When, in the 19th century, Oscar Wilde famously wrote He who stands most remote from his age is he who mirrors it best, he could hardly have imagined that he himself and in spite of himself would have not only mirrored the Victorian era but also the whole time up to today.
In a writing career spanning just a couple of decades from the late 1870s until his death in 1900, the Irish wit, poet, dramatist and literary genius penned legendary theatre plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance, delicate childrens’ stories like The Happy Prince and The Nightingale and the Rose and brilliant essays covering a wide range of topics – from the Victorian dress reform to children in prison, from Aestheticism to Socialism and beyond – in addition to his magnificent only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Oscar Wilde’s world suddenly collapsed in 1895, when, as a homosexual man, he was prosecuted for gross indecency in England. The father of his lover Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, known as the Marquess of Queensberry, had left a calling card at Wilde’s club in which he called him a “sodomite”. Wilde sued him for criminal libel, and lost. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to hard labour. His wife Constance had to leave the country with their two children and eventually changed their surname to Holland to try and protect them, while her husband ended up in jail from 1895 to 1897 and died in Paris aged 46, in poverty.
The year of Oscar Wilde’s death was 1900, when most of the wars, the events and the technologies that forged the 20th century were yet to happen; still, Wilde’s wordings like It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read sound like they were written yesterday in response to some random pieces of news informing you that your favourite books of all time will now be censored in order not to offend you anymore, and that if they never offended you in the first place then you should go and sign up for a government-funded mental health programme that will help you come to terms with this dangerous numbness that you never realised you had because it is inherently generated by patriarchy.
The effort and desire to bring Oscar Wilde and his genius into this century can be appreciated everywhere in the world as people, social media and commercial adverts keep the legacy of his aphorisms, quotes and excerpts alive and well. At the same time, British society seems engaged in an ongoing attempt to obscure, alter and blur the lines of truth by nurturing ignorance and distorting the facts.
Below in this article, you’ll read of researchers paid by UK taxpayers to make a BBC documentary about Oscar Wilde who had no idea he died in 1900 and actually believed he died in 1920 or 1930. Not content with their gaffe, they subsequently polled a whole dining table and found that there was only one person who knew that Oscar Wilde died in 1900. They didn’t say what nationality the knowledgeable individual was, but it’s worth noting that this happened in pre-Brexit times when having Europeans over for dinner in UK was still legal.
This attitude has been taken to such an extent of national ignorance that, at some point in 2014, Oscar Wilde’s plaque at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London displayed the British flag instead of the Irish flag; questioned about their howling mistake, the museum’s management denied the evidence. What’s more, the plaque called Wilde a Victorian playwright jailed for his homosexuality as if having been gay was a much more notable occurrence than having written The Importance of Being Earnest.
Charles Dickens is described as a great Victorian novelist instead.
Even though Oscar Wilde’s gayness may have recently become something to cash in on in the name of political correctness hysteria, his atrocious sufferings hadn’t served any useful purpose to the advancement of civil rights in Great Britain until 20 years ago.
The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment against relations between men that sent Wilde to prison in the Victorian era was only replaced 82 years later through The Sexual Offences Act 1967 which legalised homosexual acts in England and Wales only on the condition they were consensual, in private and between two men who had attained the age of 21; when notably gay singer Elton John first took the stage in 1962, being an homosexual man was still completely illegal in England.
Male homosexuality would only be decriminalised in England and Wales in 2004 after the Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force. But as the age of majority in the country had been reduced from 21 to 18 years in 1970 with the age of consent for homosexual acts being lowered to 18 only in 1994, this means that two gay men aged 19 holding hands in public in the early 1990s would have still found themselves on the verge of criminality.
Meanwhile, same-sex sexual activity had been legal since 1791 in France, since 1794 in Luxembourg, since 1795 in Belgium, since 1789 in Switzerland, since 1881 in The Netherlands, since 1882 in Japan and since 1890 in both Italy and the Vatican City.
And while homosexuality has never been illegal in countries like North Korea and Vietnam, the prosecution and imprisonment of gay men in the UK continued well into the 20th century based on an archaic statute that also destroyed the life and genius of Alan Turing, widely considered the father of modern computer science.
In 1952, the gay mathematician whose work on the Enigma code had estimatedly shortened World War II by 2 years and saved 14 million lives, was prosecuted for homosexual acts in England.
He accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison and committed suicide two years later, at the age of 41, because of the physical and mental damages caused by the procedure.
In 2013, he received a British royal pardon posthumously, which led to the so-called Alan Turing law in 2017.
The measure was presented as an amnesty law to pardon men who were convicted or cautioned for homosexual acts in the past; apparently, an estimated 59,000 dead gay men got posthumously pardoned, but the remaining 16,000 living men who were convicted up to 2003 must now apply to the Home Office to have their record cleared. This isn’t automatic; they didn’t receive an apology or clearance from the government, they are forced to apply and revive all the shame and pain, with no guarantee of pardon.
In truth, it is not entirely clear to Oscar Wilde’s descendants either if he was eventually pardoned under the Alan Turing law or if it is necessary for the family to apply for posthumous pardon – and if the latter is true, then they will definitely not apply for anything as you will learn in this extensive interview with Oscar Wilde’s only grandson, biographer and executor of his literary estate, Merlin Holland.
Merlin Holland is the only child of Vyvyan Holland, who was the younger son of Oscar Wilde.
Vyvyan outlived his brother Cyril who got killed in World War I. He wrote his autobiography Son of Oscar Wilde aged 68 and died in 1967, at 80. As mentioned above, after their father had been convicted and imprisoned, their mother Constance had changed her and the boys’ surname to Holland in order to protect them. The family name has remained Holland ever since, this is why you have Merlin Holland and not Merlin Wilde today.
This accomplished writer and biographer started research on his grandfather in the 1980s, and has published works including The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, The Wilde Album and Coffee With Oscar Wilde. He spent the last 10-plus years working on a groundbreaking new book about the years following Oscar Wilde’s death which is finally coming to light in 2024.
In the meantime, Mr Holland is always busy holding conferences and events around the world, and the opportunity for this interview was presented by the launch of the above-mentioned memoir by his father, Son of Oscar Wilde, in Italy.
The first-time Italian translation of Vyvyan Holland’s 1954 autobiography prefaced by Merlin Holland has been released as Essere figlio di Oscar Wilde by Rome-based book publisher La Lepre Edizioni and was officially brought to the public at the Rome Book Fair in December 2023.
The book sold out at the stand, Merlin’s talk was crowded with people of all ages attending in a state of grace and the book signing lasted for hours, but this true gentleman still found the time, patience and flair to answer dozens upon dozens of questions.
After all, if the smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention as Oscar Wilde once said, how much joy is there in finding both kindness and intention in the same virtuous human being?
Merlin, was there a particular moment in your life when you suddenly realised the impact your grandfather’s work had on the world?
I suppose the time I realised most clearly who he was, that I was related to him and that he was part of my family was when my father gave me a copy of his book Son of Oscar Wilde to read, and that was when I was like 15. The other day, I read an entry on my father’s diaries – he used to keep a diary more or less every day of his life from about 1941 until his death in 1967 – in which he says that we were walking down in Shaftesbury Avenue in London and there was a revival of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde. And apparently, I looked up at it and I said to my father “Wasn’t Oscar Wilde something to do with our family?” I must have been about 8 or 9, or something like that. It was never hidden from me, but there was never a big thing made about it either. And I can remember my mother saying to me when I was sort of 10 or 12: “If anyone asks you if Oscar Wilde was your grandfather, you just say “Yes, he died a long time ago” – and you change the subject. In some senses, it was very healthy, because not a great deal was made of it. But in other senses, I was discouraged from taking much of an interest in it.
Did your father use to share any of his childhood memories of Oscar Wilde with you?
No, and it’s simply because my father last saw his father when he was 8 and he never saw him again, and my mother was born 10 years after my grandfather died, so there were no common memories. We couldn’t say “Do you remember when grandpa did this or that?” And I think what my father remembered of his own father he put into his book, but we couldn’t discuss these things as a family because there were no common memories. It wasn’t out of any sense of shame or out of any sense of not wanting to; we could have discussed the latest biography of Oscar but it wasn’t something which we were going to do in the family. In addition to all that, obviously, when my father was alive for the whole of his life until two months before he died, the law which put his father behind prison bars was still enforced in England. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 which made “gross indecency” a crime in the United Kingdom and prosecuted homosexual men for sodomy was still on the statute book until July 1967. My father died in October that year.
Male homosexuality was completely illegal in England until 1967 and still partially illegal until as late as 2003.
