Wilde family values

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday January 24, 2017
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Wilde family values

The people who can quote an Oscar Wilde witticism, knowingly or not, vastly outnumber those who have read De Profundis, his prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, or even know of it. The comet that was Oscar Wilde blazed so brightly that it finally burned itself out, consuming itself in its own heat, to all of our incalculable gain. The glory of Emer O'Sullivan's new family biography The Fall of the House of Wilde (Bloomsbury Press) is that at last we see the shiny icon Oscar as part of the constellation Wilde.

O'Sullivan's wholly absorbing book will not push Richard Ellman's great reference biography of Wilde off the shelf, but it doesn't seek to. Nor does it bring Comet Oscar down to earth. But it goes a very great distance in re-humanizing a man already lost to symbol, legend and example. The Wilde O'Sullivan gives us " and she does, gratefully, devote the lion's share of her study to Oscar " is the son of two brilliant members of the most progressive wings of mid-19th-century Irish cultural life (one of whom, his father, exemplar par excellence, was brought down by a sex scandal), sibling of a brilliant if dipsomaniac brother, husband of a woman of unimaginable strength, and father of two boys who literally had to scour their surname off sports uniforms to survive. For the family as a whole, it was a "riches to rags story," as it has been called with appropriately mordant wit.

Unsurprisingly, O'Sullivan's Fall has also been called a sad book, but while the family saga frequently attains tragic dimensions, the book is in important ways heartening. Its message may not be that you can in fact get away with being authentic in a staid, slow-moving society, but it equally is that you can be and not be forgotten, that you can, in rags, matter to others, even far beyond your own day. As O'Sullivan writes in her epilogue, "Though the inhabitants of the houses fell, the Wilde name survives. It stands for what is singular, independent-minded and fearless."

Wilde's father, William, was a noted physician and widely published author, a man of many talents. He played a pivotal role in the so-called Celtic revival, only partly as a collector and guardian of Irish literary artifacts. His overenthusiastic relationship with a female patient, Mary Travers, and his wife Jane's vituperative letter to Mary's complaining father, led to charges that landed William in court the day before he was knighted. His was the luck of the Irish only to be the first of the family to die and be buried in a handsome family plot where, O'Sullivan notes, his less fortunate survivors were unable to join him.

Remaining fiercely loyal to her husband, Wilde's mother Jane " a firebrand, a poet writing under the name Speranza and the holder of high-profile salons for the most progressive figures of the day, helping pave the way for the Irish Uprising " arguably set an example for Oscar in his future, far more famous defamation case. Even in the competition, Jane verges on being the most fascinating individual in Fall.

"The case made a public impression by virtue of its implausibility," writes O'Sullivan, in what could be an unwitting anticipation of the post-truth era. "It was an absurdity based on a muddle of fact and fiction, where no one appeared in a favorable light. It thus generated acres of newsprint." Mary won, but her suit for 2,000 pounds in damages was reduced to a reward of one farthing for her honor. Like the rest of her family unknowing of the fact that, when Willliam's estate would be settled, she'd be under an avalanche of debt, Jane, fighter to the end, died, destitute, in London.

Willie, Wilde's older brother, a talented, promising if highly undisciplined writer himself, spent his life in supremely unwise financial dependence on women, only beginning with his mother, and botched a marriage to a rich American newspaper owner with his predilection for alcohol and infidelities. "It is more accurate to say," O'Sullivan writes, "that Willie went out to America a drinker and came back a drunk." He returned to England in time to dishonor his younger brother.

Oscar Wilde steps onstage midway through O'Sullivan's book, though his entrance has been carefully planned. It says what you need to know that, by the time he reaches what could be deemed by some definition maturity, the reader is fully prepared for both his brilliance and his genius for self-destruction. The startling, enormously readable few hundred pages about Oscar put our sense of him in a perspective that illuminates and in no way diminishes him (beyond what was known, that is; it's not a wholly appetizing story).

There's nothing either accusatory or pity-mongering about O'Sullivan's depiction of the very extreme consequences of Wilde's bold candor for his wife and children (and god knows how many gay men then and since). But her unsparing account of his life post-trial might wring pity from an imminent cabinet appointee. We may have to learn again from Wilde's story, and O'Sullivan has now given it to us in a context so large we may find it expandable.