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”.