Oscar Wilde: A Centennial Wreath Of Memories
by Richard Whittington-Egan
TIME, the laughing policeman, grows daily younger looking as we grow older, and marches unseemly fast. That on this November 30th, Oscar Wilde has been one hundred years dead strikes as incredible.
'Somehow I don't think I shall live to see the new century', said Wilde, voicing a sul serio premonition. 'If another century began, and I was still alive, it would really be more than the English could stand'. A quip tinctured surely with a breath of wistful regret. In truth, Wilde had begun to die a full quinquennium before the fact.
The year of the eclipse was 1895. The month: April. The day: Friday 5th. The precise moment of declension is neatly encapsulated by John Betjeman in a poem, published in the Oxford and Cambridge magazine in June 1933, 'The Arrest of Oscar Wilde in the Cadogan Hotel'.
It was at about half past six in the evening that Inspector Richards of Scotland Yard knocked at the door of Room 53 of the discreet hotel in Sloane Street. Within sat Wilde, resigned, fatalistic, sipping a hock and seltzer. They drove him in a four-wheeler, via Scotland Yard to Bow Street, and locked him in a cell, wherein, sleepless, he paced the night, up and down, back and forth, away. It was to prove the anteroom to Holloway, Pentonville, and Wandsworth prisons and to Reading Gaol. But first there were the trials, three of them, at the grim Old Bailey, Oscar at the last exchanging places of peril with the scarlet, screaming Marquis of Queensberry.
Between trials two and three, on [pound]5,000 bail, Wilde, dogged by the Marquis' bullies, could find nowhere to lay his head. At each hotel he entered the bully boys entered behind him, shouted his identity and made him a rejected guest. No room at the inn. Exhausted, the roughs finally shaken off, at 1 a.m. the sweat-soaked, frightened, and bedraggled ci-devant dandy hammered at the door of his last-hope refuge. A small house in Oakley Street.
I made a pilgrimage to that neglected shrine in Chelsea. The house, formerly No. 146, now No. 87, had become a rooming shelter for birds of passage from Australia, New Zealand, America, South Africa. They greeted with surprise my intimation that this, their temporary roosting place, had been the house of Oscar Wilde's mother, 'Speranza', where, with all windows covered and candles burning day and night so that the cruel daylight should not reveal time's ravages, that formidable poetic dame had held her salons. That it had been here, on the night of 7 May 1895, that her son came begging of his elder brother who answered his knock, 'Give me shelter, Willie. Let me lie on the floor or I shall die in the streets'.
Robert Sherrard, arrived from Paris to cosset Oscar, described the out-at-elbows haven in which he found him: 'A poorly furnished room in great disorder. He was lying on a small camp-bedstead in a corner between the fireplace and the wall, and in a glass on a mantelpiece was an arum lily, sere and yellow, which drooped lamentably down over his head. His face was flushed, and swollen, his voice was broken, he was a man altogether collapsed'.
Visitors came to that dismal house -- Ernest Dowson, a veiled lady, rumoured to have been Ellen Terry, bringing a horseshoe and a bouquet of violets, the Leversons, Ernest and Ada -- 'wonderful Spinx' -- who bore Wilde off to their home, No. 2 Courtfield Gardens, near Gloucester Road station.
His friends urgently besought him while there was yet time to flee the country. 'I have just been abroad ... one can't keep on going abroad unless one is a missionary, or, what comes to the same thing, a commercial traveller', was his response. Too late now. The last boat-train for the Continent had gone.
Other friends were less given to displays of solidarity. That season when the love of boys was spoken of in the austere purlieus of the law courts, the billboards came down, or were strategically pasted over, outside the theatres -- the Haymarket, where An Ideal Husband was playing, and the St. James's Theatre, where George Alexander had put on The Importance of Being Earnest. In the case of this play at least Oscar was enjoying the last laugh, for in the coded argot of the Uranian world of the day the term 'earnest' signified of homosexual bent. The derivation was from the dominie John Gambril Nicholson's 1892 volume of homoerotic poems, Love in Earnest. The title's pun referred to the fourteen-year-old boy, Ernest, who was the poet's love-object. For many years after, it was au courant in certain catamitic circles politely to inquire, 'Are you earnest?'
