Holland, Vyvyan (1886-1967)
Wilde's second son was christened "Vyvyan Oscar Beresford," though his parents - according to Rupert Hart-Davis - preferred the spelling "Vivian" (as in one of the speakers' names in Wilde's dialogue "The Decay of Lying"). Holland, however, preferred the spelling given at his christening. Having grown up in the Wildes' residence in Tite Street, Chelsea, Holland later recalled the many visitors to the house, them John Singer Sargent, John Ruskin, Mark Twain, Robert Browning, Algernon Swinburne, and Ellen Terry.
Before the trials in 1895, Holland remembers those "happy years" when he and his elder brother Cyril "adored" their father:
... he was a hero to us both. He was so tall and distinguished and, to our uncritical eyes, so handsome.... He was a real companion to us, and we always looked forward eagerly to his frequent visits to our nursery.... He would go down on all fours on the nursery floor, being in turn a lion, a wolf, a horse, caring nothing for his usually immaculate appearance.
When the "storm broke" on the Wilde family in April 1895, Constance Wilde decided that, because her two sons could no longer remain at their schools, both Cyril and Vyvyan should be sent to the Continent with a French governess, an exile that lasted more than three years. While in Switzerland with their mother and her brother, Otho Lloyd, the two boys were informed that they must forget the name of Wilde since the family would henceforth be known as "Holland," an old family name from their mother's side. Moreover, "Vyvyan" would now be spelled "Vivian" and "Oscar Beresford" dropped. However, as Holland later wrote, "The thought that at any moment an indiscreet remark or a chance encounter with someone from our former lives might betray us was a sword of Damocles constantly hanging above our heads".
In April 1898, shortly before her death in Genoa (having undergone an operation for a spinal injury suffered earlier), Constance Wilde wrote to Vyvyan: "Try not to feel harshly about your father; remember that he is your father and that he loves you. All his troubles arose from the hatred of a son for his father, and whatever he has done he has suffered bitterly for". With her death, Vyvyan returned to London, escorted by a priest from Monaco (thenceforth to be taken care of by his mother's aunt), and Cyril, now 13, arrived unescorted several days later from his school in Heidelberg.
Vyvyan Holland recalls that, when he was eleven (that is, in 1897), he did not know the nature of his father's offences (though Cyril had discovered the truth). Constance Wilde's family tried to eradicate all memory of Oscar Wilde by telling Vyvyan that his father was dead and that his achievements were of no significance. Vyvyan's misery was so intense over such deception that, at one point, he lay down in the snow and wanted to die.
Vyvyan resumed his schooling at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, while Cyril was sent to Radley School. They were to see little of each other from then on, though they corresponded frequently. Certain incidents occurred that puzzled Vyvyan: "Once more I felt that everyone's hand was against me, and I began to think that there must be something monstrous about my family that caused me always to be in disgrace". When Wilde died in November 1900, the Rector of Stonyhurst summoned Vyvyan to his office to inform him that his father had died: "But," he said, "I thought he died long ago." The "surprise, the perplexity, the shock" were too much for him, and he broke down in tears.
When Vyvyan was 16, he read Robert Sherard's Oscar Wilde: The Story of an Unhappy Friendship (1902) and discovered the truth. He was so "depressed," he writes, that he decided not to read any other books about his father, a resolution that he maintained for many years. In 1905, now 19, he became a student at Trinity Hall, Cambridge University, to qualify for a degree in law. (At this time, when he began reading his father's works, his admiration of his father's literary achievement increased steadily.) Tiring of the law, he left two years later.
Before Vyvyan was 21, Robert Ross, who had no idea where Wilde's two sons were, finally met him. At this time, Vyvyan was still fearful of discovery and ridicule over his father's "disgrace." He later wrote: "I do not try to defend my father's behaviour, but I do think that the penalties inflicted upon him were unnecessarily severe. And by that I do not only mean the prison sentence; I mean the virtual suppression of all his works and the ostracism and insults which he had to endure during the few remaining years of his life". At their first meeting, Ross was accompanied by two of Wilde's closest friends, Max Beerbohm, and Reginald Turner - "a highly emotional meeting," Holland later recalled. On the following day, Ross wrote to him:
I regret very much that I was not allowed to see both you and Cyril in the years that have intervened since the tragedy which has darkened your life and about which I know you yourself must feel so bitterly. I believe that I could have made your childhood happier, and it would have made me happier too to know that you realised how fond and devoted I was to you both, because you were the sons of my greatest friend and the most distinguished man of letters in the last years of the last century.
Ross provided the needed friendship and trust by bringing him into contact with Wilde's old friends and progressively into the wider literary and artistic world. As a result, the old fears diminished in the company of the many illustrious figures who admired Wilde's genius. The guarded secret of his relationship to Oscar Wilde, maintained by his mother's family, was now no longer possible.
