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’.
[Benjamin Disraeli purchased the shares that gave Britain the controlling interest in the Suez Canal.]
By 1875, Oscar Wilde was beginning to polish the persona for which he later became known. Having arrived at Oxford as a naïve young man with a lisp and an Irish accent, he now acquired an English public school accent that disguised his true origins so well that even his English contemporaries were fooled. Wilde: ‘My Irish accent was one of the many things I forgot at Oxford’.
His flirtations with Catholicism provided another break with his past. At Oxford, the Irish Protestant Wilde almost became the English Catholic Oscar.
During the spring of 1875, he met Oscar Browning, who was in Oxford on a visit from Cambridge University.
OSCAR BROWNING 1837-1923
Cambridge was also a rich source of eccentric dons and Wilde greeted one of the best known, Oscar Browning, with the words: “I have heard you so much abused that I am sure you must be a most excellent person”. Browning was a Fellow at Kings College, and the two Oscars occasionally fenced over the rival merits of their respective alma maters.
Browning informed him that: “If you had been sent to Cambridge to study science, instead of to Oxford to dawdle over literature, you would know that a hypothesis that explains everything is a certainty”. Wilde yawned back: “Yes, I am aware that Cambridge is a sort of educational institute”.
They kept a distant friendship for many years afterwards. In 1880, Oscar asked Browning for a testimonial when he applied unsuccessfully for the job of Inspector of Schools. In 1889, Browning supplied a sonnet about Bournemouth for Wilde’s magazine ‘Women’s World’; and he was also the Cambridge tutor of Wilde’s protégé, Robert Ross.
Wilde’s only objection to Browning was that: “I wish he was not called Oscar”.
E.F. Benson wrote that: ‘Browning was a genius flawed by abysmal fatuity. It was impossible to meet him and not be aware that of his great intellectual force. But it was also impossible not to be aware that he was a buffoon.’
Prior to his arrival at Cambridge in 1875, Browning had been at the centre of a scandal at Eton. He had been a colleague of the famed William Johnson, the author of ‘The Eton Boating Song’. Johnson, said to be ‘averse to the company of women’, had been the mentor of such future luminaries as Lord Rosebery, Viscount Esher, the Marquess of Lorne, and the Rev. Stuart Headlam. After compromising letters to schoolboys were discovered, Johnson was dismissed in 1872, changed his name to William Cory, and abandoned teaching.
Learning nothing from Johnson/Cory’s fate, Browning fell into a similar trap when he was accused of excessive intimacy with another schoolboy, the future Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. In fact, he may have been innocent of this charge. Curzon certainly bore him no ill will, remaining a friend for fifty years, and introducing his old schoolmaster to his wife with the words ‘Whatever I am, my dear, I owe it all to Mr Browning’.
After his sacking from Eton, Kings College provided Browning with a welcome refuge. At the time the college was reserved for the exclusive use of Old Etonians; they could become Fellows as long as they remained unmarried. While, if they wished to become scholars, no obstacle was placed in their path, it was equally acceptable to do nothing at all.
This policy produced some very strange Fellows. One of them had lived at Kings from his early twenties. Now an elderly man, he was never seen except at twilight when he would emerge from his rooms, shuffle across the college lawn stabbing at the worms in the grass with his walking stick, and rasping: “Damn you: you haven’t got me yet”.
On Sunday evenings, Browning opened his rooms to an assembly of assorted guests – distinguished notables, selected students, and occasional young muscular sailors. Although the alcohol provided was described as ‘a curious pink liqueur tasting of floor polish’, Browning would be sufficiently inspired by it to entertain his guests with comic songs.
One undergraduate wrote enigmatically: ‘Presently the piano began in the room beyond and we went in to watch our host trolling out ‘The Road To Mandalay ’ with immense gusto. At the close of his performance, the clarinet player gave him a spanking.’
Browning possessed one of the first en suite bathrooms at Cambridge University into which he would invite young working-class men off the street for a bath. During one Sunday soiree, a prankster locked him inside this bathroom with Queen Victoria’s grandson (and heir to the British Empire), the hapless Prince Eddy. Browning emerged irritated at this lese-majesty, for it might have damaged his intense desire to reach the heights of society.
His snobbery bordered on the heroic. E.F. Benson wrote that: ‘OB’s snobbishness was of a really remarkable order – although already waddling with obesity he took to playing hockey simply for the pleasure of being swiped over the shins by the Prince of Wales’.
After a summer in London, he returned to Cambridge and remarked casually that Wilhelm II of Germany was ‘one of the nicest Emperors’ he had ever met.
Craving acquaintance with the great, he introduced himself to the renowned poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson seemed not to have the slightest idea who he was, so he announced: “I’m Browning”. Tennyson assumed that he was impersonating the poet Robert Browning and grumpily replied: “No, you’re not”.
In June 1875, at the start of the summer vacation, Wilde travelled to Italy with his old Trinity tutor Mahaffy.
They stayed in Florence (June 15), Bologna, Venice (June 19), Padua (June 22), and Verona (June 23).
On June 25, having run out of money, Wilde left Mahaffy in Milan and stayed alone at Arona on Lake Maggiore – ‘a beautiful spot’. He wrote a poem ‘Graffitti D’Italia’ about the place.
Wilde returned via Paris to Ireland, where he visited the family summer home at Moytura, and their small fishing lodge at Illaunroe.
In August, he came back to Dublin where he met Florence Balcombe.
FLORENCE BALCOMBE 1858-1937
and BRAM STOKER 1847-1912
Wilde: ‘To become wise through love’. How that phrase had stirred me in my Oxford days!’
In 1875, while on summer vacation from Oxford, Wilde met the ‘exquisitely pretty’ Florence, the 17-year old daughter of Lt. Col. James Balcombe of Dublin. Oscar was so attracted that they became unofficially engaged for three years. He gave her, among other things, one of his very amateur watercolours of Moytura House, and a gold cross with their names entwined. He declared that it was ‘the sweetest of all the years of my youth’.
Unfortunately, Florence decided that marriage to a financially unsound student was not wise, and rejected him in favour of the older (and fiscally canny) Bram Stoker. Oscar was genuinely hurt by this rebuff and, even in 1881, wrote: ‘She thinks I never loved her, thinks I forget. My God, how could I?’
They remained in occasional contact, Florence attending the first night of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, and Oscar sending her a copy of ‘Salome’. After his death, she always referred to him as ‘Poor O’ and said that her possession of the Moytura watercolour created ‘much envy in the breasts of the Oscar cult’.
The marriage to Stoker, although lasting, was not a particularly happy one. Bram, (shortened from ‘Abraham’), had been a respectable Dublin civil servant and drama critic until 1878 when he fell under the spell of the famous actor, Henry Irving. Throwing up his career in Ireland overnight, he plunged himself into guarding the business affairs of ‘The Guv’ner’, as he called Irving.
On her honeymoon, also in 1878, Florence was surprised to find herself installed in the Plough and Harrow Tavern in Harborne, Birmingham, with her new husband in the throes of business meetings with the great thespian. She never accepted Bram’s neglect of her in favour of his idol.
She was much admired for her beauty. The cartoonist George Du Maurier described her as ‘one of the three most beautiful women in London’, but she had little interest in the physical side of her marriage. Even her son Noel said that she was ‘an ornament, not a woman of passion’. The writer Dan Farson (Stoker’s great-nephew) claimed that, after Noel’s birth, her refusal to indulge in any further sex drove Bram to the use of prostitutes.
Stoker had known the Wilde family in Dublin – (Speranza wrote approvingly: ‘He never gets into debt, and his character is excellent’) – and, even after the tussle over Florence, Oscar showed no animosity towards his successful rival. They met often through their involvement with the London stage.
For twenty-seven years, Stoker provided the crucial business sense that kept Irving and the Lyceum theatre afloat. He estimated that during this time he had written at least half a million letters on Irving’s behalf. Even more importantly, he insisted that he alone held the only key to the financial ledgers’ safe, thus stemming the tide of ‘The Guv’ner’s’ profligacy.
Stoker also managed Irving’s American tours and became an admirer of the USA: ‘Americans have no princes of their own, they make princes of whom they love’. He was very proud of the fact that he managed to keep Irving’s theatre open throughout the Great Blizzard of 1887, (when over four hundred deaths were reported and New Yorkers were forced to cut tunnels through the twenty feet high snowdrifts).
On a visit to the American poet Walt Whitman, he suggested that, if Whitman removed the sexual references from his famous work ‘Leaves of Grass’: “then the book undoubtedly would be in every American home”. Whitman was not impressed.
Stoker’s great achievement was his novel ‘Dracula’. This excellent tale of Transylvanian vampirism was written despite the fact that Bram had never been anywhere near Transylvania. Noel Stoker said that the plot came to his father ‘in a nightmarish dream after eating too much dressed crab’. Stoker asked Irving to produce ‘Dracula’ as a play. Having read the manuscript, Irving returned it with a single comment: “Dreadful!”
When they died, both Florence and Bram Stoker were cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, London.
(When this Crematorium was first installed, it was decided to test the workings of the machinery by placing a dead pig into the system. Due to a fault, the body inflated and flew up the chimney. The pig was last spotted drifting away like a bloated balloon over the rooftops of Golders Green.)
In October Wilde returned for his second year at Oxford.
On November 23 1875, he went to hear Cardinal Manning preach at St Aloysius church, St Giles, Oxford. Oscar: ‘He was more fascinating than ever’.
CARDINAL HENRY MANNING 1807-1892
From the 1860s onwards, English theological certainties were shaken by the scientific theories of Darwin and by du Chaillu’s examinations of the gorilla, an animal too closely resembling mankind for comfort. (Wilde: ‘Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions’.) Under attack from rationalism, many intellectuals converted to Roman Catholicism.
Although Wilde never joined the Church, (even his ‘deathbed conversion’ is suspect), he was attracted by the sensuality and beauty of its ceremonies. Occasionally he questioned its aesthetics. In 1898, when he was in the Vatican City, he commented: “I am sorry to say that the Pope has approved of a dreadful handkerchief, with a portrait of himself in the middle, and basilicas at the corners. It is very curious the connexion between Faith and bad art”.
However, particularly at Oxford, he was very sympathetic to the faith: ‘I look on all the different religions as colleges in a great university. Roman Catholicism is the greatest and most romantic of them’. In his rooms at Magdalen, he hung portraits of the two famed English Cardinals – Manning and Newman.
Both of these men were themselves converts. Manning had been an Anglican clergyman till his late thirties; then, after visiting Rome and talking with the Pontiff, Pius IX, he became a Catholic priest. He enjoyed a meteoric rise through the hierarchy. Within fourteen years, he became supreme in English Catholicism when he succeeded the deceased incumbent, Cardinal Wiseman, as Archbishop of Westminster. By 1875, he had been made a cardinal himself.
(Wiseman, incidentally, had been something of a gourmet. One Lent, his disciples were saddened to see Wiseman devouring four courses of fish for dinner. One of them sighed: ‘I am sorry to say that there is a lobster salad side to the Cardinal’.)
Manning was a redoubtable social reformer, (he supported Irish Home Rule, backed the 1889 Dockers Strike, campaigned for teetotalism, and tried to break the White Slave Traffic), but was also an astute and worldly man. Lytton Strachey said that Manning reminded him of the sixteenth century prelate, Cardinal Wolsey.
Manning filled large scrapbooks with all the newspaper cuttings he could find about himself. He also enjoyed pumping his confidential secretary, J.E.C. Bodley, for all the latest gossip, after which he would slap Bodley on the back and chuckle: “Well, it’s a wicked old world, isn’t it?” Bodley: ‘In his youth Manning was a terrible converter, but when I knew him he was rather sick of it and never attempted to convert me’.
In 1870, Manning attended the First Session of the Vatican Council in Rome. He told Bodley that, to find out what they had been doing at the Council, the Cardinals always read The Times the next day. It was at this conference that the Pope was declared to be Infallible, a decision that Manning (and Wilde) supported.
It was this decision, among other things, that led Manning to clash with his rival, JOHN NEWMAN (1801-1890). ‘The Divine Noggs’, as he was known, was an important force in Victorian Catholicism. He founded oratories in London and Birmingham, created the new Catholic university in Dublin, and wrote the popular hymn ‘Lead Kindly Light’ and the poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, (later to become a major musical work by Edward Elgar).
Wilde, though admiring of Newman’s ‘Apologia Pro Vita Sua’ in which he defined the principles governing his life, could not entirely sympathise with him. Wilde: ‘The mode of thought that Cardinal Newman represented – if that can be called a mode of thought which seeks to solve intellectual problems by a denial of the supremacy of the intellect – may not, cannot, I think, survive’.
Manning suspected that Newman would lead English Catholicism away from Papal authority. One of Manning’s close advisors, Monsignor Talbot, said: “To be Roman is to an Englishman an effort. Dr Newman is more English than the English. His spirit must be crushed”.
Beyond doctrinal disagreement, Manning had a personal distaste for his adversary, which he indulged by deliberately choosing as his butler a man called Newman. (When Wilde fell out with his publisher, John Lane, he copied this strategy by, in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, naming the butler ‘Lane’).
For years Manning blocked Newman’s promotion but, in 1877, he relented and apologised. Newman was created a cardinal.
Manning showed some prescience when he declared in 1880: ‘Europe is rejecting Christianity and with it the reign of moral law. The reign of force is now beginning again as in the early stages, and bloodshed and ruin must be the result’
[In the USA, General Custer made his Last Stand, the American Centennial Exposition was held, and the following year Thomas Edison patented the first telephone.
In Germany Wagner’s ‘The Ring of the Nibelungs’ had its first performance at Bayreuth in 1876.
In Britain Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1876, while Gilbert and Sullivan’s first operetta, ‘The Sorcerer’, was performed in 1877.
In 1876, the Bulgarian Massacres led to the start of the Russian-Turkish War. By 1877, the Russian army was held at the Battle of Plevna. The British fleet arrived in the area to prevent any further Russian advance towards Constantinople. Peace was declared in December.]
After another term, Wilde spent the spring vacation of 1876 at Magdalen College studying for exams. This was interrupted on April 19th by news of the death of his father, Sir William. Oscar went over to Dublin for the funeral.
Returning to England, he stayed with his uncle, the Rev. John Wilde at West Ashby, Lincolnshire.
On July 5, Wilde gained a first class Classical Moderations (Mods).
On July 9, he was in Nottinghamshire with his friend, Frank Miles, staying at Bingham Rectory where Miles’s father was vicar.
In August, Oscar went fishing at Illaunroe Lodge, Co Galway, returning to Oxford in October for his third year.
On November 1, he was fined by the Magdalen authorities for dining out of college at the Clarendon Hotel
On November 27, he was underwent further initiation into the Freemasons.
In 1877, Wilde started serious work on his poetry.
QUEEN VICTORIA 1819-1901
Wilde: ‘The three women I have most admired are Queen Victoria, Sarah Bernhardt, and Lily Langtry. I would have married any one of them with pleasure’.
In 1877, Oscar gave vent to this admiration in his poem, ‘Hail Empress’, to celebrate Victoria’s accession as Empress of India. In 1887, when he became editor of the ‘Women’s World’ magazine, he attempted to inspire a reciprocal response when he asked the palace if the Queen would care to submit some verse for the magazine. She responded in a tart note that she had never written a line of poetry ‘serious or comic’ in her life, and that any claim that she had done so was ‘invention and myth’.
He met her once at one of the Prince of Wales’ garden parties – ‘looking like a ruby mounted in jet’ – and said that it was her personality and ‘her exquisite bearing’ that struck him most: ‘I shall never forget her.’ It was an ambivalent position for an Irish nationalist.
His regard wavered only once. While in prison, he grumbled: “If this is the way that Queen Victoria treats her convicts, she does not deserve to have any”.
But, on release, he insisted on placing a picture of the monarch on his wall: ‘Every poet should gaze at the portrait of his Queen all day long’. He also provided a fete for the local French children to celebrate Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee where, as well as the ‘Marseillaise’, they sang ‘God Save The Queen’. Oscar: ‘Well, they said it was ‘God Save the Queen’; and I did not like to differ from them’.
Ascending to the throne at the age of eighteen, Victoria was perhaps the most successful of all British monarchs because her character happened to coincide closely with the British bourgeoisie. She disliked the aristocracy and had the perception to realise that their power had waned; whilst, to her, the working class were virtually a closed book. One of her Prime Ministers, Lord Salisbury, said that: ‘when I knew what the Queen thought I knew pretty certainly what view her subjects would take, and especially the middle class of her subjects’.
One of the values she shared with this section of society was a belief in frugality. She was annoyed when popular sentiment forced her to indulge in her 1887 Golden Jubilee Day – she wanted to get the whole thing over as speedily as possible and refused to pay for it. She saved a fortune out of her £400,000 a year Civil List pension by banking it almost untouched. This money provides the basis for the wealth of the current Royal Family.
Her views on art agreed with popular philistinism. Having been to see ‘King Lear’, she gave her opinion that it was: “a strange, horrible business, but I suppose good enough for Shakespeare’s day”.
Another attitude she shared with her more solid citizens was her insistence on high standards of sexual morality. Whether, in the case of her subjects, this ever rose above vociferous hypocrisy is debatable, but, for her part, it was genuine. She had a real hatred of moral laxity and refused to allow any divorced person at court. Her rigidity was, to some extent, a rebellion against the well-publicised debaucheries of her uncles, led by George IV.
She was fortunate in that the man she married in 1840, Prince Albert, came from a family, the German Dukes of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, whose main contribution to the social fabric appears to have been syphilis. Albert was equally appalled at his upbringing and was happy to join Victoria in her desire for ‘a strict court and a high attitude’. Not all her advisors were so keen; her first counsellor and friend, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, grunted: “Damned morality will ruin us all!”
Although her marriage was not popular at first – Charles Dickens caught the general mood with his jibes at Albert ‘Saxe-Humbug-Go-to-Her’ – the union was phenomenally successful. Victoria and Albert produced nine children, forty- one grandchildren, and eighty-seven great-grandchildren. Prince Bismarck described the Coburgs as ‘the stud farm of Europe’.
For twenty years, the royal pair enjoyed a generally idyllic life, becoming involved in all manner of social improvements – the development of the South Kensington museums (known as ‘Albertopolis’) being a lasting example.
Victoria was never fond of Buckingham Palace as it was overrun by rats, and preferred to stay in the Highland castle of Balmoral. After Albert had improved the building by converting it into a sort of German Schloss and papering the walls in tartan, they settled into a lifestyle that became known as ‘Balmorality’. The courtiers were ordered to wear kilts, Victoria learned Highland dancing, and Albert laboriously studied Gaelic.
To avoid unnecessary expenditure, Victoria rationed the fires. As a result, Balmoral proved to be so cold that Albert, who was prematurely bald, was forced to wear a wig.
Occasionally, the Queen returned to Buckingham Palace for official duties, one of which was the reception of debutantes in the State drawing-room. (Wilde’s wife, Constance, was presented there in 1887). It was noticed that Victoria seldom stayed longer than ten minutes at these events, leaving the duties to her daughter-in-law, the Princess of Wales. Robert Hichens was told that the reason for this was that the endless flow of deeply curtseying women before her made Victoria feel seasick.
Once, on her round of civic duties, she arrived in Cambridge. Until the 1890s, when the city sanitation was modernised, all sewage went directly into the River Cam. The official tour, led by the Master of Trinity, happened to cross over a bridge; Victoria, looking down at the water, noticed some pieces of paper floating downstream and asked what they were. The Master, thinking quickly, replied: “Those, ma’am, are notices that bathing is forbidden”.
The state of the Cambridge sewage system might have had some bearing on the fact that in 1861, Albert, visiting Cambridge to upbraid his son Bertie for a misdemeanour, caught typhoid fever and died. Victoria, stricken at the loss, became a semi-recluse. She did not forgive her son for his relatively blameless involvement in Albert’s death.
Bertie, otherwise known as the Prince of Wales, constantly suffered from her grudging disapproval of almost everything he did. When the Queen banned smoking in the royal residence, he had to hang a sign reading ‘WC’ on the door of a small pantry and use it as a secret smoking room.
When he married the Danish Princess Alexandra, Victoria was in a particularly bad mood and ordered that the wedding should take place at Windsor, rather than at the more prestigious Westminster Abbey. The command went out that British sailors should not cheer Alexandra’s arrival at Gravesend, and neither should the boys of Eton cheer her arrival at Windsor. Her first morning with her new in-laws was spent being taken on a tour of Albert’s illuminated mausoleum.
Even later in Victoria’s life, when she returned to some measure of public visibility, the Queen was still in thrall to Albert’s memory. When discussing matters of state with ministers, she would often interrupt the conversation to walk away and ask Albert’s marble bust what was the best policy. Disraeli, on his deathbed, famously declined a visit from his sovereign: “No, it is better not. She will only ask me to take a message to Albert”.
Victoria was regarded as naïve. Allegedly, when she signed the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 which severely increased the penalties for homosexuality (the law that was to wreck Wilde), she refused to include a similar ban on lesbians, saying that: “no woman would do such a thing”. (In fact, this story appears to have been something of a sub-urban myth.)
In fact, at least six of her major courtiers were themselves homosexual. One of them, Alick Yorke, was the man who provoked the immortal line: “We are not amused”, when asked to repeat an indecent anecdote.
Oscar made the observation that courtiers were ‘slaves’. ‘But they get to like it. It becomes second nature to them. If an old courtier is dismissed from Her Majesty’s service, he grows wretched. He often dies of it. You see he cannot breathe in any other air. Courtiers and actors all live other people’s lives’.
One courtier who would not have approved of this comment was the Highlander John Brown. After Albert’s death, he held an extraordinary position in Victoria’s household – partly servant, possibly lover, and definitely drinking companion, (whisky was their preference). There were rumours that they had secretly married, (and even that they had produced a child together, who died aged ninety as a recluse in Paris.)
But what really upset the royal household was Brown’s brusque treatment of his social superiors. Sir Arthur Bigge, the Queen’s private secretary, rose one morning at Balmoral intending to go out angling. Brown suddenly appeared as Sir Arthur donned his waders, eyed him sternly, and announced: “Ye’ll no be going fishing, laddie. Her Majesty thinks it’s about time ye did some work”.
Victoria’s reign lasted sixty-three years and she was acknowledged as an intelligent and – eventually – a beloved monarch. She had been fortunate in her mentors. Lord Melbourne, Prince Albert, Disraeli, even John Brown, had steered her well.
During her Diamond Jubilee in 1898, a British Ambassador, Lord Stair, was asked why affairs ran so much more equably under the rule of a queen than under a king. He replied: “Because a reigning King is ruled by women, and a Queen by men”.
From January till March 1875, Wilde stayed at Magdalen College and finally managed to meet Walter Pater.
WALTER PATER 1839-1894
Perhaps the greatest influence on Wilde during his student days was the don, Walter Pater, who he met in his third year at college. Pater’s book, ‘Studies in the History of the Renaisance’, had been Oscar’s bible for several years. In an idea borrowed from French writers, it propounded the theory of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, that modern man should imitate the sensuous life of the Renaissance, while burning always with a ‘hard gem-like flame’. Wilde described it as ‘my golden book which has had such a strange influence over my life’.
Pater’s effect on Wilde may have gone beyond the intellectual. Frank Harris reported that, on one occasion, Pater made a pass at Oscar, kneeling down before him and kissing his hand. Oscar rebuffed him, and the embarrassed don muttered: “I had to, I had to – once”. Bodley, strongly hinting at homosexuality, said that Pater had turned his protégé into ‘an extreme aesthete’.
One of Pater’s tenets was that ‘poetry is only a beautiful stepping stone to prose’, and asked Wilde: “Why don’t you write prose? It’s so much more difficult to write than poetry”. Wilde, in a major shift of his literary career, agreed: ‘Prose so fascinates me that I prefer to sit at its organ than to play on the pipe or reed of poetry.’
Oscar’s early reverence for Pater lessened with age. He disliked Pater’s timidity over homosexuality in general and over Wilde’s book ‘Dorian Gray’ in particular: “Oscar is really too bold…. sooner or later he’ll come to grief”. Wilde – ‘Dear Pater was always frightened of my propaganda’ – now thought of his ex-hero as ‘a vicarage Verlaine’.
He especially mocked Pater’s habit of whispering his lectures, a habit Max Beerbohm called ‘a form of self-communion’. Pater asked Wilde after one such address: “I hope you heard me, Mr Wilde?” “We overheard you”. For his part Pater, although outwardly civil, came to dislike Oscar, disparaging ‘the strange vulgarity which Mr Wilde mistakes for charm’.
In 1894, when Wilde was told that Pater was dead, he replied: “Was he ever alive?”
Soon after graduating at Oxford, where, uncharacteristically, he had involved himself in rowing, (it was said that he would have been a brilliant cox if the riverbanks hadn’t kept getting in the way), Pater gained a Fellowship at Brasenose College, where he remained most of his academic life.
As his nickname was ‘Judas’, he was evidently not a popular figure. One undergrad said that Pater would slink around the college ‘as though he had committed a theft’. He lived a hermit-like existence of ‘decorous dullness’, being cared for by his two colourless sisters, and regularly stopping in bed till noon – ‘a man who wore out more sheets than shoes’. Although personally supine, Pater admired male strength and kept a bust of Hercules in his rooms.
He once alarmed a student called Sanctuary by ordering him to report to the senior common room. Sanctuary, expecting a rebuke, was surprised to hear an uneasy Pater stammering: “Oh, Mr Sanctuary…I…I just wanted to say to you…what a very beautiful name you have got”.
Pater was known for his refusal to allow any humour at all in his later writings. The novelist Israel Zangwill mischievously told him that his book on Plato contained a bad pun. Pater was mortified and demanded to know where it was; Zangwill refused to tell him. Pater spent weeks irritably scouring the pages for the non-existent witticism.
After Vice Chancellor Jowett became worried over Pater’s louche reputation and had firmly blocked any further advancement at Oxford, Pater spent much of his time in London. While there, he became a close friend of the eccentric Dr. Lee, the rector of All Saints, Lambeth.
(Lee’s main religious crusade was against inappropriate names being chosen at christenings. He was strongly opposed to any name that might ‘carry a lascivious sound’ and also against long strings of names. He thought it was the duty of all clergymen to alter such mistakes, whether the parents were willing or not. His parishioners complained that the rector named all the girls Mary after the Virgin and all the boys Frederick after himself.
At one christening, he boomed out: ‘Name this child’. The mother, unaware of Lee’s opinions, whispered: “Archibald Ferdinand De Courcy Paget Reginald”. She was astounded when her baby was baptised with the inevitable ‘Frederick’. During the understandable row that took place in the vestry afterwards, Dr Lee overrode all objections with the breezy announcement: “Oh, well, it’s done now and can’t be altered!”)
In March 1877 Wilde accompanied Mahaffy to Italy, travelling via Paris, Turin and Genoa to Ravenna (the subject of his later poem). Mahaffy steered Oscar away from Rome and off to Greece – ‘from Popery to Parnassus’.
They left Brindisi on April 1st, sailing first to Corfu, (‘this sea-tranced isle’ and the setting of Wilde’s poem ‘Santa Decca’), then to Zante (3 April), Katakola, Olympia, then on horseback to Andritzena (7 April), Argos, and Nauplia.
They next took a ship to Athens (13 April) and Mycenae (21 April).
On April 21, Wilde set sail for Naples, experiencing a ferocious ‘but exhilarating’ storm in passage across the Mediterranean.
He arrived in Rome in late April where he re-met Hunter-Blair and spent ten days with him.
Arriving back in Oxford on April 30, Oscar found himself rusticated for arriving back in college one month late.
He was banned for two terms, from April till October: ‘I was sent down from Oxford for being the first undergraduate to visit Olympia.’
On 1st May 1877, the Masonic Churchill Lodge appointed Wilde to the office of Junior Deacon.
On the same day, he came down to visit Frank Miles in London for a week. During this period, he attended the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery with a friend, Lord Ronald Gower, and went to hear the German composer, Richard Wagner, conduct from his work ‘The Flying Dutchman’.
LORD RONALD GOWER 1845-1916
By 1877, Wilde’s acquaintance began to extend beyond the academic world; one of the first of his new contacts was Lord Ronald Gower, nine years his senior. Gower, another homosexual, was interested in the young Oxford student, whom he declared would be ‘the new Byron’. Gower had no patience with what he described as Oscar’s ‘long-haired head full of nonsense regarding the Church of Rome’, and set about vigorously debunking any thought of conversion.
Although refusing the offer of a holiday in Paris, Wilde accepted Gower’s invitation in May 1877 to the new Grosvenor Gallery opening.
Despite a bohemian life style, Gower was indisputably aristocratic. He was the younger son of the Duke of Sutherland; his nephew the Marquess of Lorne married Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise; while his uncles were the Dukes of Norfolk and Devonshire. Cliveden, the magnificent mansion overlooking the River Thames where Wilde was later a guest, was just one of the family homes. Three of Gower’s four sisters became duchesses. Oscar was flattered to be introduced to one of them, the Duchess of Westminster, at the Gallery opening; it was his first entrée into the fashionable world.
Gower was a sculptor of some repute, today best known for his Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare memorial. Wilde was present at the unveiling in 1888 and made a speech at the ceremony proposing the health of the sculptor. He wrote that he had been ‘speaking at Stratford about Shakespeare, but in spite of that enjoyed my visit immensely’. Gower introduced a mischievous addition to his statues by deliberately exaggerating Prince Hal’s phallus, an act privately denounced by J.A. Symonds as ‘moral insanity’.
There is a strong possibility that Wilde had Gower in mind when he created the character of ‘Lord Henry Wotton’ in his novel ‘Dorian Gray’.
Gower had been very good-looking in his youth, a blessing he found to be mixed. In 1866, aged 21, he went off to witness the conflict between Italy and Austria. He was present at the Battle of Salo and met the wounded Italian leader Garibaldi. While staying at an inn after the battle, he was mistaken for a girl by one of Garibaldi’s volunteers and spent the night fending the man off with a broom.
Then, in 1870, eager for more battle-tourism, (this time the Franco-Prussian War), he was arrested by German troops who suspected he was ‘a Frenchwoman in male attire’.
After his release by the disappointed Prussians, he travelled with an old friend W.H. Russell, the renowned war correspondent, only to be involved in a further incident. The goat (or ‘bock’) was used commonly in Germany as the sign over a beer-tavern. Russell, who was fond of heraldry, had inscribed his family coat of arms, with the motto of ‘Che sara sara’, on his travelling carriage. Unfortunately the coat of arms included a prominent goat. Gower and Russell were held at gunpoint as their conveyance was ransacked, to no avail, by thirsty Prussian troops.
One experience that both Wilde and Gower shared, although on separate occasions, was being witness to a public guillotining. They were both shocked by it. Gower described: ‘beyond, on the outskirts of the crowd, women shouting in carriages, rouged and painted, and far more horrible than the sight one had just turned away sick at heart from.’ Wilde reported: ‘I have seen the victim look green with fright. They are kind to him up to the last minute. He may smoke a cigarette as he goes to the Place de la Roquette, but once there, what a change. They are on him like tigers, and his head is thrust into the groove under the knife as if he were not a man at all’.
Gower’s sexual taste was mainly for working class ‘rough trade’ youths, but he finally settled into a form of domesticity with a friend called Frank Hird (in 1898, he made Hird his legal son). Wilde: “Gower should be seen but not Hird”.
Gower was never discreet about his homosexual proclivities but his social circle excused or ignored his behaviour. Wilde: ‘Civilised society is never very ready to believe anything to the detriment of those who are both rich and fascinating’.
Nevertheless, despite his position, in April 1895 Gower found it expedient to make a rapid exit from England when Wilde’s ruin became apparent.
