Entertainment Books

Monday 20 January 2020

A cosmopolitan family's fall from grace

History: The Fall of the House of Wilde, Emer O' Sullivan, Bloomsbury €23.99

Oscar Wilde's love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (right) was turned into a pantomime in public morality
Oscar Wilde's love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (right) was turned into a pantomime in public morality

JP O' Malley

I woke the imagination of my century, so that it created myth and legend around me." Never one for humility, Oscar Wilde wrote these words from his cell in Reading Gaol in 1897, when composing De Profundis. Addressed to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, it went on to become the most famous love letter in modern literature.

The secret love affair led to a notorious criminal trial that turned into a pantomime in public morality. Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, was repulsed at the idea of his son being in love with another man. So, in dramatic fashion, he made a criminal of Wilde, whose life spiralled out of control after serving two years hard labour in prison.

Wilde died penniless, in Paris in 1900. His final days were spent carousing with prostitutes, on drinking binges he couldn't afford. With the exception of Joyce and Shakespeare, no literary figure in the English speaking world has been documented so widely in biography form.

Yet as Emer O' Sullivan explains most biographies treat his personality in isolation. Her book shows how important Wilde's parents were in cultivating his own mythology and career. The Wildes were among the most powerful Protestant dynasties in Victorian Dublin.

Sir William Wilde was a polymath and one of the chief innovators of the Celtic Revival.

Jane Wilde was a poet, journalist, translator, nationalist sympathiser and public intellectual. Through the art of loquacious conversation, and her fiery controversial polemics, she influenced future Nobel prize winners, such as George Bernard Shaw and WB Yeats.

Cosmopolitan internationalists, wealthy; powerful; progressive; champagne socialists; liberal, and deeply knowledgeable in literature, politics, medicine and science, the Wildes were not your typical patriarchal Victorian family.They thought individual freedom, self expression, and appreciation of culture, were far more important than typical bourgeois family conventions, like patriarchy, honour and hierarchy.

Bohemian living came at a cost though. Sir William passed a heavy burden of debt to the family when he died in 1876. This ensured financial problems were never too far away.

Oscar, his brother William, and Jane, all moved to London shortly after. There were, of course, high points to the London years. But penury, drama, and alcoholism were the recurring themes.

All three remaining members of the family died as outcasts, without a penny to their name.

Just 12 mourners attended Oscar's funeral in Paris; the remains of Jane's body today are unknown because the family couldn't afford a headstone for her grave in West London and William junior died a pathetic scrounging drunkard.

What makes O' Sullivan's narrative so intriguing is how she cleverly links the Wildes' story against the historical background of fin-de-siècle Dublin and London.

The family were the last of a dying breed: their tragedy unfolded just as the curtains came down on the age of decadence. Before long, a rising Catholic Middle class - and a one-dimensional Republican mythology - would drastically transform the nature of Irish society.

Such powerful dynasties would never hold the same level of influence again.

O'Sullivan is keen to point out here that for all their cultural achievements, these Victorian families weren't without flaws: there was a lot of hypocrisy when it came to their class privileges especially.

This is a remarkable piece of work. And the best non-fiction book I've read this year.

Sunday Independent

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