Review: Biography: More Lives Than One: The Remarkable Wilde Family Through The Generations by Gerard Hanberry
Collins Press, €19.99
'For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die.' So wrote Oscar Wilde in The Ballad of Reading Gaol and the line could not be more true of Wilde's own life and death.
A new book, More Lives Than One, by the poet Gerard Hanberry, looks at the many remarkable lives Wilde managed to fit into his lifetime, from his stellar academic achievements to his success on the stage, to his doomed love affair with the infamous Bosie, which led to his incarceration in Reading Gaol.
This family saga has enough twists and turns to rival any Jackie Collins novel. Set against the backdrop of famine, social change and revolution in Ireland, it offers a new insight into Wilde's remarkable achievements and his sad, lonely death in a hotel in Paris in 1900.
Wilde's mother, Lady Jane, was the celebrated poet Speranza and inspired the rebels of the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s. Like her son, however, she died a lonely, impoverished death. Wilde's brother, Willie, had no money to pay for their mother's gravestone, and so her remains were moved from Kensal Green Cemetery to an unknown grave and, to this day, nothing marks the spot.
Wilde's father, William, was a knighted surgeon with dark secrets of his own and a reputation as a womaniser (he was mocked by a rhyme that claimed he had 'a child in every farmhouse').
He had at least three children outside of wedlock -- two daughters and a son -- and was also embroiled in a case alleging sexual misconduct, which Hanberry presents as a 'strange foreshadowing' of the trial that brought about Oscar's ruination.
It was the young Robert Baldwin Ross who first seduced Oscar Wilde in 1886. 'Little Robbie' was openly homosexual and Wilde could not resist the 17-year-old's confident sexual advances. This marked Wilde's sexual awakening as a gay man and he began staying in hotels, telling his wife, Constance, that he needed the seclusion in order to write.
It also marked a renewed period of creativity in his work. The Picture Of Dorian Gray brought homosexuality into the mainstream, even though it was referred to in the book only as 'the love that dare not speak its name'. Still, there was no mistaking what Wilde was alluding to, and some bookshops refused to stock it when it was published in 1891.
One reader who became obsessed with the book -- reading it nine times -- was a young scholar by the name of Lord Alfred Douglas, Bosie to his friends.
Bosie was the temperamental and spoiled son of the 9th Marquess of Queensberry. When he and Wilde met, it was the beginning of the end. Bosie was wildly indiscreet, visiting male prostitutes with Wilde and raising gambling debts which he expected Wilde to pay. By this point, Wilde was consorting with so many rent-boys, who were often petty criminals and blackmailers, and dodging furious fathers, that his demise seemed only a matter of time.
In 1893, Bosie and Oscar were living together at the Savoy and visitors noted that there was only one double bed. Bosie's father was outraged by his son's lifestyle and held Oscar responsible.
One of the reasons presented by Hanberry as to why Wilde was punished so severely at his trial was to do with Queensberry's elder son, Francis, Viscount Drumlanrig.
Drumlanrig was private secretary to Lord Rosebery, foreign secretary at the time and later prime minister. It was thought that Drumlanrig and Rosebery were lovers and by the time Wilde was on trial, Queensberry threatened to reveal the prime minister's homosexuality if the case was dropped.
When Queensberry left a note at Wilde's private club in February 1895 calling Wilde a 'somdomite' (sic), Wilde took an ill-advised libel case against him (urged on by Bosie). Queensberry elicited 10 testimonies from rent boys who accused Wilde of soliciting to commit sodomy and Wilde was sentenced to two years' hard labour.
On announcing the jury's guilty verdict, the judge damned Wilde, saying: "It is the worst case I have ever tried. . . you, Wilde, have been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men."
Wilde was stripped of both his dignity and his clothes, put into prison garb and fed a meal of porridge and bread. He summed up the experience later in his lengthy poem De Profundis, saying: "I sat amidst the ruins of my wonderful life, crushed by anguish, bewildered with terror, dazed through pain."
After his release, Wilde lived the rest of his life in exile and died in 1900 in the Hotel d'Alsace in Paris, not of tertiary syphilis as has been suggested, but of pyogenic meningitis following an acute illness.
There is no doubt from this book that Wilde was the brightest star both of his generation and of the Wildes. Indeed, this new examination of Wilde in the context of his family of an impoverished, needy mother, a dissolute brother and womanising father only makes his success all the more remarkable. . . and his downfall all the more heartbreaking.