruskin: ‘It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure’. Oscar approved of Ruskin’s stand: ‘When commerce is ruining beautiful rivers and magnificent woodlands and the glorious skies in its greed for gain, the artist comes forward as a priest and prophet of nature to protest.’
Although they differed in that Wilde saw art as beyond morality whereas Ruskin thought the two inseparable, Wilde still thought that: ‘Ruskin has always seemed to me the Plato of England’.
As a practical demonstration of his theories, in 1874 Ruskin asked for students to volunteer their services to build a road from Oxford to the village of Ferry Hinksey. Oscar, an unlikely labourer, nevertheless was amongst the group that assembled for the task. He received individual tuition from Ruskin himself as to how to wheel a barrow. The scheme was widely mocked, in particular by Punch magazine.
A later comment by Wilde seems to have been based on this experience: “I cannot help saying that a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all’ … ‘Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt”.
The road itself was never finished and reverted to swampland. A Ferry Hinksey villager remarked: “I don’t think the young gentlemen did too much harm”.
As a young man, Ruskin had known the great English artist JMW Turner well and when Turner died in 1851, Ruskin felt the death as a personal bereavement. Turner had bequeathed his paintings to the nation, requesting that they should be placed in an extension to the National Gallery. This request was ignored for almost 150 years and the paintings left in boxes in the Gallery cellars. Ruskin, who had been given some responsibility for the bequest and was becoming concerned over their condition, checked through these boxes.
To his horror, he found that much of Turner’s work consisted of pornographic drawings of ‘the pudenda of women’. He later told Frank Harris: “What a burden it cast upon me! What was I to do? I took the hundreds of scrofulous sketches and paintings and burnt them where they were, burnt all of them. I am proud of it – proud!” He became furious when the incorrigible Harris asked him if he had been tempted to pocket some of the drawings for himself.
Ruskin’s fastidious nature may have been partly responsible for his disastrous marital life. His real sexual interest seems to have been young girls, with a corresponding distaste for mature women. When he was fifteen, he fell in love with the 14-year old Adele Domecq, (of the sherry family), who remained indifferent to him. In middle age, he became obsessed with the 10-year old Rose La Touche, and even offered marriage. Rose ended this embarrassing situation by dying. In his old age, when he went partly insane, he was reputed to be a ‘liability’ with the local schoolgirls.
But his greatest public humiliation came when he married a Scottish cousin called Effie Gray. Although he had met her first when she was aged twelve, she was a young woman of twenty when they actually became man and wife. On the wedding night, Effie was taken aback by Ruskin’s refusal to have sex.
It has been assumed that Ruskin’s reticence was a result of being shocked by the sight of female pubic hair. Given his artistic schooling in life classes and his involuntary viewing of JMW Turner’s efforts, this is unlikely. A more probable cause was that he was repelled by menstruation. This unfortunate impasse was prolonged for five years. Later, a vengeful Effie revealed to the world that Ruskin had contented himself by masturbating while in bed with her.
When they visited Venice so that Ruskin could complete his great work on the architecture of that city, Effie spent the time ‘partying with soldiers’. Ruskin, it seems, rather hoped she would elope with an Italian count who was staying at their lodgings. This plan came to nothing when the count eloped with some jewellery rather than with Mrs Ruskin.
Effie’s torment ended in 1853 when the artist John Everett Millais, (1829-1896), was asked by Ruskin to paint his portrait. Millais, (eventually to become the most financially successful painter of the Victorian era), became enamoured of Effie’s charms.
Ruskin wrote: ‘I went to Millais’s studio one morning and opened the door quietly, without the faintest suspicion – there they were in each other’s arms on the sofa. I was startled and involuntarily stepped back, drawing the door quietly to after me. What was I to do? … My portrait was not finished and I wanted it finished: I thought it might be one of the great portraits of the world … I resolved simply to be more ceremonious than I had been’.
Millais and Effie decamped together and later married. Despite this, Ruskin insisted that Millais complete his portrait. Ruskin posed and Millais painted in total, mutually contemptuous, silence until the work was ended.
Oscar Wilde managed to maintain good relations with both disputants. In 1879 he visited the theatre with Ruskin to see Henry Irving in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. After the show, Oscar bade Ruskin goodnight and continued the evening at the ball held to celebrate the marriage of Millais and Effie’s daughter.
He also stayed on good terms with both sides during the even more bitter quarrel in 1878 between Ruskin and James McNeill Whistler, when Whistler sued Ruskin for describing Whistler as a ‘coxcomb’ and his work as ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. The court case ended in a nominal victory for Whistler, (he received one farthing’s damages), and Ruskin felt obliged to resign his Slade Chair at Oxford.
He sank slowly into intermittent madness and ended his days being cared for in his house by Coniston Water in the Lake District.
His theories on art had at least one lasting influence. His friend, Edward Burne-Jones, used to accompany him on walks around London and would often tease him by pointing out the fake-Gothic design of the new pubs: “That’s all your fault, Ruskin!”