Gower spent much of his life travelling the world; he viewed most of it with a jaundiced eye. He went to Egypt during a cholera outbreak and declared that: ‘the native doctors were worse than useless’. It seemed that they would stand as far away as possible from their patients and ‘examine them through opera glasses’.
While in Japan in 1884, he attended a sumo-wrestling match: ‘I have never seen such grotesquely hideous fat men as these wrestlers were – except at a French bathing-place’.
Stopping in Rome to view the Sistine Madonna, he wrote that he ‘noticed that the Child Jesus has a very decided squint’.
RICHARD WAGNER 1813-1883
Wilde: ‘I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says’.
In the same week as Oscar’s visit to the Grosvenor Gallery, he also went to see Richard Wagner conducting excerpts from ‘The Flying Dutchman’ at the Albert Hall. In common with such poets as Tennyson and Swinburne, music was not really Wilde’s forte. E.F. Benson wrote: ‘Oscar Wilde, oddly enough, though he had so keen and just a sense of music in spoken or written words, he had absolutely no sense of music itself, being practically unable to distinguish one tune from another’.
The concert itself was not entirely successful. The composer Ethel Smyth was present and said of Wagner that he was ‘an undersized man with a huge head, apparently in a towering rage from start to finish of the concert – no doubt the performance was insufficiently rehearsed’. Wagner masked any chagrin by going shopping at Whiteley’s department store in Bayswater, (where he bought a rocking horse.)
Wagner had a huge influence on the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Although then regarded as a musical revolutionary, his work was more of a culmination of German romantic music than the start of a new form. Debussy said of him: ‘Wagner was a beautiful sunset that has been mistaken for a sunrise’. In spite of this, many contemporaries considered his work to be an outrage.
Rossini’s famous comment that it had ‘lovely moments but awful half hours’ was mild in comparison to Tolstoy’s fulminations on the ‘counterfeit art’ and ‘nonsensical rubbish’ of ‘The Ring of the Nibelungs’. Robert Browning described him as ‘a monster of peacock-like vanity’. Mark Twain was more consolatory: ‘Wagner’s music is better than it sounds’.
Wagner had begun his professional life as a jobbing conductor. By 1848, he had completed three operas, ‘The Flying Dutchman’, ‘Lohengrin’, and ‘Tannhauser’. He had intended calling the latter work, ‘Der Venusburg’, until friends pointed out that the title, ‘The Mound of Venus’, might lead to ribaldry. He hastily renamed it.
His career was interrupted when, in 1849, he joined a revolutionary group called the Young German Movement and became involved in street fighting against the authorities. He was forced into exile from Germany for the next eleven years, much of this time being spent in Zurich and the rest in conducting his work around European cities.
He relied a lot on female company and had numerous affairs throughout his life. His second wife Cosima was the daughter of the composer Franz Liszt; another mistress was Judith Gautier, the daughter of the French poet Theophile Gautier and wife of the French critic Catulle Mendes. He was attacked for his libidinous nature as well as for his art. Mahaffy: ‘‘Wagner was an unutterable cad and should have been hounded out of all decent society”.
His real character lay in his utter egocentricity – a capacity to ignore or overcome any scruples or even common sense if they interfered with his artistic genius. He refused to compromise in any way. The staging of his works required huge expenditure, including building an entirely new theatre to suit their performance. (As Wilde said: ‘music is the most expensive of all noises’.) In order to stage ‘The Ring’, Wagner needed a patron of enormous wealth and doglike faith. Amazingly, such a man existed.
Prince Otto said of his brother, King Ludwig II of Bavaria that, while he himself had lucid intervals: “Ludwig was always mad”. Except for servants, Ludwig lived alone in his three castles. Occasionally he would send for musicians but they were not allowed into the buildings themselves – they had to play out in the open. Gertrude Atherton reported that once, when Ludwig had violent toothache, even the dentist was not allowed entry: ‘Ludwig stuck his head out of a lower window, and the dentist standing out on the terrace pulled the tooth as best he could.’
Ludwig’s saving grace was his appreciation of Wagner’s genius. By 1864, Ludwig had opened the Bavarian treasury for his friend to spend what he wished on opera. This generosity was not greatly welcomed by the Bavarians. Given the strong rumours circulating that their homosexual young king was actually in love with the aging composer, the burghers of Munich insisted that Wagner leave the country. Broken-hearted, Ludwig was forced to banish Wagner. However, he still managed to supply most of the money that funded the building of Wagner’s dream – a new theatre in the quiet Bavarian town of Bayreuth – and the first production there, in 1876, of ‘The Ring of the Nibelungs’.
There was a small design hiccup before the first show. The ‘Dragon’ used for the combat with ‘Siegfried’ had been built in sections in London. The neck did not arrive in Bayreuth in time for the show, as it had been wrongly delivered to Beirut in the Lebanon.
Slipping unnoticed into a rehearsal before the first performance of ‘Das Rheingold’, King Ludwig sat alone in the darkness, breathlessly watching the one great achievement of his life. Ten years later, having gone completely insane, Ludwig drowned himself in the Starnberger See. The body of his psychiatric doctor, with its head smashed in by a heavy stone, was found on the nearby shore.
Wilde: ‘There have been two Royal personages really interesting – Rudolph of Austria and Ludwig of Bavaria. The one was murdered by his lover’s brother. The other killed his doctor and then himself. They didn’t live other people’s lives.’
In May 1877, after a week in London, Wilde spent a few days in Bournemouth convalescing from a minor illness.
He returned to Dublin under something of a cloud due to his rustication.
He occupied some of his time by writing more poems, one of which he sent to the leading politician, William Gladstone.
WILLIAM EWART GLADSTONE 1809-1898
The political topic that enthused both Wilde and the former Prime Minister of Britain was the atrocities committed on the Bulgarian people by the Turkish Empire. When war between Russia and Turkey seemed on the point of breaking out, the British government led by Benjamin Disraeli favoured an anti-Russian stance and thus were sympathetic to the Ottoman perpetrators. Coming out of retirement, a furious Gladstone attacked Disraeli in the famed Midlothian Campaign of 1879 – ‘a pilgrimage of passion’.
Wilde also was moved by the horrors and wrote a sonnet ‘On the Massacre of the Christians in Bulgaria’: ‘Come down, O Son of Man! And show thy might, Lest Mahomet be crowned instead of Thee!’ He sent this poem to Gladstone in May 1877; they later met in person and in 1888 Wilde gave him a copy of ‘The Happy Prince’.
Together with Lord Tennyson and Queen Victoria herself, Gladstone embodied the Victorian era. Between 1868 and 1894, he was elected as Liberal Prime Minister four times and championed a number of causes, Irish Home Rule in particular, with evangelical fervour. As a serious and deeply religious man, he consistently made political decisions based on moral purpose. He was the epitome of earnest Victorian respectability.
However, Gladstone was also a wily politician and his colleagues were less respectful than his public. Henry Labouchere said that he had no objection to Gladstone always seeming to have an ace up his sleeve, but what he did object to was Gladstone’s pretence that God had put it there. Henry James called him ‘a parson perverted’. Wilde said that whenever Gladstone made a speech to a Scottish audience, he claimed to be a Scotsman.
Wilde: ‘In England a man who can’t talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician. There would be nothing left for him as a profession except Botany or the Church’.
Gladstone seldom slept for more than four hours a night and found his recreation in splitting logs; his personal axe was a treasured possession. He enjoyed excellent health for almost all of his long life; this was attributed to his habit of chewing every piece of food exactly 32 times. Someone once said to Lord Salisbury about Gladstone: “How I wish I had his mind”. Salisbury replied: “You can have his mind, if I can have his digestion”.
Several people commented on Gladstone’s dramatic qualities. Frank Harris: ‘He was a great actor and could persuade himself of anything’; while Bernard Shaw recalled that, when he trained himself as an orator, Gladstone had carefully studied the technique of the actor Charles Kean.
Gladstone always maintained a liking for theatre. He visited a rehearsal of one play that had a stage set of the Paris Opera, with extras leaning from supposed tiers of boxes. He asked to be one of them on the first night and the amused stage manager agreed, warning him to keep out of sight. The audience spotted him and broke out with applause and cries of “Bravo, Gladstone”. The play had to be halted while he stood up to take a bow.
On a less flattering occasion, he went backstage to congratulate the actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree and asked Tree about the political attitude of the theatrical profession. Tree admitted that they tended generally to be Conservative. Seeing Gladstone’s face fall, Tree hurriedly blurted: “But the scene-shifters support you to a man!”
The one great mystery about Gladstone was his attitude over sexual matters. He was very happily married for nearly fifty-nine years, sincerely loved his wife, and exuded rectitude. Yet throughout his life he displayed an obsession with ‘saving fallen women’.
He used to patrol the red-light districts of London searching for prostitutes whom he would attempt to reform, sometimes by bringing them back to 10, Downing Street, so that he could recite the Bible to them. He was signally unsuccessful in this, by his own account estimating only twelve converts in sixty years. A street rhyme celebrated this with: ‘Eight little whores, with no hope of heaven, Gladstone may save one, then there’ll be seven’.
These actions, on the face of it, seemed innocent and even laudable. However, as Labouchere pointed out, Gladstone rarely, if ever, chose to save ‘an ugly woman’. ‘I am quite sure his conception of the Magdalen is of an incomparable example of pulchritude with a superb figure and carriage’. Gladstone also made a point of befriending the prettiest of the society courtesans of the period – such women as Laura Bell and Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters.
The man-about-town, Algernon Bourke, reported that Gladstone had given one prostitute some odd advice: ‘that she should be honest in all her dealings and always to give full value for the money she received’.
The nicknames that were bandied around the 1880s London brothels concerning Gladstone – ‘Old Glad-eyes’ and ‘Daddy-do-nothing’ – gave rise to the suspicion that he was, in reality, a repressed voyeur. Although he swore to his son that he had never been guilty of ‘infidelity to the marriage bed’, in Victorian terms this did not rule out other forms of sexual activity. He disclosed in his diaries that, after meetings with these women, he would flog himself till he had scars on his back. His method of restraint was self-torture.
It was a tribute to his moral authority that the gossip about these activities failed to dent his stature. Perhaps he managed to conceal the truth even from himself.
Gladstone was also a noted scholar who prided himself on his knowledge of Ancient Greek. On a tour of Greece, he gave a public oration in that language forgetting that Modern Greek was quite different. He was bewildered when the Mayor of Corfu thanked him for his speech, but added his regret that Gladstone had had to deliver it in English.
Gladstone had a deep personal dislike for his great political rival Disraeli, with whom Wilde also corresponded in verse.
BENJAMIN DISRAELI 1804-1881
Wilde met the British Tory Prime Minister in 1880. They had a brief exchange. Oscar said politely: ‘I hope you are very well’, and the aged statesman replied wearily: ‘Is anyone ever very well, Mr Wilde’.
Given his Irish nationalist sympathies, the poem that Oscar wrote and sent to Disraeli was simply weird. Called ‘Ave Imperitrix’, it was a celebration of the British 1879 invasion of Afghanistan – ‘The measured roll of English drums, Bear at the gates of Kandahar’, etc. – and summoned up the wraith of Cromwell, (of all people), to mourn the subsequent casualties – ‘Where is our English chivalry? Wild grasses are their burial-sheet’.
Wilde did have a genuine regard for Disraeli as a fine novelist who could also govern a worldwide empire. He described Disraeli’s life as ‘that most brilliant of paradoxes’. Perhaps Oscar recognised that Disraeli was the most Wildean Prime Minister Britain had produced.
Both men in their youth, (although separated by fifty years), were dedicated dandies who enjoyed shocking the decorous by their outlandish dress and by their wit. Disraeli’s quip – ‘I have always thought that every woman should marry, and no man’ – could easily have come from Wilde’s pen. Both were successful literary figures, and both flirted with social disaster.
The painter Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846) even hinted that Disraeli was bisexual when he said that Disraeli was disposed to excuse the ‘infamous vices’ of the Orient. Haydon: “I meant to ask him if he preferred Aegypt, where Sodomy was preferment, to England, where it very properly was Death”.
Although proud of his Jewish ancestry, (he once told a Jewish boy: “You and I belong to a race which can do everything but fail”), his political career was aided by his family’s conversion to Christianity in 1817. This career was almost ruined at the start by his sexual profligacy, (he only narrowly avoided venereal disease), and by some disastrous mining investments which, after the City crash of 1825, left him evading creditors for the next twenty years. He partly bounced back by writing novels, in particular, ‘Vivian Grey’ (at the age of 24), ‘Sybil – or the Two Nations’ and ‘Coningsby’.
He travelled for three years round the Mediterranean. In Malta, his appearance dressed as a multi-hued Greek pirate led to his being followed by a gaping crowd and the English Governor collapsing with laughter. Disraeli: ‘Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen’.
However, by the early 1840s, Disraeli’s life changed dramatically. His marriage to the wealthy Mary Lewis cleared his debts, and he was elected to Parliament. At first, his marriage seemed calculating: “When I first made advances to you, I was influenced by no romantic feelings”, but he soon became deeply attached to his equally loving wife. He became the owner of a fine mansion in Buckinghamshire called Hughendon Manor.
He also toned down his flamboyant appearance and banter. Disraeli: ‘Men destined to the highest places should beware of badinage…. an insular country subject to fogs, and with a powerful middle class, requires grave statesmen’.
In Parliament, where his nickname was ‘Beaky’, he was soon recognised as a fine orator. His merciless attack led to the destruction of his own Tory leader, Sir Robert Peel. He was no easier on the free trade ‘Manchester School’ of economics: ‘‘If you convert the senate into a counting-house, it will not be long before the nation degenerates into a factory”.
He used his talents to mock the Liberal leader, Lord Palmerston, over Palmerston’s ambiguous radicalism: “There is no doubt a difference in the honourable gentleman’s demeanour as leader of the Opposition and as Minister of the Crown. But that’s the old story; you must not contrast too strongly the hours of courtship with the hours of possession”.
Palmerston had revenge when, aged 79, he was cited as the co-respondent in a divorce case. (The lady in question was named Mrs Kane – which gave rise to the speculation: ‘she was Kane, but was he Able?’). Disraeli was appalled when he heard the news: “If Palmerston can provide evidence of his potency in his electoral address, he’ll sweep the country’ – a prediction that proved absolutely correct.
In 1868, Disraeli himself climbed to what he termed ‘the top of the greasy pole’ and became Prime Minister, despite having always described his own Tories as ‘the stupid party’. He lasted long enough to preside over the British invasion of Ethiopia by General Napier, but lost his electoral battle with Gladstone within the year. For the next thirteen years, the two were to dominate British politics.
While Disraeli was relaxed about his opponent, Gladstone had a real loathing for the Tory leader. Disraeli found this both puzzling and amusing and reacted with constant teasing. One day, in the House of Commons, while Gladstone was giving a major speech, he found himself distracted by the sight of Disraeli, sitting opposite, earnestly perusing what appeared to be a momentous document, which he finally and very slowly tore to pieces. A curious MP gathered the scraps later only to find it had been a blank sheet of paper.
Disraeli was asked to define the difference between a misfortune and a calamity. He replied that: “if, for instance, Mr Gladstone were to fall into the river, that would be a misfortune. But if anyone were to pull him out, that would be a calamity”. He especially annoyed Gladstone when he described Gladstone’s inflammatory political pamphlet on the Bulgarian Crisis as being ‘the worst of the Bulgarian horrors’.
Disraeli returned to power in 1874 where he was responsible for the proclamation of Victoria as Empress of India, the purchase of the controlling shares over the Suez Canal, and the declaration of two wars in 1879 – one in Afghanistan, the other against the Zulus.
He had a personal misfortune when his wife Mary died of cancer. Aged 70, he fell in unrequited love with another man’s wife, Lady Selina Bradford. Disraeli: ‘I am certain there is no greater misfortune than to have a heart that will not grow old’. Then he himself suffered bad health.
Once, he felt so ill that he had to leave the Treasury Office and told his secretary: “Don’t bother me with the routine work. Please attend to all of it yourself”. Walking slowly to the door, he turned and added: “But of course if there is any really important decision to be made…”, he paused for a few seconds, “… make it.”
The illness became so serious that in 1876 Disraeli had to leave the House of Commons and join the more serene House of Lords as the Earl of Beaconsfield.
His greatest success, though, was still ahead. Facing the twin problems of public moral anger against the Turks for their brutalities in Bulgaria, and the practical necessity of discouraging the Russians from expansion towards the Mediterranean, he managed to avoid British involvement in the Russo-Turkish War imbroglio of 1876-8. Then, in June 1878, he had a chance to display his diplomatic prowess by reconciling the opposing sides at the Congress of Berlin.
Aided by Lord Salisbury, (formerly a foe who had talked of Disraeli as ‘a Hebrew varlet’, but now his right hand man), Disraeli was the outstanding figure of the Congress and managed to persuade all sides to agreement. He was right when he described his achievement as ‘Peace with Honour’. In the process, he managed to add Cyprus to the list of British colonies.
Despite this foreign policy triumph, Disraeli lost the following 1880 election due a trade depression, bad agricultural harvests, and two wars. Disraeli on politics: ‘Look at it as you will, ours is a beastly profession’.
He never lost his sense of humour though. When a buffoonish Foreign Office Minister named Waddington managed to survive an assassination attempt, Disraeli expressed satisfaction at his escape. Then he added: “It is just as well. Waddington would have made assassination look ridiculous”.
One man who admired Disraeli’s efforts at the Congress of Berlin was
Count Otto Von BISMARCK, (1815-1898)
the Minister-President of Prussia from 1862 till 1890. His views of the English were equivocal: “The English have lost their pluck since they ceased to drink” – but his comment on the English Prime Minister was: “The old Jew, that is the Man”.
In contrast, Bismarck’s own attempts at diplomacy suffered an embarrassing setback while at the same Congress. After he had offered his arm to the very aged Russian Chancellor, Prince Gortchakoff, Bismarck was seized by an attack of cramp and fell to the floor, bringing the old man crashing on top of him. Bismarck’s wolfhound, seeing his master apparently fighting for his life, leapt on the helpless Prince and buried his teeth in his neck. It was with difficulty that the dog was dragged off and Prince Gortchakoff escaped a bad mauling.
Bismarck was a big man with protruding eyes and a horseshoe-shaped down-turned moustache. Known in his youth as ‘The Mad Bismarck’, he was also a man of vast appetites – women, duelling (he fought 28 duels while still at university), gargantuan feasting, and wine (though, when offered German champagne, he said that his patriotism didn’t go that far). J.E.C. Bodley described him as ‘a sergeant-major become company promoter’.
Contemporary accounts of his family were not flattering. Queen Victoria said of his wife Johanna that she was ‘a rather masculine lady who had huge feet’. It was reported that his son, Count Herbert, had pushed two foreign diplomats aside at an official occasion, exclaiming: “Pardon, but I am the Count Bismarck”. One of them replied: “Well, that explains it. But it doesn’t excuse it.”
Bismarck spent his life trying to unite a German nation under Prussia, and then a Europe dominated by Germany. He achieved the first by attacking Denmark in 1864, (thus securing the province of Schleswig-Holstein), then by attacking Austria in 1866, (capturing many of the German principalities). He came close to the second ambition by crushing France in 1870. He had a special grudge against the French, as his mother, when a girl, had only narrowly escaped gang rape by Napoleonic soldiers after the Battle of Jena in 1806.
Bismarck showed something of his mentality when he was rebuked by a Frenchman for firing on the Blind Institute in Paris. He retorted that he found nothing wrong in it: “You do far worse; you shoot at our soldiers who are hale and useful fighting men”.
Rennell Rodd reported another of Bismarck’s diplomatic gaffes. Throughout his life, Bismarck received hundreds of medals from many countries. One day, he was invited to meet a European monarch who had previously presented him with several medals. He hunted through his possessions for the ribbon and star of a particular order, which he presumed he already possessed.
Unable to find his own, he managed to borrow one and arrived, proudly wearing it on his chest, for his audience with the monarch. To his horror, he found that, not only had the medal never been conferred upon him, but also that the monarch was standing ready to present him with it.
Over the summer of 1877, Wilde also wrote to Lord Houghton. Houghton was the centre of an extraordinary group of Englishmen, some famous, others less so, who busied themselves with the production and appreciation of illicit pornography.
RICHARD MONCKTON-MILNES, LORD HOUGHTON 1809-1885
It was in Dublin in 1876, (probably through an introduction by Professor Mahaffy), that Wilde met the Yorkshire MP, writer, and socialite, Richard Monckton-Milnes (later Lord Houghton). In 1877, they corresponded on the subject of John Keats’ poetry. Milnes had written the first biography of John Keats, while Keats had been the subject of one of Oscar’s sonnets. Later, in 1881, Milnes gave Wilde a letter of introduction to help him on his American tour.
Lily Langtry said of Milnes that he was ‘the most delightful host in all London’ and he seems to have been popular throughout society. Florence Nightingale, once a candidate for marriage to Milnes, said that ‘he had the same voice and manner for a dirty brat as for a duchess – the same desire to give pleasure and good’. The American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said that Milnes knew everyone from ‘the Chartist to the Lord Chancellor’, and paid him a fine tribute; ‘the most good-natured man in England, made of sugar’.
The only sour note about Milnes came from the poet William Wordsworth. He may have been upset by Milnes’ description of him as ‘looking like a benevolent wolf’. When, in 1842, Prince Albert planned a State Fancy Dress Ball, Milnes announced that he was going as ‘Chaucer’. Wordsworth, aged 75, was annoyed at being summoned to the same Ball and declared that: “if Monckton-Milnes is going as ‘Chaucer’, I will go as ‘Monckton-Milnes’ ”.
After the death of his father, Milnes became the owner of a country estate six miles from Pontefract, Yorkshire, called Fryston Hall, (when Tennyson stayed at the house he called it ‘Freezetown’). Milnes himself was less than thrilled by his inheritance, as he hated country pursuits and longed for London or Paris. Friends said that that he was such a good host that he would do anything rather than be left alone in the echoing mansion.
There was a rumour that the building was so rambling that an American guest found himself continually getting lost. He solved the problem by ‘blazing a trail’ from his bedroom to the dining room by cutting notches in the wood- panelled walls.
Milnes’ political career was a languid one at best. He entered Parliament as a country squire Tory after thoroughly bribing the electors of Pontefract. His opponent had taken a principled stand against corruption and, (as Milnes was paying three guineas a vote), lost dismally. Once installed in the Commons, a friend described Milnes as ‘being content to be second rate, which very few people are’.
He stayed an inconsequential MP from 1837 till he was given a seat in the House of Lords in 1863 (becoming Lord Houghton). He said that his peerage was ‘the token of a half-success in life – a second class degree in politics’. The one interesting point was his slow drift from Tory squire to Liberal MP (in 1846), then to Radical reformer by the time he reached the Lords. The reason for this was his shock at realising the horrific conditions of English working class life; in particular, he equated crime with poverty.
(In this, Oscar Wilde agreed with him: ‘Crime in England is rarely the result of sin. It is nearly always the result of starvation’ – ‘Our criminals are merely what ordinary respectable, commonplace people would be if they had not got enough to eat’.)
Another point on which they found accord was the Elgin Marbles. Wilde was strongly opposed to the removal of this famous statuary from Athens to London and gave a lecture in which he described Lord Elgin as a thief. Milnes was passionately of the same opinion. When he had been to Athens in 1832, he found that Greek anger was running high. Elgin had presented them with a ‘hideous’ town clock as compensation for the Marbles. It had been destroyed.
On a more grisly note, Milnes found that Elgin’s chief agent, a Signor Lusieri, had been so unpopular that he had had to barricade himself into his own home. The house was attacked and Lusieri died suddenly of a broken blood vessel. Popular rumour insisted that, when the citizens discovered Lusieri’s body, a large black cat was seen crouching on his face, sucking the blood – presumably a supernatural response to Elgin’s actions.
(The writer E.F. Benson held a different view. He thought that Elgin had been correct in removing the Marbles as they would not have survived otherwise. While they had been in Athens, the Turkish soldiers regularly took pot shots ‘to see if they could hit the nose of Zeus or the breasts of Athene’.)
Around the early 1860s, Lord Houghton, as he was now known, met a network of like-minded acquaintances and together they built up the largest and most extraordinary collection of pornography in Victorian Britain.
Chief among his aides were the explorer Sir Richard Burton and the poet Algernon Swinburne; other, more mundane, members of the group were Henry Ashbee and Fred Hankey. Burton became a staunch friend, and christened a mountain in the Cameroons ‘Mount Milnes’ in his honour. Swinburne was more reserved: ‘‘Houghton was a good-natured old fellow but when made into a peer his title might have been ‘Baron Tattle of Scandal’.”
The Fryston library specialised in pornography (especially works on and by the Marquis de Sade) and in memorabilia of famous murder trials – one prized specimen was a piece of dried skin removed from a notorious murderer. The pride of the Fryston collection was a magnificent Pradier sculpture of two girls performing cunnilingus on each other. An admiring Swinburne wrote: ‘It was the sculptor’s last work before he left this world of vulgar copulation for the Lesbian Hades. May we be found as fit to depart – and may our last works be like this.’
Before setting out with Lady Houghton for Sunday morning church, Houghton would advise his guests on which books were the most lubricious. His friends were grateful for this literary knowledge. One young man explained: “I have just brought a charming girl within one French novel of being seduced and I need to find a finisher!”
As censorship tightened in Britain, the group had to turn to smuggling from Europe, often by Queen’s Messenger in Lord Palmerston’s diplomatic despatches. Sometimes the manager of Covent Garden Opera House, Sir Augustus Harris (who had a rare ability to so manipulate his spine as to create a useful recess between his back and his coat) would bring in the goods. In 1876, a bad fire at Fryston destroyed much of the collection and the efforts to douse it rendered the remainder water-sodden.
Houghton’s group were involved mostly in collecting pornography but they also wrote it. A favourite format was the round-robin manuscript, in which each member contributed a few pages of a story then passed it on, (‘The Romance of Lust’, 1873-6, is one such book.)
[There is a strong possibility that, during the 1880s, Oscar Wilde involved himself in a similar exercise, a homosexual pornographic novel called ‘Teleny’. Charles Hirsch, a bookseller, reported that Wilde brought a carefully wrapped manuscript to his shop in Coventry St., London, with instructions to issue it only to visitors producing Oscar’s calling card. Presumably having peeped inside, Hirsch added that the book was hand written in at least three different scripts. Oscar eventually called again to collect the completed work.]
One of Houghton’s less savoury acquaintances was
FRED HANKEY, (1828 – 1882)
the son of the British governor of the Ionian Islands, and a cousin of a Bank of England director. He lived in Paris and devoted himself to the production of erotica. He inspired the Fryston library and was a main supplier to Burton and Swinburne.
The Goncourt brothers, not a particularly squeamish pair, were nonetheless shocked by Hankey’s activities: ‘A madman, a monster … Through him, as through a torn veil, we had a glimpse of an appalling aspect, a terrible side to the English aristocracy’. While ignoring Hankey’s milder activities, such as the organisation of Swiss whores for pornographic postcards, they were upset by reports of his visits to a London brothel, (run by a Mrs Jenkins), which specialised in the public whipping of thirteen-year-old girls. Hankey: ‘First we made them sit in class and then whipped – the little ones not too hard but the big ones very hard indeed.’
On one occasion Hankey hired a room so that he could watch a murderess being hanged while having sex with two women during the execution. To his annoyance, the murderess was pardoned.
Even these tastes paled before Hankey’s request in 1863 to Sir Richard Burton that the explorer bring back from his travels some skin sliced from the genitals of living girls so that he could use it as covering for Bibles. Burton regarded Hankey’s mania with amusement. He wrote that, owing to an unusual scarcity of Dahomey Amazon execution victims that year, Hankey would have to remain disappointed. He suggested that instead Hankey might try intercourse with ‘a Muscovy duck while its head was being cut off’.
When Hankey died, much of his collection passed to
HENRY ASHBEE (1834-1900).
Ashbee was a highly respected City businessman, who became Master of the Curriers Company. It is debatable whether he was ‘Walter’, the author of the well-known pornographic work ‘My Secret Life’, in which the hero claimed to have bedded 1,200 women and reported the encounters in graphic detail.
Ashbee maintained that the reason that European erotica was so superior to the English attempts was that in Europe good writers had no scruples about writing about sex, whereas in England the job was left to hacks, (he excepted Cleland’s ‘Fanny Hill).
Ashbee held the theory that one could define variations in sexual habits by race. He declared that, because of corporal punishment in schools, England was top in flagellation; abortion was partly a French speciality, ‘but the palm must be given to the Americans’; sodomy was popular in Turkey and Italy; while lesbianism confined itself mostly to France and Turkey (‘and nunneries’). Italy was head of the league in necrophilia, and also in bestiality (‘in the rural areas’).
Although sexually themed books provided his main stockpile, he also had a magnificent collection of works on the Spanish writer Cervantes. When Ashbee died, his will stipulated that the British Museum could have the Cervantes books only if they accepted his entire library as well – all or nothing. The Museum found itself the possessor of over 1000 pieces of pornography. These works now form the core of its ‘Private Case of Forbidden Books’.
SIR RICHARD BURTON 1821-1890
Houghton’s great friend, Sir Richard Burton, was one of the most extraordinary Englishmen of any age, let alone the nineteenth century, despite the fact that, for a variety of reasons, he failed in almost all of his goals. His personality, seeming to explode beyond the confines of Victorian society, bore a resemblance to the Nietzchean superman – as Swinburne described him: ‘at once divine and demonic’.
He was a physically tough man – six feet tall, a very powerful build, with a piercing gaze radiating from his scarred saturnine face. A master swordsman, Burton was capable of accurately firing one of the huge old-fashioned elephant guns from his shoulder after downing a bottle of brandy. He could also speak 25 languages (including Icelandic, Hindustani, Hebrew and Amharic), and was to write 43 books. His passion was to explore the world both literally and intellectually.
Burton was a social Darwinist, who believed in racial natural selection, that it was the duty of the white races to rescue the rest from chaos, and that democracy equalled mediocrity. Among the groups he hated were the black races, Jews, Catholics, socialists, Turks, Americans, the Irish, egalitarians, missionaries, Hungarians, and waiters, (who he insulted on every possible occasion). He did have a slight partiality to gypsies as they had once asked him to be their King.
His particular dislike was reserved for women. He accepted the Arab view of the time that women did not understand honour or scruples, were intrinsically more lecherous than men, and were systematically deceitful.
Although he did marry in 1861, his search for an English wife was lacklustre. He scorned the attitude of the Victorian maidens, summed up, for him, by the story that on her wedding night one girl had chloroformed herself and left a message on the pillow reading: ‘Mama says you are to do what you like’.
Meeting one decorous mother who demanded to know what his intentions were towards her daughter, Burton snarled: “Alas, madam, strictly dishonourable, I regret to say, strictly dishonourable”. After his marriage, he always set off alone on his travels leaving the terse instruction to his wife: ‘Pay, pack, and follow’.
Born in Torquay, Burton spent an anarchic childhood accompanying his parents around Europe. All attempts to control him and his brother Edward failed. When a tutor tried to teach Burton the violin, the violin was broken over the tutor’s head. In an attempt to instil self-denial, their mother told them to ignore a pile of cakes in a shop window. The Burton children promptly smashed the window, stole the cakes, and ran. By fifteen, the boys had discovered the Naples brothels, mixed with smugglers in the Pyrennees, smoked opium in Pisa, and learnt to drink alcohol. Their father reacted to the latter with a horrified shout at his son: ‘The beast’s in liquor!’ They were refused entry to the German fencing schools because they were too good.
