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.
Was this also a mask? Mr. Pearce isn’t certain, but believes it might have been the real Wilde: “There is more than a suspicion that the real Oscar Wilde emerges from the shadows of himself in these unguarded, unobserved moments, alone with his children.”
That may be true and most readers will hope that it is. But it is clouded by the fact that at the moment in his life when family seems to have become so important to him, Wilde was succumbing with regularity to the lures of good-looking young men such as Douglas, and courting them openly in London streets and fashionable dining places. And he was paying for the sexual services of rent boys.
Amidst this decadent, sensual life, what evidence does Mr. Pearce bring to support Wilde’s religious faith and moral concerns?
Much of the evidence surprises. On the walls of his rooms at Oxford in the 1870s, for example, Wilde hung pictures of Cardinal Manning of England and Pope Pius IX, two ardent defenders of Catholic orthodoxy. Wilde regarded both men as heroes.
More impressive is a letter Wilde wrote as a young man to his friend W.W. Ward in which his Catholicism seems near to full blossom. He wrote about what he called the “beauty and necessity” of the Incarnation.
That central belief of Christianity helped humanity “grasp at the skirts of the Infinite,” Wilde declared. “Since [the birth of] Christ the dead world has woke up from sleep. Since him we have lived.”
But Mr. Pearce’s strongest case for Wilde’s Christianity is his close reading of all of Wilde’s works. He shows us the moral heart of the plays — even of “Salome,” which at first glance seems worldly and sensual. “Once again, Wilde emerges in ‘Salome’ as a Christian moralist par excellence,” Mr. Pearce avers.
Regarding Wilde’s stories, fantasies and other short fiction, the biographer writes that faith “is not lost in the stories but found, rediscovered. However much Wilde may have been struggling with his own faith, it always emerges triumphant in the stories.”
And he finds this true of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” which he defends by quoting words that Wilde put into his main character’s mouth near the novel’s climax. “The soul is a terrible reality,” Dorian declares. “It can be bought and sold, and bartered away. It can be poisoned, or made perfect. There is a soul in each one of us. I know it.”
Mr. Pearce is careful to distance himself from the late Richard Ellmann, whose 1988 biography of the playwright (entitled simply “Oscar Wilde”) is usually regarded as definitive. Ellmann emphasized Wilde’s wit and homosexuality. He also assumed (as other biographers have) that Wilde had syphilis, which ultimately caused his early death. Mr. Pearce offers strong arguments that Wilde never had the disease.
Why did Wilde wait until he was on his deathbed to convert? Partly it was because his father deeply opposed his son’s attraction to the church of Rome. But Mr. Pearce believes there was a deeper reason: “The warring paradox at the center of his psyche was that he was emotionally attracted to faith but temperamentally tempted to doubt.”
In other words, his heart said yes, but his head no. Surely there was another cause too: Wilde knew that any serious submission to Roman Catholicism would require him to give up his young men and his promiscuity.
Indeed, the final and most accurate judgment on Wilde came from his long-suffering wife Constance. “My poor misguided husband, who is weak rather than wicked …” she declared after his fall from fame and wealth.
Weak rather than wicked seems just about right. Mr. Pearce has given us a thoroughly researched and gracefully written biography of this extraordinary and spiritually troubled man. Wilde’s life, in Mr. Pearce’s telling, is a powerful tale of Christ’s warning that man cannot serve two masters.
It also shows us how to read Wilde correctly and to appreciate the quality of his work. Oscar would have approved.
Stephen Goode is a Washington writer.