REV. WILLIAM SPOONER 1844-1930
Probably the most widely known of Wilde’s acquaintance among the Oxford dons was the Dean of New College, the Rev. Spooner, whose unconscious verbal lapses became so famous that his name has entered the English language. His ‘spoonerisms’ included such legendary transpositions as rebuking a student for ‘hissing his mystery lecture’ and referring to Victoria as ‘our queer old dean’.
In July 1876, Spooner had the misfortune to be Oscar’s Divinity examiner. Wilde: ‘In examinations, the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer’.
Wilde arrived hours late for Spooner’s viva voce exam. Spooner, upset by the flippant excuse he offered for his absence, punished Oscar by ordering him to construe the Biblical Judas story from the Greek. After an hour or so, Spooner relented and told him he could stop. Oscar protested that he wanted to keep going as he had become so engrossed in the story he wanted to find out ‘whatever happened to the unfortunate man’. Wilde: “I was ploughed, of course”.
Spooner’s severity over Wilde’s behaviour was uncharacteristic of the man, as he was known for his tolerance and kindly nature. The nephew of Archbishop Tait of Canterbury, Spooner had been born an albino; his white hair and pallid appearance led to his Oxford nickname of ‘The Silver Spoon’. His vagueness over language was matched by his vagueness over life in general. Meeting a friendly stranger in New College, Spooner invited him to tea the next day: “I’m giving a little party for the new Mathematics Fellow”. “But, Dean, I am the new Mathematics Fellow”. “Never mind, dear chap. Come along all the same”.
A Corpus Christi colleague asked him whether the new fashion for Christian Socialism had any supporters at New College. Spooner said he could think of only two adherents – himself and a Dr Rashdall. “But I’m not very much of a socialist and Dr Rashdall isn’t very much of a Christian”.
One day, he was found roaming the London suburb of Greenwich searching for a pub called ‘The Dull Man’. Nobody had heard of it and he returned disappointed to Oxford. His wife told him that the actual address he had been seeking was ‘The Green Man’ in Dulwich.
One other Wildean link came in 1893, when Spooner’s son-in-law, Campbell Dodgson, took on the difficult task of becoming tutor to Bosie Douglas, Oscar’s later paramour. He accompanied the Wilde entourage on an academically anarchic holiday at Torquay. Oscar, who established the rules of this teaching course, claimed it ‘combined the advantages of a public school with those of a lunatic asylum’.
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CHRONOLOGICAL CONTENTS OF FULL BOOK
133] PART TWO – CAREER
134] VISITING AMERICA
135] LOUISA MAY ALCOTT, American writer
136] SAM WARD, American socialite
139] (GENERAL ULYSSES S GRANT, American general and president
140] GENERAL WILLIAM T. SHERMAN, American general)
141] ARCHIBALD FORBES, Scottish war correspondent
142] WALT WHITMAN, American poet
144] GENERAL GEORGE McCLELLAN, American general
144] (ALLAN PINKERTON, Scottish-American detective)
145] JULIA WARD HOWE, American poet
147] (HENRY LONGFELLOW, American poet)
148] DION BOUCICAULT, Irish-American actor
150] (DOT BOUCICAULT Jun., Irish-Australian theatre promoter
150] JOHN BOYLE O’REILLY, Irish-American journalist and rebel)
151] JOAQUIN MILLER, American writer
153] (BRET HARTE, American writer)
153] WILDE IN THE WEST
154] AMBROSE BIERCE, American writer
156] (WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST, American newspaper owner
157] JOHN CAMDEN HOTTEN, English publisher
158] PRES. THEODORE ROOSEVELT, American politician)
158] MORMONS AND MINERS
160] MARQUESS OF LORNE, English royal family
160] (PRINCESS LOUISE, English royal family)
162] WILDE IN DIXIE
162] JEFFERSON DAVIS, American Confederate President
164] (GENERAL PIERRE BEAUREGARD, American soldier)
165] HENRY WARD BEECHER, American religious leader
166] SIR THOMAS HALL CAINE, English writer
168] MARY ANDERSON, American actress
169] (SIR JOHNSON FORBES-ROBERTSON, English actor)
170] ROBERT SHERARD (First Part), English journalist
171] SIR WALTER SICKERT, English artist
172] (JACQUES-EMILE BLANCHE, French writer)
173] EDGAR DEGAS, French artist
175] (GENERAL BEN BUTLER, American general)
175] PAUL VERLAINE, French poet
