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NOVELS ABOUT OSCAR WILDE


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Desmond Hall
I Give You Oscar Wilde
Mayflower, London, 1968
price: 6/-; 320 pages
dedication: To Suzanne Cooper and Katherine Hall
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Peter Ackroyd
The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde
Perennial Library, New York, 1985
price: $3.95; 230 pages
dedication: For Audrey Quinn


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Frank Harris
Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions
Panther, London, 1965
price: 5/-; 320 pages
(first published 1938)
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Rohase Piercy
The Coward Does It With A Kiss
GMP, London, 1990
price: £5.95; 128 pages
dedication: For Tim, without whom much of this would never have occurred to me.


The blurbs on the back:

I Give You Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde's life was larger than life; his conversation of unparalleled brilliance; his fame a storybook fame; his trial and imprisonment for homosexuality a nightmare; his final exile in France a brutal agony for a man who a few years before had been the toast of London, a devoted father, husband of one of England's most beautiful women.
A straightforward biography can hardly do justice to the extravagant drama of Wilde's life - to the tragedy of his obsession with a younger man.
Desmond Hall's brilliant novel captures as never before the true poignancy of a life which reached the heights - and touched the depths in the wake of a forbidden love.

The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde
In 1900 Oscar Wilde is living in exile in Paris. Impoverished, in failing health, and abandoned by all but a few friends, he reflects on his once-brilliant career and on the infamous trial and imprisonment for 'acts of gross indecency' that shattered his life. A stunning tour de force, this poignant and clever novel - daringly written by Ackroyd in the form of journal that Wilde might have kept during the last months of his life - presents a wonderfully entertaining and touching portrait of the life of one of Britain's most famous literary figures.

Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions
The great Oscar Wilde - as he appeared to his wicked, wild, high-living, rascally contemporary Frank Harris - the notorious author of
My Life and Loves.

The Coward Does It With A Kiss
Following Oscar Wilde's imprisonment, his wife Constance seeks refuge on the Continent. They are never to meet again. In an extended letter written to her husband she examines their past life, the truths and deceptions of their marriage and its unavoidable demise.
Drawing on the recorded facts of the Wildes' time together and their final years of separate self-imposed exile, Rohase Piercy has recreated the story of their relationship as seen from Constance's viewpoint. This is the letter Constance might have written, a moving testimony to an ill-formed situation, to a love that was inevitably doomed.


opening lines:

I Give You Oscar Wilde
For my last stay in London I reserved a room at the Cadogan Hotel, on Sloane Street.

The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde
This morning I visited once again the little church of St Julien-le-Pauvre.

Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions
On the 12th December, 1864, Dublin society was abuzz with excitement.

The Coward Does It With A Kiss
My Dear Oscar,
You may be surprised to receive another letter from me so soon after my last, and indeed I had not intended to write, for I have nothing particular to say that has not been covered by our recent correspondence.


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:

While willing to listen to me, Mr. Walter did not share my views. A man who had written a great poem or a great play did not rank in his esteem with a man who had won a skirmish against a handful of unarmed savages, or one who had stolen a piece of land from some barbarians and annexed it to the Empire. In his heart he held the view of the English landed aristocracy, that the ordinary successful general or admiral or statesman was infinitely more important than a Shakespeare or a Browning. He could not be persuaded to believe that the names of Gladstone, Disraeli, Wolseley, Roberts, and Wood, would diminish and fade from day to day till in a hundred years they would scarcely be known, even to the educated; whereas the fame of Browning, Swinburne, Meredith, or even Oscar Wilde, would increase and grow brighter with time, till, in one hundred or five hundred years, no one would dream of comparing pushful politicians like Gladstone or Beaconsfield with men of genius like Swinburne or Wilde. He simply would not see it and when he perceived that the weight of argument was against him he declared that if it were true, it was so much the worse for humanity. (pp. 151-152)

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.


I Give You Oscar Wilde
ARTISTIC MERIT: 4/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
5/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
4/5
The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde
ARTISTIC MERIT: 5/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
4/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
3/5
Oscar wilde: His Life & Confessions
ARTISTIC MERIT: 3/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
3/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
4/5
The Coward Does It With A Kiss
ARTISTIC MERIT: 5/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
4/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
4/5


a bonus apologia...
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Lord Alfred Douglas
Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up
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