In 1840, Burton was sent to study at Trinity College, Oxford, an establishment that he despised, feeling, as he said, like ‘a good man fallen among grocers’. As his only real interest was the study of mesmerism, he decided to have himself sent down. This was achieved by throwing wild parties and by circulating obscene couplets about the dons. He left in a flourish by driving a coach and four horses through the Trinity flowerbeds and then charging down the High Street blowing a trumpet fanfare.
Burton spent the next seven years in the Indian Army, where he soon isolated himself from his fellow British officers. He preferred to live surrounded by his forty pet monkeys, of which he made a close study. He discovered that they had their own language. For instance, that they had three different sounds for ‘enemy’, one each for python, eagle and leopard. He also took up snake charming and riding on the backs of crocodiles for exercise.
Burton found that the quickest method of learning languages was in the bed of a native-speaking mistress; in this way he learnt Gujerati and Sanskrit. He avoided the fate of another British officer who learnt Hindustani in the same way; as a result, the officer subsequently spoke of himself in the feminine, to the scandalised amazement of his sepoys.
He also developed his extraordinary talent of disguising himself so well that he could pass as a native. Dyeing his skin with henna and with a false beard, he was able to wander among the bazaars to gain important information on local affairs. Despite his affinity with native culture, he was far from sympathetic to it. He believed in an iron British rule over India; liberal attitudes were seen simply as weakness. The method of executing criminals by blowing them from the mouths of cannons he thought was correct, as it was more humane than hanging.
At the same time, he rejected the ‘free market’ ideas prevalent at the time, whereby India provided the raw materials and had to import the finished product from Britain. Burton: ‘The manufacturing mob wishes to buy dirt cheap from India and to make her pay 100% for working her own produce’.
After his investigation into Indian homosexual brothels revealed embarrassingly that both British troops and the Indian Princes were the chief clients, he was sent back to Britain. His enemies had spread the rumour that Burton himself had been intimately involved in the brothel activities.
While passing through Goa, he fell in love with a young Portuguese nun, (incidentally learning Portuguese in transit), and planned an elopement. One night, Burton and two servants broke into the nun’s convent disguised as Moslems. Burton kept watch while the servants went ahead to carry off the girl. By mistake they entered the wrong room and grabbed a sleeping sub-prioress. Her screams roused the convent and Burton and his men were forced to run for it. Burton had to abandon the idea.
In 1852, he set out on what was perhaps his greatest unalloyed exploratory success. His aim was to be the first unconverted Englishman to enter the holy city of Mecca; the penalty for an unbeliever to do so was execution. Again disguised as a Moslem, he accompanied the haj pilgrimage from the Red Sea port of Yenbo across hundreds of miles of intense desert heat and marauding Bedouin attacks, first to Medina, then to Mecca and the Great Mosque itself. He wrote and sketched his experiences secretly. The trip was a triumph in itself, but it also carved a love of the desert within Burton. He became an Arab at heart and, although scornful of religion, found an emotional bond with Islam.
Returning to Cairo, he went to Shepheard’s Hotel to test his disguise. The British officers greeted his appearance with ‘Damn the nigger’s cheek’ comments until he revealed his identity. (Curiously, Lawrence of Arabia was to repeat this incident many years later). Ignoring the plaudits he would have received back in Britain, Burton preferred to rent a house in Cairo where he indulged in orgies that he said ‘beat the Arabian Nights all to chalk’.
Helped by his newfound fame, Burton was able to launch his next venture, that of discovering the source of the White Nile. His first attempt began in 1854. Setting out from Aden, (’the coal hole of the East’), where predictably he had learnt Somali from local prostitutes, he managed to travel to the city of Harar. The local Amir held him as captive for a time, but released him when Burton offered to bring back medicine for the Amir’s cough. After a gruelling journey through a waterless, lion-infested, desert area, Burton crawled back to the coast.
Acquiring two new assistants, John Hanning Speke and Captain Stroyan, Burton tried again in 1855. This time he only managed to reach Berbera on the Somali coast, before the expedition was attacked. Stroyan was killed, and Burton received the spear wounds that were to disfigure his face for life. Despite Speke being speared eleven times and escaping while his hands were still bound, Burton considered that he had acted as a coward during the action.
The Crimean War offered a brief diversion to Burton’s explorations. Eager to win some military laurels, he arrived in Constantinople to find that there was no post for him in the British Army. He was forced to take a command in a Turkish regiment of Bashi-Bazouks. The Bashi-Bazouks were mercenary cavalry from Albania who regarded daily looting and rape as their main recompense. Russian women were seen as legitimate spoils of war. If none were available, the Bashi-Bazouks would turn their attentions to any women at hand. As this often involved Turkish girls, the regular Turkish troops were outraged and the situation veered towards civil war. Burton’s support for his men led to accusations of fomenting mutiny and, after four months, he left to resume his search for the White Nile source.
This time, he set off inland from Zanzibar, and, despite their growing animosity, was accompanied again by Speke. After travelling over 600 miles in 134 days, they reached Ujiji, a village near Lake Tanganyika. Burton was ill throughout the trip and was forced to rest while Speke made further explorations. Burton recuperated by learning Swahili in his usual fashion and fathering several children in the process. Speke returned to Ujiji stating that he had discovered that the source of the Nile was not Lake Tanganyika as Burton maintained, but Lake Victoria.
Speke was the first to arrive back in Britain and claimed the honour of the discovery. A furious Burton returned to find his thunder stolen and, in response, bitterly rejected Speke’s arguments. The row rumbled on till 1864, when a conference was called to debate the whole topic. The day before it started, Speke, while out shooting, was killed accidentally by his own gun. Later, Burton was forced to admit that Speke had been right; the source of the Nile was indeed Lake Victoria.
Meanwhile, Burton had joined the British Foreign Office, and, in 1861, was posted as consul to the West African island of Fernando Po, known as ‘the Foreign Office grave’. He found it intensely boring; even their language was dull. He reported that the natives used so much gesture that they were unable to communicate with each other in the dark.
To relieve the tedium, Burton set out on various trips to the mainland, telling the Foreign Office that he needed the breaks for his health. Though he explored the further reaches of the River Congo and visited Benin City, (where a man was crucified in honour of his arrival), his main intention was to meet the Amazons of Dahomey. He was not impressed: ‘The Amazons are bosh…they are mostly old and all fearfully ugly, their officers are apparently chosen for the bigness of their bums… an equal number of British charwomen, armed with the British broomstick would clear them off in a very few hours’.
He found that King Gelele of Dahomey was: ‘much addicted to the fair sex, of whom he possesses as many as he likes’. When Burton presented the king with some pictures of naked white women, Gelele asked where he could acquire live specimens. Burton: ‘I told him, Heaven forgive me, a fearful fib and said that in my country the women are of a farouche chastity’.
In 1865, Burton was sent as consul to the town of Santos in Brazil, which he called ‘the Wapping of the Far West’. Again bored by his assignment he claimed sickness as an excuse and set off to visit the horrific war then raging between Paraguay and its neighbours.
While in Buenos Aires, he met another English explorer, Wilfred Scawen Blunt. Although politically the two men were diametrically opposed, in many ways they had an extraordinary resemblance – both brave to the point of insanity, both Englishmen who despised the English, both outsiders who revered Arabia; they could have been described as twin chevaliers of the Right and the Left.
In fact, rather than argue they settled into a drinking session that lasted many nights. Blunt described Burton at this time: ‘He seldom went to bed sober and his dress and appearance were those suggesting a released convict… a countenance the most sinister I have ever seen, dark, cruel, treacherous, with eyes like a wild beast’s…. caged but unforgiving’.
In 1870, Burton achieved his ideal posting, that of consul to Damascus. On paper, his credentials were excellent, but his ferocious personality led to disaster. Firstly, his refusal to help the local Jewish moneylenders recover their debts, (Burton said that one money-lender had ruined forty villages by sucking them dry), led to the Chief Rabbi of London complaining to the Foreign Office. Secondly, his relations with the Turkish authorities reached such a low ebb that the governor, Rashid Ali, sent a force of three hundred men to assassinate him. Burton was flattered by the number apparently necessary. Thirdly, as usual, he ignored the Foreign Office instructions to stay in Damascus and went wherever he wished, again using the ‘sick note’ defence.
A year later he was recalled, the Foreign Office making the excuse that Burton might be the target of another assassination attempt. Burton: “I have been shot at, at different times, by at least forty men who fortunately could not shoot straight. One more would not have mattered much”.
By 1872, Burton had reached a nadir. Although he did receive a belated knighthood through his wife Isabel’s connections, he was now very poor indeed. His pride always stood in the way of easy solutions. He refused an offer to lead the expedition to rescue Dr Livingstone on the grounds that ‘was rather infra dig to discover a missionary’.
His manners proved too rough for English social life. When summoned to meet the Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury, Salisbury addressed him with bluff familiarity as ‘Burton’. Burton promptly called him ‘Salisbury’ in return. The Foreign Secretary winced and returned to ‘Mr Burton’, but Burton continued with ‘Salisbury’ throughout the conversation.
At an important society dinner, a medical doctor asked Burton how he felt after he had killed a man. “Oh, quite jolly, doctor. How do you?”
The Foreign Office eventually despatched Burton to the city of Trieste, an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire where trouble was unlikely. It was a dreary non-job. Burton spent his time trying to invent a hangover cure called ‘Captain Burton’s Tonic Bitters’. Again he employed his illness as excuse, this time to slide off and explore the Gold Coast. Infuriated to find that ‘our man in Trieste’ was actually in West Africa, the F.O. ordered him home.
An F.O. memorandum of the time said: ‘I believe that as long as there is a river unexplored or a mountain unascended within Captain Burton’s reach, his health will always be impaired until he has accomplished both the one or other, though it may be to the detriment of his consular duties’.
Finally cornered, Burton turned to literature. Using his unrivalled knowledge of Eastern texts, he translated the Indian sex treatise, the ‘Kama Sutra’, the Persian ‘Perfumed Garden’ (originally from 16th century Tunis), the sex guide, ‘The Gulistan’, and a collection of Latin erotica called ‘Priapeia’. By 1888, Burton produced his uncensored version of ‘The Arabian Nights’.
Burton’s friend Lord Houghton hit on the idea of evading the censors by creating a fictitious publishing house seemingly based abroad. Thus the printing house of the ‘Kama Shastra Society of Benares’ was actually in Stoke Newington, London.
After the very successful publication of ‘The Arabian Nights’, Burton commented: “I struggled for 47 years. I distinguished myself honourably in every way I possibly could. I never had a compliment nor a thank you, nor a single farthing. I translated a doubtful book in my old age and immediately made 16,000 guineas. Now that I know the tastes of England, we need never be without money”.
His last great obsession was to publish a fully unexpurgated version of ‘The Perfumed Garden’, to be called ‘The Scented Garden’. He died before it was finished. His wife burnt the manuscript together with all of Burton’s lifelong literary collections. She claimed, in the face of an appalled reaction, that Burton had appeared in a dream and ordered it.
The irrepressible Frank Harris once invented a cod conversation between Burton and another friend, Lord Lytton, the Viceroy of India. Lytton expounded at length on the beauty of prepubescent girls – ‘the deathless charm of the androgyne’, ‘slim as a boy with breasts scarce outlined’, ‘everything rounded to rhythmic loveliness’, ‘the most seductive creature in all God’s world’.
“You make me tired, Lytton,” Burton replied. “You cotquean, you! Your oversweet description only shows me that you have never tried the blue-bottomed monkey”.
ALGERNON SWINBURNE 1837-1909
The other renowned figure of Houghton’s set was Algernon Swinburne. Although he was Wilde’s favourite poet at the time, they met only once and Swinburne was lukewarm about the young Oxford graduate. Swinburne: ‘The only time I ever saw Mr Oscar Wilde was in a crush at our acquaintance Lord Houghton’s. I thought he seemed a harmless young nobody’.
By 1882, he was describing Oscar as a ‘mountebank’ and, commenting on the poems of Wilde and his protégé, Rennell Rodd, wrote: ‘Really these fools are enough to make one turn Wesleyan and contribute in future only to The Methodist Magazine’.
Wilde himself became less admiring later on: ‘It has been said of Swinburne, and with truth, that he is a master of language, but with still greater truth it may be said that language is his master. Words seem to dominate him…. He is so eloquent that whatever he touches becomes unreal.’
Possibly the greatest influences on Swinburne’s life were his school days at Eton, where, in particular, the English public school punishment of flogging caused his latent masochism to flare into a lifelong obsession.
Eton had a flogging tradition that stretched back at least to the 1550s, when the headmaster, Nicholas Udall, (author of the first English comedy ‘Ralph Roister Doister’), was imprisoned on charges of homosexual sadism towards his pupils. (He was soon released and Queen Mary I appointed him headmaster of Westminster School instead).
In the 19th century, another infamous Eton headmaster, Dr Keate, charged each pupil a half-guinea for replacement of birches. It was said that he ‘knew their behinds better than he knew their faces’. The actor Sir Charles Hawtry reported that on one occasion a list of boys who were to be confirmed was sent up to him. He flogged 56 of them before realising his mistake.
In Swinburne’s day, the floggings, known as ‘executions’, were performed in public. One Etonian wrote that: ‘Half a dozen boys were flogged each day. They were held down on the block by two seniors. If you kicked or winced you would get six extra cuts…. anyone who chose might drop in. I have sometimes been one of three spectators and sometimes one of a hundred’. The politician Henry Labouchere added: ‘If a child wept during the flogging, the other boys were encouraged to beat him as well’.
One Eton master told Swinburne that he only really enjoyed beating boys who were from the nobility. This same teacher, noting that Swinburne was very fair, would chose a dark-haired boy and make them hold each other while he whipped them both.
Eton was not alone in these practices. Westminster School also was notorious for flogging, while at Harrow, one master, Edward Bowen (composer of the school song ‘Forty Years On’), insisted on stripping the boys in his charge and spanking them over his knees. The journalist Herbert Vivian wrote: ‘It was against the rules and traditions but some boys preferred it’.
Even the girls’ schools were not exempt; one writer (Ivan Bloch) complained about: ‘the excessive whipping of young girls in these schools on the naked posterior and the lascivious habits necessarily resulting therefrom’.
Given these conditions, it is not surprising that any flagellant tendency in Swinburne was greatly increased. Nicknamed ‘Pepperbottom’ by his schoolmates, he took to dousing himself in cologne to heighten his senses during the beatings. He attempted to stop other forms of bullying by appealing to his housemaster Mr Joynes to save him. Joynes ignored the plea and read him the 23rd psalm instead. When Swinburne left Eton, Joynes said of him: “I did my best for that ungodly boy. He was hopeless’.
Later in his life, when he became friendly with the Houghton set, he begged Sir Richard Burton to indulge him in these proclivities. Burton agreed to the request and used to thoroughly thrash Swinburne during their mammoth drinking binges. Swinburne also frequented a flagellant brothel in St Johns Wood, London, where ‘two golden-haired and rouge-cheeked ladies’ consented to chastise gentlemen ‘for large sums’.
Swinburne’s contribution to the Houghton pornography collection consisted of works with the somewhat repetitive titles of ‘Arthur’s Flogging’, ‘Reginald’s Flogging’, ‘Charlie Collingwood’s Flogging’ and ‘A Boy’s First Flogging’.
His cousin Mary shared Swinburne’s tastes and they co-wrote a flagellant novel called ‘The Children of the Chapel’. (Oddly enough, given the title of the later Wilde short story, the main character was called ‘Arthur Savile’). Tragically for Swinburne, Mary married a Colonel Disney Leith in 1864 and the chance of a possibly ideal partnership disappeared. It was the great romantic loss of his life.
Swinburne was an odd-looking man with an over-large head above a puny delicate body. He had fluffy red hair that resembled that of the Pre-Raphaelite girls. Once, on a visit to the theatre with Jane Morris and Lizzie Siddal, both Pre-Raphaelite beauties, a boy selling programmes did a double take at Swinburne and crowed: “Gawd, there’s another of ‘em”.
Having left Oxford without a degree, Swinburne became friendly with the artistic group known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He moved into lodgings at Cheyne Walk, London, with two of the leading literary figures, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and George Meredith.
However, Swinburne’s personal habits soon started to grate on his housemates. He had a very high-pitched voice that turned to falsetto when excited. An acquaintance, Mrs Pollen, said that: “when not drunk, his one idea of rational conversation was to dance and skip all over the room, reciting poetry at the top of his voice, and going on and on with it”.
Already annoyed at the breakage of valuable china, Rossetti was furious at having his work disturbed by Swinburne and his equally disreputable companion, Simeon Solomon, rowdily pursuing each other stark naked all over the house ‘like a couple of wild cats’.
Meredith moved out after Swinburne had thrown a poached egg at his head during a literary discussion. He said that he had only resisted kicking Swinburne down the stairs because he realised: ‘what a clatter his horrid little bottom would have made as it bounced from step to step’.
By 1866, however, Swinburne had shot to fame as the author of ‘Atalanta in Calydon’ and of ‘Poems and Ballads, First Series’. The impact on literature was as dazzling as that of Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ five decades earlier; Swinburne came to be seen as an international spokesman on political, religious and sexual radicalism. He was abused as much as he was feted. The books were banned by the WH Smith bookstores and there were demands for a public prosecution. The politician John Morley described Swinburne as ‘the libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs’, while Thomas Carlyle said he was ‘a man standing up to his neck in a cesspool and adding to its contents’.
Another attack came from America, where the poet Emerson called him ‘a perfect leper and a mere sodomite’. This particularly annoyed Swinburne. One day he mentioned to the critic Edmund Gosse that he had written a letter to Emerson. Gosse replied: “I hope you wrote nothing rash?” “Oh, no, I kept my temper.” “Well, yes, but what did you say?” “I called him a wrinkled and toothless baboon”.
The French novelist Guy de Maupassant, then aged eighteen, offered an insight into Swinburne’s domestic life, after he had been among a group of French fisherman who had rescued the drunken poet from drowning at sea. Visiting Swinburne’s cottage in Normandy, he said that it appeared that Swinburne and his companion indulged in sex with their servant boys and with their pet monkey. On a second visit, Maupassant concluded that the monkey had been murdered by a jealous servant boy. Lunch consisted of grilled monkey.
The Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev offered another glimpse into Swinburne’s state of mind. He asked the poet what would be his ultimate desire, to which Swinburne exclaimed: “To ravish Saint Genevieve during her most ardent ecstasy of prayer – but in addition, with her secret consent!”
Other than flogging, Swinburne’s most salient obsession was alcohol. Wilde stated that Swinburne was not a heavy drinker but that he had such a sensitive temperament that even a small glass of wine would leave him crazed.
Swinburne’s antics at the Arts Club in London became a scandal. One night, wild with drink, he tried to find his hat in the cloakroom. He tried on all the hats available and, when none of them fitted, he stamped them all flat. Soon afterwards he repeated the offence when he and a companion made two lines of the hats and squashed them all in a one-legged race. Sir Charles Dilke visited the club: “A wreck of glasses attests to the presence of Swinburne”.
Charles Cameron, (the envoy rescued by Sir Charles Napier from Abyssinia in 1868), and Swinburne caused further outrage by ‘using fearful language’ and ‘actually embracing each other in some indecent fashion’. The Arts Club Committee called on Swinburne to resign. Whistler managed a temporary reprieve when he said that: “You accuse him of drunkenness – well, that’s his defence”, but further ‘gross drunkenness’ led to his withdrawal.
He even upset his lifelong hero, the writer Victor Hugo, when they eventually met. Having been invited to Hugo’s house in Paris, Swinburne drank Hugo’s health and, in aristocratic fashion, hurled the glass into the hearth. Never having heard of the custom, Hugo was left grumbling at the shattering of one of his best wine goblets.
At one point, Swinburne lived in Great James Street, London, below the flat occupied by the future publisher, John Lane, (then a young man newly arrived in the city). One Sunday morning Lane held a small party, attended among others by Willie Wilde, where the guests began to sing excerpts from the new Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, ‘Trial By Jury’. Swinburne, driven mad by a ferocious hangover, hurtled out of his room, ripped all the doorbell wires out of their box, and began shrieking: “This place is nothing but a dirty pothouse – a dirty pothouse, I tell you!”
During the 1870s, the Reform League, knowing their man only by his literary reputation, invited Swinburne to stand as a Member of Parliament. He replied by letter: ‘I don’t think it is quite my line’.
By 1879, the situation was getting out of hand. Now suffering from delirium tremens, Swinburne took to smashing all the windows in his new lodgings and cutting himself badly in the process. Rossetti wrote: ‘I heard of the frightful scenes in Salisbury St…. These became so fervent that all the old lodgers are packing up and leaving.’
Suddenly, a new figure arrived on the scene who was to transform Swinburne’s life. Theodore Watts was a solicitor with literary ambitions and a walrus moustache, who later became a best-selling novelist. (Wilde wrote of one of these books ‘Aylwin’: ‘on the whole a capital book to give to one’s parents at Christmas time’). Watts’s first encounter with Swinburne was not propitious. Bearing an introduction from Rossetti, he found Swinburne’s front door open and walked in. Swinburne was stark naked, performing a berserk dance in front of a large mirror. On seeing the intruder, he drove Watts out in a flurry of blows.
Despite this, Watts insisted on removing Swinburne to his own suburban home, ‘The Pines’ in Putney. There, for the next thirty years, Swinburne lived almost as a convalescent patient under Watts’ strict surveillance. Watts laid down the rules: “Much better to have no such songs and no excitement, to have excellent health and unbroken nights with no disturbing dreams, to walk to Wimbledon, to change socks if wet, to rest afterwards, and then to read Dickens aloud”.
The result was that Swinburne’s health improved but in EF Benson’s words: ‘although he wrote plenty of verse, he never again wrote poetry’. Wilde commented: “Mr Swinburne once set his age on fire by a volume of very perfect and very poisonous poetry…. Then he retired to the nursery, and wrote poems about children of a somewhat over-subtle character. He is now extremely patriotic, and manages to combine with his patriotism a strong affection for the Tory party”.
Over the years, Swinburne’s spirit seemed entirely crushed. He had always been fond of risqué limericks but now had to consult Watts over their use. When one visitor arrived, Swinburne meekly enquired: “Shall I tell Mr Brown about the man from Peru?” “I think that goes a little too far, Algernon’ came the austere reply.
However, the poet Richard Le Gallienne was invited to lunch in the 1890s. ‘I watched Swinburne tenderly wiping with his napkin the neck of the bottle of Bass which was his only allowance’. Later, Le Gallienne watched as Swinburne took his daily walk on Wimbledon Common. To his surprise, he saw Swinburne slide into a pub called the Rose and Crown as neatly as ‘a billiard ball glides into the pocket’. Questioning the barmaid later, he found that Swinburne made a daily practice of taking a bottle of Burgundy to a private room there and sitting ‘alone with his thoughts’.
Watts’s rehabilitation of Swinburne was resented by many. Wilde said that Watts was a solicitor and that a solicitor’s job was the concealment of crime: ‘Swinburne’s genius has been killed and Watts is doing his best to conceal it’. Watts made the tetchy reply that Wilde was ‘a harlequin’. Frank Harris used to describe Watts as ‘a sick little walrus’.
In 1896, Watts changed his name to the double-barrelled ‘Watts-Dunton’. James Whistler sent him a mocking telegram: ‘Dear Theodore. What’s Dunton?’
The two bachelors remained in Putney for the rest of their lives, both brooding on lost love – Swinburne for Mary, his flagellant cousin, and Watts-Dunton for a gypsy girl he had loved in his youth. After Swinburne’s death, Watts-Dunton married Clara Reich, a girl forty years his junior.
The actor Fred Kerr once told a story that possibly was based on the Putney ménage. The lives of two gentlemen, (who had been inseparable friends through school and college, and then shared a country cottage together for forty years), were suddenly disrupted when one fell in love and married a woman thirty years younger than himself, leaving the remaining bachelor to move out to other lodgings.
After the honeymoon, the bachelor was invited to dinner with the new couple. After the meal, the bride retired and left the gentlemen to their port and cigars. There was a lengthy pause, then the new husband gingerly asked his friend what he thought of the his new wife.
“Do you want my candid opinion?” asked the bachelor. “Indeed, I do, old friend” the husband replied. The bachelor took a deep breath and said: “I don’t really like her at all”. The husband gazed thoughtfully at the fireplace and sighed: “No, neither do I”.
In 1868, Swinburne had a well-publicised liaison with the notorious American actress
ADAH MENKEN (1835-1868).
Adah had become famous as the ‘Naked Lady’, after she appeared in a stage adaptation of Byron’s ‘Mazeppa’ riding bareback on a horse and dressed only in a flesh-coloured body stocking that gave a convincing appearance of nudity. She had been married four times, as well as taking numerous lovers, and especially favoured boxers and famous writers.
Rossetti introduced them by paying Adah £10 to sleep with Swinburne. The affair was not successful. Adah said that he was impotent and that she couldn’t make him understand that ‘biting’s no use’. She returned the fee. However, gossip spread that Swinburne was going to write a sequel to his most famous work, entitled ‘Adalanta in California’.
As a teenager, Adah had been seduced by an Austrian baron, who had taken her from her New Orleans home, then abandoned her in Cuba. She was forced into prostitution in order to fund her passage home. Fifteen years later, and now the toast of Europe, Adah met the baron again in Vienna. He tried to seduce her once more but Adah refused to submit unless the baron gave her an introduction to the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria.
As the Emperor was a severe man with strict views on morality, it was with some difficulty that the baron managed to arrange for Adah to be presented at a palace reception. As she stepped forward to curtsey to Franz Josef, Adah suddenly stripped off her coat and presented herself naked to the astounded monarch. A furious Franz Josef stalked from the room and the baron was ruined in Austrian society.
Another of Swinburne’s acquaintances was the plausible blackmailer and forger
CHARLES HOWELL (1837-90).
His method of blackmail was to pretend to share his victim’s more questionable tastes and then threaten to reveal them (to this end, he accompanied Swinburne on his flagellant brothel trips).
Although his actual death was caused probably by pneumonia, on the night it occurred Oscar Wilde bumped into Watts-Dunton at the Lyceum Theatre and excitedly told him that Howell had died the traditional blackmailer’s death. “He’s been found in the street outside a public house dying, with his throat cut and a ten shilling piece between his clenched teeth”.
Wilde was fascinated by the criminal mind – he said of Howell that ‘his touch was paralysis’. Oscar used to recount the story that Howell’s victims had clubbed together once and raised £200 to send Howell to Australia. Howell had accepted the money. A few months later one of the victims came across him in Piccadilly and demanded to know why the bargain had not been kept. Howell coolly replied: “My dear chap, if you had two hundred pounds, would you go to Australia?”
SIMEON SOLOMON 1840-1905
Another of Swinburne’s friends was the painter Simeon Solomon. Solomon had been a teenage prodigy, exhibiting at the Royal Academy when aged only eighteen. He concentrated mostly on Judaic themes and his 1860 painting ‘Moses’ brought him fame and the friendship of many leading artists including Rossetti and William Morris. Burne-Jones: “Solomon was the greatest artist of us all. We are mere schoolboys compared to him”. Wilde had Solomon’s picture ‘Love Among the Schoolboys’ on the wall of his Tite Street home, and was horrified by its loss during his imprisonment.
Swinburne was a strong influence on Solomon, (he nicknamed Simeon ‘The Lamb’), and was blamed by many for the later collapse of the young painter’s life. Although alcohol was the main agent of destruction, it was his arrest for gross indecency that that caused Solomon’s career to plummet. In 1873, he was discovered in flagrante with a sixty-year-old stableman in a public lavatory off Oxford Street, London, and received a six weeks prison sentence.
From then on, Solomon descended literally to the gutter. He became an alcoholic vagrant, selling matches and shoelaces, and sleeping either in the streets or the workhouse. Opium being as widely available then as tobacco today, Solomon soon became a devotee. He was also widely known in the homosexual underworld that flourished around Charing Cross station. Their activities were so prevalent that respectable hotels in the area placed signs in their windows reading ‘Beware of Sods’.
After Swinburne’s rehabilitation in Putney he furiously rejected his former protégé: ‘a thing unmentionable alike by men and women, as equally abhorrent to either – nay, to the very beasts’.
Wilde was also cautious. Solomon, although an obvious tramp, had appointed himself as a sort of unofficial guide at the National Gallery, where his remarkable knowledge attracted listeners and tips. Rennell Rodd said that he and Oscar had met a man at an exhibition who impressed them with his views on art. Wilde had told Rodd: “He is most agreeable but you should know that he is not a man in whose company we could afford to be seen”.
Solomon, in some ways, adapted to his reduced lifestyle quite happily. For 21 years he lived mostly in the St Giles Workhouse, Seven Dials. When worried friends offered him a more comfortable home he refused, saying: “Thank you but no. I like it here. It’s so central”.
The highly respectable society painter, Solomon Solomon found that having to share the same surname with the reprobate Simeon was deeply embarrassing. One day, Lord Swaythling, an associate of Solomon Solomon, received a message from an ‘S. Solomon’ saying that he was in distress and begging for aid. Swaythling hurried off to assist his friend only to find that it was Simeon who had contacted him. As a result, Solomon henceforth signed his name ‘Solomon J Solomon’.
However, SJ Solomon was not the only one to feel aggrieved. WB Yeats said that he had met Simeon one night ‘fresh from some low pothouse’ and very much the worse for wear. Simeon was introduced to someone who mistook him for ‘Solomon J.’ Simeon staggered to his feet and bellowed with rage: “Sir, do you mistake me for that mountebank!”
On June 13 1877, Henry Wilson, Wilde’s half-brother, died in Dublin, aged thirty-nine.
In September, Wilde stayed at Clonfil House in Ireland, then in October was reinstated at Oxford University.
In November, he found himself in the Vice-Chancellor’s Court over the enforcement of tradesmen’s debts; he owed money to a tailor and a jeweller for Masonic accoutrements. Oscar once described his outstanding bills as ‘black and white spectres of dead dissipations’.
[The Russian-Turkish War ended with the Congress of Berlin.
The Second Afghan War (1878-80) broke out on the frontier of British India.
In Rome Pope Leo XIII, (pontiff from 1878 till 1903), succeeded Pius IX, (who had been Pope from 1846).]
In March 1878 Wilde fell ill with ‘an unspecified malady’ at Oxford.
By May 1st he had recovered and attended an all night fancy dress ball given by Mr and Mrs Herbert Morell of Headington Hall, Oxford. (Oscar went as Prince Rupert). He also attended the Magdalen Commemoration Ball.
On June 10th Wilde won the Newdigate Prize with his poem ‘Ravenna’. (This prize was founded by the antiquary Sir Roger Newdigate (1719-1806) and first awarded in 1806.) On June 26, he read ‘Ravenna’ in the Sheldonian before the entire university. Mahaffy and Willie Wilde came over to hear it.
On July 19, he gained a first class degree in Litterae Humaniores (Greats) and received a rare double first as well. Oscar: ‘The dons are ‘astonied’ beyond words – the Bad Boy doing so well in the end’.
He returned to spend August in Dublin.
In October, Wilde stayed with the Sickert family at Neuville near Dieppe, France.
Then, in November 1878, Wilde went back to study for his Divinity exam at Oxford. This was required in order to receive his degree. For his last term at Magdalen, Wilde lodged over a chemist’s shop at 71, (then 66), High Street – his landlady was a Mrs Brewer.
Also during November he made the acquaintance of a young student called Rennell Rodd.
