I sometimes feel that it is necessary to apologize for writing another biography of Oscar Wilde; or, at least, to offer an explanation for undertaking such a project.
Certainly there have been other books about Wilde. There is no hiding from the fact. Indeed it is hard to think of a year during the last couple of decades that has not seen the publication of at least two or three new volumes to add to the ever-growing corpus about the great man.
We have had books – and very good books, too – on Oscar’s reading habits, his American travels, his British lecture tours, his love of Paris, his fascination with gay sex, his health problems, his wife, his mother, his father, his male associates, his female friends. There had even been a not insubstantial tome detailing his seaside holiday at Worthing during the summer of 1894.
What we had not had, though, for a long time, was a full biography of the man, charting the course of his life, from his birth, in Dublin, in 1854, to his death, in exile in Paris, at the end of 1900. And, to those of us with an interest in Wilde, it had become increasingly clear that there was a really pressing need for such a book.
The last really substantial life of Oscar Wilde remained the magisterial volume produced by Richard Ellmann in 1987. Compendious, impassioned and intelligent, it is in many ways a wonderful book – and it has endured for a long time. But, inevitably perhaps, over the three decades since its publication much fascinating new material has come to light: new letters, new documents, new specialist studies (like those listed above). There had been the extraordinary discovery, in 2000, of the complete verbatim transcript of Wilde’s libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, as well as the detailed witness statements of the various rent-boys, and others, gathered by the Marquess’s legal team. All this needed to be integrated into the narrative of Wilde’s life.
And there was more. The growth of the Internet had opened up whole new vistas of research. The digitalization of historic newspaper archives now made it possible to track down myriad contemporary references to a subject with an ease unimagined. Previously references in old papers and periodicals had to be tracked down laboriously either in large-bound volumes, or through eye-wearing trawls of microfilm and, perhaps even worse, microfiche. To those of us who had, in the past, endured long hours in the ‘Newspaper Library’, tracking down mere scraps, there was something almost giddy-making about the new procedure of typing one’s desired search term – inside double inverted commas – and pressing ‘Find’. Within moments the screen would be filled with dozens, even hundreds, of new Wildean references – offering new facts, new commentaries, new details.
Novelty, however, I realised, had to be balanced with more traditional modes of research. There could be no short cuts. I spent a fruitful, month going through all the early-Twentieth Century memoirs on the open stacks of the London Library, searching for mentions of Wilde’s name. I visited the great Wildean archives at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, Los Angeles, at the Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas, at the British Library, London, at Trinity College Dublin. Although they had been well picked over by previous biographers, there is – I discovered – a virtue in going over the ground again. I was able to find new things, to correct small errors, to make new connections.
How though to frame all the new material that I was gathering? That was the challenge. Ellman’s approach had been decidedly literary. He was a distinguished Professor of English Literature at Oxford. And there are, of course, virtues in viewing the life of a writer, such as Wilde was, through the prism of his work. But the approach has its drawbacks too. By using quotations from Wilde’s mature literary works as a sort of a running commentary on the actual incidents of his life, fact and fiction, can become blurred. Early hopes and later achievements become confused, truth and legend become entangled. And Wilde’s legend is so persuasive that it can easily come to distort the narrative. There is a danger (not always avoided by Ellmann, or Wilde’s earlier biographers) that Wilde appears to be parading through the incidents of his life as the ‘Oscar Wilde’ of later invention.
In my book I wanted to try and return Wilde to his times and to the facts. My training was as an historian, and it was as an historian that I approached the task. I strove to sift the legend from the reality. By paying scrupulous attention to the chronology of events I sought to reveal why things occurred, how they connected and what they produced. What such a picture might lack in neatness it would gain in richness and colour. I hoped to give a sense of Wilde’s life as he himself experienced it – unaware of what the future held, from the long-delayed and hard-won moments of success to the terrible fall that followed afterwards.
(c) Matthew Sturgis
Author photograph (c) Garlinda Birbeck
About Oscar, A Life:
Oscar Wilde’s life – like his wit – was alive with paradox. He was both an early exponent and a victim of ‘celebrity culture’: famous for being famous, he was lauded and ridiculed in equal measure. His achievements were frequently downplayed, his successes resented. He had a genius for comedy but strove to write tragedies. He was an unabashed snob who nevertheless delighted in exposing the faults of society. He affected a dandified disdain but was prone to great acts of kindness. Although happily married, he became a passionate lover of men and – at the very peak of his success – brought disaster upon himself. He disparaged authority, yet went to the law to defend his love for Lord Alfred Douglas. Having delighted in fashionable throngs, Wilde died almost alone: barely a dozen people were at his graveside.
Yet despite this ruinous end, Wilde’s star continues to shine brightly. His was a life of quite extraordinary drama. Above all, his flamboyant refusal to conform to the social and sexual orthodoxies of his day make him a hero and an inspiration to all who seek to challenge convention.
In the first major biography of Oscar Wilde in thirty years, Matthew Sturgis draws on a wealth of new material and fresh research to place the man firmly in the context of his times. He brings alive the distinctive mood and characters of the fin de siècle in the richest and most compelling portrait of Wilde to date.
Matthew Sturgis’ Oscar: A Life was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2019.
Order your copy online here.