Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.

The importance of being Merlin

This is Oscar Wilde’s moment. Next Thursday is the centenary of his death, and it is being marked by a themed set of programmes this evening on the BBC’s Knowledge channel, by exhibitions at the British Library, the Barbican and the Geffrye Museum in east London, and by a welter of books on Oscariana – his trials, tabletalk, wit, sexuality, even his wallpaper. Ireland is taking the occasion even more seriously: issuing Wilde stamps and devoting three weeks of programmes, including productions of all the plays, to one of Dublin’s great literary sons. It is a long way from Wilde’s ignominious and self-pitying death in Paris in 1900.

It is his grandson Merlin Holland’s moment too: his new edition of Wilde’s letters has just been published, he co-curated the exhibition at the British Library, and he is dashing between the UK, France, Ireland and the US, co-ordinating the Wilde commemoration and appearing at conferences and seminars to discuss his fabled forebear. For Holland, it is the culmination of a gradual coming to terms with his grandfather’s legacy.

There was a moment of hesitation before Holland would agree to this interview. A reporter called on him recently to discuss the letters but spent most of her article describing the shabby gentility of his circumstances; or more precisely the leaking ceiling of his flat in Tooting, south London. So I must first put on record that his airy, spacious, book-lined flat overlooking Tooting Common is actually very nice, despite the leak.

Holland is 54, fleshy (I would say like Oscar, but he would hate that), and shaggy-haired. He frequently flips back his fringe with his hand, wears multi-coloured slippers and smokes a lot considering it is nine in the morning, but otherwise the bohemianism is kept in check. Being the grandson of Oscar Wilde has not been an easy role, and only in the past few years has he worked out how to play it.

When he left university he wanted to write, but worried that people would compare his efforts unfavourably with Oscar’s, so he went to work in the Middle East for five years before disappearing in the deserts of academic publishing.

Only in the mid-80s, when he began to help his mother to administer the Wilde estate, and then in 1987 when he fell out with Richard Ellmann over aspects of his biography of Wilde (in particular, whether he had died from syphilis), did he begin seriously to study his grandfather’s life.

His father, Vyvyan, had gone through a similar process of denial and, late in life, accommodation with Wilde’s legacy. Vyvyan had been a child when Wilde was imprisoned and never saw him again after 1895. Vyvyan’s mother, Constance, died in 1898, and her family tried to obliterate the memory of Oscar and his homosexuality. Vyvyan was educated abroad, separated from his elder brother, Cyril (who was killed in the first world war), had his surname changed and spent 40 years trying to embrace the memory of his father.

Eventually, marriage late in life to Merlin’s mother and the need to earn money after he was declared bankrupt in 1950 allowed (or compelled) him to acknowledge Oscar, and he wrote several books about his father, including the highly regarded Son of Oscar Wilde. Even in the 50s, when Merlin was growing up, Wilde was still notorious enough for parents to ensure that their precious children didn’t get too close to him at school.

“My father led a very difficult life up until the time he married my mother in 1943,” says Holland, “and it was largely down to her that anything was done about the Wilde legacy. He started to acknowledge it, but there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the attitude to Wilde in the 50s and that in the 20s and 30s. There had been revivals of his plays and he was a bit more acceptable, but homosexuality was still illegal and he was still seen as tainted.”

Before meeting Holland, I had assumed that he would merrily play the part of Oscar’s representative on earth, but the reverse is true. He dislikes the fact that people want to shake his hand as a way of getting in touch with the great man’s DNA, and recalls being offhand with a woman who had come up to him after a lecture and said how proud he must feel to be Wilde’s grandson.

“She looked terribly crestfallen at my rudeness and said: ‘But you should see it from our point of view.’ I apologised and said I would try, but I feel very uncomfortable with it because it doesn’t allow me to be me. It puts on me the necessity to be an appendage to somebody else, answering your grandfather’s fan mail. My father chose not to do it, and, anyway, it wasn’t really necessary then; I hope my son won’t have to do it; I’m halfway between the two.