Yes, all throughout the 1950s and 1960s, homophobia was still alive and well in England, and it took the parliament more than 10 years after the 1957 Wolfenden report which recommended that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence to actually do something about that. Nothing was done about it until 1967 when the Wolfenden report became law. So there was still a sense of Oscar Wilde as the author of some funny plays, the author of The Ballad of Reading Gaol and of some children’s stories which weren’t called children’s stories, they were called fairy stories which parents would read to their children. But if the children said “Well, what did Oscar Wilde do? How did he die? What happened to him?”, there was always I think, a sense of better not to know, the private life would better not to be talked about. That was still very much the case in the 1950s and 1960s.
Your father’s book Son of Oscar Wilde details how Oscar Wilde’s work was cancelled in the UK after he got arrested, which is exactly what has been happening today to other authors for other reasons. What do you think of cancel culture?
It’s a very difficult question. I don’t want to pronounce on today’s cancel culture. One thing Oscar said which is entirely relevant today at the end of one of his essays [The Truth of Masks, published in 1886] is:
Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything. For in art, there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true. And just as it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can apprehend the Platonic theory of ideas, so it is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can realise Hegel’s system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.
So he claimed that the opposite of the truth has an equal value to the truth itself. And I think that to suppress opinion in the name of woke culture today is not right, this would imply ultimately that there is only one opinion about anything at all, and that is the right, the ethical, the proper, the moral, whatever you like to call it. So, what do I think about it? I think he would be absolutely horrified about it. As I said about that quotation, he’s provoking, he’s being provocative and I think being provocative promotes discussion, it promotes thought, and thought is always a good thing.
Oscar Wilde has also been a victim of modern cancel culture.
Oscar did have some of his characters saying some fairly “outrageous” things, what today we would call very “sexist” things such as Women are not meant to be understood. Women are meant to be loved. Now, you couldn’t get away with that today, and I must say there have been theatre directors who have excised from some of his plays, particularly An Ideal Husband. Some of the lines which are spoken by women were removed, because they say that oh, you can’t possibly say that today. But forget about today, as this was already happening 20 years ago. I’m surprised that people haven’t picked up on a sort of list of things in Oscar Wilde’s works and plays which are so sexist that they put him beyond the pale in today’s political climate.
Expect that sooner or later after what they did to Roald Dahl’s masterpieces that were censored by the UK publisher Puffin in 2023 to remove words such as “fat”, “crazy” and “ugly”.
I think it’s not for me to say, really, but I think that people should stand up more for original things and keep them in context. I suppose the counterargument is that if young people read these things, and they consider them to be the norm, this is bad for their psychological development.
Which pieces of Oscar Wilde’s work are you most attached to?
It’s a very difficult question. I mean, it’s a bit like music; you have moods when certain types of music appeal to you more than others, and I think my feelings about his works are very much like that. There are times when I have read his essays which are both amusing and extremely thoughtful, they’re very deep. His essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, for example, is an essay which I’ve read several times, and I read it again at the time that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, almost exactly 100 years after it was written in 1891. One of the things that struck me that he says in it is that socialism will never succeed until it respects the rights of the individual. And that’s exactly what brought down Eastern European communism, the fact that they suppressed the rights of the individual, and this is what he was saying 100 years before. So I think the essays are something which I always read with a great deal of pleasure because they are thoughtful and they make me think, and obviously, to go and see the plays is wonderful. Except that it does give me a strange sensation.
What kind of strange sensation?
It does give me a strange sensation to sit in a theatre amongst all these people who are enjoying The Importance of Being Earnest which, as people acknowledge, is one of the greatest comedies in the English language. And you see these people roaring with laughter at the wonderful, absurd construction of the language, which is so perfectly tuned. And I think to myself, that was my grandfather, good heavens, you know, it’s a double take, almost. And that’s partly, I think, because I was brought up to separate myself from him. It’s a strange feeling, and it’s something which even at my age [Merlin Holland was born in 1945], I still struggle with slightly to comprehend the fact that my blood is related to him, but it was dinned into me so much as a child that I should not make anything out of it. These childish things which you’re taught to believe, and which for no reason you need to dispense with still hang around me and sometimes I don’t really feel I’m related to him at all. And that’s because of the attitude that was taken, largely I think by my mother.
What was it about the way he looked at society that led him to scan and understand humanity so well?
Well, let me turn it ‘round and ask you a question. What type of person do you think is most attracted to Oscar Wilde today?