From the prison years following upon the catastrophic trials, one summons up with horror sundry vignettes; Oscar standing exposed, in vinculis and convict garb, in the grey November rain, on the central platform at Clapham Junction railway station, mocked and spat upon by the passing trainloads; the Sunday morning at Wandsworth when Wilde, too ill to rise from his pallet, had, after being threatened by the prison doctor with a charge of malingering, struggled up only to fall repeatedly, finally crashing down upon the prison chapel floor and seriously injuring his ear, which ached and bled for many months after; the 'Lord of language' sentenced to solitary confinement in total darkness for twenty-four hours on bread and water, for speaking to a fellow-prisoner.
On 19 May 1897, the gates of Pentonville opened and 'Sebastian Melmoth', clutching the dressing-case stamped 'S.M.' which Reggie Turner had purchased for him, pointed an elegant foot back into a hostile world. At the Reverend Stewart Headlam's house -- another neglected shrine at 31 Upper Bedford Place, in Bloomsbury -- Wilde enjoyed his first cup of coffee for two years. Then, at about noon, left for Victoria Station and Dieppe, seeing en route the white cliffs of England for the last time. Within a little over three years he was to die -- an exile and a remittance man.
There was a time -- myself when young -- when one regarded the span of a hundred years as vast and unbridgeable, but as one accumulates decades one wonders. I remember discovering with some amazement in how short a term of generations it is possible, via father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, to have shaken hands with a man who shook hands with a soldier who fought under Wellington at Waterloo.
My Irish father's family in nineteenth-century Dublin knew the Wildes of Merrion Square -- Sir William, the medical man, his wife Lady Jane Francesca, celebrated as Speranza, the fiery patriot poetess, Willie the eldest son, Isola the little daughter who tragically died two months short of her tenth birthday, and Oscar -- who frequented the same Dublin salons, attended the same parties.
Going on for a century later, I was to have congress, as it were, with the actual Wildean genes which ensured Oscar's physical immortality, when, in the 1950s, I met with his son, Vyvyan Holland, at his home in Sloane Street, a persecutor's stone's throw from the Cadogan Hotel.
Uncannily telescoping time, I was able to meet, too, in 1960, the year before his death, J. Lewis May, who, in 1889, as a boy of sixteen, had been taken by his father to one of the monthly dinners of that literary club known as the Sette of Odd Volumes at which the young and meteorically rising Oscar was the guest speaker. It was on this occasion that the publisher John Lane first met Wilde. Lewis May worked for a while at The Sign of the Bodley Head, in Vigo Street, as Lane's apprentice-cum-assistant. But the months that he spent there do not seem to have coincided with the clerkship of young Edward Shelley, with whom Wilde kept a rendezvous at the Albemarle Hotel and embarked upon a most unsuitable intimacy, which ended with the lad appearing as a prosecution witness.
I cannot claim to have seen Wilde, in Browning's words, like Shelley (Percy Bysshe not Edward) plain, but I have -- surely the next best thing -- heard him plain. My wife and I, bidden one day to lunch with my old friend and Wildean biographer, Hartley Montgomery Hyde at his cousin Henry James' house at Rye where he was then living, were suddenly informed by our host at lunch's end, 'I have a surprise for you'. And he led us up to his study. There, he produced a waxen cylinder which proved to be a recording of Oscar reading from The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Declaiming Dylanesque, his voice was extraordinary, not as one had heard it in imagination, deep, melodious, a perfectly manicured Oxford English pronunciation. No. It was high-pitched like that of the late Angus Wilson, discordant and unexpectedly heavily edged with an Irish accent. One must, of course, allow for the tonal eccentricities and reproductive imperfections of the antiquated machinery, but one could not but feel a chill of disappointment and di sillusion.
Apropos the Ballad, wearing my criminological hat, I was interested to discover the truth behind the poetic. The poem's dedicatee, 'C.T.W.', was Trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge, of Her Majesty's Royal Horse Guards. He arrived in Reading on a capital charge in April 1896. Both he and Wilde were still young men -- Oscar 41, Wooldridge 30. Both were in their different ways doomed. Wilde's sin was that of the love that dare not speak its name. Wooldridge's sin arose out of the love that would not answer to its name.