“I’ve never wanted to go to conferences and simply be treated as a living descendant of the person being studied. I would find that deeply disturbing: this monkey in a cage, throw him a handful of peanuts, what’s he going to do? Do you look like him, are you capable of turning words in his way, can you be humorous? People come up to you at book signings and say: ‘Can you write something funny?’ A greater killer than that you can’t imagine. I suppose what I wanted at some stage was an acceptance of the fact that what I was doing had a value.” With the publication of his expanded edition of Wilde’s letters, he hopes he finally has that.

Holland’s 21-year-old son, Lucian, studied classics at Magdalen, Oxford, where Wilde had himself been a brilliant classics scholar. When Lucian was allocated a room in 71 High Street, where Wilde had lived for a term, Holland thought the similarities were getting out of hand. “I said to Lucian at the time: ‘I don’t give a damn about your sexuality, but for goodness sake keep out of the courts.’ The coincidences had gone far enough.”

Holland is by no means an uncritical flag-waver for his grandfather, but he stresses the undeniable fact about Wilde – his agelessness. Whereas Ruskin, say, feels like a seer from a distant era, Wilde is like the caustic wit you saw on television yesterday. What fees he would now command on chat shows and for articles in the broadsheets. Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal and every other elegantly erudite essayist would be left scrabbling and scribbling in the dust.

“There is an awful thought at the back of my mind that it’s the emperor’s new clothes,” says Holland. “But I dismiss it. One has to remind oneself that, as he said, he ‘roused the imagination of the century’. He is a bridge between the Victorian world and our own, and people always think he lived more recently than he did. By the start of the 1990s people thought he had died in the 1920s and been a contemporary of Noël Coward. There’s an element of wanting to have him in the 20th century, as part of our century, because of his vibrant modernity.”

So is he now firmly established in the literary canon? “I hope not,” says Holland. “The one thing that has made him survive are the ups and downs of his reputation. The insecurity of his reputation has ensured that he has always been talked about. Both his champions and his detractors want to have their say.”

Holland is working on a book about the ebb and flow of Wilde’s reputation, and thinks then he will draw a line under his excursions into family history. “Ultimately, the one thing that all this has taught me is that there is a razor’s edge between being somebody biologically and having to accept that fact, but at the same time putting yourself in a comfortable position. To deny one’s genetic make-up is a long road to mental anguish. My father suffered by denial, but you can also suffer by being a monkey in a cage. You have to find a way between the two.”

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray is complete tosh’

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

He was a great something, but a great what? John Carey’s question about Shaw applies even better to his contemporary and fellow Dubliner, Oscar Wilde. It is one thing to admire Wilde, across the reach of that 20th century which he said pedantically he would not live to see, just before he died in November 1900. But it is a mistake to hero-worship him, to idolise him as a gay martyr or to treat him as a deep thinker and great writer. Or almost wrong. There is a twist in Wilde’s career which makes his ghastly destruction all the more bitter.

The new edition of his letters shows Wilde as a complicated mixture of good and bad, admirable and dislikeable. His last letters are horribly depressing, so many of them about the money he desperately needed. But poverty and desperation rarely have a good effect on anyone’s character. When he fell out with Carlos Blacker, one of the few people who had maintained their friendship with him after his fall, Wilde wrote spitefully: “Of course, the fact of his being a Jew on his father’s side explains everything.”

In an objective sense, Wilde is a victim: a stupid and cruel law imprisoned him and broke him in body and spirit. But he would not at all have wanted to be remembered as a martyr for gay rights. Until he allowed the horrible Alfred Douglas to egg him on to the fatal suit against Queensberry, Wilde had been a rather successful careerist, keeping just within the bounds of convention. In court he insisted that his love of Bosie was pure and platonic.