Me? Well, it seems to me that the public has always looked at Oscar Wilde with the greatest respect in countries like Italy and France, so I suppose people from all walks of life are attracted to him in the rest of the world, too. And it is unbelievable to realise that it’s not the same in the UK.
Why do you say it is not the same in the UK?
Because of this very British thing of sweeping disturbing history under the carpet and then pretend it never happened.
Yes, I think you’re right. I only asked you what sort of age group you think is dragged to him because I’m convinced and I have seen that the age group which seems to be most attracted to him is always the younger people. And I think there is a perfectly good reason for that because of what he stood for – although my son [Lucian Holland, born in 1979] would say he never actually stood for anything and he’s probably right – but what we feel that he stood for is all those qualities which young people would like to claim for themselves today: individualism, integrity, sensuality, which of course, the Victorians couldn’t stand. And that’s partly the reason – not just because of his homosexuality but because of this individualism – that people have often said to me, “How do you think we would view Oscar Wilde if he was around today?” And I’ve answered “Well, this may sound bizarre to you, but I think he would probably go partly unnoticed because so many people today are trying to be individualistic and trying to be what he was in the Victorian times, when he stood out as an exception, but now this has become almost the norm. You know, thirty years ago, there was a BBC programme I took part in, and as usual, one of the researchers rang me up and asked me questions so that they could prepare a sort of general schedule of how the program was going to go. And she said to me, “Did you ever know your grandfather?” So I said, “How old do you think I am?” So she said, “Oh, yeah, well, I see what you mean”. So I said, “Well, when did you think he died?” She was very embarrassed. And I was like, “No, really, just tell me quickly when did you think he died?”. And she said, “I don’t know, maybe in 1920?”. And I said, “No, actually it was in 1900”. Anyway, she was mortified. She was very embarrassed. And she rang me up a few days later, and she said “I just thought I’d let you know that two days later, I was at a dinner, and I thought I’d ask everybody around the table, ‘Do not think, do not try and work it out, just say off the top of your head: when do you think Oscar Wilde died?” She went around the table, and there was one person only who knew that he died in 1900. The rest of them said the average was about 1920.
And I thought, well, that’s significant that the further we go away from his death, the more people want to bring Oscar Wilde up into our own age. It’s a very clichéd and very trite thing to say, but he was very much in advance of his time or perhaps not even just in advance of his time; in a sense, he is perhaps rather timeless, and what he wrote appeals across a huge, huge spectrum of society and not only a spectrum of society, but a spectrum of all ages. And that of course, is one of the things which prevented him from becoming a quite well-read and popular author for many, many years. Because the literary critic cannot stand the idea of an author who is both popular and read by the public, and a serious literary figure. I mean, it’s the case of several authors in the 20th century, like for example Lawrence Durrell who wrote the tetralogy of novels The Alexandria Quartet back in the 1950s and 1960s, I read it as a late teenager early in my early 20s, it was such a beautiful language. And then, of course, it became terribly popular, and at that moment, it was then decried by the critics because it did become popular. And I really enjoyed those books of your countrywoman, Elena Ferrante, whose identity is anonymous, but she has been put down by literary critics. She has been put down because she has been able to conjure up something which appeals to people. There are some wonderful descriptions of Neapolitan life in her books, but I think it’s a phenomenon that when somebody becomes popular they are criticised by the literary establishment because the literary establishment can’t believe that somebody who is comprehensible and popular can also do great literature. But yes, coming back to Oscar Wilde, I think there is definitely an element of wanting to bring him up into our own age.
Were you aware that, at some point in 2014, Oscar Wilde’s plaque at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London displayed the Union Jack instead of the Irish flag?
I think it’s interesting what you say about the British claiming him as a British author – the British who sent him to prison and didn’t even speak about him for years afterwards. You know, I was reading just recently a memoir by somebody who said that in 1910, ten years after Oscar Wilde died, people were talking about a play of his which had been revived which was by… oh, it was by “that man, Wilde”. And the memoir author described it as being a sort of embarrassment around the dining table. The author was a young man of only 18 years, but he knew exactly who Oscar Wilde was and he said the one thing he regretted was not having said “Oh, you mean by Oscar Wilde” but if he had said that “the ceiling would have fallen”. For so many years after Oscar’s death, this was his reputation. Robert ‘Robbie’ Ross [British journalist and art dealer, a devoted friend to Oscar Wilde and his literary executor] tried and succeeded in rehabilitating him not only as a person but also as a literary figure and struggled terribly against popular opinion for 10 or 12 years after his death. He published his collected works but was attacked by many people, including Lord Alfred Douglas, who couldn’t stand the idea that Robert Ross was now the champion of Oscar Wilde where he felt he had obviously been the one great love of Oscar’s life apart from his wife at a certain stage. He drove Robert Ross off into his grave.