176] (ARTHUR RIMBAUD, French poet and gunrunner
181] BIBI LA PUREE, French street thief)
181] VICTOR HUGO, French writer
184] COMTE ROBERT DE MONTESQUIOU, French aristocrat and poet
186] EDMOND DE GONCOURT, French writer
187] (ALPHONSE DAUDET, French writer)
188] THOMAS EDISON, American inventor
190] CONSTANCE WILDE (First Part), wife of Oscar Wilde
191] (FABIAN LLOYD, Irish nephew of Constance Wilde
193] JUDGE ‘HANGING’ HAWKINS, English judge
194] HORATIO BOTTOMLEY, English fraudulent businessman)
195] JORIS-KARL HUYSMANS, French writer
196] PRINCESS ALICE OF MONACO, French-American socialite
197] ‘THE LEGEND OF MONTE CARLO’
198] MARGARET BROOKE, RANI OF SARAWAK, Sarawak royal family
201] HENRY LABOUCHERE, English politician and journalist
206] FENWICK DE SALES LA TERRIERE, English soldier
– AND THE SUDAN
206] (GENERAL C.G. GORDON, English soldier
208] COL. VALENTINE BAKER, English soldier
211] GENERAL GARNET WOLSELEY, Anglo-Irish general
211] COL. FRED BURNABY, English soldier)
212] EVENTS DURING THE SUDAN CAMPAIGN
216] LORD CHARLES BERESFORD, Anglo-Irish admiral
219] WALTER HARRIS, English explorer
220] REGGIE LISTER, English diplomat
221] ROBERT ROSS (First Part), Canadian art gallery owner
222] (THOMAS CARLYLE, Scottish writer and historian)
223] SIR CHARLES DILKE, English politician
224] (MARK PATTISON, English professor at Oxford)
225] LADY COLIN CAMPBELL, English divorcee
228] WILLIAM T. STEAD, English journalist
231] MARK TWAIN, American writer
233] (ARTEMUS WARD, American writer)
233] ‘BUFFALO BILL’ CODY, American scout and showman
236] (WILD BILL HICKOK, American frontiersman
236] ANNIE OAKLEY, American markswoman
236] CHIEF SITTING BULL, Red Indian soldier)
237] LADY SUSAN ST HELIER, Scottish socialite
238] THE PARIS COMMUNE
240] (LITTLE TICH’, English music hall artiste
240] THOMAS HARDY, English writer)
241] THE ATHENAEUM CLUB
242] LADY MARY CURRIE, English writer
242] (EDITH NESBIT, English writer
243] ‘OUIDA’ – MARIE DE LA RAMEE, English writer)
244] LORD SALISBURY, British politician
245] (BLANCHE ROOSEVELT MACCHETTA, American socialite)
245] GUY DE MAUPASSANT, French writer
248] BERNARD SHAW, Irish playwright
252] PRINCE PETER KROPOTKIN, Russian anarchist
255] ROBERT CUNNINGHAM-GRAHAM, Scottish politician
258] (JOHN BURNS, English politician
259] JAMES KEIR HARDIE, Scottish politician
259] JOSEPH CONRAD, Polish writer
259] SIR CHARLES WARREN, English policeman)
260] PART THREE – TRIUMPH
261] WILDE AND SUPERSTITION
262] MADAME HELENA BLAVATSKY, Russian mystic
264] (ANNIE BESANT, English politician and mystic)
265] ELIZABETH ROBINS, American actress
266] (OLE BULL, Norwegian composer)
267] RICHARD LE GALLIENNE, English poet
268] (HUBERT CRACKENTHORPE, English poet)
269] WILLIAM E. HENLEY, English journalist and editor
271] CHARLES STUART PARNELL, Irish politician
273] WILLIE WILDE (First Part), Irish brother of Oscar Wilde
274] THE PELICAN CLUB
275] DAME ETHEL SMYTH, English composer
276] LESBIANISM IN ENGLISH BOARDING SCHOOLS
279] (COUNT PHILIP VON EULENBERG, German politician)
280] WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, Irish poet
281] (LADY AUGUSTA GREGORY, Irish literary patron)
284] (THOMAS WAINEWRIGHT, English murderer)
284] JOHN GRAY, English poet and priest
285] (ANDRE RAFFALOVICH, French writer)
286] DAME MARIE CORELLI, English writer
287] SIR ARTHUR CONAN-DOYLE, English writer
289] PRINCE EDDY, DUKE OF CLARENCE, son of King Edward VII
290] (LORD ARTHUR SOMERSET, English soldier
293] KING GEORGE V, English monarch)
293] HERBERT VIVIAN, English journalist
295] LIONEL JOHNSON, English poet
296] SIR SEYMOUR HICKS, English actor
297] (WILLIAM TERRISS, English actor)
298] THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
299] ERNEST DOWSON, English poet
300] (LEWIS CARROLL, English writer and Oxford don)
302] HERBERT HORNE, English writer and architect
303] (JOHN DAVIDSON, Scottish poet and writer
303] JOHN BARLAS, Scottish poet and anarchist)
303] ARTHUR SYMONS, English writer and critic
305] (MARIE LLOYD, English music hall artiste)
306] ANATOLE FRANCE, French writer
308] SIR WILLIAM ROTHENSTEIN, English artist
309] MARCEL PROUST, French writer
310] (GENEVIEVE STRAUSS (Bizet), French salon hostess)
312] THE SOUL OF MAN UNDER SOCIALISM
313] WILLIE GRENFELL, LORD DESBOROUGH, English aristocrat