Nor does Wilde cut a convincing figure as political or social thinker. The Soul of Man Under Socialism is a charming work, without an ounce of serious economic theory in it, and for that reason has worn rather better than many heavier tracts. A utopian fantasy of a world with no disease, toil or ugliness is all very well, and more attractive than Fabian blueprints for a planned society, but Wilde doesn’t begin to explain how this idyll will be achieved, simply and wrongly assuming that there were enough material goods in the world to go round without anyone doing much work.

The only thing less convincing is any attempt to invoke Wilde for the cause of Irish nationalism, as is now the fashion. He just wasn’t an ideologue. What he was, at his best, was a man of deeply humane and generous instincts. Nothing he ever wrote was nobler than a letter for publication immediately after his release from Reading jail, describing the horrors the prison system inflicted on children and the weak-minded.

Wildely uneven might describe Oscar as an imaginative writer. His children’s stories are delightful: The Happy Prince on an old 78 disc with picture book still brings tears to my eyes, very many years on. But The Picture of Dorian Gray is complete tosh, a foolish imitation of some pretty silly French writing.

Recently the plays have been enjoying another revival, but this only serves to show something Richard Ellmann missed in his somewhat lifeless life of Wilde. The difference between Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband on the one hand and his last play, The Importance of Being Earnest, on the other is one of kind and not degree. Too much in the earlier plays is another sort of tosh, tedious paradox-mongering and epigram- cracking. It’s often hard to distinguish Wilde’s lines – “One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A woman who would tell one that would tell one anything” – from the Wildean Lady Dundown in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On. (“All women dress like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man ever does. That is his.”)

As for Wilde’s tragic drama and “serious” poetry, they are beyond parody. As he might himself have said, you would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at Salome. But then, just before catastrophe enveloped Wilde, something happened. He wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. This transcendent work suddenly springs to life, not with laboured phrase-making but with a pure spirit of comedy and a verbal magic which make it a prose opera, in Auden’s felicitous phrase.

Of all the “ifs” of literary history, none is sadder than this: if only Oscar Wilde hadn’t been brought down by malice and cruelty and his own recklessness, he might have lived to give us half a dozen more “Earnests”.


Oscar Wilde’s grandson: Reading Prison must not ‘disappear’

 Oscar Wilde was incarcerated in Reading Gaol between 1895 and 1897

Reading Prison – where Oscar Wilde was once incarcerated – must not sit empty and abandoned, the playwright’s only grandchild has said.

The Ministry of Justice owns the Grade II-listed building, which closed in December, and intends to sell it.

HMP Reading shut under government plans to replace four prisons with a super-prison.

Merlin Holland said he was “ambivalent” about the site but it would “be a pity” if it simply disappeared.

“It would be a pity if too much was discussed around what was going to happen to it and as a result the fabric of the building suffered,” he said.

“I think there have been enough examples of this happening, for example Battersea Power Station in London, [and] I hope nothing like that would happen to Reading Jail. But it’s an odd feeling.”

Reading jail
In September 2013 the government announced HMP Reading was to be closed

Prisoners executed between 1845 and 1913 were buried on the site and the entire prison plot is designated as a Scheduled Monument.

The jail formed part of the walled precinct to Reading Abbey and contains a part of its church.

It was made famous by Wilde’s poem, The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, which details his experience behind bars.

Labour councillor Tony Page from Reading Borough Council said there was no “prescribed view” as to what should happen to the prison.

“We obviously don’t want to see it standing empty any longer than is necessary,” he said.

“But we want to see a use of the prison that respects its historic status as well as its supremely site-sensitive location.”

In February, the authority said archaeological investigations would be needed before any development could take place.

A Prison Service spokesperson said at the time it was an “early stage of the process” and no final decisions had been made.