SIR JAMES RENNELL RODD 1858-1941
Although four years younger than Wilde, Rennell Rodd became a very close friend and admirer during his undergraduate days at Oxford. Rodd also won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry and seemed set to become the successor to Wilde as a leading Oxford aesthete. During the summers of 1879 and 1880, they travelled together in France and Belgium, Oscar under the pseudonym of ‘Lord Robinson’ and Rodd as ‘Sir Smith’.
During some bad flooding in London, Rodd accompanied Wilde when he went to offer help to the victims. Rodd was very impressed by Oscar’s behaviour towards an elderly and bedridden Irish woman who had lost her possessions. Wilde gave her money and sat with her for some hours, cheering her up with comic tales of their homeland. The old woman blessed him: “May the Lord give you a bed in glory.”
However, Rodd came from a distinguished Cornish family who viewed Wilde with great wariness. Rodd himself began to treat Oscar and his poetry with more scepticism: ‘I remember finding Oscar Wilde one morning engaged on a long poem, with a botanical work in front of him from which he was selecting the names of flowers most pleasing to the ear to plant in his garden of verse’. Rodd added that: ‘his really genial and kindly nature seemed at times in strident contrast with his egotism, self-assertion and incorrigible love of notoriety’.
A lasting rift opened in 1882 after Wilde, during his trip to the USA, found an American publisher for Rodd’s poetry. Oscar added an unfortunate dedication to Rodd’s book: ‘To Oscar Wilde – Heart’s Brother’, etc. Rodd was angered about this over-effusive assumption: ‘When Wilde returned dressed in a fantastic suit of red plush, assuming a sort of Olympian attitude as of one who could do no wrong, we parted in anger and did not meet again.’
Wilde reviewed Rodd’s poems as ‘healthy and harmless’ – damning adjectives in the Wilde lexicon.
After a couple of years in London, (during which he shared the sexual favours of a lady called Jenny Patterson with GB Shaw – an unlikely rival), Rodd entered into what was to be a very distinguished career in diplomacy.
He spent ten years in the British embassies at Berlin, Athens, and Constantinople. Then, in 1893, he became acting commissioner for British East Africa.
One of his duties was to investigate passing travellers and, in this capacity, he met an extraordinary Austrian lady who had already travelled alone from the Cape to Nyasaland. She was intent on continuing her journey all the way to Cairo. He made every attempt to dissuade her. The country ahead was reputedly cannibal country, (Richard Burton had reported that ‘the Wabembe tribe of Lake Tanganyika ‘prefer man raw, whereas the Wadoe of the coast eat him roasted’); after that was the Sudan, controlled by the equally dangerous Mahdi. She did not have a hope. Nevertheless, she set out north. Rodd kept a watch for her in later years but nothing was ever heard again. He said: “She was the first victim among the pioneers of the Cape to Cairo route”.
Rodd himself became involved in military operations when he accompanied British troops sent to suppress a slaver tribe at Witu, 100 miles north of Mombasa. The campaign was harsh. The column had to march in single file through shoulder-high grass under constant attack by snipers, while at night they were overrun by red ants. They besieged the main stockaded town of Pumwali, which eventually they were able to capture after a navy boatswain had crept under the walls with explosives. Rodd: ‘I had no definite duties to perform during the assault, so I smoked my pipe’.
Having caught malaria in 1894, Rodd left East Africa to take up fresh duties in Cairo under Lord Cromer. In 1897, Cromer sent Rodd as special envoy to Ethiopia to meet Emperor Menelik. At the time, Europeans commonly called the country ‘Abyssinia’. Rodd was able to score a diplomatic point by realising that the Ethiopians disliked this name. (It was an Arab word meaning ‘mixed’ and was a derogatory reference to the variety of races there.) But he objected to the local drink, a brew called ‘tej’: ‘a sea-green viscous liquid in whish dead wasps and other debris floated’. He continued that it was: ‘no more appetising when your host strained it through the shirt that he was wearing’.
Rodd’s visit was quite successful, in contrast to that of the previous British envoy, Admiral Sir William Hewitt, in 1884. Hewitt was clean-shaven, and the Ethiopian emperor had been amazed to see a grown man without a beard. He assumed that Admiral Hewitt was one of Queen Victoria’s palace eunuchs.
In 1908, Rodd became the Ambassador to Rome and was later very influential in encouraging Italy to join the Allies during the First World War. The Germans regarded him as the British evil genius in Italy. He was created Baron Rennell of Rodd, for his services.
Rodd was asked once whether he enjoyed his work in Italy. He replied by describing the perfect life to lead: from 20 to 25, to be a reigning beauty; from 25 to 35, a successful French general; from 35 to 50, a wealthy English aristocrat; and for the rest of life, to be a Roman cardinal. As he could not be the last, he wouldn’t mind settling for being the Ambassador to Rome.
WILDE AND CIGARETTES
Oscar Wilde made an oblique reference to Rodd and the Cairo Embassy when he commented on some new cigarettes: “They are rather good, I get them direct from Cairo. In fact, the only use of our attaches is that they supply their friends with excellent tobacco”.
Oscar consumed eighty cigarettes a day and said that he was unable to write without them. He used to carry a large biscuit tin of cigarettes with him as he moved from room to room of his Tite Street home. Wilde: ‘A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?’
The cigarette habit had become popular in England after a British soldier, Robert Gloag, had spotted Russian and Turkish troops smoking them during the Crimean War. Gloag started making what he called ‘little scorchers’ back at his home in Peckham, London. He used straw-coloured paper and filled in the tobacco from a funnel. He introduced the ‘Whiff’ in 1871, and founded the church of St Stephen, Peckham, from the soaring profits.
On November 22 1878, Wilde passed the Divinity exam at Oxford and received his BA degree.
[In South Africa, the Zulu War led to the battles of Isandhwana, Rorke’s Drift, and Ulundi.
In Britain, Gladstone led the Midlothian Campaign in protest against the atrocities committed by the Turks in Bulgaria.]
PRINCE IMPERIAL 1856-1879
Continuing in much the same imperialistic vein that he had used about Disraeli’s Afghan expedition, Oscar Wilde wrote the poem ‘Prince Imperial’ to commemorate the death of the young French Prince Imperial Napoleon-Eugene-Louis during the 1879 British campaign against the Zulus. ‘Eagle of Austerlitz! Where were thy wings, When far away upon a barbarous strand, In fight unequal, by an obscure hand, Fell the last scion of thy brood of Kings!’
Despite Disraeli’s comment that it was ‘most injudicious’, the Prince Imperial, hoping to win military glory, had joined the British army in Africa. Missing the famous encounters of Isandhwana and Rorke’s Drift, he was ambushed by Zulus while out on patrol near Ulundi. Attempting to vault into the saddle of his already moving horse, (a trick he had often achieved), unluckily this time his bridle broke and he slipped to the ground. He was struck eighteen times by assegais and his body was mutilated beyond recognition. When the corpse was returned to his mother in Chislehurst, England, he was identified only by his gold teeth fillings.
The Prince Imperial and his parents, Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie of France, had been ubiquitous figures in the English social scene. The Prince of Wales had introduced him into the London social world, where he had fitted easily into the boisterous antics of ‘Bertie’s’ Marlborough House set. He had once ruined a royal séance by climbing through a window into the darkened room and hurling bags of flour over Bertie, the medium, and the rest of the hand-holding participants.
As a trick on Harry Cust, another Marlborough Set member and perhaps the most lecherous of a highly competitive group, the Prince Imperial and the Prince of Wales hoisted a donkey into Cust’s bedroom, dressed it in women’s clothing, and persuaded it into Cust’s bed to await his arrival.
The Prince Imperial’s father,
Emperor NAPOLEON III, (1808-1873)
had lived a colourful life himself. A nephew of the famous Napoleon, he had spent his early manhood trying to restore a Napoleonic Empire in France. After several failed attempts, as a result of which he spent six years in a French jail and much time exiled in England, he finally achieved a successful coup in 1851 and established what Ronald Gower described as: ‘that Empire that smelt half of gunpowder and half of patchouli’.
His ‘gunpowder’ side, stirred by his wish to emulate his famous uncle, was displayed first by his involvement with the 1854 Crimean War, then by a war against Austria to free northern Italy in 1859, finally by his disastrous clash with Bismarck’s Prussia in 1870, which led to his collapse and final exile.
The ‘patchouli’ impression stemmed mostly from the sexual laxity of the Empire period, led enthusiastically by Napoleon himself. While in exile in England he was reputed to have slept with hundreds of women, and even managed to father a child during his imprisonment in France. Once in control of Paris, he availed himself of the endless opportunities.
Though numerically a great lover, his performance was not particularly remarkable. The Marquise Taisey-Chatenoy said that he looked insignificant in his mauve silk pyjamas, that his premature withdrawal left her unsatisfied, and that during the act he breathed so heavily that the wax on the ends of his moustache melted, causing them to droop.
Among his conquests were the Devon-born courtesan, Cora Pearl (daughter of the composer of the song ‘Kathleen Mavourneen’, Cora’s specialities included nude dinner parties, whipping, and orgies); and the ‘most beautiful girl in Europe’, the Italian Virginie, Countess Castiglione.
Virginie was actually a spy in the pay of Cavour, the prime minister of Piedmont, who had been sent specifically to inveigle Napoleon into the war against the Austrians. Finding that Cavour had not supplied her with sufficient funds, Virginie was forced to accept an offer of £1000 from the hugely rich Englishman, Lord Hertford, to spend a night with him during which she promised to accede to any demand he made of her. These demands proved to be of such perversity that it took her three days to recuperate. At their next meeting, it was said that they had ‘an air of mutual respect’ and took care to sit well apart.
Virginie succeeded in her mission to persuade Napoleon into war on the Italian side, but she was suspected of involvement in a bungled assassination plot against him and was ordered to leave Paris.
The Prince Imperial’s mother, the Spanish born
EMPRESS EUGENIE de Montijo, (1826-1920)
married Napoleon III in 1853. Although their connubial coupling lasted long enough to produce the Prince Imperial, Napoleon soon abandoned her bed for fresh interests. Eugenie reacted rather oddly.
As a girl, she had been disgusted by the excesses of her own mother who, newly widowed and still young, had celebrated her husband’s death by gathering together a group of Madrid women and launching an orgiastic spree. The group were known to kidnap attractive young men for sex parties. One game they devised was to ride the youths like medieval knights while tilting at each other with lances. (Eugenie’s mother was also a friend of Prosper Merimee. She gave him the story that he turned into his famous novel ‘Carmen’, the basis of the later opera by Bizet).
Eugenie’s dislike of such wild behaviour was shaken by Napoleon’s lapse of sexual interest in her. As a result, she began to relate very risqué stories, tried to seduce courtiers and palace sentries, then started to throw kisses to girls. But if her approaches received any response, Eugenie froze.
One incident was indicative of the attitudes prevailing at the imperial court. One summer’s night, Eugenie and a girlfriend, Madame de Pourtales, were playing cards together in the gardens. Suddenly, a masked intruder burst upon them and demanded their jewels at gunpoint. He then ordered them to strip. It was only when they were naked that Eugenie realised that actually he was a courtier playing a practical joke. Hearing guards rushing to their aid, instead of being outraged, Eugenie hid the prankster under the heap of clothes. She commented later: “Naughty, wasn’t it?”
When Napoleon’s Second Empire collapsed amidst the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, Eugenie fled from the Paris mobs that were searching for her, and escaped in disguise to England. She was to live for another fifty years as an exile, mostly in her house in Kent. Despite the early deaths of her husband and son, she stayed buoyant, became a respected figure, and a confidant of Queen Victoria.
Her later neighbour and friend, Dame Ethel Smyth, reported an incident at a very grand dinner, concerning the ex-Empress. At that time, Eugenie used to wear immensely long trains to her evening gown, sometimes trailing behind her for twelve feet. Smyth: ‘On this occasion, following in her wake, engaged in affable conversation with the lady on his arm, my father gradually marched up the whole length of that train. Being very short-sighted, he was quite unconscious of what was happening, until the Empress was bent backwards in an arc.’
Despite her apparent resilience, Eugenie never forgot the humiliation that the Prussians had brought upon her family and on France in 1870. In November 1918, at the end of the First World War, she walked down the long boulevard to the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris. She produced a newspaper and then very slowly read aloud the terms of the German surrender. She was aged 92.
Never very lucky in military terms, Napoleon III’s main attempt at foreign adventure also ended in debacle. In 1863, he persuaded
the younger brother of Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria, to accompany the French expedition to take control of Mexico. Maximilian was an amiable gentleman who was far more interested in botany than militarism, but he consented.
Napoleon had been a patient of Oscar’s father, Sir William Wilde, during his exile, and, on Napoleon’s advice, Maximilian also consulted Sir William before his departure.
Once installed in Mexico City, Maximilian was declared Emperor. The Liberal party of Mexico, led by Benito Juarez, objected strongly. At first, Maximilian held his ground, and planned various reforms (including freedom for the Indian population). However, with the ending of the American Civil War in 1865, the American government pressured Napoleon to remove his French troops. Maximilian was left stranded and unable to resist the ensuing revolt. He was captured by Juarez’s men and executed by firing squad in 1867 – an event immortalised by Manet’s famous painting.
Before Maximilian’s capture, his wife Charlotte, aged 26, came to Europe to beg for support from Napoleon and the Pope. They refused point blank. During her travels she became convinced that Mexican agents were trying to poison her with locoweed. (There was a strong probability that this was true). Charlotte gradually started to lose her mind and refused to eat any food offered to her. Once, crazed with hunger, she thrust her arm into a cooking pot and suffered serious burns. She never saw Maximilian again and died still insane sixty years later in 1927.
In February 1879 Wilde sold the Bray houses that he had inherited. The sale brought him the sum of £2,800.
The same month he finally moved to his first address in London – 13, Salisbury Street, off the Strand and overlooking the Thames – where he shared rooms with the young painter, Frank Miles.
GEORGE FRANCIS (FRANK) MILES 1852-1891
Wilde and Miles had known each other for some time previously. Wilde had visited Miles’s home in Nottinghamshire in 1876, where his father was a vicar. Oscar loved the place, (‘I am dallying in the enchanted isle of Bingham Rectory’), and greatly admired Miles’s four sisters – ‘all very pretty indeed’. Miles made a return visit to the Wilde family’s fishing lodge at Illaunroe in Co. Galway, where he painted a fresco called ‘Tight Lines’.
Although colour blind Miles won the Turner Prize at the Royal Academy in 1880. His disability meant that his work was restricted to line drawings and, in particular, to skilful likenesses of the ‘Professional Beauties’ of the time; reproductions of these portraits sold in huge numbers. Chief amongst the ‘PB’s was the remarkably pretty Lily Langtry, who Miles claimed to have discovered.
Miles was a serious student of horticulture and pioneered the revival of the herbaceous border; Langtry said that he was a gardener first and an artist afterwards. His enthusiasm was such that later, when Lily was searching for an independent career, Oscar was horrified to hear Miles suggesting that the most beautiful woman in England should devote herself to market gardening.
Miles and Wilde shared a similar sense of humour. They were both overcome with mirth when, on a visit to London Zoo, they overheard a lady staring in disgust at a hippopotamus and muttering to herself: “Horrible! Horrible! Hardly human!”
In 1880, the pair left Salisbury Street and moved into a small house in Tite Street, Chelsea, that Oscar christened ‘Keats House’. It was here that Oscar found himself in the position of having to rescue Miles from the consequences of his sexual peccadilloes.
Miles had been a close friend of Ronald Gower but, although possibly dabbling in homosexuality, his real taste was for young girls. Despite these activities taking place prior to the 1885 Labouchere Act (that raised the age of consent from 13 to 16), the legal position was already murky and Miles consistently ended up in trouble.
On one occasion, when Miles was being blackmailed by a woman, Oscar invited her to Tite Street to discuss the matter. Pretending sympathy, Wilde found that she only possessed one copy of some incriminating documents. Seemingly won over by her arguments, he told the woman that he would assist her case but needed to see the papers so that he could satisfy himself as to their validity. The woman handed them over and was flabbergasted to see Wilde coolly place them in the middle of his fire and press them into the flames with a poker. She left the house without extracting a penny.
On a more serious occasion, the police were informed of Miles’s dalliance with a 13-year-old girl and arrived at Tite Street armed with a warrant. Urging a terrified Miles to make a getaway through a skylight and across the rooftops, Wilde held the door against three detectives. After they broke the lock, Oscar rammed his hefty bulk against the door long enough for the escape to succeed. The police finally pushed their way in. Wilde: “They were furious and spoke of arresting me for resisting the police in the execution of their duty”. He explained that he thought the detectives were fellow artists playing a practical joke and that Miles was actually in Europe. It says much for Oscar’s plausibility that they believed him.
Their ways parted after Miles’s clerical father read Wilde’s poetry and, describing them as ‘licentious’, demanded that his son sever relations with the poet. Miles obeyed, fearful of losing his allowance. Being reprimanded over the morality of his poetry by a paedophile infuriated Wilde. Declaring he would never speak to Miles again, in a rage he packed his belongings, hurling his trunk over the banisters, (where it crushed a valuable hallstand), and departing by cab into the night.
With Oscar’s departure, Miles’s world seemed to collapse. His father died; he suffered a nervous breakdown on the eve of his marriage, (which was cancelled); finally in 1887 he became insane and spent the rest of his short life in Brislington Asylum near Bristol.
Wilde returned for a week in Oxford in March 1879.
In April, Edward Burne-Jones visited Wilde at Salisbury St.
SIR EDWARD BURNE-JONES 1833-1898
An early visitor to the Salisbury Street household was the well-known painter Edward Burne-Jones. Wilde had admired his work since seeing the Grosvenor Gallery ex hibition in 1877, where paintings by Burne-Jones and Whistler had dominated the opening day.
Burne-Jones had been raised in the lower middle-class district of the Bristol Road, Birmingham, England, but had proved himself a bright pupil at school. When his son was refused a university scholarship, Burne-Jones’s father turned his house into lodgings. Father and son shared one room together and finally scrimped enough to send Edward, (known as ‘Ned’), to Exeter College, Oxford – “the poorest student there”.
He soon fell under the spell of the Pre-Raphaelite group led by Holman Hunt, Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; their main artistic creed being that the death of the artist Raphael in 1520 had marked the end of inspired painting. Their task was to re-invent it. While at Oxford Ned also came under the influence of Ruskin’s socialism and became a lifelong friend of William Morris.
Although initially friendly, Burne-Jones fell foul of his most famous artistic contemporary, Whistler. Out of a sense of duty, Ned reluctantly appeared in the witness box on Ruskin’s behalf when Whistler sued the latter for describing his work as ‘throwing a pot of paint in the public’s face’. When asked at the trial if he was a friend of Whistler, he ruefully replied: “I was. I don’t suppose he will ever speak to me again after today.” He was correct. From then on, Whistler referred to Ned as ‘that old amateur’; and when Wilde left Britain by ship to lecture in the USA (partly on the Pre-Raphaelites), Whistler commented: ‘If you get sea-sick, Oscar, throw up Burne-Jones!’
Oscar remained a friend and their respective families knew each other well. One of Burne-Jones’s best-known paintings was ‘The Golden Stairs’. It portrayed a bevy of maidens descending a flight of steps (the models included Margot Asquith). When WS Gilbert composed his satirical opera ‘Patience’, the target was not just Wilde, but also ‘The Golden Stairs’. Ned enjoyed the spoof, as he did theatre in general. He always relished one line that he had heard in a popular melodrama of the day – ‘The man who can lay hand on a woman except in the way of kindness is unworthy of the name of a British sailor’.
Burne-Jones and his wife Georgina shared a happy marriage but, despite his fondness for Georgie, very occasionally he strayed into infidelity. His worst experience happened when he became embroiled in an affair with a Greek woman called Mary Spartali. When he tried to end it, Mary suggested instead that they carry out a suicide pact together. Ned was not keen on the idea.
Mary responded by attempting suicide alone and tried to throw herself into the Regent’s Canal, London. By chance, this happened to take place outside 19, Warwick Crescent, the residence of the poet Robert Browning. Browning owned some pet geese whose loud cackling sounded the alarm. The police arrived to find Ned and Mary struggling around on the ground, as Ned tried to prevent Mary’s leap into the canal.
(They were lucky to escape trouble, as at this time the police tended to arrest potential suicides. In 1877, a Mrs Helen Snee had written a letter requesting poison with which to end her life. The letter reached the wrong hands and she ended up in prison instead).
Burne-Jones, chastened by the experience, became much more reserved in his behaviour. When the Rani of Sarawak brought the actress Sarah Bernhardt to visit him, Sarah greeted Ned by taking half of her posy of flowers and pushing them down her cleavage. The other half she thrust into the top of his waistcoat. Ned, unnerved by this flirtatiousness, cautiously offered the two ladies afternoon tea. Seeing that things were not going well, the Rani deliberately dropped her teaspoon under the table and, when both she and Ned bent to retrieve it, their heads met. The Rani whispered: “Kiss her”. A shocked Ned hissed back: “No!” “Her hand, I meant”, retorted the Rani. Light dawning, Ned did as requested – and a mollified Bernhardt resumed tea.
At one dinner table, Ned was highly amused when the dignified (but short-sighted) grand dame sitting next to him gently patted his thigh and said: “Good dog”. Ned: “I didn’t know whether it was better to keep still or waggle enthusiastically”.
He gradually settled into a contented life with Georgie. Burne-Jones: ‘I suppose I have learned my lesson at last…the best in me has been love, and it has brought me the most sorrow, but it has this supreme excellence, that in its sight no mean thing can exist’.
The family moved out of central London and lived for the next thirty years in the then distant suburb of West Kensington. Wilde called it: ‘a district to which you drive until the horse drops dead, when the cabman gets down to make enquiries.’
The Burne-Jones’s were a hospitable family and delighted in parties. Ned also liked people to visit his studio and view his new work. He sometimes hid behind the studio door so that he could overhear any comments. This habit once led to him being squashed flat against the wall by a visitor hurling open the door in an over-exuberant entrance.
Wilde recounted a story (in ‘London Models’) that had originated at the Burne-Jones home. Ned hired a Neapolitan maid who only stayed with the family for one month and was almost totally silent during her stay, speaking only on four occasions. At the end of week one, she burst out with: “I was born on a burning mountain!” After the second week, she confided: “I love Fabio”. After the third, she went a little further with: “I will kill Maria!” Finally, at the end of the month, as Ned paid her off, she seized his arm and, with a worried frown, whispered: “You are good man. I tell you secret – for your own good. Do not eat the blue ices!!”
Both Ned and Georgie remained staunch Ruskinite socialists, despite their now bourgeois life. Possibly basing her observation on experience, Georgie said that any relationship between masters and servants were: ‘either a bloody feud or a hellish compact’.
Ned never forgot his own humble beginnings and when the impoverished Tyneside poet, Joseph Skipsey, who had been a miner since the age of seven, asked for help, Ned got him a job as caretaker at Shakespeare’s house at Stratford-on-Avon. Wilde also helped by reviewing Skipsey’s work, saying that there was: ‘much that is good and fine’.
Burne-Jones’s egalitarian principles came under an unusual strain as he became a prominent social figure. He had been born plain Ned Jones, but his son Philip, aspiring to join the Prince of Wales’s set, wished for a more impressive surname and demanded that his parents add the double-barrelled ‘Burne-’.
An even greater difficulty arose in 1894, when Gladstone offered him a knighthood. Ned was reluctant but again Philip insisted that he accept it. Georgie was scornful of the idea and Ned was terrified that his great friend (and proud socialist) William Morris would get to hear of it. Ned wondered to a friend whether he could pay the butlers of London £5 a year to announce him as ‘Mr Jones’.
When the details of Wilde’s life were exposed during the 1895 trials, Burne-Jones was shocked especially by the fact that Oscar had spent money on rent-boys while his wife Constance was short of cash. Ned lent Constance £150 to tide her over. Later, Ned relented in his attitude to Oscar: “Knowing Oscar’s many generous actions and the heavy merciless fist of London society … I shall speak up for him whenever I hear him abused”.
Burne-Jones was friendly with one of the giants of Victorian literature, Mary Evans (1819-1880), who wrote under the pen name of
(Wilde was not an admirer; he disliked her scientific realism. Speaking of one of her books, ‘Daniel Deronda’, he called it: ‘that dullest of masterpieces’.)
George Eliot had an oddly long face, framed by flapping bundles of hair. Once described as looking like ‘an intelligent horse’, she provided hours of amusement to James Whistler and his friend Albert Moore. Moore had a dachshund named Fritz, who the pair taught to sit up with folded paws, while looking down his long nose, with his ears flapping forward. This they called ‘Fritz’s George Eliot impression’.
Eliot was also noted for her vagueness over the practicalities of life. Burne-Jones was a victim of this weakness. He had attended an evening party at Eliot’s house, (described as having ‘somewhat of the solemnity of a religious function with the religion cut out’). He walked out into the pitch-black night with directions from Eliot to ‘turn right to the train station’. Stumbling blindly along a path, he turned right as instructed. Hearing an approaching train he clambered over a fence, then fell thirty feet through brambles to land upside down on the platform, bruised and shaken. Later, he mentioned the incident to Eliot, who replied: “Oh really – hmm, yes – I probably should have said – turn left”.
Probably Burne-Jones’s greatest friend was
WILLIAM MORRIS (1834-1896).
He was an inspirational figure to many other Victorians, being prominent as a painter, writer, poet, architect, interior decorator, publisher, manufacturer, socialist and conservationist.
Burne-Jones nicknamed him ‘Topsy’ (after the character in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’), because of his mop of black hair and generally unkempt appearance. The actor Frank Benson called him ‘an impetuous poet-craftsman’ and ‘a jovial, breezy individual in shirt sleeves and slippers, big and strong and hearty, with a bushy beard and hair’. Morris was well known for his disregard of his personal appearance. During his experiments in the art of dyeing, he was introduced to the composer Richard Wagner in London. Wagner was utterly perplexed as to why Morris’s hands were bright blue.
Richard Le Gallienne attended a meeting at the London house of the Duke of Westminster and reported that Oscar Wilde, the Duke, and other notables were on the platform preparing to speak when Morris: ‘blundered in, like a huge bumble-bee…and making a hurried, rather embarrassed attempt to mount the platform, stumbled and almost fell with an uncouth clatter, which provoked a titter of irreverent laughter’.
Wilde and Morris became well acquainted, Oscar describing him as: ‘Morris, our sweet and simple Chaucer’s child’. Morris’s initial judgement of Oscar – ‘Not but what he is an ass; but he certainly is clever too’ – mellowed considerably and he later told GB Shaw that Wilde was: “such uncommon good company and such a superb raconteur”.
Morris was a considerable poet; on Tennyson’s death, he was suggested as the new Poet Laureate, an idea he quickly turned down. Inspired by a trip to Iceland and his reading of the Norse sagas, he composed a lengthy series of poems called ‘Earthly Paradise’, consisting of over fifty thousand lines. He was in the habit of visiting the Burne-Jones’s to read the latest extracts; Georgie Burne-Jones said that she had to stab herself with a hatpin to keep awake.
Morris had a particular dislike of modernism, commercial mass-production, and the soulless industrialisation of the new cities. (Wilde agreed with him: ‘I would give Manchester back to the shepherds and Leeds to the stock-farmers’.)
On his last visit to Paris, a friend noted that Morris spent much of his time in the restaurant of the newly erected modernistic Eiffel Tower. On being asked why he liked the structure so much, Morris snorted: “The only reason that I spend so much time here is that because it’s the only place in Paris that I can avoid seeing the damn thing!”
While he was a fine speaker and publicist for English socialism, sometimes his efforts at public relations failed. Morris: “A dreadful woman has been asking me what is my message to the people of Hackney Wick. I was very nice and did my best. I said I hoped they were pretty well and that I was pretty well and – that was all I could think of. But she wasn’t pleased”.
After Florence Balcombe rejected him, Wilde was reputed to have proposed unsuccessfully first to Charlotte Montefiore, the sister of a fellow Oxford undergraduate, secondly to Violet Hunt. (‘Men often propose for practice’ – Gwendolen in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.)
VIOLET HUNT 1862-1942
Also among the visitors to the Salisbury Street household was the 16-year-old Violet Hunt. Wilde was attracted to her and attended afternoon teas at her parents’ home at Tor Villa in Campden Hill, Kensington. He quickly abandoned his efforts to discuss Socialism with her – “It is like talking to a daffodil about political economy” – and instead suggested that they went off to explore Africa. Violet demurred, taking the view that that probably they would be eaten by lions.
Nothing marital transpired from their meetings and when they met again in 1883, she said that Oscar was: ‘not nearly so nice’. In her memoirs she wrote that she ‘as nearly as possible escaped the honour of being Mrs Wilde’.
Violet was a Pre-Raphaelite beauty, described by the actress Ellen Terry as “out of Botticelli by Burne-Jones”. She was a vivacious, flirtatious, tactless and impulsive woman, who created an artistic salon when she inherited Tor Villa from her parents. She worked as a journalist, going on to become a popular, if not a respected, novelist.
The French writer Andre Raffalovich said of Violet that her epitaph should read: ‘a woman made for irregular situations’ – a description given some truth by the fact that she attempted to marry Raffalovich.
Violet rejected the sexual conventions of the time and, tiring of various unfulfilled affairs, plunged into a relationship with a 57-year-old married libertine, (and ex-British Consul to Oporto, Portugal), named Oswald Crawfurd. He vastly expanded her sexual horizons, taking her to Hyde Park after dark to observe prostitutes at work. After seven years of fights and reconciliation, during which time she contracted syphilis from Crawfurd, the couple parted.
Violet continued her pursuit of unlikely lovers, including Somerset Maugham and HG Wells, and was herself pursued by the well-known lesbian, Radclyffe Hall. Violet said that she rebuffed the lady but ‘found it titillating’.
In 1907, she began a long relationship with the writer Ford Madox Hueffer (1873-1939), later to change his last name to ‘Ford’. He was eleven years her junior.
Ford had also been acquainted with Wilde, but had a much more severe attitude to him than Violet. Ford: ‘‘I always intensely disliked Wilde, faintly as a writer and intensely as a human being…when I knew him he was heavy and dull. I only once heard him utter an epigram.” Ford met Wilde in Paris after Oscar’s downfall: ‘He was a truly miserable spectacle, the butt usually of a posse of merciless students. Of course, the sight of the young people, like starlings, tormenting that immense owl had a great deal to do with my revulsions’.
The fact that Ford was still married blighted his long affair with Violet, who, with age, now wished for some dignity in her life. Attempts at divorce failed and Ford spent two weeks in jail after refusing a court order to restore conjugal rights to his wife. After ten years of cohabitation, Ford discovered that Violet was syphilitic and left her for another woman.
The scandal caused by their irregular marital status was not helped by an incident involving the poet Ezra Pound. Pound had asked a friend, the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, to create a bust of himself, specifying that it should be phallic. Using a half-ton block of marble, Gaudier-Brzeska sculpted what looked like an enormous circumcised penis. It was entitled ‘The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound’.
After it was first exhibited, it was found to be too large and too heavy for the galleries to accept, so Pound left it at Violet’s house. The sight of a huge marble phallus on the front lawn did not help Violet’s attempt to gain respectability. She said that: ‘it had been useful for scaring away burglars’.
The sculpture was deported eventually. Violet wrote that: ‘Ezra’s sexual organ in extenso has been sent at enormous cost’ to a hotel in Rapallo, Italy. Even there it caused trouble, being banned from the hotel terrace as it was thought that the building could not support it. It ended up on loan to the Tate Gallery in London.
In July 1879 Wilde stayed at the Hotel Meunier, Laroche, Belgium, then at Tournai with Rennell Rodd.
During the summer he met James Whistler in London.