314] BOSIE DOUGLAS – (First Part), Scottish poet and Wilde’s lover
316] (THE DOUGLASES (First Part), family of Scottish aristocrats)
323] WILFRED SCAWEN BLUNT, English poet and adventurer
329] (ALGERNON BOURKE, English clubman
330] CATHERINE WALTERS, English courtesan
331] MARQUESS OF HARTINGTON, English politician
332] HUBERT DE BURGH, Earl of Clanricarde, Irish landlord)
332] GEORGE, VISCOUNT CURZON, English politician
335] (HARRY CUST, English courtier and journalist)
336] SIR GEORGE ALEXANDER – English actor
337] (SIR ARTHUR PINERO, English playwright)
338] AUGUSTIN DALY, American theatre impresario
338] (JUNIUS BOOTH, American actor)
339] THEATRE FIRES
340] PIERRE LOUYS, French writer
341] ANDRE GIDE, French writer
342] LORD ROBERT LYTTON, English diplomat, Viceroy of India
344] LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN
345] HENRY JAMES, American writer
347] (CLEMENT SCOTT, English theatre critic)
349] WILLIAM ARCHER, English theatre critic
349] SARAH BERNHARDT, French actress
351] (BENOIT COQUELIN, French actor
352] W GRAHAM ROBERTSON, English stage designer and writer)
353] PIERRE LOTI, French novelist and naval officer
356] (GEORGE MEREDITH, English writer)
357] SAVOY HOTEL AND KETTNER’S RESTAURANT
358] CAFÉ ROYAL
359] (CAMPBELL DODGSON, English academic)
359] AUBREY BEARDSLEY, English artist
362] (MABEL BEARDSLEY, English actress
362] HENRY RUSSELL, English songwriter and performer)
363] A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE
363] SIR HERBERT BEERBOHM TREE, English actor-manager
367] (SIR JAMES BARRIE, English playwright
368] CHARLES FROHMAN, American theatre producer)
368] SIR MAX BEERBOHM, English writer and cartoonist
371] (JULIUS BEERBOHM, English dandy and financier
371] SIR EDWARD BACKHOUSE, English fraudster)
372] CHEIRO, Irish palm-reader
374] (KING LEOPOLD II, King of Belgian and entrepreneur)
375] LADY JENNIE CHURCHILL, American socialite
376] (LORD RANDOLPH CHURCHILL, English politician
377] WINSTON CHURCHILL, English politician
378] BLANCHE HOZIER, English socialite)
379] GEORGE CORNWALLIS-WEST, English socialite
382] (LORD CROMER, English diplomat)
382] EDWARD F. BENSON, English writer
383] (THE BENSONS, English family of writers and ecclesiastics)
385] REGGIE TURNER – (First Part), English writer
386] (EDWARD LEVY-LAWSON, English newspaper owner
387] GEORGE AUGUSTUS SALA, English journalist)
387] ROBERT HICHENS, English writer
390] JOHN LANE, English publisher
391] (HENRY HARLAND, American writer and editor
392] FREDERICK ROLFE, English writer)
395] PART FOUR – EXILE
397] FRANCIS DOUGLAS, VISCOUNT DRUMLANRIG, Scottish aristocrat
398] LORD ROSEBERY, Anglo-Scottish statesman
401] (THE ROTHSCHILD FAMILY, Anglo-Jewish financiers)
403] AN IDEAL HUSBAND
403] LEWIS WALLER, English actor
404] SIR CHARLES WYNDHAM, English actor
405] THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
406] BOSIE DOUGLAS – (Second Part)
408] (THE DOUGLAS FAMILY – Second Part)
411] CHARLES BROOKFIELD, English actor
413] (LORD ROBERT BADEN-POWELL, English soldier
413] E.J. ODELL, English actor and clubman)
414] SIR CHARLES HAWTREY, English actor
416] (JIMMY GLOVER, Irish musical theatre promoter)
417] SIR EDWARD CARSON, Irish barrister
419] (LORD MILNER, English politician)
420] SIR EDWARD CLARKE, English barrister
422] THE JAMESON RAID
423] (JOSEPH CHAMBERLAIN, English politician
423] CECIL RHODES, South African entrepreneur)
424] THE EVENTS OF APRIL 5TH 1895
426] SIR GEORGE LEWIS, English solicitor
427] GEORGE WYNDHAM, English politician
429] (CHARLES GATTY, English politician
429] ARTHUR BALFOUR, English statesman)
431] HERBERT ASQUITH, English statesman
433] (MARGOT ASQUITH, English wife of Herbert Asquith
435] CHARLES WORTH, English couturier
436] ANTHONY ASQUITH, English film director)
436] MRS HUMPHREY WARD, English writer
437] MRS ALICE MEYNELL, English writer
437] (FRANCIS THOMPSON, English poet)
439] REV. STUART HEADLAM, English churchman
441] (CHARLES BRADLAUGH, English politician and free-thinker)
441] WILLIE WILDE – (Second Part)
443] HENRY ARTHUR JONES, English playwright
444] ADA LEVERSON, English writer
445] (BRANDON THOMAS, English actor and playwright)
445] BOSIE DOUGLAS – (Third Part)
446] (THE DOUGLAS FAMILY – Third Part)
447] TO FLEE OR NOT TO FLEE – WHY WILDE STAYED?
