From Lionized to Ostracized: Life, Letters of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius , by Barbara Belford. Random House, 381 pages, $29.95.

The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde , edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis. Henry Holt, 1,270 pages, $45.

When Oscar Wilde landed at New York harbor on Jan. 2, 1882, he had written almost nothing. The works on which his reputation now rests- The Picture of Dorian Gray , Salome , The Importance of Being Earnest , the critical essays-all lay at least seven years in the future; his trial and imprisonment, which secured his legend, were still undreamed of. Yet Wilde, at the age of 27, was already famous, and had been for several years. “What has he done, this young man,” asked the great actress Modjeska, “that one meets him everywhere?” He didn’t need to do anything; he was, in fact, the first modern celebrity, famous simply for being famous. “I have nothing to declare but my genius,” he is reputed to have said to the customs officials in New York. And as he told André Gide, he had put all his genius into his life, leaving merely his talent for his work.

Wilde discovered early on that the age, prudish and decadent by turns, had an appetite for his brand of wit-paradoxical, frivolous, provocative. He yearned for its approval: “I am working at dramatic art because it’s the democratic art, and I want fame,” he confided in a letter as early as 1880. And The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde , published on Nov. 30, the 100th anniversary of his death, is perhaps the best single record of Wilde’s journey towards fame, and past it into infamy. It takes its place with Richard Ellmann’s 1987 biography as the essential book for understanding Wilde. A massive work of scholarship, the fruit of decades of work by Rupert Hart-Davis and Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, it does not much add to Wilde’s literary reputation: With the exception of De Profundis , the long self-dramatizing letter Wilde wrote to Alfred Douglas from prison, these letters were not meant for posterity. But for that very reason, they give a powerful, immediate impression of his daily existence.

America set the seal on Wilde’s celebrity. His lecture tour was a publicist’s stroke of genius: Richard D’Oyly Carte, the theatrical producer, sent him to drum up publicity for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience , in which Wilde was caricatured as the aesthetic poet Bunthorne. He was happy to dress the part. As Barbara Belford writes in her new biography, Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius : “He strode onstage with a circular black cloak thrown over one shoulder, walking slowly to model the knee breeches and black stockings worn with a lace-trimmed shirt under a dark purple coat lined in lavender satin.” A hesitant speaker at first, Wilde soon learned to tailor his lectures to his audience: He gave decorating hints in “The House Beautiful” and puffed the pre-Raphaelites in “The English Renaissance.”

New York fell for him, as he wrote with glee to Mrs. George Lewis, the wife of his solicitor: “The hall had an audience larger and more wonderful than even Dickens had. I was recalled and applauded and am now treated like the Royal Boy …. Yesterday I had to leave by a private door, the mob was so great. Loving virtuous obscurity as I do, you can judge how much I dislike this lionising, which is worse than that given to Sarah Bernhardt I hear.”

His success was so great that he ended up staying in America for all of 1882, traveling from Boston to San Francisco and back again. Ms. Belford gives the tour comparatively little space, and indeed leaves out entirely one of its most significant episodes, which can be traced in the Letters . On the train from Philadelphia to Baltimore, Wilde ran into another one of Carte’s lecturers, a bluff war correspondent named Archibald Forbes, and quarreled with him. Forbes retaliated by mocking Wilde in his lecture, sneering at “the aesthetic ecstasy” and pluming himself on his manliness: “I glanced down at my clothes, which I had not changed for two weeks, and in which I had ridden 150 miles,” Forbes boasted. “I did not look much like an art object then.” The New York papers, predictably, inflated the quarrel, and letters flew back and forth: Forbes attacked Wilde’s “utterly mercenary aim” in coming to America, while Wilde complained to George Lewis of Forbes’ “attack on me … one of the most filthy and scurrilous things I ever read.” It was an early warning that John Bull was willing to put up with Wilde only to a point; the newspapers’ fascination with him could turn at a moment’s notice into mockery and abuse.

Ms. Belford’s life of Wilde moves briskly through its high points-books and plays, love affairs and scandals-and does not omit any of the famous bons mots. But it has little new information to add, and can’t compete with the Ellmann biography for completeness or insight. Without a firm grasp of Wilde’s literary and intellectual background, Ms. Belford can offer little in the way of elucidating his “certain genius.” Her greatest strength is that she is more candid than earlier biographers about Wilde’s homosexuality, especially in his last years, after his release from prison.

In his youth, Wilde’s love of men was sublimated, in the classic Oxford style, into Platonic friendship. He courted several young women, including one who went on to become Mrs. Bram Stoker. In 1884, he married Constance Lloyd. His letters as a newlywed are perhaps a little too conscious of what he ought to be feeling: “We are of course desperately in love …. I am perfectly happy.” Sometime in 1886 or 1887, he had his first homosexual experience, with Robert Ross, a friend who later became his literary executor; from then on, his interest in Constance diminished rapidly.

The great love of his life, of course, was Lord Alfred Douglas, known as “Bosie.” Ms. Belford, though acknowledging that Douglas was “vain, shallow, and, when enraged, vindictive,” attempts to soften his image, in particular denying the charge that his presence was fatal to Wilde’s writing. Wilde himself changed his mind a hundred times about Douglas’ character, alternately worshipping him and swearing off him forever. He should have done so while he had the chance. In February 1895, just as The Importance of Being Earnest was taking the stage in London, Douglas’ demented father, the Marquis of Queensberry, left the famous card at Wilde’s club: “For Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite [sic].” Douglas, who hated his father more than he loved Wilde, encouraged Wilde to sue for libel; a fatally foolish decision, since the two men well knew that the charge was true. Queensberry’s lawyer dredged up several “renters” who could testify to having sex with Wilde, and he had to drop the case after two days. He was arrested the same night, convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to prison for two years.

Ms. Belford is generally good on the details of the trials, which remain, after a century, depressing and sordid to read about. One of the key pieces of testimony against Wilde was, as she writes, “from chambermaids at the Savoy who thought they found fecal stains on bedsheets alleged to be from Wilde’s room.” Blackmailing prostitutes crawled out of the woodwork-the trial, as Wilde’s lawyer said, was “an act of indemnity for all the blackmailers in London”-but the judge found Wilde far more objectionable than his accusers. “It is the worst case I have ever tried,” he thundered. “People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them.”

Prison and its sequel-Wilde’s three years of wandering exile in France and Italy-are outwardly the least active parts of Wilde’s life, but morally the most dramatic. His was a genius that battened off fame, that required attention and applause; now he was deprived of family, friends and public all at a stroke. The letters from this period are heartbreaking, as we observe Wilde’s desperate attempts to come to terms with his fall, to remake his life on a new basis. He grows increasingly desperate, badgering his friends for money and accusing them of vague embezzlements; he quickly gave up the idea of writing a new play, though he continued to accept advances from producers.

It is the saddest act of Wilde’s tragedy, but Ms. Belford finds some consolation: For the first time, Wilde was free to be open about his sexuality. “When he threw away the mask and stopped the lies, he was strangely happy.” He could even make epigrams about the “vice” that ruined his life: “A patriot put in prison for loving his country loves his country, and a poet in prison for loving boys loves boys.”

But this was a reduced kind of happiness, a meager consolation. “I have pleasures, and passions,” he wrote in 1898, “but the joy of life is gone.” Wilde’s remains now lie in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, under a Jacob Epstein monument inscribed with a verse from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” But a letter he wrote three years before his death provides his best epitaph: “I was a problem for which there was no solution.”

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic living in New York City.