Would Oscar Wilde have had a different treatment had the trial happened in his native Ireland instead of England?
Well, you have to remember that in Ireland, homosexuality was still a very, very big problem for the Irish until long after. It didn’t cease to be a misdemeanour – not even a crime in England. I mean, it’s difficult to conjecture. And I think what you’re trying to say is, if he hadn’t gone to England, would it ever have happened? But it’s very difficult to say. I think his writing wouldn’t have had a certain identity if he hadn’t gone to England, because his work doesn’t have an Irish flavour to it in the same sense as James Joyce or William Butler Yates or any of those solidly Irish – well, not even solidly, but wonderfully Irish writers. They used their Irish backgrounds and their Irishness to create their works, it’s not hidden. Oscar’s Irishness is different; he is supposed to have said that one of the first things he lost when he went to Oxford was his Irish accent. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but he didn’t go through life being Irish. There was a time when his play Salome was banned from the stage [written in 1891, Salome was banned in Britain and was not performed publicly there until 1931; the original version of the play was in French; an English translation was published three years later] when he threatened to go off and become a Frenchman. When he was interviewed about it, he said, “I’m not English. I’m Irish, which is a very different thing”. So in the background, there’s always Oscar’s Irishness which is there, but he doesn’t play on it or play with it in the same way that other Irish writers certainly did. Whether what happened to him ultimately would have happened if he’d stayed in Ireland? I don’t know. Ireland was still subject to English rules, so the laws would have been broken there in the same way. It’s a difficult thing to conjecture.
In 2013, Alan Turing received a British royal pardon posthumously for being gay, which led to the so-called Alan Turing law in 2017 to pardon men who were convicted or cautioned for homosexual acts in the past. It has been suggested that this automatically involved your grandfather, but he was never specifically mentioned, and the UK never issued an apology for what they did to Oscar Wilde. What do you think of that?
Well, there was somebody – I can’t remember exactly who it was, who said, “I don’t want pardon, this would imply that I did something wrong, I want an apology from the British government”. I think it’s a very clever thing to have said, but I have never been to the bottom of whether there have been automatic pardons or whether the people who were convicted under that law had to apply for a pardon. It would be interesting to ask a lawyer who knows about these things whether he or she believes that Oscar Wilde has been pardoned or if it was necessary for the family of Oscar Wilde to ask for a pardon in order for him to be pardoned. And if the answer is the latter, then I would not ask for it, and the reason I would not ask for it is that this is not going to make my father’s young life any happier, it is not going to bring Oscar Wilde’s wife back, it’s not going to make him live longer than 46. The only thing this would do is to make the British establishment feel better about itself, and I don’t see why I should do this.
It is known that you were thinking of changing the family name back to Wilde, at some point. Why you didn’t do it, in the end?
My father suggested it to me a long ago when I was coming up to 21 [until 1969, the age of majority in England had been 21], and I think he did that because he had not been able to take the name back. He’d lived as Vyvyan Holland for all his life. I’d lived as Merlin Holland for 21 years, so it would have been possible for me to do it. And I think that he suggested it to me really because, by proxy, he would like to have done it, he would like to have claimed the name back, I think, but he couldn’t. And he suggested that maybe I should, which would have, in a complicated sense, meant that he’d been able through me to claim it back. But I thought about it and I thought, “I’m your son. I’m my father’s son much more than I’m my grandfather’s grandson”. And I said no. Many years later, in 2000, at the time of the centenary of Oscar’s death in 1900, I thought maybe this would be the time to do it as the law had changed and my own son was now coming up to 21. And then, I reflected on it for quite a while and I thought, no, it’s too late. Now it’s history. And if people still have to ask me why my name is Holland, and why I have not changed it back and I have to explain it, I don’t mind explaining it because it’s a permanent rebuke to Victorian morality. So I think it’s dead now. It can’t be changed, my son will never do it. And I did think at the time that if I did it, how would I justify doing it? Because people would say oh, you’re trying to cash in on the name because Oscar Wilde has become popular and so on and so on. And the answer is, I would have done it, not just for him, but for his parents, too. Because there’s a point in which in that long letter, De Profundis [De Profundis is a letter written by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol], Oscar says that he had dragged through the mire the name of his parents, the name they made great in the history of his country, which of course was Ireland. His mother and his father were two highly respected people and still are to this day in Dublin. His father [Sir William Wilde] is known as one of the founding fathers of Irish medicine, and his mother Jane Wilde is still revered as one of the Young Ireland Movement poets. So it would have been not just for him but for everybody else too. And I think it’s a pity, but I don’t regret it.