The first weeks of March had found Trooper Wooldridge extremely dejected. His regiment had recently been ordered back from Windsor to Regent's Park Barracks in London, and the prime cause of the trooper's pessimism was his wife, or, rather, the lack of her. This state of affairs was of his own making. He and Laura Ellen Glendell, the 22-year-old local assistant postmistress at Windsor, had stolen off and got married secretly, neglecting to obtain his commanding officer's consent. Charlie and Nellie were not, therefore, in the Army's eye married, and when his regiment moved there was no provision for a wife to accompany him. Rumour has it that the marriage had not for some time been a happy one. Wooldridge misused and abused his wife. Understandably then, whenever he turned up on the doorstep of the house wherein she remained at Windsor, his reception was Icelandic. Eventually, after several visits and much wheedling and pleading, Trooper Wooldridge got Nellie to agree to come up to London the following Sunda y, 29 March, afternoon and meet him outside the barracks. Togged out full fig -- pill-box cap, dress tunic and swagger-stick -- he awaited her at the barrack gates in vain. As dusk fell on his hopes, he borrowed a cut-throat razor from a comrade and boarded a train for Windsor... and there he slit Nellie Wooldridge's throat.
On 7 July 1896, the Trooper took his stand on the trap-door under the hanging beam almost as if he were on parade, standing to attention as Mr. Hangman Billington visited upon him his final swift discharge from the army and from life.
The Ballad was not written, as many have thought, while Wilde was in Reading Gaol, but, for the most part, at the Chalet Bourgeat, at Berneval, in the last half of 1897. It was published by Leonard Smithers in February 1898. What was written in Reading Gaol was De Profundis, Wilde's Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis to Lord Alfred Douglas. Penned during the last months of his imprisonment, it is a terrible indictment of Bosie, although, contradictorily, its purpose is clearly reconciliatory. It was first published in drastically expurgated form in 1905. The full text, 50,000 words on 80 closely-written pages of twenty folio sheets of blue prison paper, doled out to C.3.3 one by one, each folio being taken away when filled and before a new blank sheet was delivered, was deposited by Robert Ross in the British Museum in 1909, with the proviso that it was to remain sealed for sixty years. However, when Douglas died in 1945, the last obstacle to full publication was removed, and an exact copy of the original manu script, which continued to repose inviolate in the British Museum, that had come into the possession of Vyvyan Holland on the death of Robert Ross in 1918, was published in 1949. Need I say that I was one of those who queued for a copy of the first edition.
Wilde's final Wanderjahre in the pseudonymous persona of Sebastian Melmoth -- the name was the suggestion of Robbie Ross, combining the flavour of the arrow-feathered St. Sebastian, favourite early Christian martyr of the late nineteenth-century Uranians, with the hero of the 1820 Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Robert Maturin, who was actually Wilde's great-uncle -- were pretty nightmarish.
The end, not perhaps entirely unwelcome, came in a shabby first-floor bedroom overlooking the courtyard at the Hotel d'Alsace, 13 Rue des Beaux-Arts, in Paris. The bed looked small, and was in fact some inches too short for him. Its hangings, the curtains, the room's upholstery were the dingy colour of the lees of wine. There was a soiled and tawdry mirror above a massive metal and marble clock supported by a lion couchant on the mantelshelf. The furniture was completed by a few bookshelves, a faded, threadbare sofa, and a narrow writing-table.
That table I know well. It was purchased after Oscar's death by his lifelong friend and admirer, Richard Le Gallienne, who had first encountered Wilde when he came to lecture at Claughton Music Hall, a concert hall in Birkenhead, on 10 December 1883. I last saw the table with its brass plate of provenance in Richard's step-daughter, Gwen Le Gallienne's flat in Menton. Since her death some years ago, I do not know what has become of it.
Even now, a hundred years on, the precise cause and surrounding circumstances of Oscar Wilde's death remain obscure, shrouded about with mystery. His deathbed conversion and reception into the Roman Catholic Church is indisputable. A canard -- or is it? -- tells of his contracting syphilis from a town prostitute in Oxford in his undergraduate days. An alternative, but it must be emphasised tentative, diagnosis, is encephalitic meningitis. Oscar's own diagnosis: mussel poisoning.
On 3 December 1900, after a Requiem Mass at Saint-German-des-Pres, he was buried at Bagneux. Well before the Last Trump, he was resurrected, and taken, in 1909, to Paris to the cemetery of Pere Lachaise. His body lies beneath the vast funerary monument shaped by Jacob Epstein, but not even its megalithic weight can keep the spirit of Oscar Wilde earthbound. His reputation stalks unchequered both before and after him. He is without question of that immortal company of artists who make all of our strivings less petty, more worth while.
Among Richard Whittington-Egan's writings on the authors of the 1890s is a biography of Richard Le Gallienne.
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