Oscar, my grandfather
Dublin's One City, One Book festival asks us to take a fresh look at The Picture of Dorian Gray this month. In town to help celebrate the book, Oscar Wilde's only grandson Merlin Holland talks to Ciara Dwyer about how his family coped with the impact of the author's life of Greek tragedy
As Merlin Holland fixes me with his jade-green eyes, I can see the similarity to his late grandfather, Oscar Wilde. But it's more than the colour. There is a familiar look; an expression of kindness and a gentility which is not quite of this era.
"I tend to say Oscar was my grandfather, rather than saying I am his grandson," says Merlin. "It's a subtle difference."
The sequence of these words epitomises his relationship with the Dublin-born writer whom he never met. Humble, respectful and yet, even though he is a direct descendent and the only grandson, he is never presumptuous of an exclusive claim on him. Nor does he have a chip on his shoulder, bristling that Oscar takes the limelight. Rather, Merlin is happy to let his ego linger in the wings and talk of his grandfather instead. He is in town to launch Dublin City Council's "One City, One Book" campaign, which for the month of April encourages all Dubliners to read Oscar's only novel -- The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Merlin tells me that although some people may accuse him of trading on his ancestor, he says that he never turns up at a Wilde event just to make an appearance. These days he lives in Burgundy, France, with his partner Emma. When he is finished in Dublin, it is back to his writing desk to finish a book about life after Oscar. He has worked on several others about Wilde, including one with imaginary conversations with him.
"The idea that I would go anywhere just as Oscar Wilde's grandson is absolutely anathema to me. If I go somewhere there is a purpose to my being there. I give talks about work I've done, there is always something original. So I'm on the side of the public rather than coming to it from a family point of view."
Of course we all want to hear about Oscar from the family perspective, but that had its own complications and long silences. And how could it not prove awkward? For it is the story of a man who married Constance, had two children, (one of whom, Vyvyan, was Merlin's father) and then fell in love with a man, Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie. Wilde was prosecuted for gross indecency by the Crown. After his imprisonment Constance changed her surname to Holland, an old family name; she had been refused accommodation at a Swiss hotel. The family never reverted to the name Wilde.
"As a classicist, Oscar thought that he was living a Greek tragic life," says Merlin, "that he'd been somehow selected by fate to fulfil destiny. 'The fates rocked my cradle,' he said after he came out of prison. There is a very strong sense of Greek destiny to his life as if nothing that he could do was going to change the way that he was going to end up."
Merlin spent much of his life in business before starting to write professionally at the age of 47. Now 65, a biographer and editor in his own right, he has studied Oscar's life and work, so his talks take a learned yet lively approach. In Dublin he even changed into an emerald velvet jacket for the lecture, as if in keeping with Oscar's stylish spirit.
"I try to tell people things that they might not have known before and at the same time give them a different angle on something which they know. For example, Dorian Gray figures prominently in the libel trial. My thesis is that it actually contributed to Oscar's downfall. People are unaware of the fact that the Queensberry's plea of justification for calling Oscar Wilde a sodomite includes that he had published 'a horrid sodomistic novel by the name of The Picture of Dorian Gray and it was calculated to subvert morality and to encourage unnatural vice'."
As we all know, Wilde lost his libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry, Bosie's father. Eventually, after three trials, he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour. This hellish experience inspired him to write The Ballad of Reading Gaol. When he was released from prison, bankrupt, he went to live in Paris, where he died in 1900. He was given a pauper's burial. His life story was full of tragedy, yet all the while his incisive wit remained. When he went back to his beloved Bosie after he got out of prison, he said that it was inevitable.
"How could I not love him?" Wilde said, "He ruined my life."
"How could you not love a man like that?" says Merlin. Listening to him, it is clear that his research on his grandfather is a labour of love. He points out that while Wilde and his works may prove popular now, in his father's time, they were far from loved.
But back to Dorian. The novel was not met with universal repulsion, Merlin explains. "The Christian Monitor regarded the tale of Dorian Gray -- the man who makes a Faustian pact with the devil to remain youthful -- as a hugely moral story. Oscar wasn't moralising, he was writing. The one thing that he hated was utility in art. He wanted art for art's sake. And he said so in his trial -- I'm not giving messages in my art. I am simply writing something which I hope people are going to find beautiful to read. That is the way all artists create."