How could Oscar Wilde understand women so well? He could really read the female mind.
One of his quotations says, Never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A woman who would tell one that would tell one anything! No, one can’t get away with saying that today, I think that’s verging on the sexist, but on the other hand, it’s sufficiently funny that I don’t think people can take exception to it. But yes, you’re absolutely right, he understood the female mind. And there is a point in The Importance of Being Earnest in the first act when Jack Worthing has proposed to Gwendolen, and her mother Lady Bracknell comes in and interviews him, and then Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell leave, and Jack Worthing is exhausted by the whole thing, so he turns to Algernon Moncrieff and says, “Do you think there’s a vague possibility that Gwendolen in 150 years’ time will become like her mother?” And Algernon says, “All women become like their mothers. That’s their tragedy. No man does. That’s his”.
And then the audience laughs.
Yes, and then the audience laughs. But if you say to somebody in the audience, “Why did you laugh at that?” It’s not that funny. It is sort of funny, but actually it’s a very serious comment. “No man does. That’s his” is Oscar saying that it’s a pity in this Victorian era that men are not in touch with their female side. And I think that’s one of the things which is very significant in all Oscar’s writing, as exactly as you say he understood the female mind. But he says it’s tragic. The funny exchange in that play is actually saying something really quite serious, which is that it’s sad that men cannot get in touch with their higher emotions, their deeper emotions and be more like their mothers. So, yes, he understood the female mind and he had women friends, like for example Ada Leverson [a British writer]. They were very close and there was no sexuality there. She was a very sharp, clever woman and he enjoyed her intellect, but he enjoyed I think her femininity as well. And a question which comes up frequently is, “Did he really love his wife? Was this just a smokescreen for his homosexuality?”, but today bisexuality is one of the norms, and for him to have been bisexual and have loved his wife and married her didn’t necessarily mean it was a smokescreen. I mean, he didn’t necessarily have to have children, but he did, and not just one – he had two. And I think this is one of the things about Oscar which anyone who really knows and has studied him must understand, and that I’ve kept saying to people: people have to remember that it’s never either or, black and white with him. It’s always both and, and that may seem paradoxical, but that was his character. He had a paradoxical character, which is both and: both a Protestant and a Catholic, both an Irishman and an Englishman and a lover of France and Italy.
In your opinion, would he have accepted an Order of the British Empire from the Crown if he was offered one?
I was actually wondering about that the other day. I think that he might have accepted it and I’m afraid that he probably would have done it, because underneath it all, and this is again, it’s the both and, he made fun of British society, but he needed British society for his creativity. He was a bit of a snob underneath it all. After he had Salome banned from the stage, he said, “I’m going to go off and become a French citizen, at least the French understand culture rather than the English” – but let me give you a proper answer to that: I like to think that he would have refused it, but I’m afraid he might not have done.
What legacy has he left you?
I don’t know. Are we genetically hardwired? If there’s anything that I certainly can’t claim to have is any of his literary genius, and I wouldn’t dream of even suggesting that I have this much of it [he makes the gesture of small amount]. If there’s anything at all, it’s an understanding of words, certainly. And there is a point in one of his essays where he says that the invention of printing and the increase in reading among the middle classes of this country [England] is something along the lines of the ruination of literature because we read with our eyes instead of reading with our ears as the Greeks did with their oral tradition. And that, of course, goes back to the Irish oral tradition too. It’s the music of words, I think, which he loved, the whole idea of the musicality of prose, if there’s an understanding of the potential music in prose, if he’s given me that, then I’m grateful for it. But I think the best thing that he gave to my father and probably I can say that he gave it to me, is the ability in adversity to be able to shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, hey, that’s the way it is”, rather than make a lot of bad blood about it. This all comes through the letters he wrote in his last years, from 1898 up until his death in 1900. He’s not very happy, he is not desperately poor – he always has a bit of money, so it’s not really misery but it’s the sort of semi-poverty, the abandonment by most of the people that he knew before – not all of them, but most of them. And still, in those last letters, there’s hardly a page which goes by where he doesn’t make a joke of some sort: the fact that he doesn’t really have too many friends left, and he is living in a shabby little hotel in Paris but still can write to his friends and make a joke.