Part of the Abbey ruins with Reading Prison behind
The site contains ancient remains of Reading Abbey

Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde

From a large spiritualist collection this curiosity Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde (Psychic Book Club, London 1924) published 24 years after his death and purporting to be spirit communications from purgatory with the great writer. Why Oscar was in purgatory and not heaven is not explained (although he famously said ‘I don’t want to go to heaven. None of my friends are there.’) One of the communicants, Eric Dingwall (described online as ‘…a man of many parts – psychical researcher, librarian, book and antique collector, anthropologist, sexologist, intelligence operative) was no mere gullible spiritualist and occasionally they get Oscar’s tone…his damning opinion of Joyce’s recently published Ulysses is interesting, but it seems more likely Oscar would have approved…


JUNE 18TH, 1923.

Present.-Mr. V., Mrs. Travers Smith, Mr. B., Mr. Dingwall (Research
Officer of the Society for Psychical Research), Miss Cummins.

Mr. V. was the automatist, Mrs. T.S. touching his hand.

Oscar Wilde. Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is,if one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster. Do you doubt my identity? I am not surprised, since sometimes I doubt it myself. I might retaliate by doubting yours. I have always admired the Society for
Psychical Research. They are the most magnificent doubters in the world. They are never happy until they have explained away their spectres. And one suspects a genuine ghost would make them exquisitely uncomfortable. I have sometimes thought of founding an academy of celestial doubters…which might be a sort of Society for Psychical Research among
the living. No one under sixty would be admitted, and we should call ourselves the Society of Superannuated Shades. Our first object might well be to insist on investigating at once into the reality of the existence of, say, Mr. Dingwall.

Mr. Dingwall, is he romance or reality?
Is he fact or fiction? If it should be decided that he is fact, then, of course, we should strenuously doubt it. Fortunately there are no facts over here. On earth we could scarcely escape them. Their dead carcases were strewn everywhere on the rose path of life. One could not pick up a newspaper without learning
something useful….

(What is your opinion of “Ulysses,” by James Joyce?)

Yes, I have smeared my fingers with that vast work. It has given me one exquisite moment of amusement. I gathered that if I hoped to retain my reputation as an intelligent shade, open to new ideas, I must peruse this volume. It is a singular matter that a countryman of mine should have
produced this great bulk of filth. You may smile at me for uttering thus when you reflect that in the eyes of the world I am a tainted creature. But, at least, I had a sense of the values of things on the terrestrial globe. Here in “Ulysses” I find a monster who cannot contain the monstrosities of his own brain. The creatures he gives birth to leap from
him in shapeless masses of hideousness, as dragons might, which in their foulsome birth contaminate their parent…. This book appeals to all my senses.. here we have the heated vomit continued through the countless pages of this work…I feel that Joyce has much togive the world before, in his old age, he turns to virtue. For by thattime he will be tired of truth and turn to virtue as a last emetic.

(You are most amusing.)

I am glad that a poor ghost can bring laughter to your eyes.

Jealous boyfriend stabbed council chief lover over affair before reciting Oscar Wilde

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’: Characters & plot


Caricatures of the cast, by Stanley Parker, 1939

Caricatures of the cast, by Stanley Parker, 1939


  • Jack Worthing
    A young gentleman from the country, in love with Gwendolen Fairfax.
  • Algernon Moncrieff
    A young gentleman from London, the nephew of Lady Bracknell, in love with Cecily Cardew.
  • Gwendolen Fairfax
    A young lady, loved by Jack Worthing.
  • Lady Bracknell
    A society lady, Gwendolen’s mother.
  • Cecily Cardew
    A young lady, the ward of Jack Worthing.
  • Miss Prism
    Cecily’s governess
  • The Reverend Canon Chasuble
    The priest of Jack’s parish
  • Lane
    Algernon’s butler
  • Merriman
    Jack’s servant.

Plot summary

Jack and Algernon are wealthy gentlemen. Jack (known to Algernon as Ernest) lives a respectable life in the country providing an example to his young ward Cecily. Algernon lives in luxury in London and has invented an imaginary invalid friend (Bunbury) whom he visits in the country whenever an unappealing social engagement presents itself. Jack has also invented a character – a wayward younger brother called Ernest whom he uses as pretext for going up to London and enjoying himself.

