Last edited: February 14, 2005

Letters Reveal Wilde’s Private Side

Associated Press, November 30, 2000

By Jill Lawless

LONDON —"To be great," wrote Oscar Wilde, "is to be misunderstood."

By that reckoning, Wilde must stand among the greatest writers of the last few centuries.

Playwright, poet, novelist and essayist, Wilde wore a confounding number of guises - the young aesthete who wowed America on a lecture tour; the glittering wit conquering London’s West End; the ruined man, jailed for homosexual acts; and, finally, the bankrupt exile.

Since his death on Nov. 30, 1900, Wilde has been both worshiped and reviled, held up as a prototypical celebrity, style guru, social radical and gay icon—and rediscovered as a sparkling social observer.

These facets and more are present in "The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde," a thick tome that collects more than 1,500 letters written to Wilde’s family members, friends, publishers, lovers and enemies.

Its publication coincides with the centenary of the writer’s death, an anniversary marked—in testament to our continuing fascination with Wilde—by a plethora of events, including an exhibition running until Feb. 4 at the British Library and a staging of Wilde’s moving prose piece, "De Profundis," at London’s National Theater.

"In the context of his century, he represents something really quite extraordinary," says Merlin Holland, the book’s editor and Wilde’s grandson. "There’s a modern appeal about him which continues to make him fascinating.

"You can never quite make him out. Once you think you’ve got him, he eludes you."

Holland, who assembled 300 previously unpublished letters for the collection, says this sense of mystery is the key to the world’s ongoing interest in his grandfather.

"Bits of him are very contradictory," he says. "There are the obvious ones, like being a married homosexual, but there are other things. There are so many conflicting opinions about him. Some people said he was a dreadful, odious character, and other people said he was utterly charming and wonderful.

"I think the truth is probably both. There was this sense of enormous self-assurance, of egotism, of arrogance even. And when you get through that, you come down to a warmhearted, generous-spirited human being. That is what comes out of these letters."

Holland says the letters reveal hitherto neglected sides of Wilde, from the young graduate who seriously considered an academic career to the lonely exile who could write, with surprising tenderness, "I often find myself strangely happy."

The first letter in the book is from a 13-year-old Wilde to his mother ("The hamper came today, I never got such a jolly surprise.") The last—a demand for money—was written nine days before he died of cerebral meningitis in a Paris hotel room at the age of 46.

He had left Britain in disgrace in 1897 after serving two years in prison for "gross indecency" following a failed libel suit against the Marquis of Queensberry, father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.

Like Wilde’s plays, the letters drip with epigrams. Toward the end, they frequently plead for money. They are increasingly moving as they shift from ebullient self-confidence to sorrowful stocktaking.

"In a way, the letters counterbalance the sparkling superficiality of his life," Holland says. "They show him as the proud father of a baby boy. ... The family side comes out more strongly than ever.

"An awful lot of the literary letters published today reinforce vague rumors about people’s private lives. With Oscar Wilde, all the skeletons fell out of the closet in 1895. His whole life was paraded before the world in all its gory detail. His letters are an antidote to the literary scandalmongering, rather than a reinforcement of it."

Holland—whose grandmother, Constance Wilde, changed the family name in an attempt to protect her sons—has spent two decades researching his ancestor, correcting what he sees as misrepresentations of Wilde and his legacy.

Part researcher and part guardian, he refers to himself as a conduit linking Wilde, academic researchers and the general public.

"I think he has occasionally been ill-served by publishers who have been less than scrupulously honest," Holland says. "Oscar Wilde without scandal is not Oscar Wilde.

"My role is to bring a new view of Wilde to the public, partly though my own research and partly through what’s going on in the academic world. It’s a very privileged position."

Born 45 years after Wilde’s death, Holland escaped much of the suffering and stigma endured by Wilde’s wife and sons, including his own father, Vyvyan.

"He wasn’t really spoken about," Holland says of his grandfather. "He lived in the background."

Nonetheless, Holland speaks of "making the most of what I have to live with," and his next book, "After Oscar," will look at the impact of Wilde’s fall on his family, friends and public.

"I don’t think he really is rehabilitated here, even now," Holland says. "Middle England is still slightly uncomfortable about this idea of homosexuality.

"If I am going to have to be Oscar Wilde’s grandson, then rather than sitting like an animal in the zoo with a label on me, I might as well have some sort of function."

Still, he adds, "There’s going to come a time when I’ve got to climb down and move on somewhere else. I can’t just go on doing this. I’ve got to move on in my life."

  • Editor’s Note—"The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde" will be published in the United States by Henry Holt on Nov. 30, and has been released in Britain by Fourth Estate.

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