451] PRISON CONDITIONS
452] LORD HALDANE, English politician
454] ALFRED AUSTIN, English poet
455] (WILLIAM MORE ADEY, English translator)
456] (SIR EVELYN RUGGLES-BRISE, English prison reformer)
457] DE PROFUNDIS
458] CONSTANCE WILDE – (Second Part)
460] (CYRIL AND VYVYAN WILDE, sons of Oscar Wilde)
462] (MICHAEL DAVITT, Irish politician)
462] JOHN STRANGE WINTER, English novelist
463] CHARLES CONDER, English artist
464] (FRITZ VON THAULOW, Norwegian artist
465] PHIL MAY, English artist)
466] LEONARD SMITHERS, English publisher
469] (REGGIE BACCHUS, English academic and pornographer
469] ALTHEA GYLES, English illustrator
469] ALEISTER CROWLEY, English writer and mystic)
470] THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL
471] (AE HOUSEMAN, English poet)
471] RUDYARD KIPLING, English writer and poet
474] (SIR HENRY NEWBOLT, English poet
474] HENRY RIDER HAGGARD, English novelist)
475] GERTRUDE ATHERTON, American writer
477] JOHN FOTHERGILL, English architect and innkeeper
477] (ARTHUR CLIFTON, English lawyer)
479] ROBERT SHERARD – (Second Part)
481] BOSIE DOUGLAS – (Fourth Part)
482] (THE DOUGLAS FAMILY – Fourth Part)
485] ELEANOUR DUSE, Italian actress
486] (GABRIELE D’ANNUNZIO, Italian writer and adventurer)
487] (AXEL MUNTHE, Swedish writer)
489] THE DREYFUS CASE
489] CARLOS BLACKER, English linguist
490] EMILE ZOLA, French writer
492] MAURICE MAETERLINCK, Belgian playwright
494] ALFRED JARRY, French playwright
495] (AURELIEN LUGNE-POE, French theatre director)
496] HENRI DE TOULOUSE-LAUTREC, French artist
497] (YVETTE GUILBERT, French music hall star
498] ARISTIDE BRUANT, French singer and café owner
499] ERNEST LA JEUNESSE, French journalist)
499] SERGEI DIAGHILEV, Russian ballet impresario
501] (VASLAV NIJINSKY, Russian ballet dancer)
502] DAME NELLIE MELBA, Australian opera singer
505] (EDMUND ROSTAND, French playwright)
505] GEORGINA WELDON, English litigant
508] HAROLD MELLOR, English man of leisure
509] THE FASHODA AFFAIR
510] LORD KITCHENER, Anglo-Irish soldier
513] (SIR HECTOR MACDONALD, Scottish soldier)
514] AUGUSTUS JOHN, Welsh painter
518] AUGUSTE RODIN, French sculptor
521] FRANK HARRIS, Welsh-Jewish editor and writer
526] MRS PATRICK CAMPBELL, English actress
529] (FRED KERR, English actor)
530] ROBERT ROSS – (Second Part)
534] PART FIVE – EPILOGUE
535] REGGIE TURNER – (Second Part)
536] ROBERT ROSS – (Third Part)
539] (SIEGFRIED SASSOON, English poet
539] CHARLES SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, Scottish translator)
540] SIR JACOB EPSTEIN, Anglo-American sculptor
541] BOSIE DOUGLAS – (Fifth Part)
545] ORIGINS OF THE BLACK BOOK TRIAL
548] ARTHUR MACHEN, Welsh journalist
551] (F.E. SMITH, LORD BIRKENHEAD, English lawyer and politician)
551] T.W.H. CROSLAND, English journalist
554] DOLLY WILDE, Anglo-Irish socialite, niece of Oscar Wilde
555] NATALIE BARNEY, American social hostess
556] (MATA HARI, Dutch dancer and spy
557] COLETTE, French writer)
558] CYRIL WILDE, (HOLLAND), Irish son of Oscar Wilde
559] VYVYAN WILDE, (HOLLAND), Irish son of Oscar Wilde
562] THE GREAT WAR
565] APPENDIX 1 – LORD ROSEBERY
567] ALPHABETICAL CHARACTERS
574] INDIVIDUAL TOPICS
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THE OSCAR WILDE WORLD OF GOSSIP
To the Irish author George Moore, he was ‘another Dublin jackeen who plagiarised wholesale, without admitting to his thefts’. To the English critic Sir Edmund Gosse, he was ‘like Punch on a stick, squeaking, and I don’t like the squeak’. To the American author Henry James, he was ‘a fatuous fool and a tenth-rate cad’.
The playwright Noel Coward dismissed him with: ‘What a tiresome affected sod.’ The poet Algernon Swinburne called him ‘a harmless young nobody’. His university professor JP Mahaffy claimed: “He was the one blot on my tutorship”. The French painter Edgar Degas snorted: ‘He looks like an actor playing Lord Byron in a suburban theatre’.
The French diarist Edmond Goncourt noted that he was: ‘an individual of doubtful gender, with a ham actor’s turn of phrase’, while the cartoonist Max Beerbohm described him as: ‘an enormous dowager – or schoolboy’.
The American writer Ambrose Bierce said that he was ‘twin show to the two-headed calf’, and the English journalist TWH Crosland frothed at: ‘the complete mountebank, the scented posturer, the flabby Pharisee’.
However, Sherlock Holmes’s creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle declared that: ‘he towered above us all and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all that was said. He took as well as he gave, but what he gave was unique’.