Jack wants to marry Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, but must first convince her mother, Lady Bracknell, of the respectability of his parents. For Jack, having been abandoned in a handbag at Victoria station, this is quite a difficult task.

Algernon visits Jack’s house in the country and introduces himself to Cecily as Ernest, knowing that Cecily is already fascinated by tales of Ernest’s wickedness. He further wins her over and they become engaged.  Shortly after, Jack arrives home announcing Ernest’s death. This sets off a series of farcical events. Cecily and Gwendolen have a genteel stand-off over which of them has a prior claim on ‘Ernest’. Jack and Algernon vie to be christened Ernest. Eventually, Jack discovers that his parents were Lady Bracknell’s sister and brother-in-law and that he is, in fact, Algernon’s older brother, called Ernest. The two sets of lovers are thus free to marry.

During these events the characters of  Canon Chasuble and Cecily’s governess Miss Prism have also fallen in love, and in the best tradition of the well-made play the story ends with all the loose ends tied up and everyone set to live happily ever after.

The Gay Underworld of Late-Victorian London: Theo Aronson’s Book is a Landmark Study of Private Spaces at the Time of Oscar Wilde

In 1885, England criminalized all sexual relations between consenting adult males, no matter how private or quiet. So if you want a picture of London’s gay life around the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde, you must descend into a shadowy underworld of protected spaces and passwords. This is where Theo Aronson guides us in his landmark study Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld (Barnes and Noble, 1994).

The Prince Eddy of the title is one of history’s great might-have-beens. Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, was the handsome, dashing eldest son of Edward VII–the gay eldest son. Prince Eddy had all the skirt-chasing habits of his father, only for guys. When he died suddenly of typhus at age 29, the entire Royal establishment heaved a sigh of relief–and then destroyed all his papers. Prince Eddy was no more controllable than his father had been at that age, and had he lived he would have been, literally, the first openly gay Prince of Wales in English history.

So where did Prince Eddy go for fun? That’s the subject of this book. We start with telegraph boys. Victorians sent and received telegrams with the ease of emails, except that pickup and delivery came by means of comely young men who often didn’t mind a little extra income having sex with their male customers. Memoirs and letters of the period are full of affairs with such boys; Wilde’s boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas practically specialized in collecting telegraph boys, and many of his friends followed suit.

The practice finally hit the fan in 1889 when one such, Charlie Swinscow, was seen carrying far more money than he was making at work. Officials were astonished at his frank answer: he and his buddies Henry Newlove and Charles Thickbroom doubled their income most nights at a male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street, one that specialized in bringing men together with delectable telegraph boys. Clients named went right to the top of society, most notably Lord Arthur Somerset, a friend of Prince Eddy. These toffs were discreetly allowed to escape to the Continent during the resulting furor; less prominent customers were less lucky.

Besides telegraph boys, there were The Guards, often mentioned in popular literature, plays, and films made later about this period. Between low pay and the relaxed attitudes of working class boys toward homosexuality, soldiers made very good prostitutes, and the fact that both parties in the transaction had something to lose helped keep a lid on blackmail. “Of course we all do it for money,” Aronson quotes one such. “We also do it because we really like it, and if gentlemen gave us no money, we should do it all the same.” Big, muscular, uniformed, clean, virile, and friendly–no wonder they were popular! The Horse Guards, barracked near Hyde Park, were the most famous unit participating in this trade. “One could hardly move among certain densely wooded areas of Hyde Park for soliciting Guardsmen…their weapons…in their hands,” Aronson quotes one contemporary.

Another place of resort was the Hundred Guineas Club off Portland Place, managed by a certain Mr. Inslip. For an annual membership of nearly $10,000 in today’s money, the well-to-do gay man was given a dreamlike play space for his double life. Members, guests, and staff rent-boys all dressed in drag and adopted women’s names. For much of the evening, gentlemen sipped champagne, eyed the staff choices, and engaged in decorous hand-holding, dancing, and small talk. At 2am, the lights were doused. “On no account, staff were warned, were they to reject any advance.” Until time was called at 6am, everyone paired off upstairs in gay oblivion. One rent boy who worked there “was careful…to appear at the club only two evenings a week for fear of being used up too soon.”