JAMES MCNEILL WHISTLER 1834-1903
One of the most famous relationships of Wilde’s life was his friendship, followed by enmity, with the American painter James Whistler. Recognising each other as fellow wits, they immediately sprang into a teasing battle of banter.
Their most renowned clash ended in a Whistler victory. At a party, a man had remarked: “It’s a good thing that we can’t see ourselves as others see us”, to which Whistler had replied: “Yes, isn’t it. In my case, I’d grow intolerably conceited’. Wilde, off guard, sighed: “How I wish I had said that”. Whistler thrust in his verbal rapier: “You will, Oscar, you will”.
Just before his wedding, Wilde received a telegram from Whistler. It read: ‘Fear I may not be able to reach you in time for the ceremony. Don’t wait.’
Oscar was happy to fence back. Although he had a genuine admiration for the American’s work: “In my opinion, he is one of the very greatest masters of painting”, he could not resist adding: “And I may add that in this opinion Mr Whistler himself entirely concurs”.
Wilde inscribed one of his poems on a piece of flimsy tissue paper and handed it to Whistler for his opinion. Whistler read it and handed it back. Wilde asked: “Well, Jimmy, what do you think of it?” Whistler nodded judiciously: “It’s worth its weight in gold”.
While visiting Whistler’s studio, Wilde saw a freshly painted portrait hanging on a wall. Seeing Wilde about to touch it, Whistler barked: “Don’t touch that, Oscar! It’s still wet”. Wilde replied soothingly: “Oh, it’s all right, Jimmy. I’m wearing gloves”.
At first, the English public tended to bracket the two together as fellow leaders of the aesthetic movement. WS Gilbert’s light opera spoof ‘Patience’ was aimed at Whistler even more than Wilde. Some of their behaviour provided the satirists with an easy target for comedy.
Lily Langtry commissioned the architect Edward Godwin to design her intended home in Tite Street, London. When Whistler, Wilde, and Frank Miles all appointed themselves as advisors, Godwin attempted to incorporate the flood of their ideas. Lily pulled out of the project when it was found that the triumvirate had forgotten to leave room for a staircase.
However, by the 1880s, Whistler’s attitude towards Wilde started to sour. He suspected that Wilde was a poseur whose knowledge of art was limited. He was not alone in these suspicions. The artist W. Graham Robertson wrote that: ‘despite his attitude as the Apostle of Art, Wilde did not really either care for or understand pictures, a fact that painters very quickly found out.’
Even more infuriating to Whistler was his belief that Oscar was taking his ideas and re-hashing them as his own. He regarded Wilde’s essay ‘The Decay of Lying’ as outright theft. When Whistler said that: “Oscar is an imitator, not an artist’, a friend suggested: “He might outgrow that”. Whistler snorted in reply: “The sponge is always sponging!”
Oscar defended himself – “It is only the unimaginative who ever invents. The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes and he annexes everything” – and hit back with: “Mr Whistler always spells Art with a capital I”.
By the 1890s, their friendship was in ruins and Whistler developed an almost obsessive jealousy for his former ally. He tried to destroy Wilde’s reputation in the Parisian artistic circles, advising the writer Mallarme to ‘hide your pearls’, and sneering: “Oscar, the bourgeois in spite of himself”.
When Wilde was imprisoned, Whistler refused to sign the clemency petition and, hearing that the newly released Oscar was trying to write a new work, made the scornful comment that the title should be ‘The Bugger’s Opera’.
Although a short man, with his carefully curled black hair (with one frontal white lock), his monocle, and his cane ‘the size of a darning needle’, Whistler was a striking dandy. He was well aware of his own merits and rarely missed an opportunity to emphasise them.
When some blank canvases went missing, he was asked whether they were of great value. He replied jauntily: “Not yet, not yet”. An admirer said that he only knew of two painters in the world: “yourself and Valasquez”. Whistler gave him a basilisk stare and asked: “Why drag in Valasquez?”
He was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA, and spent some of his childhood in St Petersburg, Russia, where his father worked as a railway engineer. Returning to America, he attended the military academy of West Point, but in 1854 was expelled for failing his chemistry exam: “If silicon had been a gas, I would be a major-general”. Then, in Oscar’s words: “Like all true Americans, Jimmy Whistler gravitated towards England”.
He was not immediately successful as a painter. One day, he noticed Benjamin D’Israeli sitting alone in St James Park. He saw his opportunity and asked the aged statesman whether he would sit for a portrait. D’Israeli gazed back wearily and muttered: “Go away, little man”.
Whistler turned to the River Thames for inspiration and spent some time amongst the poor in the East End of London. A friend once advised him that his portrait of a prostitute with the top of her blouse unbuttoned would not be accepted by the Royal Academy. Whistler vowed to repaint it and open another button each year: “until I am elected to the Academy and can hang it myself”.
As his fame grew, he turned to portraits. He was commissioned to paint a life-size nude study of the French actress, Cleo de Merode. Cleo arrived with her mother as chaperone and, wearing only a headband, draped herself on a sofa. Whistler was not happy that the headband concealed her ears and stepped forward to rearrange it. Her mother rose with a squawk of indignation: “Oh, no, no, monsieur! Cleo’s ears are for her husband alone!”
Aside from his acknowledged artistic genius, the characteristic that struck most of his contemporaries was Whistler’s extreme pugnacity. He said himself that: “My nature needs enemies”. “A friendship is no more than a stage on the way to a quarrel”.
As a younger man this aggression took a physical form. The poet Rossetti composed a limerick: ‘There was a young artist called Whistler, Who in every respect is a bristler, A tube of white lead, Or a punch in the head, Come equally handy to Whistler.’ It is possible that one cause of his notorious conduct was that he felt guilty over his absence from the American Civil War, (his brother William had a distinguished career in the Confederate Army).
For whatever reason, Whistler could not resist a fight, knocking his brother-in-law through the plate-glass window of a Parisian café, punching the Slade artist Alphonse Legros to the floor of his studio, and being banned from the Burlington Fine Arts Club on the grounds that a club could not survive: ‘if a member cannot enter except under fear of being subjected to an assault’. When a labourer dropped some spots of plaster on him from a ladder, Whistler knocked him out cold; he was fined for this offence.
In 1866, he visited Valparaiso, Chile, hoping to paint battle scenes from the Spanish-Chilean War. The only event that took place was the shelling of the city by the Spanish Navy; the only casualty of the action was one donkey. Deprived of more stirring scenes, on the return voyage Whistler took exception to eating at the same table as a black Haitian and punched him in the face. He was confined to his cabin, where a ship’s officer came to complain about his conduct; Whistler promptly hit the officer as well. On arrival back at Victoria Station, Whistler got into yet another fistfight with a porter.
As he grew older, his capacity for physical attack lessened and instead he channelled his aggression into legal and verbal challenges. The writer George Du Maurier and the painter Walter Sickert were among the victims of Whistler’s litigious activities, while his action against John Ruskin became world famous. But it was in the area of gratuitous insult that Whistler specialised. It was noted by at least two contemporaries that the difference between Wilde and Whistler was that Wilde used his wit to entertain, while Whistler used his wit to damage.
When he was told that the meek, diffident husband of a particularly stately American lady was dead, Whistler replied: “No, not dead – but gone behind”. One man who bored Whistler approached him jovially and said: “You know, Mr Whistler, I passed your house last night”. Whistler drawled back: “Oh, thank you”.
If Whistler held a grudge he was relentless. When the painter William Stott of Oldham exhibited a new canvas entitled ‘The Birth Of Venus’, Whistler realised with fury that the model was his own mistress, Maud Franklin. During an ensuing argument at the Hogarth Club, Whistler slapped Stott’s face. In Whistler’s own words: ‘I am grieved to add that the first slap was followed by a second one, and the incident closed by a kick upon a part of Mr Stott of Oldham’s body that finally turned towards me, and that I leave to specify’.
Stott died at sea. On hearing the news, Whistler grunted: “So he died at sea, did he? Just where he always was.”
The only man who intimidated Whistler was the French artist Edgar Degas, who a mutual friend described as ‘sitting on Jimmy like anything’. In Degas’s presence, even Whistler’s verbal powers failed. Degas: “His conversation was characterised by brilliant flashes of silence”. Once, when Whistler strutted into a Paris café dressed immaculately in top hat and frock coat, Degas shouted across: “Hey, Whistler, you’ve forgotten your muff!”
Whistler achieved the artistic fame he desired and also, after a series of mistresses, in 1888 settled into a happy marriage with Trixie, the widow of the architect Edward Godwin. He became a renowned denizen of the London suburb of Chelsea and helped found the Chelsea Arts Club. The club members were amused when one of their fellows, who had reputedly attempted to seduce a servant girl, entered the premises leaning on a stick. Whistler commented to his fellow founder Wilson Steer: “Housemaid’s knee, I presume”.
Whistler spent a lot of time in Paris; an art school known as the ‘Academie Whistler’ opened there in 1898. He prided himself on his knowledge of the French language but came to grief when he insisted on ordering a meal at a fashionable restaurant. His companion tried to intervene, but Whistler snapped: “I am quite capable of ordering a meal in French without your assistance!” The friend replied: “Of course you are. But I just distinctly heard you ordering a flight of stairs.”
Both Wilde and Whistler agreed on their dislike of one mutual acquaintance, the art critic
HARRY QUILTER (1851-1907).
Quilter epitomised the muscular English philistinism both men loathed. His critical reaction to the vogue for Japanese fans and china was that it would ‘turn decent Englishmen into prigs and milksops’. Whistler derided the ‘fatuous’ Quilter’s appearance in checked trousers and bright jackets as resembling a bookmaker’s tout and always referred to the critic as ‘ ’Arry’.
Wilde was no admirer either. Quilter worked mostly for the Spectator magazine. This publication had once described Oscar’s sonnet on Keats as blasphemous; noting this, an editor of ‘Sonnets of the Century’ removed Wilde’s work from the book. Oscar responded: ‘this is, I believe, the only instance of the Spectator influencing anybody on anything’. Quilter predictably rejoiced over Wilde’s downfall: ‘‘The fall of the High Priest of aestheticism has struck the public imagination’.
After his 1878 libel case against John Ruskin produced only one farthing in damages, Whistler, in great financial difficulties, was forced to retreat to Venice and to sell his beloved Tite Street home, the White House. It was Quilter who bought the house and infuriated its previous owner by redecorating it.
Quilter, fresh from what Whistler described as this ‘vandalism’, now arrived in Venice to do some sketching of his own. He discovered a beautiful Renaissance doorway and, hiring a gondola, spent five days drawing it. On the fifth day, an incandescent Whistler arrived, also in a gondola, angrily shouting that Quilter had got ‘his’ doorway. Quilter refused to budge and the row raged on.
Finally, Quilter buckled and, seeing that the canal was too small for two gondolas, invited Whistler to join him in the first one. A still disgruntled Whistler climbed aboard, and the pair spent the next few days sitting in the boat, each silently and sulkily sketching the same doorway.
On 28 Nov 1879 Wilde went to see Henry Irving’s performance as ‘Shylock’ in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at the Lyceum Theatre, London.
SIR HENRY IRVING 1838-1905
Despite the rejection of both Wilde’s early plays, (‘Vera’ and ‘The Duchess of Padua), Wilde had a great deal of respect for the actor Henry Irving whom he described as ‘a marvellous and vivid personality’. He admired the way that Irving had risen above commercialism in order to raise the status of theatre: ‘At first he appealed to the few; now he has educated the many’.
They clashed only once. When Oscar’s play ‘Salome’ was banned in 1892, Irving, wishing to maintain the newly won respectability of the stage, supported the censor. Wilde was annoyed that no actor had protested against the ban: ‘not even Irving who is always prating about the art of the actor’.
However, during Wilde’s downfall, Irving expressed his contempt for the actors who had attacked Oscar; and when Wilde left jail, Irving was one of the few people who sent him an encouraging message.
Henry Irving was without question the dominant figure of Victorian theatre. His great achievement was to restore the stage to the position of being an acknowledged art form, as opposed to the degraded popular entertainment that it had become since the eighteenth century.
He accomplished this feat mostly through his superb acting talent and his single-minded perfectionism. His self-centredness sometimes made him a difficult man with whom to work. Bernard Shaw wrote that: ‘One thing that is almost beyond conception is the ignorance of theatrical people of any world besides their own, however important. But Henry’s single-mindedness reached new realms, even for theatre’. He was a proud and lonely man, but also courteous and extremely generous; many people, including his business manager Bram Stoker and his leading lady Ellen Terry, revered him enough to forgo their own ambitions to aid Irving’s dream.
Physically, Irving did not appear to be well suited to the stage. He was derided for his skinny legs and odd walking gait. (Wilde defended him over this: “Irving’s legs are limpid and utter. Both are delicately intellectual but his left leg is a poem”). Shaw called Irving’s voice ‘a highly cultivated neigh’. He was also very short sighted and found his way around stage by guesswork. Nevertheless, the critic William Archer wrote: ‘This man, who could neither walk nor talk, was yet incomparably the best actor in England’.
Born in Somerset under his real name of John Henry Brodribb, he started his career as a solicitor’s clerk. For fifteen years he worked his gradual way upwards in the theatre until in 1871 he triumphed in the London production of ‘The Bells’ and ‘woke to find himself famous’.
His main talent lay in his re-interpretation of famous Shakespearian roles, for instance, playing ‘Hamlet’ as a gentleman scholar and ‘Macbeth’ as an indecisive man living on his nerves; both radical departures from previous readings. His most famous break with convention was his performance as ‘Shylock’ in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. Many Jewish people had been offended by the usual villainous portrayals; Irving made ‘Shylock’ the most sympathetic and dignified figure in the play, an act of imagination that won the gratitude of the Jewish community.
Irving once asked his aged dresser what the man considered to be Irving’s greatest Shakespearean role and got the answer, ‘Macbeth’. He replied that the general opinion favoured ‘Hamlet’. The dresser shook his head: “No, Guv’nor. It was Macbeth. You sweat twice as much in that”.
By 1878, his rising theatrical success enabled him to take over the lease of the Lyceum Theatre, (originally the English Opera House), just off the Strand in London. The Lyceum partnership of Irving and his new leading lady, Ellen Terry, led to a string of successes that lasted for twenty years. He was aided financially by ‘the richest heiress in all England’, Baroness Burdett-Coutts.
[Heiress to the Coutts Bank fortune,
BARONESS GEORGINA BURDETT-COUTTS (1814-1906)
became a philanthropist on a huge scale. Wilde was not impressed: ‘Philanthropy seems to me to have become simply the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow-creatures’. Her wealth attracted a siege of suitors. Unfortunately for her, the one love of her life was Sir James Brooke, the founder of the kingdom of Sarawak, (and father-in-law of the Rani of Sarawak), who turned down her proposal. In 1881, aged 68, she married William Ashmead-Bartlett, an American aged 27. A joke circulated in the British press: ‘An arithmetic problem – How many times does 27 go into 68 and what is there left over?’]
In 1883, Irving took his company abroad for the first of eight tours of the USA. It was another triumph. On the first night in New York, however, he was shocked by the complete lack of applause after the first act. He stumped off stage muttering: “It’s a damned frost! Those Yankees are icebergs. I might as well play to a churchyard!” He did not realise that Americans reserved their applause till the end of the play and was delighted by the eventual storm of approval.
Irving introduced some new elements to the theatre, being the first producer to keep the auditorium darkened throughout the play. Also, the Victorian public loved to see sparks flying during the stage sword fights. Tiring of his usual trick of attaching flints to the weapons, Irving tried to adapt electricity to produce the same effect, (aided by Colonel Gouraud, Thomas Edison’s partner). Before one fight scene in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Irving had the swords wired up. As his sword clashed with ‘Tybalt’s’ sword, they connected themselves to the mains supply. They lived to fight another day – but returned to flints.
Irving was fascinated by music hall technique and was particularly fond of the great music hall comedian Dan Leno. Leno, on the other hand, longed to perform a tragic role and became determined to give his own serious rendition of Irving’s famous performance as ‘Richard III’.
As the times of their performances clashed so often, it was only very rarely that Irving managed to see his favourite comic. One day, they were both booked to appear at Drury Lane Theatre on the same variety bill for a hastily constructed charity show. Irving stood in the wings eagerly awaiting Dan Leno to rush on stage and burst into such gems as his hilarious ‘Do You Know Mrs Kelly’ routine.
Leno, having no idea that his hero was on the same bill or even in the same theatre, strode onstage in ‘Richard III’ makeup and costume, and launched into the famous opening soliloquy – ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’, etc.
Irving’s initial surprise turned to annoyance when he remembered that he himself was about to follow Leno onstage with the same speech. Leno, innocently unaware of the gaffe, continued to perform his excruciatingly bad ‘imitation’ of the great actor. The audience sat aghast, while Irving grew livid with rage in the wings.
Finally Dan Leno realised the situation. He advanced to the footlights, hissed at the orchestra conductor to play some music and, to a storm of laughter from the audience, ‘Richard III’ danced offstage to the sound of a sailors’ hornpipe.
Irving’s long quest to gain respectability for the theatre finally bore fruit. Although the previous social stigma attached to the stage had gone, (mostly due to the craze for amateur dramatics among the aristocracy), society still did not regard actors as equals. Even in the 1890s, George Du Maurier was reluctant to allow his son Gerald to enter on a theatrical career. This attitude began to dwindle after Irving was knighted on 25 May 1895; ironically the same day that Wilde was convicted.
Irving was less lucky in his private life, not that this upset him particularly. His obsessive relationship with the theatre left him emotionally self-sufficient. His disastrous marriage to Florence O’Callaghan, (who secretly disliked the stage), ended on the night of his triumph in ‘The Bells’. As they rode home in a carriage with the cheers of the audience still ringing in Irving’s ears, Florence sneered: “Are you going to go on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?” Irving stopped the carriage, climbed down, and walked off. He never returned home and never spoke to her again.
His one concession was to offer Florence a theatre box at his first nights. Florence, nursing a raging bitterness, accepted each time just so that she could unnerve him by glowering with fury throughout his performance. She taught their two sons, Lawrence and Henry, to refer to Irving as ‘the antique’ and to Ellen Terry as ‘the wench’. When Edwin Booth played Hamlet in London she asked Irving for tickets so that: “the two sons of Henry Irving can see a real actor”. She was furious when the sons later became reconciled with their father.
Shaw said of Irving that: “he would not have left the stage for a night to spend it with Helen of Troy”. Despite the probable truth of this observation, Irving did have some later love affairs. According to Ellen Terry, they became lovers after the first night of ‘Hamlet’, and towards the end of his life he was close to a Mrs Eliza Aria, a fashion writer who owned several bonnet shops. But, as Ellen stated ruefully: “Were I to be run over by a steamroller tomorrow, Henry would be deeply grieved: would say quietly ‘What a pity’ and would add, after two minutes’ reflection, ‘Er. Who is there to go on for her tonight?’ ”
Most of his affection was lavished on his pet dog, Fussie. On one American tour, Fussie was left behind accidentally in New York. Irving stopped the train and found Fussie plodding along the rail tracks following him to California. On another occasion, Fussie was left in Southampton when the company sailed off to the USA. He walked the seventy miles back to the Lyceum Theatre in London. Irving was distraught when Fussie was killed by falling through an open stage trap door.
As the 1890s came to an end, Irving’s theatrical empire began to crumble. Although he produced and performed in some of Tennyson’s plays, modern drama did not interest him. Shaw attacked him as: ‘an actor who thought himself superior of any dramatist, who ordered a play as another man would order a glove’. The extraordinary charisma that he and Terry had produced on stage waned.
Never allowing for any illness on his own part, when he injured his knee on the first night of ‘Richard III’, there was no understudy ready to take over and the theatre closed with losses of £10,000. Then his immense but uninsured stock of scenery was destroyed by fire. His health was struck by pleurisy.
Most of all, his legendary generosity had left him little financial leeway. One day, he overheard his business manager Bram Stoker refusing to hire an elderly woman for a job at the Lyceum. Irving suggested that she could take care of the theatre cats. Stoker answered that they already had three women taking care of the cats. Irving was not deterred: “You must find her something. Let her look after the three women that are looking after the cats”.
In 1902, he was forced to sell the Lyceum. After a performance of ‘The Merchant of Venice’, he led Ellen Terry out for their last curtain call. The Lyceum closed down in 1904 and became a music hall.
Irving kept touring to stave off bankruptcy and died after giving a performance in Bradford, Yorkshire. The news reached Ellen Terry while she was in a play at Manchester. Shaw reported that: ‘the next night she ordered the curtain to go up as usual; she managed to act almost to the end, when she came to the lines – “It’s summer gone, autumn begun. I had a beautiful husband once, black as the raven was his hair……. ” Then she broke down in grief for her old love and friend and partner, while stagehands quickly lowered the curtain, and the audience filed out of the theatre in silence.’
DAME ELLEN TERRY 1847-1928
Ellen Terry was one of the first famous women to be a recipient of Oscar Wilde’s extravagant admiration. After seeing her as ‘Ophelia’ in Irving’s 1878 ‘Hamlet’, he wrote a poem to ‘Our Lady of the Lyceum’, describing her as: ‘like some wan lily overdrenched with rain’ – a metaphor she loved. They became acquainted through the architect Edward Godwin and always remained on friendly terms.
In 1889, when Ellen sat for a Shakespearean costume portrait by the Tite Street based painter John Singer Sargent, Oscar was delighted. “Tite Street, on a wet and dreary morning that has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four wheeler, can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities”.
Even as late as 1894, she was ignorant of Wilde’s sexual inclinations. When he sighed to her actress friend: “Aimee Lowther, if you were only a boy, I could adore you”, Ellen was puzzled until Irving explained to her. It made no difference to Ellen’s regard for Oscar.
During his trials, a veiled lady delivered violets to Wilde’s house with a note reading: ‘To bring you good luck’ – Irving’s son Lawrence let slip that it was Ellen Terry. In 1899, she was in Paris with Aimee Lowther, and came across Oscar in the street, ‘gazing longingly in the window of a pastry shop’. They gave him dinner and he repaid them with sparkling conversation but ‘we never saw him again’.
Terry’s acting partnership with Henry Irving made them the pre-eminent theatrical couple of the age. It also brought her great fame, (her photograph was on sale all over Britain), and during the 1880s she earned more money than any other woman in England.
Although very good-looking, like many famous beauties she was careless about her personal appearance; Max Beerbohm said that she looked like: ‘a Christmas tree decorated by a Pre-Raphaelite’. One observer said that though Ellen was soft and yielding on the surface, beneath she had an ego of steel.
One of her qualities was her sense of fun. The actor Frank Benson wrote: ‘I have seen Ellen, in one of her irresponsible moods, catch hold of a bit of scenery that was being hoisted to the flies, hanging on with her lithe strong arms and graceful figure till she was some forty feet above the stage. The crew would hastily lower her to the stage. She would then dance an Irish jig to show how much better she felt for the flight’.
When she acted opposite Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s ‘Falstaff’, one night she slid a pin into his inflated costume padding and gleefully watched his stomach collapse.
Her light heartedness even infected the serious Irving. They once found a small girl hanging about backstage and asked her what role she was playing. They collapsed in laughter when the girl replied: “Please, mum, I’m a water-carrier, then I’m a little page, and then I’m a virgin”.
She also aided Irving over his production research. When researching ‘Macbeth’, the pair visited Scotland and looked for the ‘blasted heath’. They discovered that it was now ‘a flourishing potato field’.
Terry once had to deal with a presumptuous young director who spelled out every move and intonation he wished in her performance. She listened carefully, did as he ordered, then said: “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll just do that little extra something for which I am paid my enormous fee”.
Earlier in her career, she did meet her match. When playing Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, she had to act with a Mr Sykes in the role of Bassanio. During rehearsal, Sykes, a notorious lecher, advanced on her obviously intent on taking full advantage of the stage direction to ‘embrace Portia’. Ellen blanched at the prospect and stuttered: “Oh no, Mr Sykes, all you should do is – er – kiss my hand. It’s more Venetian”. Sykes leered salaciously. “Come on now, Miss Terry, come on. You’re cuttin’ all the fat out of me part”.
Terry had a tempestuous private life that included, not only her relationship with Henry Irving, but three husbands, one long term lover, and two illegitimate children.
Even as a child she had attracted male attention, being a favourite of the Rev, Charles Dodgson (‘Lewis Carroll’ of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ fame) who claimed: “I can imagine no more delightful occupation than brushing Ellen Terry’s hair”.
In 1864, aged sixteen, she married the successful painter G.F. Watts (1817-1904), thirty years her senior, and according to Shaw, ‘a middle-aged, lukewarm gentleman’. The marriage lasted less than a year, as Ellen was bored stiff. According to a very unreliable rumour, she burst in on a dignified dinner party at Watts’ home and danced naked on the table.
Three years later, and still legally married to Watts, she eloped with the architect Edward Godwin (1836-1886) to live as his mistress. (Godwin was described by Wilde as ‘one of the most artistic spirits of this century in England’ and he designed both of Oscar’s Tite Street houses.) They produced two children out of wedlock, but by 1874 the family was desperately poor. Ellen left Godwin to return to the stage. Terry: ‘He loved me, and I loved him, and that, I suppose, is the reason we so cruelly hurt each other’.
(Godwin may also have been an unsatisfactory bedmate. His wife Beatrice (Trixie), who later married Whistler, reported: ‘He had an affliction that caused him to wake up in the middle of the night shaking with chills that rocked the bed. He insisted on sleeping under six pairs of blankets and, as we were too poor to afford two beds, I was forced to swelter beside him. One night he demanded a fire and I had to go out and chop wood; this caused me to end up in hospital for three months’.)
In 1878, Ellen married an actor, (in her words, ‘a manly bulldog’), called Charles Kelly; they separated in 1881. Then, in 1906, she married a young American actor called James Carew; they separated in 1908. Carew said: “The only way to get on with Nell was not to live in the same house’.
In a comment that also reflected Irving’s character, Ellen’s son Edward Gordon Craig said that: ‘great actresses can rarely make successful wives because they are already married to the stage’.
SIR SQUIRE BANCROFT 1841-1926
Squire Bancroft was one of Henry Irving’s friendly rivals in the effort to legitimise the Victorian theatre. Occasionally they acted together, though not often. This was perhaps as well, as they were both very short sighted. When called upon by a play-script to fight a duel, a friend said: “I felt that one or both of the combatants would not leave the stage alive”.
Together with his wife, the actress and comedienne Marie Wilton (1839-1921), Bancroft achieved a new refinement both in the profession and in their audience. They managed to bring ‘Society’ back to the theatre.
Although Squire was not a great actor, he was meticulous over the detail of his productions. The actor Charles Brookfield wrote in his memoirs that in rehearsal for one play, Bancroft asked him what age he intended to play his character. Brookfield replied: “I don’t really know. Maybe about 55?” Bancroft thought hard for a moment, then suggested: “Or – 56?”
The Bancrofts knew Oscar Wilde in the 1880s. He wrote to Lady Bancroft: ‘Dramatic art in England owes you and your husband a great debt’ and she wrote an article for his magazine, ‘Woman’s World’. She told a friend that Wilde: ‘once congratulated us, when we wrote some memoir of ourselves, on not having waited, as most people do, until they have lost all memory’. (Oscar made a similar comment in an essay: ‘I dislike modern memoirs. They are generally written by people who have entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering’).
In 1885, after twenty years in the theatre, and now in their early forties, both the Bancrofts retired, having amassed a fortune of £180,000. They spent the next thirty-five years as social figures and as respected theatrical elders.
Brookfield recalled that during the interval of a first night at the Haymarket, (a theatre that Bancroft had once run), Willie Wilde, hoping to gain an informed opinion to include in his press review, sat down behind Squire and asked his opinion of the play. Squire frowned then carefully inspected the plush material that covered the stall in front of him. Turning to Willie, he observed: “It was in 1879 that I had these stalls covered – just about eleven years ago. They’re as good as new. It shows the advantage of going to a really good firm.”
After his wife died, Squire moved into the Albany chambers in London. Each morning he would walk to his bank and check his balance carefully, then stroll on to lunch at the Garrick Club. In spite of changing times, he did not change with them.
After seeing James Barrie’s new play, ‘The Admirable Crichton’, a friend asked him what he thought of it. He gave a melancholic shake of his head: “It deals, my dear chap, with the juxtaposition of the drawing room and the servants’ hall – always to me a very painful subject’.
Wilde’s increasing popularity in social circles stemmed mainly from his extraordinary abilities as a conversationalist. The older fashion for convoluted wit, such as espoused by Dr Johnson, had faded; the flashing rapier of retort was now in vogue and, combined with his ‘wonderful golden voice’, Oscar’s style was ideal. Wilde: ‘‘Conversation should touch on everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing’. He was becoming a welcome addition to sophisticated London life.
During the winter of 1879, Lily Langtry visited Salisbury Street on many occasions, often accompanied by her fellow ‘Professional Beauties’, Lady Lonsdale and Patsy Cornwallis-West.
LILY LANGTRY 1853-1929
Despite his engagements and his lavish homage to many famous women, probably Wilde’s only real infatuation was for the magnificent ‘Jersey Lily’ Langtry. It is likely that they were lovers in the physical sense for a short time. In her old age, Lily always kept an empty chair at her dining table ‘in memory of dear Oscar’. When a guest commented that Wilde was a homosexual, she bridled: “You fool, you don’t understand. Oscar was a very versatile man’.
Langtry had some reservations about Wilde’s personal habits, complaining that his fingernails were often dirty and that ‘to me, he was always grotesque in appearance’. However, she added that he had ‘a remarkably fascinating and compelling personality’ and found his voice ‘one of the most alluring that I have ever listened to’. She said that Oscar possessed ‘what, in an actor, would be termed wonderful stage presence’.
Wilde, for his part, was besotted, describing Lily as: ‘Helen, formerly of Troy, now of London’. Later in his life, Oscar gave a possible glimpse of his true feelings when he said that, while he had never felt jealousy over his wife, he had about Langtry. In his poem, ‘Quia Multum Amavi’ there is a line that seems an echo of their affair: ‘Ah! Hadst thou liked me less and loved me more’.
Lily became irritated by Oscar’s obsession with her. One morning, her husband found Wilde curled up on the Langtry doorstep fast asleep. He had waited there overnight on the chance of seeing her. Lily: ‘‘I am afraid that often I said things which hurt Oscar’s feelings in order to get rid of him”.
When she became the mistress of the Prince of Wales, Langtry moved beyond Wilde’s milieu. He remained a friend, teaching her Latin and, when her royal lover withdrew leaving her in need of an income, persuading her to become an actress – an ideal career move. His literary influence was obvious in the style in which she wrote her only novel, ‘All At Sea’.
Wilde was by no means the only man bowled over by Langtry’s radiance. Even the French writer Victor Hugo, when aged 78, greeted her with: “Madam, I can celebrate your beauty in only one way – by wishing I was three years younger.” She was said ‘to move like a beautiful panther’. But, while she certainly enjoyed it for its own sake, she saw sex mainly as her passport to fame and riches.
Her flamboyant sensuality and indifference to gossip was a probable inheritance from her father. He was Dean of the Channel Island of Jersey and, in spite of his position, fathered many of the island’s illegitimate children. There was an unsubstantiated story that one Sunday morning he emerged from church with a woman on each arm. Their jealous husbands, who had been lying in wait, charged out to attack him. Their fury was so great that, when he sidestepped them and slipped away, they continued to blindly cudgel one another in the delusion that the other was the Dean.
Lily grew up as a tomboy, albeit a very pretty one. It was claimed that she once stripped naked and ran up the Deanery lane for a bet; on another occasion she helped tar and feather the King George statue in St Helier, to the outrage of the Jersey islanders.
