I feel it’s high time I started catching back up on the Oscar Wilde books of this world. I haven’t gone on a proper Oscar Wilde reading binge since college, and my life has been the poorer for it. I’ve found that there is never a time at which I don’t want to read what more and more and more people think about Oscar Wilde. Either I agree with them and love them forever; or I consider that they are stretching their points, and feel sorry for them; or I think they are utterly wrong and have to remind myself it’s not a good enough reason to loathe them.
Generally speaking, I agreed with what Michael Foldy had to say. The book talks about Oscar Wilde’s trials and, generally, why they went down the way they did; and then he goes on to explore the societal reasons why Oscar Wilde went down the way he did. (Rim shot.) (Perhaps it is because I learned what a rim shot was around the same time I learned what a rim job was, but “rim shot” always sounds so dirty to me, and never more so than right now when I am using it to punctuate a dirty joke I am making about Oscar Wilde. Sorry, everyone.) Foldy pulls together information about the standing of the aesthetic movement, of the Liberal government, of public morals, of gender, and of law in late-Victorian England; the intersection of all these elements (Foldy argues) is what brought down Oscar Wilde. It’s not the most original point in all the world, but Foldy makes it very neatly.
The government’s ambivalence over the prosecution of Oscar Wilde has always interested me but is difficult to explain without sounding terribly boring. Put simply, biographers have long suspected that Queensberry (the reason Oscar Wilde was in court in the first place) had something on the government that prevented them from (a) prosecuting Bosie, Queensberry’s son, and Oscar Wilde’s BFF, who deserved prosecution if Oscar Wilde did and was an idiot besides; and (b) letting Oscar Wilde off of jail time, or declining to prosecute. The Prime Minister at the time, Rosebery, is believed to have been gay, and to have had an affair with Bosie’s oldest brother, Lord Drumlanrig, before the latter’s death by hunting accident in 1894. And when I say “hunting accident”, I would like you all to understand that I am implying “suicide”. So there was political danger in showing leniency to Oscar Wilde.
Foldy expands on this by tracking down some suggestive passages in Rosebery-related documents, which indicate that Rosebery had some thoughts to think about the Wilde trial, had been advised against helping Oscar Wilde out, and fretted a good deal over the whole affair. In particular, Rosebery was worried and ill the whole time the trials were going on, but abruptly got better once Oscar Wilde had been convicted. As Foldy points out, there’s nothing to prove that Queensberry was actively blackmailing the government (which I really do not believe was happening), but it’s easy to believe that they were afraid he would start talking loudly to the press if the trials didn’t go the way he wanted.
There were other chapters about Oscar Wilde’s writings and morality and Victorian sexuality, and some other things. This is not quite my area of interest — I’m so over literary theory after having it forced on me during my English degree-getting period — but happily Foldy has a lot to say about what people thought of Oscar Wilde, which is my exact area of interest and I wish all the Oscar Wilde books focused on that.
Next up: The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. It’s been out for years and I’ve been too lazy to bother with it. I suspect it of being driven by guesswork and salaciousness, but perhaps Neil McKenna will surprise me.