Review: ‘Oscar Wilde: a biography’

by H. Montgomery Hyde (London, Eyre Methuen, 1976)

 

John Stokes

 

Montgomery Hyde’s latest book invites a quizzical response. While it would be churlish not to pay tribute to the man who, with the single exception of Sir Rupert Hart-Davis, has done more than any other living scholar to clarify the record of Wilde’s career, it has to be said that Wildeans will conclude, with some justice, that they have read much of this book before—in The trials of Oscar Wilde (1948 and 1962), Cases that changed the law (1951), Oscar Wilde: the aftermath (1963) and The other love (1970). These are all books that are essentially works of legal rather than literary history. Yet a cursory comparison between Hyde’s various accounts of the trials reveals some provocative changes. Here for instance is the moment when Carson challenged Wilde’s statement about his age as it appears in the 1973 reprint of The trials:

 

            ‘You were born on the 16th of October 1854?’

            Carson emphasized the point by holding up a copy

            of the witness’s birth certificate.

 

            Wilde appeared momentarily disconcerted, but he

            quickly recovered his composure. ‘I have no wish to

            pose as being young,’ he replied sweetly, ‘You have

            my certificate and that settles the matter.’

 

And here is the same moment as it appears in the new book:

           

            ‘You were born on the sixteenth October 1854?’

            Carson emphasized the point of the question by hold-

            ing up a copy of Wilde’s birth certificate.

 

            Wilde appeared unconcerned. ‘I have no wish to pose

            as being young,’ he said. A titter ran round the court.

            ‘I am thirty-nine or forty. You have my certificate and

            that settles the matter.’

 

Or, to take another random example, this is how the new book summarizes the cross-examination concerning Wilde’s stay in Brighton with a boy named Alphonse Conway:

 

            What had they done in Brighton? They had dined at a

            restaurant and stayed the night at the Albany Hotel,

            where Wilde had taken a sitting-room and two bed-

            rooms.

 

Whereas The trials gives the dialogue apparently verbatim:

 

            ‘We dined at a restaurant and stayed the night at the

            Albion Hotel, where I took a sitting-room and two bedrooms.’

             

            ‘Did the bedrooms communicate by a green baize door?’         

‘I am not sure.’

 

A writer is of course entitled to change his methods but I suspect that the earlier book is still the more useful, if only because it is fuller. Moreover these modifications hint that Hyde is more concerned with the construction of dramatic narrative than his books might at first suggest.

 

Wilde’s own narratives, which are, in a crucial sense, the primary source for his life, attract comparatively little of Hyde’s attention. It is one of the more ‘modern’ aspects of Wilde that he should have made such strenuous attempts to qualify the self-reverential nature of what he wrote. Nevertheless, his writing is still a refraction of his personality, which he always conceived of as multiple, and of his own times which he saw, quite correctly, as riddled with contradiction. Hyde quotes but unfortunately does not pursue such well-known remarks as ‘Lord Henry Wotton’s views on marriage are quite monstrous, and I highly disapprove of them,’ and ‘Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray,’ which relate text to experience by the paradoxical act of disavowal that proclaims ‘the truth of masks.’

 

In Wilde’s case even the secondary sources include earlier biographical works that are themselves fictions, in the double sense that they are often simply untrue (if only through euphemism) and that they are structured like fiction (if only through omission). An entertaining example, which Hyde cannot resist making use of, is Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde: his life and confessions, a book propelled by several narrative devices which help to make it a wonderful read but at the same time declare its real status. There is the implication that Harris was himself always at the centre of things, created in part by the convention of having Wilde address his almost every remark to ‘Frank’; and there is the central proposition that Harris, an unlikely ingénu, was until very late in the day quite ignorant of Wilde’s guilt.

 

In addition to such obvious sources the biographer of Wilde must turn to that other category of fiction commonly called the ‘memoir,’ and even to chroniques scandaleuses such as those of Sir Edmund Backhouse—required reading in Oxford but as yet deemed unsuitable for a wider public. One of the interests of these works is that they often betray attitudes and ideologies, in particular when they deal with Wilde’s homosexuality. They expose, through their very prurience, the extent of homosexual interest in Wilde’s milieu. Harris bases his diagnosis upon Sir William Wilde’s sexual exploits—something of a tribute from one seducer to another; others have made much of the role of alcohol, or stressed Wilde’s giantism. Hyde tries not to commit himself but he can be heavy-handed, in the manner of a barrister manipulating inadmissible evidence, when it comes to sexuality. He remarks à propos Wilde’s early interest in male beauty that ‘he may well have been unaware of its significance at the same time as his inclinations gradually became bisexual.’ Emphasizing Wilde’s heterosexual exploits he comments that ‘Oscar Wilde had no illusions whatever about female virtue. He considered women as being prompted mainly, if not solely, by the sexual urge.  .  .’ Again the texts tell a more complex and ultimately more human story.

 

This is a convenient biography perfectly adequate to the needs of the general reader, but students of literature will be frustrated by those tell-tale signs of a legalistic mind under strain. What we still lack is the literary biography that treats the literature as part of the historical life and explores the denial of self-involvement that Wilde, in typically modernist fashion, frequently claimed for his work. Between the Irish writer who lived his life in public believing that ‘the artist can express everything’ and that other Irish writer who has lived his life in private and who has spoken of ‘the expression that there is nothing to express .  .  . together with the obligation to express’ the historical divide may not really be so great. The defensive credos of modern writers are invariably contradicted when pen touches paper.