Over a century after his death amid poverty and great notoriety in a shabby Parisian hotel in 1900, Oscar Wilde is world-famous, which would probably have delighted him, but perhaps not for long.
Look, for example, at the prices now paid for mementoes, however insignificant they might be, which have some connection with Wilde, however tenuous. Recently an otherwise unimpressive questionnaire filled out by the future author of “The Importance of Being Earnest” while still a student at Oxford sold for over $40,000.
Would not the flamboyant Wilde — who basked in the fame and wealth his talents brought him in the early 1890s — relish the glory that is now his? No, or at least not without great qualification, answers Joseph Pearce in his groundbreaking biography “The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde” (published four years ago in Britain and now appearing in the United States).
On many occasions, Wilde let friends and admirers know that he wanted to be remembered for the quality and scope of his art, which he called “the real passion of my life; the love to which all other loves [are] as marsh-water to red wine.”
Instead of his art, his current fame rests largely on his great wit — everyone who loves Wilde has his favorite saying (“To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance,” for example, always elicits a chuckle from this reviewer) — and on his status as a major gay icon, a martyr, who dared flaunt his homosexuality in the face of repressed Victorian England and paid a heavy price for it: imprisonment and hard labor for the crime of sodomy.
True, Wilde’s plays — especially “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “A Woman of No Importance” and “An Ideal Husband” — are staged regularly by theater companies great and small throughout the world. There are popular film versions of the comedies, some of recent vintage such as director Oliver Parker’s 2002 “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
But what has been ignored in the celebration of Wilde’s wit and his sexuality, Mr. Pearce shows in this well-written biography, is the essential Wilde, the Wilde whose novel, plays, and marvelous stories all carry very strong — and very traditional — moral messages. And it is this morality that is central to Wilde’s vision of the world, Mr. Pearce argues, not his flamboyance or his naughtiness.
In itself, this isn’t a particularly new spin on Wilde. Other commentators have taken note of the moral lessons offered in his work. Where Mr. Pearce moves into groundbreaking territory is the extent to which he presents Wilde as a profoundly religious man, for whom Roman Catholicism had great appeal his whole life long, culminating in his deathbed conversion.
This is a Wilde we haven’t seen much of, but Mr. Pearce convincingly creates him out of a very close reading of the complete works and letters, taking Wilde at his word when he writes passionately about religious faith and moral concerns, rather than assuming, as other biographers have, that these are irrelevant to understanding who the man really was.
Mr. Pearce’s Wilde is prodigiously talented and brilliant — how could he be otherwise? But he is also a tormented and relentlessly self-destructive man at war with inner demons that allow him little peace, even though the face he shows the world is of a supremely self-satisfied bon vivant, in control of everything.
The biographer takes his title from Wilde’s 1885 essay “The Truth of Masks.” In that piece, Wilde argued that there were no universal truths in art and that “attitude is everything.”
The essay declared, “A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true,” as though a man could hold opposing opinions and beliefs without paying the price of being torn between them.
And it ended with one of Wilde’s glittering aphorisms: “The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.” It wasn’t at all clear what its author meant by that, but it sounded at once both ornery and clever, and orneriness and cleverness were both poses — masks — that Wilde loved to strike or wear at times.
What other masks did Wilde don? When he became the enormously popular playwright of the 1890s, he cultivated the image of the man about town for whom the world was a peach and his fellow men must ceaselessly be entertained by his wit and antics.
At the same time, those who knew him well noticed how caring a father he was to his two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, and how in love he seemed with his wife, Constance. Family life suited him and he thrived on it.