The blurbs on the back:
I Give You Oscar Wilde
The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions
The Coward Does It With A Kiss
Just in case there's any confusion here: we are all agreed that Oscar Wilde was the best writer of the English language this side of Dickens, aren't we? Good. And we're all familiar with at least the basic elements of the tragic trajectory of his extraordinary life? Excellent. Just checking.
So here are some unexpected takes on the story, and the good news is that they're all fabulous. There are masses of biographies on the market, but I'd seriously advise you to ignore the whole lot of them in favour of Desmond Hall's fictionalised version. He's clearly studied his subject and the account is factually accurate, but it wears its research lightly. Starting with the US lecture tour, and thus giving us the early years only in the occasional flashback, Hall concentrates on the genuinely interesting period and successfully conjures up a living, breathing Oscar, whose actions and obsessions flow from a fallible human. Our narrator is an American whose inability to understand Wilde's self-destructive tendencies does not make him any less sympathetic to the man's suffering.
Of the other principals, Lord Alfred Douglas inevitably comes out as the villain, but it's hard to see a way of spinning the tale that would make him seem anything else (even his own account doesn't make it), but Robbie Ross and the rent boys come over convincingly. The one really serious omission - as in most versions - is Constance Wilde, Oscar's wife who stood by her man as long as was humanly possible, but was eventually forced into exile with her children. Luckily Rohase Piercy, who gave us the gorgeous My Dearest Holmes, has redressed the balance with an account from her perspective - a kind of alternative De Profundis. And it's wonderful, an immense act of imagination that recasts the story and forces a new and powerful perspective.
In between these two came Peter Ackroyd's version of the story. You're probably familiar with his work, but in case you're not, Ackroyd is generally considered a proper writer - gets his books reviewed in grown-up newspapers and everything - but don't let that put you off: he's also very engaging, very funny and very keen on expanding conventional writing. In the case of his biography of Dickens, he pushed a bit too far, but here he's in his element. For a talented writer, the impersonation of Oscar Wilde is an absolute gift and it's one that Ackroyd accepts with glee and gusto. As you'd expect, the text is shot through with a series of epigrams and paradoxes that blur the line between quotation and homage ('Imitation changes not the impersonator, but the impersonated' - is that an original?), and there's also a very nice line in Wildean faery tales, but the dominant tone is one of desperate forbearance in the face of misery. Fabulous stuff, but heart-breaking.
Technically speaking, Frank Harris’ book is not a novel, but Harris was such a wonderful self-mythologizer, such a lover of tall tales that one can never read his words without having vast buckets of salt available. The publishers are well aware of this fact, and describe the book as ‘an ambience, a mood biography; Wilde not as he really was, but as the high living, rascally, indubitably talented Harris conceived him.’ Which is a neat way of covering yourself.
Anyway, what you get is – inevitably – lots and lots of Harris and very little Wilde. Hard to believe from this text that Wilde might have been a witty, entertaining, interesting man in his own right, and not simply a doomed figure whose greatest tragedy was not to listen to the advice of his friend and confidante, Frank Harris. In case this is sounding a bit negative, let me be clear that it’s actually great fun: Harris was a fine raconteur and his heart was always in the right place when it came to the importance of literature. Here he is trying to persuade Arthur Walter, the manager of The Times that he should come to Wilde’s assistance:
If you're vague about the details of the Wildean career, you may find that Piercy's book assumes too much familiarity, but that's easily dealt with - simply read Hall's version first, then Ackroyd's and then move on to Piercy. And for pure entertainment, give Harris a whirl. In short, make sure you get them all.
Lord Alfred Douglas
Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up