In 1873, she made her first move into society by marrying Edward (Ned) Langtry, a playboy yachtsman with a moderate but rapidly dwindling fortune. Once installed in London, her beauty was soon recognised and most of the major artists vied for her to become their model and, in some cases, bed partner. This sudden fame soon attracted the attention of Bertie, Prince of Wales.
By 1877, she was his lover and for a period he became besotted by her. He once complained: “I’ve spent enough on you to buy a battleship!” Lily replied: “And you’ve spent enough in me to float one!” Their mutual sexual appetite was a standing joke to insiders.
On one occasion, they were the guests abroad HMS Thunderer, captained by Bertie’s great friend, Lord Charles Beresford. All the cabins were below deck and had to be supplied with oxygen through airshafts. One afternoon, while Bertie and Lily were dallying below, Beresford shut off the air supply. In a state of half dress and gasping for breath, the pair were forced to scramble on deck. An innocent-faced Beresford disclaimed all knowledge.
When Lily became pregnant, the list of her lovers was too long to be able to pick out the father. A story circulated that Bertie and Prince Louis of Battenburg tossed a coin to decide the paternity – Prince Louis won. But whoever the true father might be, Lily knew it was not her husband. Worried that Ned might divorce her over such visibly blatant adultery, Lily asked Bertie to help.
Ned was despatched on a bogus mission to the USA to get him out of the way, (two men were stationed at the port to make sure he boarded the ship). Lily was sent to Paris to give birth. Bertie paid the bills. The baby was born in 1881 and Lily claimed her to be the orphaned daughter of her brother. Ned never realised that his wife had become a mother.
(This episode led to an odd sequel. In 1891, Wilde wrote ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ in which the character of ‘Mrs Erlynne’ had been through a similar experience. He offered the role to Lily who indignantly rejected it. Lily: ‘It was for me that he wrote Lady Windermere. Why he ever supposed that it would have been at the time a suitable play for me, I cannot imagine, and I had never contemplated him as a possible dramatist’. In reality, it was far too close to the bone for Lily’s comfort.)
The affair with Bertie faltered when he met the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Then, when an over-exuberant Lily pushed a spoonful of ice cream down his neck at a crowded ball, Bertie ended their attachment.
Nothing daunted, Lily continued her conquests, once remarking, “Men are born to be slaves”. She preferred to entertain simultaneous lovers, rather than to have consecutive affairs. One of her ploys when an unattended male was available was to swoon gracefully to the floor; a condition that necessitated much loosening of clothes, etc. The brothers-in-law of Jennie Churchill offered her riding lessons. One lifted her on to the horse, where she promptly fainted into the arms of the other on the far side. Needless to say, she was actually a superb horsewoman.
She ignored any adverse comment on her behaviour and was amused by such newspaper snippets as: ‘We have heard that Mrs Langtry has lost her parrot. That the lady possessed such a bird we were unaware, but we knew she had a cockatoo.’
However, her partial banishment from court circles left her financially embarrassed and out of necessity she decided on a theatrical career. Her fame attracted large audiences in spite of bad reviews. Lily: ‘I was never a great actress. But I really loved the stage. I took it very seriously’.
Despite being dislodged from the Prince of Wales’s bed by Sarah Bernhardt, Lily studied and admired her French rival; they soon became friends. Sarah’s young son Maurice was very keen on boxing and once persuaded the two actresses to try the sport in a New York hotel bedroom. Lily: ‘We entered into it with great gusto, Maurice giving timely aid to one or other as it was needed, and we were both much the worse for wear at the finish’.
Lily’s theatre tours of the USA underpinned her financial success. They also provided her with many more lovers, including a long-term affair with the young millionaire, Freddie Gebhardt. Wilde often joined the pair for dinner at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York during the autumn of 1882.
During the next two decades, Lily’s mercenary streak became more pronounced and her life even more wild. She bought a London house at 21, Pont Street, (now part of the Cadogan Hotel), where visitors – including guardsmen, young aristocrats and, occasionally, Bertie – were accustomed to ignore the front door and enter the house via a plank that stretched over the basement well from pavement to dining room window. A besotted admirer hired rooms opposite and trained a gun on all male callers.
Not content with Gebhardt’s millions, in 1891 Lily became the mistress of a hugely rich Englishman called George Baird. Known as ‘The Squire’, Baird was thuggish heavy drinker. He surrounded himself with a coterie of horseracing touts and pugilists who amused him by beating up public houses. He had been ostracised from society after shoving the Marquess of Hartington out of his way at a race meeting. When challenged, Baird drawled idly: “Beg pardon, my lord, I thought you were a bloody farmer”.
Lily herself became part of the debauched lifestyle, once being ordered by Baird to come downstairs from her bedroom to witness a drunken orgy. She was the victim of several beatings at his hands, her only consolation being Baird’s insanely extravagant presents by way of apology. On one occasion he hurled a bundle of paper in her head – the bundle consisted of fifty thousand pounds in notes. On another, after hitting her in the face, he bought her a 220ft yacht named the ‘White Ladye’, (it was popularly renamed the ‘Black Eye’). In 1893, Baird died suddenly in New Orleans after a massive drinking spree.
Her experiences with Baird gave Lily a knowledge of and love for horse racing. She became a very successful gambler, (her criminal contacts from the Baird days introduced her to a gambling trick whereby provincial race results could be obtained by telegraph before the betting had closed in London).
She became acquainted with the famed Bob Sevier, a man who had won £40,000 at chemin de fer in three days at Monte Carlo, and £57,000 in one Ascot Week. Once during a court case, a counsel described Sevier as ‘a gambler, pure and simple’. He snapped back: “Gambler, yes. Pure, perhaps. Simple – No!”
Lily was now wealthy enough to compete in the male-dominated world of racehorse ownership, where her stable ran under the colours of ‘Mr Jersey’. In 1897, she became the first woman to own a winner, (‘Merman’), of the Cesarewitch race.
It was ironic that the press reportage of her racing triumph was coupled with news of her husband’s death. Ned, with the constant humiliation of his public cuckoldry, had become an alcoholic. He finally reached the stage of visiting railway stations where she was expected, then disappearing before her arrival, being unable to bear the sight. Later he would question the porters about her appearance and demeanour. On the night of the Cesarevitch win, Ned died insanely drunk in Chester asylum.
Lily had become confident and hard, intolerant of weakness, and particularly scornful of other women. Once, having given a lift to a young member of her cast, she threw the girl out into the stormy night, miles from home, after she had made a flippant remark about Lily’s sex life. Although she later claimed to have supported Oscar Wilde verbally during his trials and financially afterwards, she did neither.
After a fleeting marriage in 1899 to Hugo de Bathe, (twenty years her junior), Lily continued to go her own way, collecting lovers, racehorses, and money. She gave up the stage and retired to a house in Monte Carlo.
In 1925, she wrote a bowdlerised autobiography called ‘The Days I Knew’. When criticised for its blandness, Lily replied: “You don’t really think I would ever do such a thing as to write my real reminiscences, do you?”
In one passage she did make a revealing comment: ‘Life has taught me that beauty can have its tragic side. It is like great wealth in that respect. It promotes insincerity, and it breeds enemies. A really beautiful woman, like a very rich man, can be the loneliest person in the world. She is lucky if she knows her friends.’
Lily Langtry’s fellow ‘Professional Beauty’ was
Lady GLWADYS LONSDALE (1859-1917 – born Herbert)
the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke. Very beautiful and over six feet tall, she was married to the Earl of Lonsdale in 1878. When he died in 1882, Wilde’s mother Speranza suggested that Oscar himself might marry Glwadys, but instead she chose Lord de Grey, (later to inherit the title of the Marquess of Ripon). Oscar remained friendly and in 1894 he dedicated his play ‘A Woman of No Importance’: ‘To Gwladys, Countess de Grey’.
EF Benson said of her that: ‘At heart she was a Bohemian, while socially a great lady on a pinnacle’. Her husband Lord de Grey, nicknamed ‘the shooting machine’, was the best shot in England but, apart from that accomplishment and his luxuriant moustache, was an uninspiring husband. Glwadys relieved the tedium of married life by teasing him with such tricks as dropping trays of cheap crockery behind his back so he would think his best dinner service had gone.
When this amusement palled she turned to lovers, among them the Russian dancer Nijinsky and the Prince of Wales’s friend Harry Cust. When she found that she was sharing Cust’s favours with Lady Londonderry, she stole her rival’s love letters and read them aloud at tea parties, before posting them on to Lord Londonderry.
By the 1890s she found her true interest in music and opera, and held sway as the main patron of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She was instrumental in promoting the English debuts of the opera star Nellie Melba, the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and the singers Jean and Edouard de Reszke.
Jean de Reszke was the cause of some amusement at Glwadys’s musical soirees. He had a long beard that he tried to improve by rubbing paste into it to increase the sheen. The paste actually stiffened the beard so that when he smiled his beard would open into two parts exactly like the claws of a lobster.
Glwady’s main musical associate was a prominent London solicitor called Harry Higgins who became Chairman of the Covent Garden Opera Syndicate and the manager of Covent Garden for 33 years. He was known for his brusque manner when dealing with the demands of prima donnas.
After one diva had given him endless trouble during a concert season, he asked her to walk with him to the front of the stage. Gesturing at the Covent Garden auditorium, he exclaimed: “Isn’t it beautiful”. When she agreed, Higgins went on: “I want you to have a good look at it because it is the last time you are ever going to see it from where you are standing”.
When another singer demanded an absurdly large fee for her performance, Higgins stared at her perplexedly and said: “But we only want you to sing!”
Another of the ‘Professional Beauties’ who visited Wilde’s Salisbury Street home was
PATSY CORNWALLIS-WEST (1858-1920).
Born Mary Fitzpatrick, (but nicknamed ‘Patsy), she was described by her future mother-in-law as ‘merely a beautiful Irish savage’. Her mother, Olivia Taylour, in her youth had been the partner in a rare extra-marital fling by Prince Albert. A furious Queen Victoria banned Olivia from court.
Patsy continued the family tradition of service to the throne by becoming a mistress of Bertie, Prince of Wales, and, by the age of 21, giving birth to two daughters and one son. Significantly the latter, George, was raised with the help of Bertie’s money.
To avoid obvious scandal, Bertie married Patsy off to a complaisant husband, the 35-year-old William Cornwallis-West, Lord Lieutenant of Denbighshire. Patsy proved to be a turbulent bride, who enlivened his home, Ruthin Castle, by tobogganing down the staircases on tea trays.
During a dinner party for the Langtrys, Lily commented on the absence of their host. Patsy explained that she had had an argument with her husband and locked him up in the wine cellar. (This incident may have been the origin of the remark by Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’: ‘It would put my table completely out. Your uncle would have to dine upstairs. Fortunately he is accustomed to that’.)
Patsy was among the ‘professional beauties’ who posed unpaid for photographs in dresses by the couturier Monsieur Worth. They were the first fashion models. Oscar Rosenberg, the editor of the magazine ‘Town Talk’, attacked the practice as moral turpitude. Unfortunately for him, he went too far in his innuendo by adding that the model: ‘returns home to assume fresh positions, put on other costumes, and be taken backwards, full face, in profile’. Patsy and Lily Langtry promptly sued him. Rosenberg was arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment by the notorious Judge ‘Hanging’ Hawkins.
Patsy had many affairs, including with the Beresford brothers, but none brought her more trouble than that with Sergeant Barratt. When the First World War began, Patsy, now in her fifties, nursed and seduced the young soldier while he was convalescing near her North Wales home. When a neighbour threatened to expose ‘the debauching of our fighting men’, Patsy used her contacts to return Barratt back to the army.
The press caught scent of the affair, questions were asked in the House of Commons, and the politician David Lloyd George, (hoping to use any evidence of aristocratic misdoing for his own ends), took up the case against her. In 1916, an Army Court of Enquiry branded Patsy’s conduct as ‘highly discreditable’ and the press hounded her as ‘The Wicked Woman of Wales’.
Things did not go entirely Lloyd George’s way, as Patsy’s evidence revealed her sex life with the now late King Edward VII (Bertie), that the Prime Minister Asquith had a lover, and that Lloyd George himself maintained several mistresses. Lloyd George ordered that the relevant papers be sealed for 100 years.
[In Britain, Gladstone became Prime Minister for his second term.
In Ireland, the Land League agitation began.
In South Africa, the First Boer War started in the Transvaal. The Boers defeated the British at Majuba Hill and Gladstone withdrew the army. The Convention of Pretoria in 1881 granted independence to the Boers, but Britain still claimed suzerainty.]
In March 1880, Wilde applied unsuccessfully for a job as Inspector of Schools (a post previously held by the poet Matthew Arnold).
He finished writing his first play ‘Vera: or The Nihilists’. This work was heavily influenced by events in Russia; he gleaned inspiration from several sources including the Russian revolutionary Stepniak.
‘Vera’ has been described by the critic Terence de Vere White as ‘a drama of unique inadequacy’, and its author as ‘a charlatan and wholly an amateur’ (New York Times in 1883). However, in the character of ‘Prince Paul’, Wilde created the first of his dandy-heroes, with such lines as ‘My dear count, life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it’.
SERGEI STEPNIAK 1852-1895
The play ‘Vera’ was based loosely on a real incident in 1878 when one Vera Zasoulich attempted to assassinate the St Petersburg police chief. It must have appeared a relatively safe subject when Oscar began writing it. However, his efforts to have the play produced were dogged by real life events – nature irritatingly mirroring art.
Assassination became a difficult topic when in 1881 both the American President Garfield and the Russian Tsar Alexander II were killed. The latter’s assassin had made seven previous attempts and finally succeeded by throwing a primed bomb hidden in an Easter cake into the Tsar’s sleigh; her name happened to be Vera. Tsar Alexander was the brother-in-law of the Prince of Wales.
When Sergei Stepniak succeeded in assassinating General Mezentsev, the Russian chief of police, reality had definitely strayed into Wilde’s dramatic territory. Oscar postponed his attempts to stage the play.
Wilde became acquainted with Stepniak when the anarchist arrived to live in exile in London. An aristocrat by birth, Stepniak (born Sergei Mikhailovich Kravchinski) had sympathised with the sufferings of the Russian peasantry under Tsarist repression and spent time in prison because of his views. He escaped to fight against the Turks in 1876, and then to attempt an anarchist uprising in northern Italy. He used these military experiences to compose a book on guerrilla tactics.
After his successful stabbing of General Mezentsev, Stepniak escaped firstly to Switzerland, then to England. He settled into a mellow existence in Bedford Park, Chiswick, and wrote books on nihilist politics; Bernard Shaw described him as ‘an amiable middle-aged gentleman’. His experiences proved useful to other writers; Joseph Conrad gained much information for his novel ‘The Secret Agent’ from Stepniak.
Despite the gentle pace of his later life, Stepniak also died violently when he was hit by a railway engine as he tried to cross the tracks at Chiswick station.
Wilde made a later reference to Stepniak in his short story ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’, renaming him ‘Rouvaloff, a young Russian of very revolutionary tendencies’. When ‘Lord Arthur’ explains that he needs an explosive clock, ‘Rouvaloff’ replies: “So you are taking up politics seriously, then?”
Having completed his play ‘Vera’ and before events made production difficult, Wilde approached some of the leading actresses seeking their participation in the production; Genevieve Ward and Helena Modjeska were among them.
DAME GENEVIEVE WARD 1838-1922
Although friendly towards Wilde and appreciative of his compliments about her ‘noble acting’, the American born actress Genevieve Ward turned down the offer of appearing in ‘Vera’. She did consent to have tea at Wilde’s home in Salisbury Street.
Ward was the granddaughter of the mayor of New York and had enjoyed a wealthy upbringing until her father, Colonel Ward, lost most of his money on bad speculations. While she was eighteen, a Russian aristocrat, Count Constantine de Guerbel, proposed marriage, only to disappear when he found that she was not the moneyed heiress he had expected.
The Ward family immediately travelled to St Petersburg where Genevieve’s father used his contacts to inform the Tsar of the situation. The Tsar then ordered Count Guerbel to marry Genevieve or face exile. During the ceremony Colonel Ward stood behind the wedding pair with a shotgun as the vows were exchanged. Genevieve wore black. The Archbishop offered his congratulations to the newly married couple, whereupon the bride and her family marched out of the church to a pre-arranged carriage and left for the border. Guerbel was left standing on the church steps, never to see his wife again. She refused a divorce and abandoned all notions of marriage.
Ward started her career as a soprano singer and found some success at La Scala and Covent Garden before a bout of diphtheria destroyed her voice. She was forced to turn to acting: ‘It was a bit of a feat, though I say it. I had to seal up all the music cells of my brain and refit with new office furniture of memory, quite another thing’. With the aid of Bram Stoker, in 1879 she found a play, ‘Forget-Me-Not’ that turned her into an established theatre star.
Her fame was such that it attracted a backstage visit by Bertie, Prince of Wales. Genevieve had a small but bad-tempered dog called ‘Tek’. Bertie entered her dressing room accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Duke of Teck. When her dog hurled itself, barking and snapping, at the newcomers, Genevieve screamed: “Down, Tek! Down! Basket, Tek!!” The Duke of Teck stared at her astounded. Bertie was vastly amused and went off chuckling: “Basket, Teck, basket!”
Ward toured the world performing plays and wrote entertainingly of her travel experiences. She was impressed by the winter townscape of Minneapolis, USA, where: ‘the inhabitants build, out of blocks of ice, large castles and statues before many of the shops. The ice is shaped with red-hot knives. The cold is so persistent that the things last for months, and are quite an ornament to the city’.
She played in India, Australia, and then New Zealand where she wrote that: ‘Wellington must surely be the windiest place in the world. They say a man has to hold his hat on, except when he turns a corner of the street, and then he has to hold his head on’.
In South Africa, she met the Boer leader, President Kruger, but found him an unattractive character. ‘The first thing he did was to use the back of his hand as a pocket handkerchief. Then he opened his cavernous mouth in a gargantuan yawn’.
As an actress who had previously been a singer, Ward was well placed to judge some of the more bizarre practices of her fellow performers. She played opposite the greatest tenor of her day, Sims Reeves, in an adaptation of Walter Scott’s book ‘Guy Mannering’. Half way through the play, under Reeves’s instructions, two stage villains carried on a piano, then departed with a cry of: “I hear footsteps – let us disappear”.
At this, Sims Reeves walked onstage and remarked: “Ah; here is a piano; let us have a little music”. He then proceeded to regale the audience with ‘Come Into the Garden, Maud’, before himself departing. The villains reappeared exclaiming: “Ha, ha, they have gone; let us take the piano with us” and, suiting action to words, trundled the instrument off into the wings. None of which had any relevance whatever to ‘Guy Mannering’. As Genevieve wrote: ‘Sims Reeves had no sense of the ludicrous’.
HELENA MODJESKA 1840-1909
Wilde also approached a well-known Polish actress called Helena Modjeska over the possibility of starring in ‘Vera’, praising her ‘graceful fancy and passionate artistic nature’. She was puzzled by Oscar: “What has he done, this young man, that one meets everywhere? He has written nothing, he does not sing or paint or act – he does nothing but talk”.
While turning down the play, it was reported that she allowed Wilde to translate her poem ‘Sen Artysty’ (The Artist’s Dream’) into English – something of an achievement, as he did not speak Polish.
Modjeska (born Helena Ophid), while a fine actress, was even better known for her devotion to Poland and her detestation of its triple occupation by Austria, Prussia and Russia. In 1848, aged eight, she had witnessed the killing of her countrymen when the Austrian army bombarded her native city of Cracow.
In 1863, while she was acting with a travelling theatre company, an insurrection broke out across Poland. In old age she recalled the sadness and guilt she had felt when, after her company had performed ‘grand, inspiring and heart-rending’ patriotic songs and speeches to a regiment hastily recruited from the boys of Lemburg, these same boys were slaughtered fighting hopeless odds.
She endured tragedy in her own life when, after her infant daughter died, her husband Gustave Modrzejewski left her.
By 1868, things started to improve when she married the man who was to be her lifelong companion, Karol Chlapowski, and she had a theatrical triumph at the Warsaw Imperial Theatre.
Although Poland was now peaceful, the theatre was subject to strict censorship. A production of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ was refused a licence because it concerned the murder of a king. An influential friend of Helena managed to have the ban revoked by explaining that: ‘the murder was a family affair, and therefore perfectly harmless’.
Then the phrase ‘he was a slave to his passion’ had to be rewritten in case the word ‘slave’ provoked the audience. ‘Negro’ was deemed less offensive by the censor. The resulting line ‘he was a Negro to his passion’ caused bewilderment.
Helena had her share of stage mishaps. In one show, she had to stand on the battlements of a stage castle and fire a pistol that ‘killed’ a man below. While the scene was in rehearsal, the supposed victim of the gunshot sent along a substitute. At the following rehearsal the substitute sent along his own substitute. This last extra proved unsatisfactory, so the director replaced him with an elderly stagehand. On the first night, the original extra, the two substitutes and the stagehand charged on stage together. Helena fired her pistol and all four fell dead from the single shot. Helena wrote: ‘The public was put into a hilarious mood’.
The Warsaw Theatre box office was run by a man called Zalewski. He was knowledgeable about Warsaw society and enjoyed putting this knowledge to use when allocating the seating. Therefore, deadly enemies would find themselves in adjacent seats, as did recently divorced couples or jealous wives with their husbands’ mistresses. He would also arrange for entire rows of bald men or use them to create patterns; during the show he would sit in the gallery and gleefully survey his handiwork.
Helena and Karol’s house became a centre for liberal thought and, as such, came under constant police surveillance. The pressure grew so great that eventually the couple decided to leave Poland to try their luck in the USA. In 1876, together with four friends, they arrived in New York.
Helena thought the city to be ‘a monstrous, untidy bazaar’, but what really upset her was the New York habit of men sitting in rocking chairs and putting their feet up on the windowsills. ‘You can see and admire the size of their shoes in the hotel lobbies, the barber shops, the clubs, and even in some private residences. Wherever you turn, these soles stare at you’.
They left the East Coast and made for San Francisco with the intention of farming orange orchards. One of the first people Helena met was a fellow Pole called Captain Piotrowski, a hugely fat old soldier. Helena assumed that he also was a refugee from repression, but Piotrowski told her the real story.
It transpired that his wife had been French and extremely fond of garlic. The captain was allergic to garlic. “I suffered agonies when I saw that pretty, refined wife of mine smacking her lips after each spoonful, for I knew I had to avoid contact with her for at least twenty-four hours”. Piotrowski, on the other hand, adored cheese, which his wife hated. When a cheese dish arrived at the family table, she would leave it; while the captain would do likewise when the garlic came.
They lived in a state of compromise until their first child was born. Then garlic appeared incessantly. Piotrowski: “It was an open war and I, who had stood bravely in the ranks against the Russian army, succumbed in this domestic battle and like a miserable coward ran away and stopped only when I reached the USA”.
The farming venture failed completely and Helena realised that the family could be saved only by her return to the stage. As she did not speak English, she settled down and memorised one hundred words a day.
Soon she felt able to approach a Californian manager and request an audition. Unfortunately she had kept no press cuttings of her former career and the manager assumed she was simply a stage struck amateur. Dismissively, he gestured for her to start her audition speech. At the end of it, he approached her with tears in his eyes and promised to promote her in any way possible.
With her name now changed to Modjeska, her debut in San Francisco was sensational; soon New York acclaimed her as well. With stardom came American press advertising. She was astonished when she was billed as ‘Helena Modjeska, Countess Bozenta’ and soon stopped it. “In this free and republican country people are crazy for titles”.
Her press agent insisted that she carry a pug dog around with her as “all prominent stars have pet dogs”. She was also surprised when she was reported as having lost her stage jewels, until the agent told her that: “every great star always loses hers at least once a year”.
(On a Mid West tour, she took a production of ‘Hamlet’ to one theatre. The company was amused to find the instruction – ‘Do Not Spit In This Trough’ – written on every wall around the stage. Unable to resist, ‘Polonius’ finished his famous advice to ‘Laertes’ with the sotto voce addition of: “And please do not spit in this trough”.)
When she arrived in London in 1880, her reception was equally enthusiastic. She was puzzled that her voice intonation in her recitals of Polish poetry could reduce English women to tears even though they could not understand the language. Modjeska: “Or, as that cynical person Mr Oscar Wilde remarked, to have tickled with my voice the tendrils of their nervous system”.
When she met her fellow countryman, the violinist Henry Wieniawski, he told her that the most annoying thing about the English was their habit of chatting during musical recitals at the soirees. One night, he got revenge.
He had noticed that, when the National Anthem was played, the English went silent and rose to their feet. When he started his piece the conversation level rose, so he slid into the Anthem and everybody stopped speaking; as he finished it and returned to Brahms, the racket increased, so he returned to the Anthem. This happened again and again and he managed to gain a measure of attention. When he stopped playing no one realised what he had been up to. They simply wondered at this odd piece of music in which the National Anthem had been repeated eleven times.
Despite her success in Europe and the USA, Modjeska remained conscious of the plight of her native land. She told one Londoner that she was a Pole: ‘He looked as if he wondered whether from the North or South Pole’. She was dismayed at how little anyone cared about the situation. “ ‘Poland? Where is it?’ they ask. We are not on the map any more – and therefore we do not exist’.
In 1884, Helena gave a return performance in Warsaw. At the time the Polish language was forbidden. A 16-year-old schoolboy, the only son of a widow, threw flowers onstage to Modjeska. They were bound by a ribbon in Polish colours and bore an inscription in Polish. For this act, on orders from the Minister of Education, the boy was expelled from his school and forbidden entry to any other school. The boy returned home and shot himself through the head.
Nine years later, in Chicago, Modjeska allowed her rage to explode and gave a fiery speech denouncing the Prussian and Russian governments. Reports of this speech reached the European press and thence the Tsarist authorities. When she returned to Warsaw in 1895, she was advised to leave immediately and police escorted her on to the next train. An imperial decree, (which was never rescinded), was issued barring Modjeska from entering any part of Russian territory.
She settled in California for the rest of her life. When she died her body was buried back in her hometown of Cracow.
The cartoonist George Du Maurier began to lampoon Wilde in Punch magazine.
GEORGE DU MAURIER 1834-1896
Wilde was not the first of the aesthetes to be satirised by the brilliant cartoonist George Du Maurier. In fact his first attacks had begun back in 1873 and had been aimed specifically at the fad for blue and white china initiated by Rossetti and Whistler. Du Maurier always insisted that his target was ‘not one person at all, but a whole school’. The fact that these cartoons predated Oscar’s growing fame proved that Wilde had borrowed a persona that had been established already.
Nevertheless, when Oscar did emerge as the best known of the aesthetes, he was a wonderful subject for Du Maurier’s caricature. An 1880 example showed a young couple gazing in rapture at a china teapot. The (Wildean) man: ‘It is quite consummate, isn’t it?’ The (even more Wildean) woman: ‘It is indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!’
Wilde and Du Maurier were useful to each other in that Du Maurier needed the comic subject while Oscar needed the publicity. Oscar certainly bore no resentment over his treatment; perhaps he did not feel it necessary. It was Edward Burne-Jones who commented about Oscar: “Say what you like, there is more wit in that man’s little finger than in du Maurier’s whole body”.
Du Maurier (nicknamed ‘Kiki’) had been a talented art student working in the Parisian Latin Quarter and Antwerp when, aged 23, the loss of his left eye due to a detached retina forced him to stop painting.
In 1860, he returned to London and acquired a job on Punch. For the next thirty years he drew weekly cartoons for the humorous magazine, skewering the foibles of upper and middle class life. His pictures had a wide circulation and much influence. It was said jokingly that Du Maurier’s partiality for tall women and his penchant for elongating their skirts in his drawings raised the height of the average English girl by several inches.
He created a permanent English joke when he drew the cartoon still known as ‘The Curate’s Egg’. A bishop: ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones’. Ingratiating young curate: ‘Oh no, my lord, I assure you. Parts of it are excellent!’
He was not impartial in his observations and often indulged his personal dislikes. He especially abhorred the sensationalism of bad women novelists. (Wilde shared this distaste and reviewed one book, ‘Astray’ by Charlotte Yonge and three other writers: ‘It has taken four people to write it, and even to read it requires assistance’.)
Other targets included the self-consciously aristocratic. Grateful but beggarly recipient of a handout: ‘Bless you, my lady! May we meet in heaven!’ Haughty donor: ‘Good Gracious! Drive on, Jarvis!’
Also, elderly spinster ladies came under scrutiny. Miss Priscilla (who lives on the coast): ‘Yes, it’s a beautiful view. But male tourists are in the habit of bathing on the opposite shore, and that’s rather a drawback.’ Fair Visitor: ‘Dear me! But at such a distance as that…surely…. ?’ Miss Priscilla: ‘Ah, but with a telescope, you know!’
His precarious eyesight, (and therefore precarious income), was always a trial to Du Maurier. After he married in 1863, he remained devoted to his wife Emma and his five children and chose to settle in the middle-class London area of Hampstead. Both the family and Hampstead provided him with the security he craved.
(Two of his daughters had difficult marriages. Isabel married the drama critic Clement Scott but, after producing four children, they separated acrimoniously. Sylvia married a young barrister called Arthur Llewelyn Davies; the marriage was unhappy and they both died very young. Their children were brought up by Sir James Barrie and were the inspiration for his play ‘Peter Pan’.)
By the 1890s, Du Maurier grew bored with cartoons. With the encouragement of Henry James, (who described Du Maurier as ‘a delightful little fellow’), he turned to writing novels. One of them, ‘Trilby’, was a nostalgic remembrance of his early art student days in Paris. It was influenced by Henri Murger’s book ‘La Vie de Boheme’, which also provided material for Puccini’s opera ‘La Boheme’.
‘Trilby’ was a triumph both in Britain and the USA and sold over 200,000 copies. It was adapted to become a highly successful play and gave Beerbohm Tree one of his greatest roles as ‘Svengali’.
However, the novel also brought trouble to its author. Many of the characters in ‘Trilby’ were based on real people whom he had known in the Parisian ateliers. One of them was James Whistler who, objecting to his portrayal as the character ‘Joe Sibley’ and spoiling for a fight as usual, tried to prevent further publication.
Du Maurier agreed to remove the character from his book and, tongue in cheek, replaced ‘Sibley’ with a new character called ‘Bald Anthony’ – ‘a touching and beautiful character…. a yellow-haired Switzer, son of a respectable burgher of Lausanne, who is tall, stout, strikingly handsome and rather bald’ – the antithesis of the American painter. Whistler, not realising that he was being sent up, crowed: “Never was humble pie to such a sickening extent as has been gobbled by the miserable Du Maurier!!!”
Du Maurier himself commented on the incident: “I shall tell Jimmy in the most abjectly fulsome terms of adulation I can invent that he’s the damned’st ass and squirt I ever met”.
Now ill, Du Maurier found himself and his book the subject of ruthless commercial exploitation. ‘Trilby’ songs, shoes, sausages, ice-cream moulds, kitchen ranges and, famously, the Trilby hat flooded the market. Deeply disillusioned, he died in 1896, an event his friends claimed was precipitated by the stress.
During the 1880s, the Punch staff went for a holiday to Paris. Du Maurier wanted his colleagues to see the house where he was born. Well fortified with wine, they set off by carriage, till they came to a small house that Du Maurier indicated as his birthplace. No sooner had they alighted and toasted the cottage than Du Maurier said with a puzzled frown: “Ah, no, it was that one over there”, and pointed to a larger house opposite. Trooping off in other direction, they duly toasted the new residence.
