Letters Reveal Wildes 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
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 Londons 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 iconand 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
Wildes family members, friends, publishers, lovers and enemies.
Its publication coincides with the centenary of the writers death, an
anniversary markedin testament to our continuing fascination with Wildeby a plethora of events, including an exhibition running until Feb. 4 at
the British Library and a staging of Wildes moving prose piece, "De
Profundis," at Londons National Theater.
"In the context of his century, he represents something really quite
extraordinary," says Merlin Holland, the books editor and Wildes
grandson. "Theres a modern appeal about him which continues to make
"You can never quite make him out. Once you think youve got him, he
Holland, who assembled 300 previously unpublished letters for the
collection, says this sense of mystery is the key to the worlds 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
"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
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
lasta demand for moneywas 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 Wildes lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.
Like Wildes 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 peoples 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."
Hollandwhose grandmother, Constance Wilde, changed the family name in
an attempt to protect her sonshas spent two decades researching his
ancestor, correcting what he sees as misrepresentations of Wilde and his
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 whats going on in the academic world. Its
a very privileged position."
Born 45 years after Wildes death, Holland escaped much of the suffering
and stigma endured by Wildes wife and sons, including his own father,
"He wasnt 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 Wildes fall on his family, friends and public.
"I dont 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 Wildes 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, "Theres going to come a time when Ive got to
climb down and move on somewhere else. I cant just go on doing this. Ive
got to move on in my life."
- Editors 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.