After Oscar Wilde was released from prison, he lamented the loss of his library, and relied on friends to give him books as gifts. His friend Vincent O’Sullivan gave him a copy of Baudelaire’s letters, but Wilde didn’t like them: “They are all about publishers and money. His real self was in his poetry.”
The same could be said for Oscar Wilde’s Complete Letters, which I also finished reading recently. Most of the writer’s correspondence was taken up with quite mundane and often depressingly familiar matters for anyone trying to make a literary living.
Was Wilde’s real life made up of his writings and the dramatic episodes have become part of his mythology or was his real life the one that is too dull to read about?
To get an idea of what he might have thought was his “essence” here is an excerpt of Wilde reviewing a biography of Coleridge. This from the article Great Writers by Little Men from the Pall Mall Gazette March 28, 1877.
“The real events of Coleridge’s life are not his gig excursions and his walking tours; they are his thoughts, dreams and passions, his moments of creative impulse, their source and secret, his moods of imaginative joy, their marvel and their meaning, and not his moods merely but the music and the melancholy that they brought him; the lyric loveliness of his voice when he sang, the sterile sorrow of the years when he was silent. It is said that every man’s life is a Soul’s Tragedy. Coleridge’s certainly was so, and though we may not be able to pluck out the heart of his mystery, still let us recognize that mystery is there; and that the goings-out and comings-in of a man, his places of sojourn and his roads of travel are but idle things to chronicle, if that which is the man be left unrecorded.”
I have been reading a lot of biographies lately, mostly of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. They have left me wondering if “that which is the man” can ever be captured in a biography.
In life you never experience a person the way you do in a biography. You never get an overview of a whole life– the same person in his context as a worker, a family man, a lover, a friend, a debtor, in all of his moods: when he is up, when he is down. You have impressions of people. You know parts of them. A biographer tries to harmonize all of the impressions he or she can collect from people who caught these glimpses, who knew the person in part.
Who has the truth? Is the opinion of a person who dislikes you, colored by the memory of a bad experience less “true” than the memory of the person who was delighted by you? Is the truth the middle ground of these two poles or are you actually both things at the same time– a thoughtless person and a thoughtful person, depending on the context?
A biographer has the question of memory to contend with, of course. As I learned when I was writing the book Arlo, Alice and Anglicans, if you interview one person about an event from the past you know what happened. If you interview two you start to doubt and once you’ve interviewed five you no longer have any idea what went down.
After Oscar Wilde died, a number of friends from his circle of poets and writers put out biographies, and many of them spent years arguing with one another about the truth of their accounts. I suspect that “true” and “not true” is not quite the right way to look at these early biographies written by Wilde’s contemporaries. I would rather say that each of them tried in his own way to capture “that which was the man” based on what he was able to glimpse, what Wilde was willing to show him.
Numerous biographers have said that Wilde’s real talent in conversation was not that he could hold forth on any topic, but that he brought out the other people in a conversation. He was interested in the topics that interested them. His wife called him “a great actor.” Reading the Complete Letters it becomes clear that he often had edited versions of the truth for different friends.
In particular, Wilde tried to downplay his interest in reuniting with Lord Alfred Douglas in his letters to his literary executor Robert Ross who would go on to assist many of the early biographers. Ross believed that Douglas had always been the pursuer, because this was the impression Wilde wanted to give him. He told the truth about what he knew. It happens to have been quite different from Lord Alfred Douglas’s truth, because Douglas knew what Ross could not: That at the same time Wilde was writing to Ross about how Douglas was bothering him with letters and requests to meet, Wilde was encouraging him, and could not resist writing to Douglas every day and expressing his love, as some of he few surviving letters between Wilde and Douglas testify.
(The fact that few letters between Wilde and Douglas have survived skews the picture of the Wilde/Douglas relationship for present day of biographers of both men. Douglas burned about 150 letters of Wilde’s. I suspect that if they survived, they would be full of Wilde’s thoughts on art, books he thought Douglas should read, and a lot of every day observations along with the at that time incriminating articulation of romantic feeling.)