Ten minutes later, as they drove back, Du Maurier suddenly stopped the carriage with the words: “My apologies. It was that one over there. That’s where I was born”. This time he waved to an even larger house. As this building was next door to a hostelry, the Punch group climbed out and spent the next hour celebrating the new birthplace.
After they had staggered back to the carriage, the journey home was interrupted yet again by Du Maurier’s spotting of a magnificent mansion in the distance: “Heavens above. I’ve been absolutely wrong. That was the place!! Come on”.
At this his companions rebelled, declaring that he had been born in three places already and they were not budging again until he had made a final decision. They returned to their Parisian hotel with Du Maurier grumbling that he couldn’t remember where he ‘had bloody well been born’.
As well as Whistler, the artist
EDWARD POYNTER (1863-1940)
was another of Du Maurier’s student companions in Paris. They stayed in touch during their later years of success in London. Du Maurier said of him: “When his stomach is in order, and he has got out of bed the right way, and the wind is in the proper quarter, and there are no dukes or duchesses within hail, he can be one of the most delightful companions in the world”.
Wilde was not an admirer of Poynter’s work, even after Poynter had been knighted for his efforts. When he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, the Governor sent for Oscar to inform him of the death of a relative, then added: “It may interest you to know that Mr Poynter has been made President of the Royal Academy”.
Wilde replied: “I am grateful to you for your kindness in telling me about my poor aunt, but perhaps you might have broken Poynter to me more gently”.
Another of Du Maurier’s artistic acquaintances was
WILLIAM FRITH (1819-1909).
He specialised in large-scale realistic canvases such as ‘Derby Day’ and rejected other contemporary schools of painting. He dismissed both the Pre-Raphaelites and the Whistler Impressionists: ‘The Pre-Raphaelites offer overwrought details, the Impressionists no details at all’ – and predictably acted as witness against Whistler in his ‘pot of paint’ court action against Ruskin.
In his painting ‘Private View of the Royal Academy, 1881’, he unwisely made Wilde the butt of an attack. Oscar was portrayed as a tall man in a top hat surrounded by acolytes. Frith: ‘I wished to hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste whether in dress or art. I therefore planned a group, consisting of a well-known apostle of the beautiful, with a herd of eager worshippers surrounding him’.
Wilde struck back with a comment on Frith and his ilk: ‘If they have not opened the eyes of the blind, they have at least given great encouragement to the short-sighted’. When Frith’s ‘Derby Day’ (first shown in 1858) was bought for the nation, Oscar concocted a scene where: ‘a lady gravely asked the Academician if his celebrated picture of ‘A Spring Day at Whiteley’s’ or ‘Waiting for the Last Omnibus’ was really all painted by hand?’ – ‘And was it?’
On 3 June 1880, the ‘Agamemnon’ by Aeschylus was performed by the amateur dramatic society at Balliol Hall, Oxford. This important theatrical event had been suggested by Wilde. Amongst those students involved were Rennell Rodd as scene painter, and Frank Benson who produced the show and who played ‘Clytemnaestra’.
SIR FRANK BENSON 1858-1939
Frank Benson had become acquainted with Wilde in 1879. Although never a disciple of the increasingly famed aesthete, Benson thoroughly enjoyed his company. One day, while chatting to Wilde in a London street, Benson heard a passer-by call out: “There goes that bloody fool Oscar Wilde!” Benson was delighted when Oscar blithely remarked: “It’s extraordinary how quickly one gets known in London”.
In later years, Benson kept his respect for ‘that savage, irresponsible, talented being’. ‘Wilde was something much more than a needy drawing-room society jester or decadent gaol-bird’.
At Oxford, Benson was known as an outstanding athlete; he shone at football, rowing, cricket, and running (winning the three mile race against Cambridge University). On an unofficial level, he was involved in the ‘Alpine Club’, the object being to climb all the chimneys and spires of the Oxford colleges. An especially dangerous feat, that of jumping the four foot, six inch high, spiked iron railings of the Main Quad was named ‘Benson’s Leap’ after his performance.
However, Benson’s real interest lay in the theatre and the success of the ‘Agamemnon’ shaped his future. After Henry Irving saw the production, he suggested to Benson that the English theatre needed a trained mind to build a company capable of achieving genuine intellectual stature. Benson accepted the challenge and, on Ellen Terry’s advice, joined the world of touring theatre to gain experience.
For several years he had a worm’s eye view of just how degraded the Victorian theatre, and its conception of Shakespeare, had become. Once in Dundee, (a town, Benson said, that: ‘regarded the Tay Bridge disaster as a judgement against travelling on the Sabbath’), he came across a travelling theatre that gave versions of the classics. The producer asked Benson if he could borrow six muskets for ‘Hamlet’. Benson discovered to his amazement that they gave nine performances of the play between six and ten each evening. The producer explained: “But then, you see, we cut out most of the words and get on with the combats”.
During his own touring performance as ‘Hamlet’, Benson was in the middle of ‘To be or not to be’ when he heard a loud growl behind him. Turning round, he found himself face to face with a large black dog that eyed him critically. He proceeded with the soliloquy, punctuating the speech with the odd back kick at the animal. Benson: ‘Certainly the house was breathless with excitement. Bets were being offered and taken on the result of the man-and-dog fight now proceeding.’
Benson backed up and kicked the dog into a corner, hoping that a stagehand might seize the hound. Because of its evil reputation, all the stage staff in the wings had fled. Benson threw his cloak over the dog, gave it a thundering kick, and proceeded with his soliloquy. To the delight of the audience, the dog crawled out from under the cloak and charged at Benson. ‘The excitement rose to fever-heat. “Two to one on Hamlet!” – “Three to one on the pup!” were now to be heard in all parts of the house.’
Benson drew his sword and warded off the dog’s attack with the flat of the blade. ‘Still reciting Shakespeare at my loudest, I beat, pushed and kicked the snarling spawn of Satan into the prompt corner.’
Seeing the prompters running for the exit, the dog hurtled after them into the wings, where a courageous doorman rammed a fire bucket over its head and hurled it into the street.
Sometimes even Benson could upset the dignity of a theatrical event, albeit accidentally. The actress Elizabeth Robins once witnessed Benson’s performance as ‘Shylock’. At the end of the play, thinking the curtains were closed, he executed a flying leap over the furniture, ‘Jewish gaberdine clutched about him and long legs in the air’, before landing ‘greatly astonished before an equally astonished audience that was giving him an extra curtain call’.
In 1886, his reputation had grown so much that he was invited to take over the annual Shakespearian spring festival at the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon. During the next thirty-three years he provided the plays for twenty-eight festivals. He offered one of the greatest pieces of advice for budding actors – they must develop: ‘hearts of fire, heads of ice’.
Also in 1886, he married an actress called Gertrude Samwell; they produced a son and a daughter. (Gertrude knew Wilde but was less admiring than her husband. She said of him: ‘Unfortunately, when Wilde made a witty remark, he always repeated it, and dished it up on many occasions’.)
In 1916, after an evening performance and still dressed in the bloodstained robes of ‘Julius Caesar’, Benson was knighted by George V. It was the first time that the ceremony had been carried out in a theatre, and probably for the first time with a stage prop sword.
At Stratford, Benson drove his actors, (the ‘Old Bensonians’), and his staff hard. He once rehearsed ‘Macbeth’ for seven hours without a meal break. When Benson reached ‘Macbeth’s’ line: ‘They have tied me to a stake’, ‘Banquo’ was heard to mutter: “I wish they’d tie me to one”.
One of the main aims of the Memorial Theatre was that every play of Shakespeare should be performed on its stage. Year by year, Benson pushed on single-mindedly towards this goal. A stage carpenter, after spending two solid days and nights preparing scenery, growled: “Thank God! That’s another bloody king gone”.
WILDE AND SPORT
Benson always remained interested in sport, especially cricket, and was well known for placing advertisements for new actors such as: ‘Fast bowler to play Laertes’. Wilde, on the other hand, refused to play cricket on the grounds that: “the attitudes assumed are so indecent”.
Oscar relished teasing the athletically minded. When a school sports master praised the teaching of football, Wilde replied: “Football is all very well as a game for rough girls but it is hardly suitable for delicate boys”. He enjoyed presenting an effete image: “I am afraid I play no outdoor games at all. Except dominoes. I have sometimes played dominoes outside French cafes”.
The truth though was quite different. Frank Benson said that Oscar was ‘possessed of an extraordinary muscular strength that you often find in big, loosely built Irishmen’. He added that only one man, (who rowed number seven in the Varsity Eight), had ‘a ghost of a chance in a tussle with Wilde’.
There were many occasions on which Wilde showed his liking for field sports, including ‘capital hare shooting’ at Clonfin in Ireland, fishing at Illaunroe and with the fishing boats at Torquay, and lawn tennis at Bingham Rectory with Frank Miles.
Although his horsemanship was not good, he did manage to negotiate the difficult mountain paths in Greece. He practised some boxing while at Oxford, and was a first rate swimmer. He admitted that ‘mountain climbing is not my forte’.
Robert Ross said that Oscar was ‘an enthusiastic if indifferent golfer’. Wilde himself said that he liked golf because he could talk while playing. When his possessions were sold off in 1895, a set of golf clubs was amongst the items.
Also present in the audience for the Balliol ‘Agamemnon’ were the two great poets of the age – Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
ROBERT BROWNING 1812-1889
Wilde was introduced to the poet Robert Browning at Balliol, and later sent him a copy of his poems with a comment on the ‘delight and wonder’ that Browning’s work had given him since boyhood.
Browning himself had translated Aeschylus’s ‘Agamemnon’ in 1877, but there had been some complaints over obscurities in his text. Professor Tyrrell of Trinity, Dublin, said that when he read Browning’s version he needed to read the Greek original to find out what the English meant.
Browning’s later work often met similar criticism. Once, when he attended a meeting of the Browning Society, he was asked what he had been trying to convey in a particular work. Browning was unable to remember.
He became known originally for less taxing poems, such as those ubiquitous fixtures of future poetry anthologies, ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’, ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’, and ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. His later work included the monumental ‘The Ring and The Book’ (1869), of which Wilde wrote: ‘Browning used poetry as a medium for writing prose’.
Browning’s appearance belied his position as a leading poet. The American Sam Ward said that he looked more like ‘a bank president in Boston’, while another American described him as ‘a perfected butler’. Wilde (in ‘Dorian Gray’) wrote: ‘Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. They live the poetry that they cannot write’.
Yet Browning’s romantic disposition found expression in 1846 with his famous courtship and elopement with his fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett of Wimpole Street, (the subject of many later films and plays). Elizabeth wrote a superb series of poems about this episode called ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’, (changed on Browning’s advice from her original title ‘Sonnets from the Bosnian’).
They lived a happy life mostly in Florence, Italy. One of their few disagreements concerned Elizabeth’s involvement with spiritualism and a Scottish-American medium called Daniel Dunglas Home. Browning loathed the man and referred to him as ‘Mr Sludge’.
(Home’s other devotees included the Empress Eugenie and Napoleon III of France. At one séance, Napoleon asked the medium to summon both Napoleon Bonaparte and King Louis Phillippe from the spirit world. During the session, Napoleon III received a mighty kick on the bottom. He was unable to discover who had delivered the spectral rebuke.)
When Elizabeth died in Browning’s arms in 1861, he left Florence forever. On his return to London, Browning was bathed in sympathy and was enshrined in the public mind as the tragic romantic, mourning his dead lover. The American writer, Gertrude Atherton, reported that, although Browning was now desperate to marry a young girl, he dared not shatter his public image.
Instead, he purchased a house in Warwick Crescent, Maida Vale, where he lived for the next 25 years. Becoming, in Le Gallienne’s words, ‘an indefatigable diner-out’, Browning was taken to task by Tennyson over his love of London society. Tennyson: “I once told Browning that he would die in a white tie, and he rather liked it”.
Wilde had an embarrassing dinner experience in the company of Browning. He had accepted an invitation to dine with a Lady Delarey. A few days later, having been invited to another dinner party where he would have the opportunity of meeting the great poet, Oscar cancelled the Delarey party on the excuse that he had to ‘go north’. (This anticipated the future Wilde quip: ‘I am prevented from attending by a subsequent engagement’).
Unfortunately for Oscar, an unsuspecting Lady Delarey cancelled her own party and also arranged to attend the Browning dinner. Just as he was deep in conversation with Browning, Oscar was horrified to see the door open and Lady Delarey appear. Fixing him with a stony glare, Lady Delarey rasped: “So this is what you mean by ‘going north’!” She never spoke to him again.
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON 1809-1892
Together with Queen Victoria and Gladstone, Tennyson was one the three great public figures of Victorian society. Wilde met and liked the poet: “Grand old man. I spent a delightful afternoon with him. He is not only a poet, but a poem”.
Describing him as the ‘Homer of the Isle of Wight’, Wilde was puzzled by Tennyson’s ability to rise above domesticity: ‘How can a man be a great poet and lead the life of an English country gentleman? Think of a man going down to breakfast at eight o’clock with the family, and then writing ‘Idylls of the King’ until lunchtime’.
Tennyson entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1828, but left without a degree. While there he became a close friend of another student, Arthur Hallam. One evening, Tennyson was present at one of Hallam’s wine-parties at his rooms in the New Court of Trinity. Suddenly an angry Senior Dean entered the room and demanded: “Mr Hallam, what is the meaning of all this noise?” Hallam replied: “I am very sorry, sir, we had no idea we were making a noise”. The Dean snorted back: “Well, gentlemen, if you will all come down into the Court, you will hear what a noise you are making!”
Tennyson slowly built his reputation as a first-rate English poet with such works as ‘Locksley Hall’ and ‘Morte d’Arthur’, but it was the death of Hallam that inspired his great poem, ‘In Memoriam’. This work made him the obvious choice to be the next Poet Laureate following Wordsworth’s death in 1850.
In the same year, he married Emily Sellwood, a marriage that proved to be both enduring and extremely happy. Tennyson wrote: ‘the peace of God came into my life when I wedded her’. They spent their honeymoon in the Lake District, which prompted one American newspaper to comment: ‘We hope, now that Mr Tennyson is married and has returned to his native lakes, that he will give up opium’. They had confused him with the notorious Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In 1853, the family moved to Farringford, near Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, where Tennyson wrote some of his most famous poems, including ‘Maud’, ‘Idylls of the King’ and ‘Enoch Arden’. During the Crimean War, he read a press report about the Battle of Balaclava: ‘The Times account had the line – ‘someone had blundered’ – and the line kept running in my head, and I kept saying it over and over till it shaped itself into the burden of the poem’. The result was the famed work ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’.
Despite the huge popular success of this poem, Tennyson always said that, out of all his poetry, he was most proud of the line: ‘The mellow ouzel fluted in the elm’.
Tennyson delighted in reading his poetry aloud to awed guests, although things did not always go to plan. He told Margo Asquith that on one occasion he had sat a young lady on his knee while he read to her from ‘Maud’. When he reached the lines: ‘Birds in the high Hall-garden, When twilight was falling, Maud, Maud, Maud, Maud, They were crying and calling’, he asked the girl which bird she thought he had been describing. She answered: “A nightingale?” Tennyson: “This made me so angry that I nearly flung her to the ground. ‘No, fool! Rook! Rook! Rook!”
In addition to his poetry, Tennyson wrote several plays, such as ‘Queen Mary’, ‘The Promise of May’, and ‘Becket’. Henry Irving staged several of these dramas, and visited Tennyson’s home to discuss the work.
One evening after dinner, the butler filled their glasses with port and then left the decanter beside Tennyson. Intent on talking, Tennyson kept refilling his glass but totally forgot to replenish his guest. When the decanter was finished it was replaced with another, but the same thing happened and Irving’s glass was left empty. Next morning, Irving awoke to find his host bending anxiously over him, asking him if he was well. “Pray, Mr Irving, do you always drink two bottles of port after dinner?”
Tennyson was a popular literary figure but he did have some detractors. Frank Harris wrote that ‘The great social movement in favour of the poor and disinherited, which is the glory of the nineteenth century, never touched Tennyson’. Yeats’s patron, Lady Gregory, claimed that ‘Tennyson had the British Empire for God, and Queen Victoria for Virgin Mary’.
Tennyson was an unusually tall man who never lost his native Lincolnshire accent. He was so powerfully built that he once picked up a donkey and carried it across his lawn. Far from being an austere intellectual, his favourite reading included murder mysteries and the lightweight novels of Marie Corelli. Although Tennyson was a rigidly moral man over sexual matters, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward Benson, was astounded when, during a walk together, Tennyson suddenly asked: “Shall I tell you a bawdy story?” “Certainly not!” snapped the Archbishop.
Tennyson was sometimes awkward in social situations. At one garden party he was introduced to a shy young girl who was tongue-tied at meeting the great man. For a few minutes they sat in embarrassed silence. Finally, Tennyson spoke: “Your stays are too tight”. The girl stammered out: “I – I don’t think so, sir”. “Yes, indeed” insisted Tennyson, “I can hear them creaking”. Red-faced with confusion, the girl leaped up and scurried away to mingle with the other guests. Half an hour later she was mortified to see Tennyson lumbering towards her again. When he spotted her, the poet bellowed across the heads of the garden party: “Young lady, my apologies! I was wrong! It was not your stays. It was my braces!”
As his fame grew, Tennyson became an object of public interest. He had an ambivalent attitude towards his admirers. When an American lady accosted him in his own garden to ask if he had seen ‘Mr Tennyson’, he replied that he had seen him about an hour previously walking off towards the beach. She left hurriedly in pursuit.
However, William Morris reported walking with Tennyson when they spotted two cyclists approaching in the distance. Tennyson started to grumble that they were sure to stop and demand autographs. When they swept past without halting, Tennyson turned to Morris and indignantly exclaimed: “They never even looked at me!”
Henry Irving had a similar experience when walking with Tennyson in London. After some passers-by had turned back to stare at them, Tennyson grunted: “You see, that’s why I seldom come to London. It’s very unpleasant being pointed at”. In truth, while very few people knew what Tennyson looked like, Irving was known to thousands, and it was the actor who had been the object of interest. Irving said later: “A good fellow, Tennyson, a great man and all that, but a little vain, eh?”
One evening at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, after dinner with friends, Tennyson put his feet on the table and tilted his chair back in the American style. The friends complained but he ignored them, saying he was comfortable with the position. “Everybody’s staring at you”, insisted one of the friends. “Let ‘em stare”, retorted Tennyson. Then, one man had an idea. “Alfred, people will think that you are Longfellow.” The feet descended.
In 1883, he was given a peerage. EF Benson said of the event: “the House of Lords was more honoured by his entering it than he was by entering”. Tennyson regretted one aspect of this fame: “I am sorry that I am turned into a schoolbook at Harrow; the boys will say of me ‘That horrible Tennyson’.”
His death was almost theatrically appropriate. As the full moon shone on his deathbed, he called for a copy of Shakespeare. He turned the pages till he reached ‘Cymbeline’, then expired, his hand still holding the book.
At his funeral in Westminster Abbey, the pallbearers included two Prime Ministers, (Lords Rosebery and Salisbury), Benjamin Jowett of Oxford, the Master of Trinity, Cambridge, and the United States ambassador. The nave was lined by men of the Balaclava Light Brigade.
One of Tennyson’s neighbours on the Isle of Wight was the photographer
JULIA CAMERON (1815-1879).
She had not taken up photography until she was aged 48 but thereafter followed her interest ruthlessly. She came to be regarded as a menace.
George Du Maurier said that: “she pursued her subjects, camera in hand. I find her delightful, but don’t think she would suit as a permanent next door neighbour for the next 30 years or so unless one could now and again get away”.
Tennyson had little option. Julia not only demanded his photograph but also insisted he signed them all. She would arrive with so many copies that she needed a carriage to carry them and personally brought a fistful of new pens so that Tennyson would have no excuse.
Her great niece, the writer Virginia Woolf, once described a visit to her aunt’s house: ‘The coalhouse was turned into a dark room. The hen roost was turned into a glasshouse. Boatmen were turned into King Arthur, village girls into Queen Guinevere. Tennyson was wrapped in rugs. Sir Henry Taylor was covered in tinsel. The parlour maid sat for her portrait and the guest had to answer the bell’.
In July 1880, Wilde and Miles moved into a new house in Tite St, Chelsea, London. Wilde: ‘The address is horrid but the house very pretty’
Chelsea and South Kensington had been a highly undesirable area for centuries. It lay below the level of the Thames and therefore was subject to floods. Freddie Cadogan said that the family property was a ‘sort of morass fit only for vegetable gardens’. But when the Underground railway was built, the ground was drained and the land became fit for building, (incidentally bringing a large fortune to the Cadogan family.)
[In Norway, Hendrik Ibsen published his play ‘Ghosts’.
In Britain, Disraeli died, and the Savoy Theatre was built to house the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Their play ‘Patience’ opened in April.
In France, Vicomte Ferdinand De Lesseps argued the concept of a Canal in Panama. The plan was later to founder in a huge scandal in 1890.
In Russia, Czar Alexander II was assassinated on 13 March
In the USA, President James Garfield was assassinated and died 19 September.]
Wilde spent January 1881 in London. Another link with Ireland was lost when he mortgaged his inherited fishing lodge at Illaunroe.
SIR WILLIAM SCHWENK GILBERT 1836-1911
Although both were humorists and iconoclasts by nature, Wilde and Sir William Gilbert were never natural allies. Gilbert’s jovial humour confirmed the English middle-class prejudices. Using the weapon of sadistic ridicule, he championed their liking for ‘common sense’ and their distrust of the new. Oscar, on the other hand, thought ‘sound English common sense’ was simply ‘the inherited stupidity of the race’. Oscar: ‘To disagree with three fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first elements of sanity’. They were entirely out of sympathy with each other.
Gilbert greeted the news of Wilde’s Newdigate Prize at Oxford with a graceless sniff: “I understand that some young man wins the prize every year”. But he did spot the satiric possibilities of the aesthetic set. Dropping the idea of using curates as targets for his new light opera libretto ‘Patience’, he chose instead the artistic group that included Swinburne and Burne-Jones, (the opera opens with twenty love-stricken maidens in the same pose as the girls in Burne-Jones’s painting ‘The Triumph of Love’.) The main character, ‘Reginald Bunthorne’, was intended to be Whistler.
Oscar had arrived rather late to be a leading member of this group but Gilbert seized on his public persona with glee: ‘Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high aesthetic band, If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediaeval hand’. By the time the show reached America, ‘Bunthorne’ was definitely based on Wilde.
Gilbert had started his career as a junior barrister but failed dismally. After one particularly inept defence (that had earned his client an eighteen-month sentence with hard labour), the client removed her shoe in the courtroom and hurled it at his head. After four years at the bar, Gilbert had averaged five clients a year and had totalled £75 in fees.
He enjoyed amateur acting during this period but proved no more successful on the stage than in the courtroom. One critic wrote that watching Gilbert acting ‘Harlequin’ gave him a good idea of how Oliver Cromwell might have played the role.
Gilbert’s real talent lay in his mastery of language, though success in this field came slowly. By the age of 24 he had written fifteen plays, some of which were performed. The publication of his comic poems, the ‘Bab Ballads’ of 1869, (and so called because Gilbert’s childhood nickname had been ‘Bab’), secured recognition.
By 1875, on the suggestion of the promoter Richard D’Oyley Carte, Gilbert joined forces with the composer Arthur Sullivan to produce ‘Trial by Jury’, the first of a long series of comic opera hits. Gilbert’s task was to provide the libretto, as he had no ear for music. He used to say that he only knew two tunes – one was ‘God Save the Queen’ and the other one wasn’t.
‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ (1878) was the first major success of their collaboration; part of the comedy stemmed from satirising a real life situation. The Prime Minister, D’Israeli, had appointed a bookseller, WH Smith, as First Lord of the Admiralty when Smith had never actually been to sea.
(It was during rehearsals for ‘Pinafore’ that Gilbert asked a sixteen stone tenor, Rutland Barrington, to “cross the stage and sit on the skylight pensively”. Barrington did so, but his weight buckled the skylight and he crashed through it. Gilbert commented dryly: “I think that’s – ex-pensively”.)
‘Pinafore’ proved as popular in the USA as in Britain but the work was pirated ruthlessly by American producers. D’Oyley Carte lost a copyright action in the US courts, the judge stating that: “no Englishman possesses any rights which a true-born American is bound to respect”.
One American impresario suggested that Gilbert could write an American version of ‘Pinafore’. Gilbert, still smarting from the court case, responded by fitting a new lyric to his song, originally ‘He is an Eng-lish-man – And it’s greatly to his credit’, etc. The new version was: ‘Though he himself has said it – Tis not much to his credit – That he is A-mer-i-can’. The idea was dropped.
The success of Gilbert and Sullivan continued with productions of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ (1879), the afore-mentioned ‘Patience’ (1881), and ‘Iolanthe’ (1882). Their 1884 opera ‘Princess Ida’ was a satire aimed at the education of women, and partly referred to the first women’s college of Girton.
(Girton, founded at Hitchin in 1869, had been moved to Cambridge in 1873. Among the rules of the college was one that, while men were allowed entry to the building, they had to stand up for the entire length of their visit.)
The partnership reached its peak in 1885 with ‘The Mikado’, but the next show, ‘Ruddigore’ (1887) was not well received. ‘The Yeoman of the Guard’ (1888) and ‘The Gondoliers’ (1889) saw a return to popularity. (The latter opera was based on an incident in Gilbert’s infancy. Aged two, Gilbert had been kidnapped and held for ransom in Naples; his parents paid up and he was returned.)
By 1890, boredom with work they both considered beneath them, combined with quarrels over finances, cracked the relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan. Although they reformed to produce ‘Utopia Unlimited’ (1893) and ‘The Grand Duke’ (1895), their collaboration and their friendship ended.
During one revival in 1898, Gilbert and Sullivan emerged from different sides of the stage to bow to the applause, but did not speak to each other and left the theatre separately. They never met again.
Beneath the hearty Tory squire persona, in essence Gilbert was an anarchist. His contemporaries noted that, despite the breezy fun, there was, in the words of the Times in 1907, ‘an underlying note of anger’. There was also an element of schoolboy pleasure in the misfortune of other people. The critic Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote: ‘The man was essentially cruel and delighted in cruelty’.
No profession roused his contempt more than the press. One day a reporter arrived at his home and asked Gilbert’s butler if he could have an interview. In a voice that resounded through the house, Gilbert thundered: “Tell the man to go to hell!!” The butler returned to the front door and announced: “Mr Gilbert is extremely sorry but he wished me to state that extreme pressure of work precludes him from the pleasure of seeing you this morning.”
One obese woman reporter did manage to get as far as Gilbert’s study and, hoping to impress him, gushed over his dogs. She smiled winsomely at Gilbert and lisped: “It’s marvellous how all dogs seem to take to me straight away”. Gilbert grunted back: “Not at all. It’s just that it’s not often they find a bone with that much meat on it”.
Despite a happy marriage to Kitty Gilbert, his lack of gallantry toward women was notorious. When someone said that: “Mrs Jones was very pretty once”, Gilbert retorted: “Yes – but not twice”.
A girl in his opera company complained that a man had made advances to her, putting his arm around her waist and calling her ‘a pretty little thing’. Gilbert consoled her with: “Never mind, he couldn’t have meant it”. A lady of advancing years told him that she ‘couldn’t remember the Crimean War’. Gilbert’s reply was: “Don’t you? I’m sure you could if you tried”.
Occasionally his quips had a Wildean ring, such as his reply to an invitation to attend an exhibition in America. ‘Sir, I view the proposal to hold an international exhibition at San Francisco with an equanimity bordering on indifference.’ But his usual wit was more crudely robust. He said of a theatre impresario who had cast his mistress in a leading role and papered the press for advertisements on her behalf: “The fellow is blowing his own strumpet”.
After his retirement, he felt unleashed from a lifetime of writing works of impeccably good taste. This new freedom found expression in dozens of unprintably filthy limericks and a pornographic play in typescript that delighted the West End clubmen.
Gilbert’s lack of social grace offended the court circle. In 1890, ‘The Gondoliers’ was presented at a command performance before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. Although even the wig-maker’s name was printed in the programme, Gilbert’s name was omitted.
He was wounded by this snub and retaliated by writing a satire on the Court, ‘Utopia Unlimited’ – it was the most bitter of his lampoons. The result was, that while Sullivan was knighted in 1884, it was another 24 years before Gilbert received his knighthood.
Gilbert died in 1911. Two girls had got into difficulties while swimming in a lake at his home and Gilbert dived in to rescue them. The girls survived but Gilbert suffered a heart attack and drowned.
Gilbert loathed his middle name of ‘Schwenk’, but did not mind his initials of ‘WSG’. His musical partner,
SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN (1842-1900),
on the other hand, while quite happy with his middle name of ‘Seymour’, thoroughly disliked his initials of ‘ASS’.
From childhood, Sullivan was a favourite in influential circles, being praised by Charles Dickens over his youthful compositions and, as a Royal chorister, popular with the Court.
His first entry into the world of operetta came when the magazine Punch organised a benefit performance of ‘Box and Cox’ for the families of deceased staff members. Sullivan wrote the music, the editor Francis Burnand wrote the libretto, and George Du Maurier sang the lead part.
His real interest though lay in more serious music; he wrote the hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and ‘The Lost Chord’ (composed as he sat by his brother’s death bed).
Sullivan always felt that he was the disciple to the masterful Gilbert, though Gilbert was conscious of Sullivan’s worth. Gilbert: ‘We always saw eye to eye, the same humour always struck us in exactly the same way. With Sullivan I never had to do that fatal thing – explain a joke’. It also allowed Sullivan to develop comic ideas within his music.
When the partnership failed, Sullivan felt himself released from ‘this slavery’ of light comedy and attempted his life’s ambition of composing a serious grand opera. The result was ‘Ivanhoe’ (1891). Given his freedom, Sullivan simply wasn’t good enough and the work failed. GB Shaw: ‘Music in petticoats from the first bar to the last’.
Sullivan spent his last years as an intimate of the Prince of Wales’s set, indulging in the regal pursuits of hunting and shooting. JEC Bodley recorded that one day, Sullivan set off with a rifle and a servant. Much firing was heard from the woods. At dinner that evening, Sullivan stated that he had not had his usual luck that day; he had only bagged fifteen birds. His servant let slip later that, after 150 rounds had been fired, Sullivan had winged two pheasants and downed one woodcock.
It was a strange fact that neither Gilbert nor Sullivan realised that their operettas had any merit beyond their immediate popularity. Sullivan remained convinced that his botched attempt to write grand opera rendered him a failure. Gilbert said: “I fancy that posterity will know as little of me as I shall of posterity”.
Their business manager,
RICHARD D’OYLEY CARTE (1844-1901),
felt no such qualms over his own success. While Gilbert died worth £110,000 and Sullivan worth £50,000, Carte left over £250,000 at his death. It was felt to be proof of the superiority of business acumen over talent.
The son of a London woodwind instrument maker, (and agent of the Belgian Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone), Carte left his father’s firm to become a concert promoter. In 1875, he realised that the combination of Gilbert with Sullivan could be mutually beneficial and persuaded the pair to agree.
At the suggestion of friends, he also arranged for Oscar Wilde to do a speaking tour of America in 1882. The satire on aesthetes, ‘Patience’, was suffering slightly as the English conception of an aesthete was unknown in the USA. Carte decided to give American audiences a chance to see one in action so that they could appreciate the lampoon. The idea worked far beyond its original remit and Wilde became a star in his own right.