The Irish impresario Dion Boucicault insisted that: ‘Those, who have known him as I have, know that this is a noble, warm, kind and lovable man’. The French writer Andre Gide thought that: ‘he emitted rays’, while the arch bohemian Paul Verlaine admiringly added that he was ‘a true pagan’.
The actor Sir Frank Benson called him: ‘that savage, irresponsible, talented being’, while the American poet Walt Whitman noted: “He is so frank and outspoken and manly”.
WB Yeats wrote: ‘he was one of our eighteenth century duellists born in the wrong century. He would be a good leader in a cavalry charge. It was the man I admired, who was to show so much courage and who was so loyal to the intellect’.
Sir William Rothenstein, the painter, said: ‘He talked as others painted or wrote; talking was his art. I have certainly never heard his equal’; and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the actor, enthused: ‘He turned his words into gems and flung them to the moon’.
His friend Robert Ross recorded that: ‘among the fine qualities he showed in his later years, was that he never blamed anyone but himself for his own disasters. He never bore any ill will to anybody’.
Another friend, Robert Sherard, said: “If he had taught me nothing but the great value and happiness of life, I should still owe him an un-payable debt”.
The American man-about-town Sam Ward concluded that: “He is one of the few men who gain the more you know him.”
When he died in 1900, Oscar Wilde’s reputation was at its lowest ebb. Owing to his imprisonment for homosexuality, his writings were ignored, his philosophy regarded as poisonous, his associates scattered or dead, and his life seen as fit only as a moralistic warning on the inevitable result of criminal perversion. His detractors, though, had failed to appreciate one of Oscar’s aphorisms: ‘Let us remember that art is the one thing which death cannot harm’.
At first, it was through the efforts of a few dedicated friends, (chiefly Robert Ross), that the memory of Wilde remained intact. But, even as early as 1905, certain influential elements of the British establishment were beginning to suffer an uneasy conscience over the treatment he had received. In the wider society, although his name was mentioned only in disapproving whispers or in risqué jokes, the commercial possibilities of his greatest comedies proved irresistible. ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ became staple theatrical fare, irrespective of its provenance.
As Wilde’s contemporaries died off in the 1930s and 40s, a new generation, unscarred by personal experience of the scandal, took up the story. Foremost among Wilde’s champions was the redoubtable British actor Robert Morley, who in 1936 played the role of Oscar in the first, (but by no means last), stage dramatisation of his life, (‘Oscar Wilde’ by Leslie and Sewell Stokes). It was a heroic, if forlorn, attempt – although produced at a few theatre clubs, the play was banned from public performance by the Lord Chamberlain. Ten years later an appreciative biography by Hesketh Pearson had a significant effect on the reading public, although in the 1950s much of the public reticence and distaste for the subject could still be found in the work of such adversarial biographers as St John Ervine, (Oscar Wilde: A Present Time Appraisal. 1951.)
The year of 1960 proved to be the turning point for Wilde’s reputation. Two biographical feature films of his life appeared almost within a week of each other, both deeply sympathetic to his character. One starred the Australian actor Peter Finch, the other, Oscar’s long-time supporter Robert Morley. After sixty years of popular abuse or silence, suddenly the story of Oscar’s life was dominating the local cinema. In the theatre, the Anglo-Irish actor Michael MacLiammoir opened his outstanding one-man show, ‘The Importance of Being Oscar’, to international acclaim. Wilde was back with a vengeance.
As the Sixties gathered pace, the spirit of rebellion drew some of its inspiration from the 1890s age of decadence. The drawings of Oscar’s contemporary, Aubrey Beardsley, matched Che Guevara’s poster as obligatory wall decoration across the student world; (Beardsley had the posthumous experience of having a collection of his work taken into police custody on a charge of obscenity – a highly fashionable career move in 1966).
But it was Wilde who became the iconic patron from the past. His photograph appeared on the front cover of the 1967 Beatles ‘Sergeant Pepper’ album, while in the same year the Rolling Stones celebrated Mick Jagger’s release from prison on a drugs charge by making a video called ‘We Love You’ based, (loosely), on Oscar’s own jail experiences. In the style wars of the Sixties, he gave validity to what was assumed to be ephemeral.
Over the following decades, the public attitude to Wilde changed immeasurably. The revival of Oscar’s fortunes that began in 1960 had turned into a steady deluge of biographical depiction.
Not surprisingly the theatre led the way. Productions ranged from Peter Coe’s ‘Feasting With Panthers’ (starring Tom Baker), to Moises Kaufman’s ‘Gross Indecency’ (starring, in different productions, Corin Redgrave, then Michael Pennington), to John Gay’s ‘Diversions and Delights’ (starring Vincent Price, and later Sir Donald Sinden). The Canadian actor Maxim Mazumdar played Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, in ‘Oscar Remembered’, and Simon Callow revived the MacLiammoir one-man show in 1997.
Leading playwrights and academics were also drawn to the subject – David Hare in ‘The Judas Kiss’ (starring Liam Neeson), Tom Stoppard in ‘The Invention of Love’, and Terry Eagleton in ‘Saint Oscar’ (starring Stephen Rea).