What style of jokes?
Robert Ross was administering the money which came from Oscar’s wife. Constance gave Robbie the money so that it didn’t all go to Oscar at once when he would spend it all, and so Robbie was giving it to him in bits, in monthly instalments. And so he wrote to Robbie and said, “Could you let me have the money a bit early? Because there is an innkeeper at Nogent outside Paris who has taken my clothes and kept them because I haven’t paid my bill”. Robbie’s letter back to him doesn’t exist, but Oscar’s reply said, “Dear Robbie, I am so sorry about my excuse. I had forgotten I had used Nogent before. It shows the utter collapse of my imagination, and rather distresses me”.
It always makes me laugh every time I read it. And the letter to Frances Forbes-Robertson, which I often quote to people, an old friend who got married and went to live in Wales, and she wrote to Oscar and said, “My husband and I would love to have you come and stay with us” – and he wrote back and said, “Miles of sea, miles of land, the purple of mountains and the silver of rivers divide us: you don’t know how poor I am: I have no money at all: I live, or am supposed to live on a few francs a day: a bare remnant saved from shipwreck. Like dear St Francis of Assisi, I am wedded to Poverty: but in my case, the marriage is not a success”. How can you write things like this? Frances Forbes-Robertson receiving that letter must have thought well, you know, there’s a flash of the old Oscar here – it’s the ability to be able to laugh at misfortune and just carry on. I think my father had it, too. I have it probably to a little extent. And if he’s given me that, I’m happy.
Is there one thing in particular you would love to ask Oscar Wilde if you could?
Well, inevitably that would be: why did you do it? [this is referred to Oscar Wilde suing the Marquess of Queensberry first] I think his answer probably would be that he was in love with this young man Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas who wanted to see his father in prison. He wanted to please Bosie Douglas. And also, it’s the same old story in libel cases today which come up in England. I won’t mention names, but the public figures who are so-called “libelled” in the newspapers take the newspaper to court, and they think that the jury who is going to be judging this case will all be looking at reading their books, looking at their television programmes, whatever it may be, and that they will rule in their favour, which of course they never do. It’s the arrogance which is bred from success, but I’d still like him to tell me, I’d actually like to have the words coming out of his mouth, why he went and sued the Marquess of Queensberry, and get him to explain it to me – and take him to task if I felt that he was actually not telling me the truth!
In the 1960s, Harford Montgomery Hyde, a politician and collector of Oscar Wilde’s memorabilia, claimed he had obtained a 1900 recording of Oscar Wilde’s voice reciting a passage from The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Your father reportedly told him it was genuine at first, but when questioned again by the BBC, he said he was not sure anymore. In 2001, the British Library exposed the tape as a fake by suggesting it was created at a speed incompatible with devices of the era. What do you remember about it? Do you trust the British Library on that?
My father had two copies sent to him from America at the time. Montgomery Hyde was not the first to discover it as he maintained. Hyde, who knew my father, tried to make out that Vyvyan had confirmed that it was his father’s voice but by the time he was supposed to have said so, the two men were not on speaking terms and Hyde was trying to promote his new, 1962 book on Wilde. I always thought it was highly unlikely that Vyvyan, who had last seen his father when aged 8, would have remembered his father’s voice 66 years later and anyway, as you say, Vyvyan denied that it was his father’s voice on the BBC. Wanting to try and get a definitive opinion, I took and donated one of my copies to the British Institute of Recorded Sound – now the National Sound Archive at the British Library – in about 1978. The two sound engineers who analysed it technically said it was almost certainly a fake recording with two or three different recordings and background noises all overlaid on each other. It is anyway nothing like the voice as described by contemporaries of Oscar Wilde – far too high-pitched. The sound engineers wrote up their findings in the Journal of the British Association of Sound Archives No. 2, in 1987. It’s a fake – no doubt about it.
