A review of "The Pocket Biography Of Oscar Wilde", edited By Tony Potter. What is tragic is that Oscar Wilde seemed not to believe in evil, or that it could ever lay a hand on him, at least at first.
The Pocket Biography Of Oscar Wilde (Dufour Editions, $10.00) does exactly what it sets out to do: puts flags where he starts out and follows his progress in a clearly written, thoroughly evocative manner, giving the general reader a welcome introduction to one of the wittiest – and kindest – men of that austere Victorian age.
There is something arrestingly tragic about Wilde's trajectory even over and above it's famously shocking denouement. In a way it's as if he were a brilliant comet (a Remarkable Rocket) arriving to both herald and expose the hypocrisy and humbug of his self-regarding age, an age that barely concealed its own cruelties and inconsistencies under iron laws.
At first most people didn't know what to make of him and his enemies (in England he always had more of those) dismissed him as an overdressed fop.
Ostentatiously dressed, given to making unforgettable observances, and at all times amused by the sheer absurdities of life, it was inevitable that he would cause a stir in that most buttoned up of all eras.
Potter has done a terrific job in editing and illustrating Wilde's progress, the details of which leap to life in a series of illuminating portraits and photographs. What also quietly asserts itself here too is Wilde's Irishness, which should always receive careful attention.
At Trinity College, Dublin he was the gifted son of a fiery Irish nationalist who won all the major academic and creative prizes leaving Edward Carson (of all people, the father of Ulster Unionism) as his sour runner up.
It must have often felt miraculous to him, his brief but utterly remarkable life. Born into an elevated social world and launched on a trajectory that included Trinity and Oxford, he became one of the greatest classical scholars of his era and arrived in London after a rare double first.
People who focused on his elaborate dress often missed his dazzling intellect. Soon enough however they would learn that there was far more to him than the entertaining raconteur he was billed as (a lesson he would discover himself).
What is tragic is that Wilde seemed not to believe in evil, or that it could ever lay a hand on him, at least at first. Gifted with the most generous and compassionate of nature's he could not countenance the resentful and envious nature's that longed to seem him silenced.
But high Victorianism was outraged by his dress, his manner, his intellect, his otherness. He ticked almost every box in their catalogue of prejudices and they longed to see him daunted.
Wilde's mistake, and it was fatal, was to imagine that Victorian England would afford him the indulgence that he afforded them, but his transgressions in the realm of sexuality, politics, religion, philosophy, history and art were an insuperable affront to the majority of his English critics.
Like Shakespeare, his life and his creative works had been one long meditation on the fate of love, and now here was the last chapter, in the loveless form of prosecutor Edward Carson, come to teach him some final bitter lessons. There's a sort of inevitability that it was love, of all things, that undid him.
He could have run. His friends had prepared the way. His prosecutors, aware of their own cruelty, had half expected him to. But instead he did the thing that so many Irish rebels have done over the centuries, he defied them, holding a mirror up to English hypocrisy and showing them their own faces.
Then he did the most Irish thing of all, he wrote a protest ballad that named and outlived his tormentors in The Ballad Of Reading Gaol.
“I shall never make a new friend in my life, though perhaps a few after I die,” he remarked, in exile in France, after his ruinous prison sentence had wrecked his health and robbed him of his desire to create.
Wilde died within a year of Queen Victoria and Victorianism, as one of it's last and most resplendent hunting trophies. But he outlived every one of them and will always, and that is his great lesson and his revenge.
A Pocket Biography Of Oscar Wilde, Edited By Tony Potter (Dufour, $10.00).