There have been three major documentaries on television – Irish RTE’s ‘Oscar Wilde, Spendthrift of Genius’ in 1986, Channel 4’s ‘Indecent Acts’ in 1996, and the BBC’s ‘Omnibus’ in 1997. In 1985, the BBC also produced a three-part dramatised biography ‘Wilde’, starring Michael Gambon.
In addition to the two 1960 films, the cinema has produced the offbeat Wilde-orientated 1995 film ‘A Man of No Importance’ starring Albert Finney, and the popular Julian Mitchell scripted 1997 film ‘Wilde’, starring Stephen Fry. The director Oliver Parker has spent part of his career creating films out of Wilde’s plays, while Mike Barker directed ‘A Good Woman’ starring Scarlett Johansson in 2004.
In recent years, several international Oscar Wilde Societies, (especially in Britain, the USA, and Japan), have been established with the purpose of exploring and celebrating every aspect of his life and work. The excellent ‘Oscholars’ website launched Oscar on to the Internet.
Wilde was finally given his place in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner in 1995 and, by the centenary of his death in 2000, statues to his memory had been erected in both London and Dublin.
In the 21st century, a day seldom passes without hearing or reading a Wilde quote somewhere across the media. His work is constantly performed on professional and amateur stages throughout the world. In some European countries he is considered as second only to Shakespeare in the pantheon of English-language literature. In 2007, the Vatican published a collection of Wildean maxims for Christians. His reputation has travelled from obloquy to respectability to virtual deification.
But nowhere has there been such a concentration of attention than in the world of biography. There have been so many books and articles on Wilde and his world that it is pointless even to try to list them, (a glance at the bibliography of this volume will give a partial idea of the range).
In particular, the biography that demands special attention is the brilliant 1988 ‘Wilde’ by Richard Ellman. It remains the benchmark by which all others have to be judged. In some senses, everything else since has been either supplementary or literally academic. (Unfortunately, probably due to Ellman’s untimely death, there were some glaring errors in the published text. These however have been amended in ‘Additions and Corrections to Richard Ellman’s Oscar Wilde’ by Horst Schroeder, published in 2002.)
It could be said that if a reader possessed ‘The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde’, ‘The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde’ (edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davies, 2000), and probably the Ellman biography, there would be little need to read anything else on the subject.
Certainly Wilde himself would agree: ‘Biographers – those second rate literati, who arrive with the undertaker. The body snatchers of literature. The dust is given to one and the ashes to another and the soul is entirely out of their reach’. His great contemporary Bernard Shaw was even more specific: ‘It is a pity that Wilde still tempts men to write lives of him. If ever there was a writer whose prayer to posterity might have been ‘Read my works; and let my life alone’ it was Oscar’.
Therefore, why on earth write yet another book on Wilde?
The answer lies in another of Wilde’s quotes, in ‘The Critic as Artist’: ‘He who desires to understand Shakespeare truly must understand the relations in which Shakespeare stood to the Renaissance and the Reformation, to the age of Elizabeth and the age of James’.
My personal involvement began when I first read Hesketh Pearson’s biography, ‘The Life of Oscar Wilde’, (first published in 1946). It turned out to be a revelation. Some modern biographies, fuelled by the pursuit of exactitude, their authors’ occasional aloofness to their chosen subjects, (and the bread-loaf size of the books – to which this volume admittedly is no exception), give the impression that they have all been written by the same person. Pearson belonged firmly to an older school of biography – of devil-may-care, partisan, elbow-nudging verve. Reading his ‘Wilde’ was like glimpsing an impressionist painting, as opposed to examining an autopsy.
He revealed Wilde as a rebel whose weapon was laughter; an intellectual to whom pedantry was anathema; a man of conspicuous kindness who was capable of annihilating his opponents in a sentence; a sage who declared that most people died of creeping common sense; an amiably boozy, overweight, tragic hero who flew too near the sun, crashed to his ruin, and then, on his deathbed, joked about the wallpaper. He was the ultimate ‘lion in a den of Daniels’. To me, he was an intoxicating discovery.
By the onset of the 1980s, I felt that many of the attitudes that Wilde had lampooned so mercilessly one hundred years previously were reappearing. The same predatory commercialism, the same philistine disparagement of culture, the same net curtain-fluttering morality – in short, the same ‘Victorian values’ that he had despised. In a quixotic effort to defy this trend, I constructed a one-man theatre show entitled ‘Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes’. This fifty-minute monologue was set in a Paris café in 1898, and covered Oscar’s comic heyday, his descent into jail, and his last years in exile.
The subsequent tour has taken me from Reno to Reykjavik, from Hong Kong to Harare, from ecstatic highs to humiliating lows, but has never, ever, been dull. No theatrical tour that has included finding that a proposed venue in Jordan has been blown up by religious zealots two days before performance, (resulting in having to recite a show extract in a Roman amphitheatre, wearing a baseball cap, with a Jordanian Army bagpipe band standing to attention behind me); or that included a lost horse wandering on stage during a performance could be described as boring. But what had started as a short theatrical venture turned, almost without my realising it, into an odyssey that has lasted for almost four decades.