When Holland reached the age of 21, Ross gave him "a magnificent dinner party" in Kensington, where he shared a house with another of Wilde's inner circle, More Adey. Attending were such figures as Henry James, Ronald Firbank (whom Holland had known at Cambridge), the painter Will Rothenstein, Reginald Turner, Charles Ricketts, Charles Shannon, and Cyril Holland. His friends now included Henry James, Max Beerbohm, Thomas Hardy, Arnold Bennett, and H. G. Wells, whom he saw frequently. When Wilde's Collected Works appeared in 1908, a dinner was given to celebrate Ross as its editor. Of the more than 200 guests, such luminaries as Edmund Gosse, H. G. Wells, William Archer, George Alexander, and Laurence Binyon attended in addition to the Holland brothers - the elder sitting between Rothenstein and the noted critic E. V. Lucas (who, it is said, had suggested the title De Profundis to Ross for Wilde's prison letter), the younger sitting next to Somerset Maugham.
On 20 July 1909, Holland accompanied Ross to witness the re-interring of Wilde's remains from Bagneux Cemetery to Père Lachaise in Paris (where Jacob Epstein's monument over the gravesite created a controversy: see The Tomb of Wilde). Now, at the age of 22, Holland resumed his study of law with the aim of becoming a barrister; at the same time, he wrote poetry and short stories, secretly wishing that he could write like his admired father, but, he later wrote, "I was not destined to do so". After being called to the bar in 1912, he practiced briefly. When, in 1913, he married Violet Craigie, the daughter of an Army officer, Ross inserted an announcement in the Times that Holland was the son of Oscar Wilde. "The 'Family,’" Holland later wrote, "were furious, and I received a terrible letter from my ex-Guardian, accusing me of deliberately undoing all the good work they had done in obliterating Oscar Wilde from my mind and person".
With the outbreak of the First World War, Holland entered the Army as a second lieutenant in the Interpreters Corps but was soon informed that no more interpreters were needed; he then transferred to the Royal Field Artillery, in which his brother had served for eight years. At the second battle for Neuve Chapelle, the death of Cyril from a sniper's bullet was a "bitter blow" to Holland, who was only a few miles away: "The last link with Tite Street and the spacious days had snapped". Just before the end of the war, Holland read in a Parisian newspaper that Robert Ross, his "greatest friend," had died suddenly: "...I felt that another of the strings that bound me to life had snapped.". Shortly thereafter, Holland learned that his wife, Violet, had been seriously injured in a fire; before he could reach her from France, she expired.
With the end of the war, Holland - wounded once and mentioned in several dispatches for his bravery under fire - was awarded the Order of the British Empire when he was discharged in 1919. He then embarked on a career as a translator, author, and editor. From 1925 to 1928, he edited a series of 12 French romances of the 18th century for Chatto & Windus, and over the years, he translated fiction and non-fiction from French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Among his notable translations into English were several French novels by Julian Green and a life of Stalin by Henri Barbusse. He also translated and edited several of his father's works: a new translation of Salomé; an edition of the expanded version of The Portrait of Mr. W. H. (the MS. of which had been discovered in 1920); an edition of De Profundis; and a reconstruction of the original four-act version of The Importance of Being Earnest. He also wrote the introduction to a one-volume edition of the Complete Works, and he published Oscar Wilde: A Pictorial Biography.
At the beginning of the Second World War, Holland was offered a position as a translator and editor for the BBC, a post he held for six years, In September 1943, he married Thelma Besant, an Australian, who gave birth in December 1945 to their only child, Merlin (who became a publisher, a dealer in glass and ceramics, and a writer; his son, Lucian, was born in 1979). In 1947, Holland and his wife left for Australia and New Zealand, where Mrs. Holland had been invited to give lectures on fashionable dress in 19th-century Australia. As a result of the acclaim that greeted Son of Oscar Wilde (1954), Holland received hundreds of appreciative letters from friends and strangers. In the "Foreword" to a 1988 reissue of the autobiography, Merlin Holland writes that his father had, "as it were, laid to rest the bitter memory of those early years by the cathartic effect of recording them for posterity."
In 1966, Vyvyan Holland published a sequel to Son of Oscar Wilde, the narrative of which ends in 1909. In Time Remembered, he concludes with the quiet contentment of a man who has lived life to the fullest: "If I ever feel depressed, I contemplate my blessings one by one and say that I am a happy man, that I have no quarrels with fate, which has almost overwhelmed me at times, but which has, in the end, left me, as it were, washed up on the shores of time, in the warm sunlight". In the following year, his amusing final book, An Explosion of Limericks, was issued just a day before he died at the age of 80.
Vyvyan Holland, Son of Oscar Wilde (1954) and Time Remembered:
After Père Lachaise (1966).