Review: 'Oscar Wilde - A Life' a Vivid Portrait of the Man and His Tumultuous Times

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday November 4, 2021

In 1895, the details of Oscar Wilde's trial for "gross indecency" were splashed over the front pages of London's newspapers. However euphemized, the public couldn't get enough of the lurid details, and since then scores of biographies have recounted every aspect of his celebrated life, his notorious affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, and infamous downfall after he was dragged into court.

Richard Ellmann's 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Wilde has long been considered a defining masterpiece; what more could be revealed? But, as Matthew Sturgis explains in his new book on Oscar, as brilliant as Ellmann's book is, by now it needs revisions. Ellmann rushed to finish the book because he was ill and, if fact, died months before it was published.

Sturgis was able to research a trove of previously-unattainable source materials — diaries, letters, police files — for more dimensional portrait of Oscar. Sturgis also mines the wealth of material in books about the lead players, including his wife Constance, his love for Lord Alfred Douglas (a.k.a. Bosie), the Marquess of Queensbury, and Wilde's closest friends and lovers, including Wilde's confidants Ava Leverson, Robbie Ross, Frank Harris, Henry Whistler, and other major figures in Wilde's orbit, including writers George Bernard Shaw and Walt Whitman.

Sturgis writes a more revealing account of Wilde's youth, and of his relationships his father, William, a noted specialist in ocular medicine and civil servant, and his mother, a celebrated Irish poet, and activist for social justice causes.

Wilde's didn't make friends easily and mostly kept to himself, even in the hothouse environs of all-boys Irish schools. At Trinity College, he became a disciple of two respected dons nurtured his literary aspirations and encouraged his performative character. Later, he thrived in the intellectual environs of Oxford, but also became rebellious and was eventually sent down. But, by then, his public career as a writer was starting to be his main focus.

The sudden death of his father left the family in difficult financial straits, and Wilde was running through what was left in assets to make connections and advance his literary career as a poet and art critic in London, but his public persona as an aesthete was his main calling card.

Sturgis' account of Wilde's lecture tour all across America as the guru of the Aesthetic movement was a breakthrough in his career. Even though he met a good measure of derision, he was a sought-after celebrity. Back in London he was on the society circuit, but still having trouble getting published.

Wilde was considering marriage, and was linked to various debutants, even as rumors began to surface about his sexuality. He was playing the aristocratic field, and soon became engaged to the Constance Lloyd.

Sturgis perfunctorily describes Wilde's marriage to Constance Lloyd. The impression is that Oscar truly loved her, but there were also the Victorian mores of privileged society where marriages of convenience was the clammy status quo.

Wilde began his first affair with (lifelong friend) Robbie Ross. Sturgis reports that Ross lived with the couple for two months — and Ross and Wilde began their affair — during Constance's second pregnancy, without Constance finding out, even though it was happening right under her own roof. After Wilde's sex life was exposed in the most lurid terms in court, Constance claimed that was the first she knew of his not-so-secret life.

Whatever the full truth, Sturgis doesn't delve into their courtship and first years together. He devotes more pages to describing the décor of the couple's first house, while barely mentioning that Constance is pregnant with their first child. As impressive as the detailing is about Victorian curios, it strikes a narrative imbalance, as well as stifling the rhythm of the book.

Wilde was gaining more ground as an author. His story "The Happy Prince" was a breakthrough commercial success. Sturgis covers Wilde's most prodigious creative period, in which he wrote his first hit play, "Lady Windemere's Fan" and his infamous novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Men loving men became the coded central muse of Wilde's writing, and was glaringly apparent in both his plays and novels.

Sturgis shifts into high narrative gear with engrossing accounts of Wilde's successes in the theater, and the threatening scandals that were closing in on him.

He mocked the hypocrisies of Victorian England in his plays "Lady Windermere's Fan," "The Ideal Husband," and "The Importance of Being Earnest," and London society lapped it up. At the height of his success it all came crashing down under the spotlight of the trials, with a parade of renters paid by Queensbury to recount their sexual encounters with Oscar.

The book dissects aspects of Wilde and Douglas' obsessive co-dependent relationship, is deftly observed, as is his vigorously, and wisely condensed chapters on the trials.

In the final chapters of his book, Sturgis writes a moving portrait of Wilde's last years — a disgraced author, in exile, and full of self-doubt, until he wasn't. There are so many accounts of Wilde, delirious and derelict in Paris cafes, and those stories are true enough, but Wilde was also attempting to reclaim his literary legacy.

Revivals of his plays were back on stage in Britain and the U.S., and he also was able to finish and publish his cathartic confessional, "De Profundis."

His poem "The Ballad of Reading Goal" became a bestseller in England, and renewed public discourse on the inequities and criminal brutalities of Britain's prisons. He was also renewed his relationship with Bosie with secret meetings, became as tiresome as ever, even as they picked up young men everywhere they went. On balance, Sturgis explores aspects of Wilde's life that haven't been fully fleshed out in previous biographies. The book is, finally, another vivid portrait of the man and his tumultuous times.

"Oscar Wilde," by Matthew Sturgis, is available now from Knopf in hardcover for $40.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.