In 2001, I set out to compile a small book of Wilde quotes that I thought would be a useful accompaniment to the tour shows. Finding that there were dozens of similar books already available, not to mention the competition from Wilde quotes on everything from calendars to tea towels, I decided to supplement the idea by including some biographical material on Wilde’s contemporaries.
It was while doing this research that I soon found that I had stumbled on to a huge topic. Wilde had been acquainted with over three hundred of the most interesting figures of the Victorian age. Some were world famous; others were virtually unknown. My own interest took fire as I became curious as to what connection did Wilde have to such disparate figures as Queen Victoria and Toulouse-Lautrec. What did he think of them – and what did they think of him?
Then again, who were those almost anonymous extras who had darted on to Oscar’s stage for a brief paragraph in the biographies and then disappeared – and what had happened to them? People I knew little or nothing about – such as Rennell Rodd or Herbert Vivian or Georgina Weldon? The more I unravelled, the more fascinating it became. As I trawled through the hundreds of memoirs on the period, these characters and the extraordinary stories attached to them became my central theme. Oscar Wilde was the link, but his vast acquaintanceship was the story.
As the years of research ended, I found that, having accumulated almost two million words in biographical notes, the initial small volume on Wilde had expanded into a panorama of the Victorian world. I had largely followed Disraeli’s dictum: ‘Read no history, nothing but biography, for that is life without theory’.
But I felt that the real value of the gathered information lay, not in the bare bones of biography, (the sort of information that one could acquire easily from the Dictionary of National Biography or the Internet), but in the flesh and blood detail of their lives. It was the minor but revealing stories, the personal quirks, that gave life and colour to the characters.
As Victor Hugo once wrote: ‘This is where, and we insist on this, this is where life is, the throbbing, the shuddering of humanity. Little details are the foliage, so to speak, of big events and are lost in the remoteness of history.’
It had also uncovered a treasury of hilarious, and mostly forgotten, anecdotes. Admittedly, some of them are known and a few are famous, but this was the first time they had been gathered together. More importantly, many of the best stories had not been in circulation since Victorian times.
It was with this exciting sense of re-discovery that I set about reducing the mountain of notes to a manageable book. I found that the best way of organising the material was to use a chronological format and introduce the characters roughly at the time they had encountered Oscar Wilde. Although this gives some figures an anachronistic tinge, (for instance, the pen-portrait of George Moore is slotted into 1864, while he was still an important figure in the 1930s), generally speaking they match their eras.
Another problem was establishing the truth of many of the rumours and assertions current in the 1880s and 90s. Who did what to whom behind closed doors a century ago is always going to be debatable. While giving some leeway to Wilde’s argument: ‘Legends are often more true than reality’, when in doubt I have attempted to provide the most likely interpretation.
While definitely not setting out to write a conventional biography of Wilde, (it having been accomplished so often and successfully before), I have constructed a bare-bones narrative of his life as the link material that holds the 300 character-sketches together. Also, I added some short pieces on various aspects of his life and relevant historical events that seemed of interest – in particular, Oscar’s activities in America, his writings, his clubs and restaurants, his life in prison, and such events as the Paris Commune, the Sudan campaign, and the Jameson Raid.
Just as many modern day attitudes would shock a resurrected Victorian, so many Victorian attitudes now shock the 21st century. I decided to refrain as much as possible from personal comment on the sometimes outrageous activities of the characters involved. Oscar wrote: ‘I know that there are many historians who still think it necessary to apply moral judgments to history and who distribute their praise or blame with the solemn complacency of a successful schoolmaster’ ….. ‘Nobody with the true historical sense ever dreams of blaming Nero, or scolding Tiberius, or censuring Caesar Borgia’.
The 19th century was an age of airy prejudice and both sexual and racial generalisation, and now provides a minefield in the use of politically correct terminology. On reflection, I decided to retain the use of the older words, and apologise for any offence in so doing. When such terms as ‘Red Indian’ and ‘Negro’ have been used in quotation, I have left them intact. For easier reference, I have italicised the names of those characters whose lives appear in individual sections elsewhere in the book. Also, when referring to Wilde’s lover. Lord Alfred Douglas, I have used his familiar nickname of ‘Bosie’ simply because, with so many of the Douglas family involved in the story, it avoids confusion.
I have to emphasise my huge debt to the hundreds of biographers, archivists and memoirists whose work provided the information in the first place, (most of whom are listed in the bibliography). As the British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour said: ‘History repeats itself; historians repeat each other’; and without their efforts over the last 150 years, little of this book could exist. I hope that my work in bringing their magnificent stories back into currency is some small recompense for the fascination and enjoyment they have given me.
I make no apology for the fact that the book is about (almost dedicated to) comic incident and gossip. Oscar was right: ‘Gossip is charming – history is merely gossip’. It is the element that injects Technicolor into the sepia view of the past. And if the result is laughter, then what better way to celebrate the greatest wit in the English language?
Because, although this book is essentially about the lives of his contemporaries, the golden thread remains the character and memory of the funniest – the friendliest – the most exhilarating – the cleverest – the most far-sighted – the most courageous – the most forgiving – and the most human of men – Mr Oscar Wilde himself.
Neil Titley, London 2009