Merlin thinks that the novel is relevant today. "Its moral is -- be careful what you wish for and what you sell yourself for. Open any magazine today and you will find an ad for an anti-wrinkle cream or Botox -- anything which is adulating the wonderfulness of youth. We age and yet we wish it were not so. As Lord Henry says in the novel -- 'I would give anything to get back my youth except get up early, take exercise or become responsible.' I think the modern world should ask if it has sold itself for something it didn't really need -- fame, riches, youth. It's a great danger."
Merlin talks more of Oscar and his writings than himself. But it was not always so. There was a time, growing up in London, when his grandfather was rarely mentioned by his father Vyvyan. Although Wilde's children's' stories were read to Merlin, much as Oscar had read them to Vyvyan and his brother, they never elaborated on the subject of the author.
All this seems inconceivable and yet the context is everything. Merlin was told he could admit that Oscar was his grandfather but as he says, "I was discouraged from taking any interest in it at all. I was encouraged to keep my head down. In a sense it was probably quite a healthy attitude to have and it was important not to make a big thing about it. My parents, particularly, had suffered from the attentions of the press."
One day, when he was a young boy, Merlin came home from school and asked his father if Oscar Wilde was his grandfather. (Years later, Merlin got a sense of deja vu when his son Lucian asked him a similar question.) He was told that it was so. Content with the answer, Merlin asked no more. Years later, his father handed him a book which he had written entitled -- The Son of Oscar Wilde.
"All that he remembered he put into his book. I remember he gave me the book and said -- 'You should read this. This is my childhood.' It was easier to do that then."
When I say that this strikes me as odd and rather cold, he reminds me of the context. "Don't forget my father was born in 1886. But there were no common moments. There was nothing we could talk about. What was there to say? For my father it was a source of some pain, and writing about it was cathartic for him. There were no common memories. So we couldn't say, do you remember when Grandpa did this or that?"
The more he elaborates, the more sense it makes. "My father was eight when his father went to prison and it wasn't until he was in his late teens that he even knew what his father had been in prison for, so you can imagine this sense of concealment and incomprehension almost at why the family had been half destroyed in Victorian England in 1895, why he then had to spend three years abroad in boarding schools in France and Germany and Italy.
"When the plaque was put on the house in Tite Street in London in 1954, people wrote to newspapers saying, 'What on earth are you doing putting a plaque on a house of a man who was a homosexual, criminal, bankrupt and everything else?'
"It is the old story of keeping the thing in context, and the context of the Fifties is not conducive to talking about Wilde as a man, let alone a father or a grandfather. But he was sort of part of the wallpaper. He wasn't in the background and he wasn't not talked about out of any sense of shame or lack of interest. It was just that there wasn't a lot to say. What would we have talked about?"
And yet he remembers a picture of Constance on the wall in his bedroom. "Yes, she loved him until the end. In spite of herself, she changed the name. To give her her due, she was a very courageous woman. She never asked Oscar for a divorce even though she was tempted at one stage. She actually stayed in London until after the end of all three trials. She stayed beyond the end of his conviction in London, just in case, which was a very noble thing to do. There's a new biography coming out about her and it will show a different relationship between her and Oscar, a much more loving relationship right up until the end.
"But Oscar exasperated her and I think in the end, his behaviour in the scandal and everything else probably contributed to her death, which of course didn't make life any easier for my father."
Merlin speaks of his family history with great compassion. "My father had a sense of shame and concealment for most of his early life. For me, it was much less so. In some sense his carrying the name Wilde would have been a bigger burden than not having it."
But this is another era. Merlin spends his life talking and writing about Oscar with great pride. Would he ever think of changing his name back to Wilde?
"I agonised about it at one stage but then I thought it's so much part of the story ... If I did, it's not going to make Oscar's last days any happier. It won't bring Constance back to life and it won't make my father's childhood any more pleasant. It's a sort of permanent rebuke to what happened back in 1895, so that's the way it should stay."
To coincide with the Dublin: One City, One Book festival (www.dublinonecityonebook.ie), a new edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde has been published by Penguin Classics, €9.99