For proof of his conflicted attitude toward the Victorians you just have to look at the larger-than-life names he gave most of his characters: Algernon Moncrieff, Gwendolyn Fairfax, Miss Laetitia Prism, Lady Augusta Bracknell, Lord Henry Wotton, Basil Hallward, Dorian Gray. This is the writer-as-costume-maker, because for Wilde the lords and ladies of English society were as unreal and exotic as the caliphs of Baghdad. His gently mocking stage names are part of a consistent pattern in his art, a satirical undermusic, a Celtic note that is rarely remarked upon, because like so many of his best jokes they only register with those who can actually hear them.
All his life Wilde’s suspicion of authority, and his half playful half serious desire to unmask hypocrisy, particularly when it came wrapped in the garb of English imperialism, keeps breaking out, even when he knows it would be wiser to say nothing. It’s a distinctly Irish reflex, that satirical feint and jab, and Wilde couldn’t help himself; his own divided nature was overwhelming, he genuinely wanted to trounce the thing he loved.
As he had already powerfully demonstrated in plays like A Woman of No Importance and the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the man who achieved lasting fame as a sort of high brow humorist was also was on his way to becoming a tragedian of real stature, but his trailblazing path was cut short when Edward Carson’s shadow fell across it.
There’s a terrible clanging irony in the fact that it was Edward Carson, of all people, who sealed Wilde’s fate. At Trinity College Dublin, where they were exact contemporaries, Carson was continually runner up to Wilde’s first prize in every academic contest the two entered. Wilde was the son of the fiery Irish nationalist poet Speranza (Lady Jane Wilde). Carson was raised in a staunch Presbyterian home and would later sign the famous so-called blood covenant that would divide Ireland as it moved toward Home Rule. Wilde was an artistic genius, Carson was a shrewd prosecutor.
Wilde died penniless and alone in a third rate Paris hotel in 1900, and in May of that same year Carson was appointed Solicitor-General for England and received a knighthood. England has always rewarded its gate keepers: Carson is one of the few non-royals to have been given a state funeral by the United Kingdom, the funeral taking place at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast in 1935.
In America, where another version of the same Puritan legacy that Wilde pushed back against in his art and life still rules, he has been continually misprized by writers and academics who should know better. But to this day there many here who are still tempted to see his reputation as a wit as a sort of proof of his light weight achievements. That’s why Declan Kiely, the curator of the current exhibition at the Morgan, and an Irish Studies scholar, should be thanked for his sensitivity and insight in programming this unmissable show. The business of rescuing Wilde from the short sighted and clumsy hands he fell into (including Bosie’s, who destroyed most of his letters) is still ongoing.
The Morgan Library and Museum is located at 225 Madison Avenue in New York City.