During the run of ‘HMS Pinafore’, Carte had a business partner, the Dublin impresario Michael Gunn, who once told him the unfortunate story of how Gunn’s father had met his death. It appeared that Gunn senior used to travel daily to his office in Dublin on an omnibus that crossed a canal bridge. One morning the horses took fright and dragged the bus down into the empty lock. A lock keeper quickly resolved on a plan to rescue them by floating the bus. He proceeded to open the sluices, thereby filling the lock and drowning the passengers including the unlucky Gunn senior.
The man who played ‘Bunthorne’, (the ‘Patience’ character partly based on Wilde), was the singer and entertainer
GEORGE GROSSMITH (1847-1912).
Far from bearing any resentment for the spoof, Wilde asked Grossmith to reserve a three-guinea theatre box for the show, with the words: “I look forward to being greatly amused”. Grossmith mimicked Oscar’s mannerisms but, as he was a small man, (Frank Harris: ‘Grossmith looked like a gnat’), his characterisation more resembled Whistler.
Grossmith had a long career with Gilbert and Sullivan, playing leads in all their main shows. However, Gilbert’s drill sergeant methods of rehearsal almost brought Grossmith to a nervous breakdown. The company were appalled to see puncture marks on his arms; he was relying on drugs to keep himself going.
He recovered enough to co-author, (with his brother Walter Weedon Grossmith), the excellent comic novel, ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ (1894).
At the start of his contract, Grossmith met D’Oyley Carte to discuss wages. Carte invited him to a magnificent banquet of oysters and fine wine. Under the influence, Grossmith acceded to Carte’s request not to press his claim for the extra £3 a week that he had wanted. Eleven years later, Grossmith glumly calculated that the lunch had cost him over £1,800.
Wilde met Edmund Gosse in the spring of 1881.
SIR EDMUND GOSSE 1849-1928
For such a touchy man as Sir Edmund Gosse, Wilde struck entirely the wrong note when they met in 1881. When Oscar said that he was pleased to meet the critic, Gosse replied that: “I was afraid you’d be disappointed”. Oscar answered flippantly: “Oh no, I am never disappointed in literary men. I think they are perfectly charming. It is their works I find so disappointing”.
Gosse never forgave him for this impertinence. He reviewed Wilde’s book of poems as ‘a curious toadstool, a malodorous parasitic growth’, and referred to Oscar as being ‘like Punch on a stick, squeaking, and I don’t like the squeak’.
In return Wilde suggested that Gosse would be recognised by posterity as holding ‘a high place among British Poetesses’, admitting later: “Well, I think you must give me the credit for never having discussed Gosse except in the most unfair terms”.
Gosse had a paternalistic fondness for Wilde’s great friend Robert Ross but, even eight years after Wilde’s death, he wrote to Ross that: ‘I am afraid I shall always feel instinctively hostile to Wilde’. He considered that Wilde’s only real writing achievement had been his ‘sad, noble’ letters to a newspaper about prison conditions. Gosse: ‘What I principally hated about him, poor creature, was not at all his vices, but his unreality’.
Gosse was a classic Victorian man of letters; in addition to his work as a critic, he wrote poetry, biography, and translated two Ibsen plays. He has remained known mostly for his semi-autobiographical book ‘Father and Son’ and for one poem ‘Tusitala’ about his friend Robert Louis Stevenson. He worked as a civil servant for 29 years, a job that gave him: “peace to write, a lovely view of the Thames, and unlimited stationery”.
Gosse began his career as a clerk in the cataloguing section of the British Museum. At the time, the clerks were treated rather like errant schoolboys under the control of a superintendent, the Rev. Frederick Laughlin, ‘a man who ruled with an iron hand and an uncontrollable temper’.
One day, when Laughlin was absent for an hour, discipline relaxed and the clerks chatted and told jokes. On his surprise return, instant decorum was restored. One clerk, though, had left to fetch a book from an upper gallery. Not noticing Laughlin’s return, he leant over the balustrade, spread his arms wide, and boomed out to the workers below: “Am I or am I not the Department’s darling?”
Gosse: ‘Laughlin turned his head slowly and looked upwards – one look. The clerk fled, and the sound of his footsteps was heard echoing up the metal stairways till they seemed to fade away into infinity.’
One of Gosse’s close friends at the British Museum was the poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844-1881), an illegitimate brother of Lord Lytton. Arthur was an expert on reptiles and worked in the Natural History Department. On one occasion, he broke a valuable exhibit and repaired the accident by uniting the head of one fish with the skeleton of another. He thus created a new species that baffled the authorities for months.
Gosse’s literary reputation grew steadily and, after declining a professorship at Harvard University, he succeeded Sir Leslie Stephen as Clark Lecturer at Cambridge. In 1886, he was the subject of a damaging article by John Churton Collins that denounced Gosse’s carelessness over facts.
Given his prickly nature and acute sensitivity to public opinion, this accusation deeply upset Gosse. His domestic staff did not help matters by giving him notice, on the grounds that they had entered his service under the impression that he was a man of letters and now they had learnt from the press that he was a charlatan.
Through the intervention of the socialite Lady Ettie Desborough, (who wrote to the Prime Minister: ‘Could not the House of Lords library possibly be got for Gossekins?’), later in his life Gosse acquired the job of Librarian to the Upper Chamber.
The library became his personal domain where he sat watching for misdemeanours through ‘gleaming gold-rimmed spectacles’. One lord reported that: ‘the mishandling of a book would bring him hurtling in a trot across the floor to the side of the offender with a bitingly civil request to know if he could be of any assistance’.
Gosse’s temper was tested occasionally by printing errors. He said: “When Robert Browning died I wrote in his obituary that ‘to the end of his life he was faint, yet pursuing’. The printer’s reader queried this, and being angry about many things, I scribbled ‘Rats!’ at the side. They printed that the venerable poet died ‘faint, yet pursuing rats’.”
Some of his contemporaries regarded Gosse as a snobbish and prissy example of the ‘governess’ type. George Moore, when writing in favour of the tavern as opposed to the club, commented: ‘The tavern gave the world Villon and Marlowe; the club and its leather arm chairs have begotten Mr Gosse’. When Gosse received his knighthood, Frank Harris said that it was ‘for services to mediocrity’.
In 1898, Wilde and Robert Ross knew a rent-boy in Rome called Ormero. Ormero asked Oscar what he should do if he ever visited London and wanted to see Ross whilst there. Oscar advised him that Ross’s real name was ‘Signor Edmundo Gosse’ and that he lived at the Savile Club. Ormero should appear in person and make enquiries at the Club.
Gosse’s predecessor as Clark Lecturer at Cambridge,
SIR LESLIE STEPHEN (1832-1904),
besides being a dedicated scholar, was an enthusiastic mountaineer.
He once returned from on Alpine trip in 1870 and, by pure chance, happened to be the first person to bring back fresh reports of the Battle of Sedan to London. Not that his fellow clubmen would have known it as, on arrival at the club, he became involved in an animated theological discussion. It was three hours before he remembered to mention the news that France had fallen.
Sir Leslie’s great achievement was his founding editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography. The strain of such a huge work of scholarship forced his resignation in 1891. His efforts were not always appreciated. When Bertie, Prince of Wales, attended the dinner held to celebrate the final publication of the Dictionary, he was unimpressed by the company.
Looking at the assembled scholars, he pointed sourly at a Rev. Ainger, (who had composed the entries on Charles and Mary Lamb), and hissed: “Why is that vicar here? He’s not a writer.” It was explained that the Rev. Ainger was a major authority on Lamb. Bertie put down his knife and fork and gasped in bafflement: “On lamb?”
Gosse reported that in an American Dictionary of Biography he had once looked up the title: ‘Highcock – Laurens Persius’. The entry read simply: ‘The style of Laurens Persius Highcock lacks distinction’.
Sir Leslie was the father of the writer Virginia Woolf.
Gosse was a life-long friend of the author
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON (1850-1894),
the creator of such classic tales as ‘Treasure Island’ (1881), ‘Kidnapped’ (1886), and ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1886). The latter book may have influenced Wilde when he wrote ‘Dorian Gray’ three years later. Oscar paid tribute to Stevenson, calling him ‘that delightful master of delicate and fanciful prose’.
Stevenson sometimes had a foolhardy compulsion to mingle fantasy with real life. In 1879, he went to the USA to marry Fanny Osbourne, a divorcee. (The marriage, though lasting, had some rocky patches, prompting Stevenson to comment: “To marry is to domesticate the Recording Angel”.) While in the Far West one day, he was seized with a desire to impersonate an outlaw gunman.
Although a frail, almost wispy man, Stevenson assumed an air of menace and strode down the main street. On the approach of a stranger, Stevenson stopped and glared, then moved his hand sharply to his hip as if about to draw a (non-existent) revolver. The stranger turned pale and held up both hands over his head. Stevenson growled imprecations at him then swaggered on to repeat the process. The actor Charles Brookfield, to whom Stevenson told this story, said that: “It was by the mercy of God that he was not shot dead”.
Dogged by ill health, in 1880 Stevenson went to Davos, Switzerland, to find a cure for lung consumption. It was in Davos that he wrote much of ‘Treasure Island’. A friend, Horatio Brown, left an account of Stevenson’s writing methods: ‘He had made a mud map of the island all over the floor of a chalet, and would lie there all day, moving dolls about to represent his characters as he wrote’.
In 1888, Stevenson left Europe to settle in Samoa in the Pacific. Another Davos friend, JA Symonds commented that Stevenson, ‘having the chance to lounge around in palmy coves wearing only a few hibiscus flowers, with the most beautiful people in the world’, had instead decided to ‘build himself a sort of Scotch manse in a wilderness’. Stevenson died in Samoa in 1894 – Gosse was devastated by the news.
In 1875, Gosse married Ellen Epps, the sister of the second wife of the artist
SIR LAWRENCE ALMA-TADEMA (1836-1912).
Alma-Tadema, (nicknamed ‘Tad’), was a Dutchman who specialised in paintings on Graeco-Roman subjects, usually with a background of bright blue sky. In 1870, after the death of his first wife, and encouraged by the favourable British response to his slightly kitsch artwork, he moved to London and took British nationality in 1873.
Alma-Tadema’s artistic success was matched by his social popularity and his sumptuous house in St John’s Wood was the setting for many parties and for his famous ‘Tuesday’ soirees. Famous musicians were encouraged to carve their autographs on the lid of his grand piano. His dining room was decked out as an imperial banqueting hall where Alma-Tadema would preside over amateur dramatics dressed as an Ancient Roman in toga and monocle.
In 1881, Alma-Tadema invited Wilde to a masked ball at the house, though Oscar refused to wear the proffered mask. While he offered to advise Alma-Tadema on all things Greek, Oscar insisted that ‘Tad’ could not draw. Wilde: “I and Lord Ronald Gower and Mr Ruskin, and all artists of my acquaintance, hold that Alma-Tadema’s drawing of men and women is disgraceful”.
George Du Maurier was another friend and, as the two men strongly resembled each other, often was mistaken for Alma-Tadema. On one occasion, a lady rushed up to Du Maurier and burst into praise for his ‘wonderful paintings of Old Rome’. Du Maurier clasped her hands, looked soulfully into her eyes and, imitating Alma-Tadema’s Dutch accent, breathed: “Gom to me on my Chewsdays.” He often wondered what had been the result.
Although not a habitual drinker, Alma-Tadema’s social life sometimes meant that he imbibed more than his norm. When a friend became the father of twins, Alma-Tadema made a visit to congratulate the new parents. Unfortunately he arrived after drinking several bottles of wine. Casting a bleary look in the direction of the twins, he hesitated for a bit, then announced confidently: “What a lovely baby!”
On June 4 1881, Lily Langtry invited Bertie, Prince of Wales to a thought-reading séance at Wilde’s new house in Tite Street.
THE PRINCE OF WALES, later KING EDWARD VII 1841-1910
The Prince of Wales, known as ‘Bertie’, had several meetings with Wilde. He arranged for Oscar to be a guest to a dinner party where an alleged wit, the courtier Bernal Osborne (whom D’Israeli described as ‘a clown’), was also present. Osborne displayed his talent by asking if Oscar was related to the eighteenth century criminal, Jonathan Wild. His insinuations grew coarser until Wilde finally stood up and left the room. Bertie was furious with Osborne and apologised to Wilde.
Later, Bertie became a delighted fan of Oscar’s plays and attended several first nights. After he had commanded Oscar: ‘Do not alter a single line’, Wilde mused: ‘What a splendid country where princes understand poets’.
In 1898, after Wilde’s disgrace, Bertie was in Cannes on the French Riviera. One day, he spotted Wilde in the street and, leaning out of his carriage, removed his hat. Oscar seemed not to comprehend what was happening – he just stared. The Prince settled back and remarked to his companions: “Poor devil. What can we do?”
It is possible that Wilde’s rebellious streak struck a chord with the future monarch of the British Empire. Born ‘Albert Edward’ and the eldest child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, he was subjected to a deeply repressive upbringing that had the effect of turning him into a resolute rake in adult life.
There is some evidence that his parents did not really like Bertie, and certainly Victoria was an unsympathetic matriarch. When it was suggested that he must be a great comfort to his mother, Victoria snapped: “Comfort! Why, I caught him smoking a month after his dear father died!”
Gladstone said that Bertie ‘was kept in childhood beyond his time’, and Victoria made a point of excluding him from affairs of state. When Bertie was sent on a royal visit to India, on his outgoing voyage the newly opened Suez Canal was French owned; on his return voyage it was British territory. Victoria had not bothered to tell him.
When his ‘eternal’ mother finally died in 1901 and he succeeded to the throne, it was significant that he dropped his first name of ‘Albert’ and ruled as ‘King Edward VII’.
After the moral austerities of his mother’s court, Bertie was a welcome relief. It was said that the English loved him because he had all the aristocratic vices, (as opposed to his son, King George V, who was disliked because he embodied all the middle-class virtues). The writer Wilfred Blunt wrote of Bertie: ‘he has certain good qualities of amiability and a Philistine tolerance of other people’s sins which endear him to rich and poor’.
This popularity enabled him to influence British social life long before he actually reigned. If the Victorian age intrinsically lasted from 1845 till 1865, the Edwardian age could be said to have lasted from 1880 till 1914.
Another of Bertie’s nicknames was ‘Tum Tum’. Being only five feet, six inches tall and as plump as his mother, there was something of the gluttonous infant about him that seemed to be part of his charm. He enjoyed five full meals a day and was profoundly addicted to cigars.
Henry James described him as ‘an arch vulgarian’; in particular this applied to opera, where he irritated many music-lovers by chatting when he should have been silent. One of Wilde’s quips appealed strongly to him: ‘Musical people are so absurdly unreasonable. They always want one to be perfectly dumb at the very moment when one is longing to be absolutely deaf.’
His regard for social standards found expression in minor matters such as the strict observance of dress codes. When Lord Rosebery arrived at Windsor wearing ordinary trousers instead of court dress, Bertie observed testily: “I presume that you have come in the entourage of the American Ambassador?”
Bertie did possess a genuine common touch. When a Victoria Cross medal winner was invited to have tea at Buckingham Palace, the man used the working class method of pouring his tea from the cup into the saucer to cool and then drinking it. Court officials were shocked, but Bertie displayed the utmost good manners by copying him and also drinking from the saucer.
Excluded from State affairs, Bertie turned his attention to pleasure in various guises. Racing was one of them, and his horses won the Derby three times. He turned Sandringham into a royal residence mostly because of its proximity to the Newmarket races.
He installed a series of cod ‘Vanity Fair’ erotic portraits in the Sandringham billiard room. JEC Bodley: ‘Lord Shaftesbury is represented as kissing a nymph, Matthew Arnold lolling languidly among a bevy of Cyprian beauties, and Mr Gladstone and Lord Salisbury spying on some naked bathers.’
Bertie enjoyed betting as did many of his companions. One associate had a mania for gambling on every conceivable topic. Once, when the Royal chaplain announced during a service that: “There is one God”, the man was heard to mutter softly: “I’ll take six to four on that”.
Another sport that Bertie enjoyed was that of salmon fishing. On one occasion in Scotland, Bertie was aided by a ghillie who spotted a fine fish in the stream and explained where best to hook it. After the Prince’s first cast, the excited ghillie called out: “Magnificent, Your Royal Highness…….. Another yard, Your Royal Highness……….Perfect, Your Royal Highness…….. A wee bit to your right, Your Royal Highness…….You’re over him, Your Royal Highness ………..Now then, Your Royal Highness………..Och! You’ve missed him, ye stupid bastard.”
Bertie was democratic in his choice of companions. Wealth was rapidly replacing birth as the basis for acceptance, and Bertie dropped the usual social and religious royal prejudices in favour of choosing people that he actually liked. Men such as Lipton the grocery magnate and Maple the furniture king became intimates.
Visiting Americans, (fresh from the upper classes of United States society which strictly excluded Jews), were amazed to find such prominent Jewish families as the Rothschilds and the Sassoons at the heart of the court circle.
Occasionally, this new tolerance stumbled, as on the occasion of the visit of the Shah of Persia to England. The Shah casually asked Bertie whether, for safety’s sake, he was going to have his brother executed when he came to the throne. Bertie blanched but recovered to say that there were so many great lords in Britain that it would be difficult to carry out such a cull.
The culture clash of the Shah’s visit seemed to affect both sides. For his part, the Shah could not stomach the apparent dominance of western women over their husbands and said: “It seems to me that an English or American husband is nothing better than a sort of butler”.
(While in London, the Shah was impressed by the new invention of the bicycle and ordered one made entirely of gold inlaid with jewels. Hearing that even the saddle was to be encrusted with emeralds, a London newspaper commented: ‘this must be the converse of the line – ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’.)
Sex was another area in which Bertie rebelled against his parents. He became a fervent libertine but had the sense to conceal the fact as much as possible from his middle-class subjects. By tacit agreement, Bertie and many of the aristocracy could indulge in virtually any sexual misbehaviour, with the one strict proviso that it did not become public knowledge. The Eleventh Commandment of this world was ‘Thou Shalt Not Be Found Out’.
To an extent, the essence of Wilde’s play ‘An Ideal Husband’ was based on this very idea. (It is ironic that Oscar, along with such characters as Charles Dilke and Charles Parnell, was ruined not by his actions but by the fact he failed to keep them from the public eye.)
In effect, Bertie practised droit de seigneur among his married friends; it came to be regarded as something of an honour to offer their wives for his enjoyment. Known as ‘Edward the Caresser’, he had little interest in young unmarried girls as they were too inexperienced. Instead, he concentrated on actresses, married women, and the famous beauties of his day. Among hundreds, possibly thousands, of women, Lily Langtry, Alice Keppel, and Daisy Warwick were among the most prominent.
Even in old age, Bertie retained a remarkable sexual stamina, although his increasing stoutness inspired a Parisian brothel to install a special chair for him that facilitated fellatio.
When Bertie was on his deathbed, his long-suffering but indulgent Danish wife, Queen Alexandra, remarked: “At least now I know where he is”.
DAISY BROOKE, Countess of Warwick (1861-1938)
was one of the aristocratic wives who offered themselves to Bertie. Her husband, Lord Brooke, was endlessly complacent; among her other lovers were Lord Charles Beresford, (by whom she had a child), and the future First World War Field Marshal, a youthful Earl Haig.
Bertie fell deeply in love with the seductive and beautiful Daisy and especially enjoyed her country house parties. In practice, these events were discreet orgies, where gongs were sounded at 6am to enable bed-hoppers to return to their original rooms.
Oscar Wilde did visit Warwick Castle but was unlikely to have been involved with the extra-curricular action. (Although, in ‘An Ideal Husband’, he wrote: ‘I don’t think any one at all morally responsible for what he or she does at an English country house’.
In an unlikely turn of events, Daisy suddenly converted to socialism. In spite of her irritation at being called ‘Comrade Warwick’ by Margot Asquith, she joined HM Hyndeman’s Social Democratic Federation, a semi-revolutionary group.
At first, Bertie was so infatuated that he acquiesced and was seen accompanying her on visits to workhouses and workingmen’s clubs. On accession to the throne, however, his advisors told him that it was not a good idea to have an obvious socialist so close to the monarchy and he dropped Daisy.
Owing partly to her philanthropic ventures, by 1914 Daisy was £90,000 in debt and Warwick Castle had been let to an American. Growing increasingly desperate, she contacted Frank Harris and between them concocted a scheme to blackmail Buckingham Palace with the public exposure of the late King Edward’s love letters. The Palace settled £100,000 on her in return for their destruction.
Bernard Shaw recalled arriving at a Socialist conference at a hotel, where, he said, the leaders were standing around the foyer, ‘looking as if the social revolution had come and left them all far behind’. For once, they were silent, and the only noise came from the rumbling of their stomachs. Finally, the chairman, HM Hyndeman, spoke up. “The Countess of Warwick has invited us to dinner, and has forgotten all about it”.
In her old age, Daisy said of her spectacular sex life: “I could not help it. They were there. It was all a great game”.
In June 1881 Wilde published his first collection of poetry in London, (Wilde: ‘So you are a rhymer! We all are when we are young’.) Wilde actually made very little money from this book as he had paid the publisher to print it.
The poetry was attacked by many critics; Punch called it ‘Swinburne and water’ – ‘The poet is Wilde, But his poetry’s tame’. Although Oxford University library requested a copy, the student assembly, led by the future historian Oliver Elton and the poet Henry Newbolt, voted to reject acceptance. The future politician George Curzon was angered by this discourtesy.
In July 1881, Wilde sent a copy of his poems to the poet Matthew Arnold.
MATTHEW ARNOLD 1822-1888
Wilde and Arnold met later at a dinner party held by Frank Harris and were mutually impressed. At a time when Oscar was still regarded as a poseur, Arnold said of him that he had ‘a fine intelligence and was a most wonderful talker’. Wilde, for his part, felt that ‘Arnold is a real poet, an English saint in side-whiskers’
Matthew Arnold was the eldest son of the famous headmaster of Rugby School, Dr Thomas Arnold. As a result of such poetry as ‘The Scholar-Gypsy’ and ‘Sohrab and Rustum’, and his work as a literary critic, he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1857.
Although thirty years older, Arnold had some similar experiences to Wilde. Both won the Newdigate Prize, and both applied for the post of Inspector of Schools, (Arnold successfully, while Oscar was turned down). Also, they both gave lecture tours across the USA arranged by D’Oyley Carte, Arnold arriving in 1883, the year after Oscar’s relatively effective performances.
Arnold’s tour, though, was something of a disaster. He repeated Oscar’s mistake of announcing to a disapproving public that his main reason for touring was the money. Arnold himself was disconcerted when he saw that the train set aside for the tour bore a large banner proclaiming ‘The Matthew Arnold Troupe’, which someone remarked made him sound like a performing seal trainer.
While in England people were used to his style, (JA Symonds called it ‘that touch of arrogance which nobody minded in him’), in America it was not appreciated. But what really upset his audience were the lectures themselves. The poetess Julia Ward Howe was particularly censorious, describing Arnold as: ‘stooping to read his notes at a lectern like an elderly bird pecking at grapes on a trellis’.
Having listened to Arnold’s lecture on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Howe wrote: ‘Arnold does not in the least understand Emerson, I think. His elocution is pitiable and when, after his lecture, Wendell Phillips stepped forward and said a few graceful words of farewell to him, it was like the Rose complimenting the Cabbage’.
Arnold’s death in 1888 was very sudden and shocked his friends. Wilde reported that when Robert Louis Stevenson heard about it in Samoa, he said: “How dreadful!” and then added: “He won’t like God”.
Arnold’s exact contemporary and fellow schoolmate at Rugby was
THOMAS HUGHES (1822-1896)
who later wrote the hugely popular novel ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ (1857), in which he created the character of ‘Harry Flashman’, the school bully.
Despite this one literary triumph, the rest of Hughes’s career was one of relentless mediocrity. His attitude of robust patriotism seemed almost calculated to attract Wilde’s jibe attacking those ‘who would hoist the Union Jack on the pinnacles of thought’. Nor was Oscar enthusiastic about Hughes’s attempt to propagate ‘muscular Christianity’ by (in his 1879 book, ‘The Manliness of Christ’) presenting Jesus as an idealised English public school prefect.
Although conscientious to a fault, Hughes was described as ‘a dismal failure’ as a Member of Parliament, while his attempt to construct a cooperative farming community in Tennessee ended in financial collapse. When he became a county court judge in 1882, his judgements became a byword for constant reversal on appeal.
On the strength of his novel, Hughes regarded himself as an authority about boys. The journalist Herbert Vivian, when aged 14, was introduced to the author by his parents. This seems to have been something of an ordeal, as Hughes insisted on a semi-regal procedure for such meetings. Hughes would insist that all available boys be presented to him.
Although they had been coached to tell him that their greatest desire was to shake his hand, this was not a pleasant experience. Hughes had a theory that character could be assessed through handshakes. As his hand muscles were like iron, the result could prove extremely painful. Any boy who winced was immediately suspected of lack of manliness.
Hughes would then put a number of questions to the child. Vivian recorded that the interrogation followed the pattern of: “Where are you at school? Like it? Any good at cricket? Fine game, cricket. Makes boys manly. Do your duty, always speak the truth, and then you needn’t be afraid of anybody.”
Then Hughes would close the conversation with a pat on the head and, if the boy had proved especially manly, the presentation of a copy of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’. Vivian himself did not receive that ultimate accolade as he had replied that cricket bored him.
During the summer of 1881 Wilde visited the Loire valley, France, with Rennell Rodd. Then went on to Paris, Chartres, and Amboise
By 1881, Wilde was coming under satirical attacks, not just from Gilbert and Sullivan, but also from such novelists as Rhoda Broughton (1840-1920) and Vernon Lee (1856-1935).
In her 1880 book ‘Second Thoughts’, Broughton said of Wilde that he was ‘a long pale poet, flaccid limbed, has an early Byzantine face and wears the hair of his Botticelli head very long’.
Vernon Lee (the pen name of Violet Paget) wrote: ‘Oscar Wilde talked a sort of lyrico-sarcastic maudlin cultschah for half an hour. But I think the creature is clever, and that a good half of his absurdities are mere laughing at people. The English don’t see that’. They remained wary acquaintances.
He was also attacked by Punch magazine under its editor Francis Burnand.
SIR FRANCIS BURNAND 1836-1917
Together with the artist George Du Maurier, Francis Burnand found the Wildean aesthete an irresistible butt. As early as 1877, Punch magazine targeted Oscar after his appearance at the Grosvenor Gallery opening: ‘And many a maiden will mutter, When Oscar looms large on her sight, ‘He quite too consummately utter, As well as too utterly quite’. Burnand was still mining this comic lode in 1890 with the Punch articles ‘From the Log of a Log-Roller’.
Burnand extended his attack to the stage when in 1881 he wrote a successful satire on Wilde called ‘The Colonel’. Dismissing this play as ‘a dull farce’, Oscar brushed off the satirists, lightly ridiculing them in return when writing about his experiences with the Red Indians in the American West. ‘There are also among them Burnands and Gilberts – in fact ‘Burnand’ in a blanket and quite covered with scarlet feathers is now trying through the window to force me to buy a pair of bead slippers and making signs to a ruffianly looking ‘Gilbert’ who is with him to tomahawk me if I refuse’.
The tone of Burnand’s 1890s satires against Wilde became quite bitter. The fact that one of Burnand’s own sons had been convicted of ‘unnatural offences’ may have caused the added spite. (After the case, Burnand gave his son an allowance but only on the condition that he changed his name to Anton Strelitski).
Burnand had attended Eton but, unlike some of his school comrades, had no quarrel with Etonian customs. ‘Fagging’ was a system where junior boys had to work as servants for the seniors; any incompetence was treated harshly. If, for instance, a fag over-burned the toast ordered by a senior, he would be forced to play ‘the Highland dance’. This consisted of spreading his hand on a table, while the senior stabbed the table with the toasting fork between the boy’s fingers. If, as often happened, the fork stabbed the fingers and the boy cried out, then he would be ‘whacked’.
Burnand wrote later that: ‘wholesome fagging is far better, physically and mentally, than effeminate favouritism. Fagging, like love, levels all distinctions’. His conclusion on school life was: ‘The moral teaching of all public schools is summed up in the formula – Never tell a lie when the truth will do as well.’
In 1854, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge where he became interested in theatre. He founded the university Amateur Dramatic Society (known as the ‘ADC’), and also wrote the farce ‘Box and Cox’.
One aspect of Cambridge that intrigued Burnand was that some of the undergraduates were by no means young. A few had gone down and up again several times, (‘like drowning men’ as he put it). One of them, Digby ‘Cracker’ Cayley, was in the unique position of being, at one time, the only undergraduate at Downing College, despite the fact that the college was fully staffed with deans, professors, chaplains, etc. They existed chiefly for his benefit and left him in a position of almost total control.
The college servant would arrive with a message from the chaplain asking when, or more likely if, he might desire morning chapel. Burnand wrote that Cracker, having probably not arrived back from a drinking expedition until 3am, ‘would curtly but decidedly reply with very brief but emphatic recommendations as to the direction in which the chaplain’s emissary was to turn his steps’.
Later, another servant would arrive with a breakfast tray and a polite note from a tutor humbly inquiring at what hour Cracker might like to have a lecture, and, if not, might he suggest another day – or indeed week.
For a short time after graduation, Burnand toyed with the idea of becoming a clergyman. He attended Cuddesdon Theological College under the direction of Bishop Samuel (‘Soapy Sam’) Wilberforce of Oxford, a major opponent of Charles Darwin’s theories.
(Wilberforce gained his soubriquet of ‘Soapy’ during the building of Cuddesdon. The bishop’s initials (S-amuel O-xon) were carved on one pillar of the gateway, while the architect’s initials were carved on the other pillar. This led to one pillar reading ‘SO’ while the other read ‘AP’.)
Burnand abandoned a theological career and instead chose the theatre, writing over a hundred burlesques and adaptations, the most popular being ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ (1866) and ‘The Colonel’.
During his editorship of Punch (1880 till 1906) the humorous pun reigned supreme. A typical example was the response to the question: ‘Is life worth living?’ – ‘It depends on the liver’. He had a bluff attitude to most things. His view of the supernatural was that ‘it was all down to rats’, while his membership of the Freemasons was due partly to the craft’s attractive instruction ‘From labour to refreshment’.
However, he regarded himself as a gentleman and insisted on removing the bohemian ‘boozers’ of the previous Punch generation. (After one lengthy Punch lunch, two of these gentlemen had fallen down the stairs, then solemnly picked each other up, shaken hands, and had been ushered through the door by Waller, the Punch servant.)
Burnand’s answer to the accusation that: ‘Punch was not as good as it used to be’ was: “It never was.”
Although he was the first Punch writer to be knighted for his efforts, Burnand became something of an absentee editor in the later years. One contributor, RGC Price, said that the first signal anyone had of a rare Burnand foray into work was hearing the sound of two heavy thumps as he threw his boots out of the door of his office. Visiting contributors ‘would find him looking rather lost and eating shrimps out of a paper bag’.
One day, at a lunch party, he was discussing the anonymous contributions that arrived at the magazine: “It’s extraordinary the number of really funny things I get sent to me at Punch”. WS Gilbert, another guest, raised his head: “Really! Why don’t you put some of them in?”
In September 1881, after a row with Frank Miles, Wilde moved to stay with his mother at Ovington Sq, London, for a few days.
Later that month he moved to two rooms on the third floor of 9, Charles St, London, (now Carlos Place, off Grosvenor Sq). This remained his base until he married in 1884.
In December, the planned opening of his play ‘Vera’ was cancelled.
On December 24, 1881 Wilde set sail to undertake a tour of the United States.
THE END OF PART ONE
The full book can be obtained by sending an e-mail to:
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
The full book can be obtained by sending an e-mail to:
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