You have lived in France for over 20 years now. Have you observed any differences in the Frenchmen’s attitude towards Oscar Wilde as opposed to the Brits’?
I think that most European countries care far less about Oscar’s homosexuality than Great Britain does. At least that was the case until about 10-15 years ago. The LGBTQ+ movement internationally has rather changed that. The French love to call him a ‘dandy’ but I think their use of the word had a different nuance. Oscar’s passion in life was his literature, his writing; as he says in De Profundis, All other passions were to me as marsh water to red wine or the light of the glow-worm to the magic mirror of the moon. He’d hate the idea of being known mainly as a dandy. He was in danger of becoming one as he acknowledged, but knew it was wrong.
He wrote: I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flâneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensations. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion.
What is your next book about?
The book starts from the moment Oscar comes out of prison, otherwise it would be far too long. It’s long enough anyway. What I’m trying to do is to say this is the truth about a lot of things which have happened between his death and the centenary of his death in 2000 and even going further than that. Essentially, it’s about the ‘posthumous life’ of Oscar from 1900 to – well, now. It covers all the quarrels and squabbles among the friends and the enemies, Alfred Douglas behaving badly, lots of lies and hypocrisy, shocking stories of homophobia, and underhand dealings like people trying to steal my father’s copyrights when he went bankrupt in the 1950s: in fact, all and anything which is and was an echo of 1895. My difficulty has been weaving it all together into some sort of continuous narrative so that the reader doesn’t get lost which is why it has taken time. I suppose one of the reasons it’s taken me so long to finish this book is because I’ve wanted to get at the truth of things and because I’ve had to struggle with my own conscience about pointing the finger at certain people about certain things. Sometimes people’s memories and memoirs are unreliable. They invent things, they put themselves in a better position than they really were, they explain things in a very condensed fashion in order to make easily understandable a particular situation, whereas that particular situation was very complicated. And in fact, the truth of it rather than the fabricated memory, the false memory of the person who’s writing can be much more touching than what they have put down. I’ve been trying to get at the truth of a lot of things and understand the behaviour of people over 100 years later, and in some cases, it means saying that people have written things which I can prove are not entirely accurate. But the truth behind what they actually experienced is more poignant than what they actually wrote. Biographies of Oscar Wilde have fluctuated between what is sensational for the sake of selling books, and people who have picked up on other contemporaries’ memoirs, which had been false and they’ve simply carried on saying the same thing. I’ve been struggling with myself as I don’t want to point the finger at people and say they were lying. They probably weren’t lying, they were just foreshortening the truth to make it simpler. But when you get behind it, and you see why they were saying what they did, and take it apart and analyse it, you realise that it might have been because they were unhappy with the situation for whatever personal reason it might have been.
What is an example of false information in Oscar Wilde’s biographies?
Some of the explanations that people have given are false; Ada Leverson said that he sent word to the Jesuit priests in Farm Street [in London] wanting to go into a retreat for six months, and they refused him so he broke down and cried. Well, it’s absolute rubbish, complete and utter nonsense. He spent two years in prison, and now he wanted to exchange one prison for another?! One another particular thing is: why Oscar and Constance didn’t get back together after he came out of prison? I have all the evidence now that they should have got back together, that they would have got back together. But he was bankrupt, he was a homosexual and he was a convict, and any one of those at that time would have been socially unacceptable. If they had got back together, they couldn’t have ostracised his wife, but they couldn’t have accepted him, so the best thing was to keep them apart. And she listened, that’s the trouble: she listened to all these people, her friends and family. I have the evidence that she wanted to go up immediately to Dieppe to see him [when Oscar Wilde was released from prison, he went immediately on the Newhaven boat to Dieppe, France], but she was discouraged from doing it. There are things like this, and people have also said that Constance didn’t want to go and see him, and therefore he went back to Bosie Douglas. That’s the easiest way, that’s the easiest explanation, but the actual explanation is much more complicated. But if I make it too complicated, people won’t read it. So it’s the very fine line between explaining something which is more complicated, but doing it in an uncomplicated fashion, and saying that, actually, the truth, as far as one can get it, the truth behind this situation was this. And here’s the evidence for it. But I can’t go right back into his early years and so on. There’s a very good biography Matthew Sturgis wrote in 2018 titled Oscar Wilde: A Life, which has covered a lot of the misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Oscar’s life before prison, so to speak. Now I take him out of prison for a little bit up to his death and then it starts from there.
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