“[Wilde] had all the gifts necessary: an imposing presence, a pleasant voice, a control of language, charm, and an extraordinary tact in choosing subjects which would suit his listeners, and in judging his effects,” O’Sullivan wrote. “He did not try to enforce his moods; he gave the impression of adapting himself to the moods of others.”
He was a different Wilde to different people (as we all are to some extent). This means that when one biographer tells his truth he belies someone else’s memory.
Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s “intimate friend,” spent the better part of his life writing responses to other people’s versions of the story of his life with Oscar Wilde. He even wrote one biography that he later came to repudiate entirely. Oscar Wilde and Myself was written (largely ghost written) at a time when Douglas felt great bitterness about Wilde’s prison letter De Profundis and the prison-tainted version of their story it presented. So you have the strange spectacle of Douglas arguing against his own biography of another biography. Because of his changing moods, memories and versions of the history, many people consider him to be at best unreliable, at worst a damned liar.
Is it reasonable to expect that Douglas could give a “true” account of what his relationship with Wilde had been? Was he ever really in a position to formulate some kind of overriding “truth” about that? Was his mellowed perspective of the later years the most true? Or was his anger the truth? Did they love each other as they did in their most passionate moments, or hate each other as they did in their most combative, did they bore one another as no doubt they did from time to time? What did they want their future to be? Surely that changed from day to day, mood to mood.
The 1997 edition of Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde was published with an introduction by Merlin Holland. Harris’s early Wilde biography has long been considered unreliable and largely made up. Holland suggests that besides Harris’s literary style, which bolsters his own importance, and his habit of telling the story by inventing direct quotes, the picture Harris paints is essentially truthful. “His sin would appear to be embellishment rather than outright fabrication.”
Lord Alfred Douglas hated Harris’s biography. He fought to keep it from being published in England, and he worked with Harris and later George Bernard Shaw as the writers tried to come up with a version Douglas would find satisfactory.
Holland considers Douglas’s attempts to get the Harris book edited in his favor “devious” and underhanded. I don’t believe this is fair. I believe Douglas felt his version of the past was the truth. He was not trying to cheat, he was, from his perspective, trying to get justice.
One particular incident in the book offended Douglas the most. Shaw could not understand why Douglas objected to it. Shaw was certain (though he had not been there) that the facts of the episode Harris recounted had to be essentially what happened. Even though they had opposite positions on the scene, I believe that both Shaw and Douglas were right about it. It happened, but it is still not true.
To make it as simple as possible, Douglas and Wilde had a falling out over money and both complained to Harris about it. The basic recounting of this is probably not that far from what happened. On the other hand, his direct quotes of what Wilde, Douglas and he said were “embellished.” Only a few surface details and matters of interpretation are added. Embellishments? Or does it fundamentally change the meaning of the events?
If you’ve ever had an argument with someone and heard them say “All I said was” and repeat the same words in a new tone you will have an understanding of how reported events can be true, and the overall effect can still be a lie. As it appears in the book, Wilde generally says kind things about Douglas, and comes across as entirely reasonable, while Douglas says fairly horrible things, and comes across as unreasonable. Harris also contextualizes the argument so it is framed with what had to be his own point of view (which he attributes to Wilde)– that Douglas, as an English Lord, could always get more money.
The events become part of a narrative about sweet Oscar Wilde, who was utterly reasonable to request a small thing from a spoiled rich Lord. Harris didn’t much like Douglas, and this was no doubt the truth as he saw it. It was a complete smear as far as Douglas was concerned. This was what Douglas found objectionable– the tone, not the song.
More than a century later, it hardly matters who was right and who was wrong, who was reasonable and who was not. Unless, that is, you want to use the episode as a metaphor for a bigger point you want to make about someone’s character.
If I could sit down with Oscar Wilde and ask him myself what he thought the meaning of his life had been, would he have an answer? And would it be the same one he would give if you asked him a week later?
In spite of all of the biographies of Wilde available today, I still have the feeling that “that which was the man” has been left unrecorded and that is the only way it can possibly be.