Although Aronson gets bogged down elsewhere in the book with theories that Prince Eddy was actually Jack the Ripper (still an unproved but popular hobbyhorse), where he sticks to the substance of the title, his book becomes an essential addition to the social history of the late Victorian period, and a great read as well.

The Picture of Dorian Gray 1976 – Oscar Wilde

Aesthetic Movement

The Selfish Giant – Oscar Wilde – Animated Short Film

A little boy teaches a grumpy ogre about a happy life and an eternal spring.

The Lady Eccles Oscar Wilde Collection part2

The Lady Eccles Oscar Wilde collection complements the British Library’s existing

holdings in this area, giving prominence to some of the extraordinary items already in the

collection. Enormous attention to detail has been paid to compiling the collection, with the

acquisition parameters set wide to encompass works pertaining to Wilde, his friends and

family and the literary and artistic world of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century

Great Britain. Although it covers a broad range, the collection can be divided into three

categories: manuscripts, printed books and ephemera (or ‘Wildeana’, which includes

newspaper cuttings, playbills, posters, leaflets, music scores, LPs and even a set of postage



The printed collection


The printed collection comprises over 1500 volumes, covering a broad sphere, including

translations of his works into languages ranging from Armenian to Esperanto. Wilde has

gradually grown in popularity and marketability since his death, which has given rise to an

incalculable number of editions of his works, both in Great Britain and abroad. This,

combined with the scandal associated with his name and the deficiency of international

copyright rules in the nineteenth century, has resulted in a large number of unauthorized

editions and privately printed pamphlets, all of which provide rich pickings for the modern

first edition collector.

Oscar Wilde’s literary opus contains an eclectic mix of genres and artistic styles,

including plays, stories, poems, essays and a novel. This is in addition to his superb academic

credentials and profitable journalistic career. Despite this, at the time of his death, Wilde’s

writing was considered by some to be relatively unremarkable, when compared to the work

of his contemporaries, such as Walter Pater. His works were labelled unintellectual and

mediocre, falling way below the scholarly standard required for an author’s works to


However, over time his popularity has flourished, his works have never been out of

print, and his quips, one-liners and epigrams are continually quoted.


A variety of scholarly editions of his works are now available, in addition to the inordinate


quantity of popular, illustrated, small collections or private press editions that have been


published over the last 100 years. The Eccles collection contains examples of all his works,


represented in a range of formats, including monographs and literary periodical contributions.


The collection contains a wealth of author’s presentation copies. All of the significant


people in Wilde’s life are honoured with personal inscriptions, which demonstrate his


relationship to them and the fondness or gratitude he felt towards them. Wilde’s colourful


character is recognizable even in the few short lines he has written in each volume, such as


his inscription to his wife Constance.



(1882), ‘To a poem from a poet’, or a few

years later, after events had taken a more solemn turn in

The Ballad of Reading Gaol



‘Willie Callan, in affection and admiration, from his friend, who wrote this Ballad of Pain.


Paris, ’98’ (fig. 1). Other recipients of inscribed presentation copies include Lady Wilde


(Wilde’s mother), Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas, with whom Wilde had an intimate and


devastating relationship), Lionel Johnson (who introduced Wilde to Douglas) and even


Robert Browning, whom Wilde greatly admired. In addition to the unique author


presentation and association copies held in the collection, there are several extremely rare


editions of limited print runs, such as

Vera; or the Nihilists


(1880), of which only two copies

are known to survive. The Eccles’ Vera  is an acting edition, inscribed by the author to

Genevieve Ward, a celebrated nineteenth-century singer and actress – highlighting Wilde’s


connections to many fashionable individuals of his day.