Oscar Wilde

Beautiful Untrue Things

“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”-Oscar Wildewi-3

(There is a new book by Gregory Mackie by this title, but that is not what this post will be about.)

Have you seen this quote on an Etsy cross stitch or t-shirt? “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde.

This thought obviously strikes a chord in our times. Wilde never actually said it, nevertheless it is one of his most famous sayings, along with another thing he never said “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

If you look up posts on Twitter, you will invariably find this quote and attribution, and occasionally Wilde experts will chime in to correct it, but it never makes a dent. The misquotations outnumber the corrections 500 to 1, maybe more.

I once tweeted, in response to one of the corrections, that maybe we should just give up and let that be an actual thing Wilde said.

“Never,” came the reply.

So Wilde didn’t say that.

But my saying so will not do much to stem the tide.

Nor, I am afraid, has my research done anything to put a dent in the popular narrative about Oscar Wilde: Living a peaceful, upstanding life until he met the spoiled and reckless Lord Alfred Douglas, who introduced Wilde to “the streets,” Wilde tried to get away from him, but could not resist him. Douglas led him into a dangerous battle with his father, coerced him into a clearly reckless libel suit, which everyone else urged Wilde not to file, abandoned him when he went to jail, and tried to tarnish his legacy years later.

Anyone who follows stories about Oscar Wilde in the media (social and traditional) will encounter variants on this story. Some parts of this story are just plain wrong: Douglas did not abandon Wilde. Nor was he the only one who encouraged Wilde in his libel suit. Many people, including most newspaper journalists, thought it would be a disaster for Queensberry, not Wilde. Some rest on little evidence: the idea that it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to “rough trade.” Some is complicated: the nature of Wilde and Douglas’s relationship. Some, like Douglas’s mid-life religious conversion and bitterness towards Wilde, deserve more contextualization than they usually get. It is, as I see it, and wonderfully complex story, full of colorful characters with good and bad traits, all story-tellers with a desire to spin events as their own personalities dictate. So much nuance, which is so often lost in the re-telling.

Should I just give up and let the popular version be the history?



Why Wasn’t Wilde’s De Profundis Sent to Lord Alfred Douglas?

One of the great mysteries surrounding Oscar Wilde’s prison manuscript, posthumously titled De Profundis, is why the original hand-written version was never sent to Lord Alfred Douglas.

Wilde gave written instructions to Robert Ross, not yet his literary executor, to print up a typescript that he could work from and then to send the original to its adressee, Douglas. This never happened, and in later litigation Ross claimed that Wilde gave him verbal instructions that contradicted what he had written earlier. Ross and Wilde must have had conversations about the manuscript, but we’ll never know what they discussed.

Over the years a certain mythology has been built up over the Ross-Douglas-Wilde triangle. Because Ross and Douglas spent years locked in furious conflict, people have naturally assumed that they were always rivals.  I don’t believe this is true for various reasons that I lay out in Oscar’s Ghost. During the period in question they were friends. Friends who sometimes quarreled, but friends none the less. (Ross, in court, said he was good friends with Douglas until the period when Douglas was editor of the Academy.)

I believe the long-time-rival understand of their relationship has colored the interpretations of Ross’s motivations for holding back De Profundis. The most common theory is that Ross, recognizing the value of the letter, persuaded Wilde not to send the original to Douglas because he believed Douglas would rip it up, as he most likely would have done.

But ripping up the original hand-written document would not have destroyed the work, just the manuscript. Ross had been instructed to send the manuscript only after he had completed a typescript that Wilde could work from.  As long as Wilde had a typescript, he wouldn’t need the original to create a publishable work and Douglas could throw the prison letterhead on the fire if he liked.

It became important later that Ross had the original hand-written letter because it proved Wildean authorship. But this cannot have been his concern at the time. He had no idea that Wilde did not have long to live.

I would like to propose another reason why Ross might not have sent the manuscript to Douglas: friendship.

In later legal actions, Ross claimed he had sent a full typescript of De Profundis to Douglas. It is certainly a possibility that he did and that Douglas didn’t read much of it and destroyed it never thinking it would come up again.  (If he received a typescript, however, he would have known that there was an original out there somewhere.)

According to Douglas, he received something from Ross, which he described as consisting of what he later surmised were excerpts of the long letter. He said it was too short to be De Profundis, but as predicted, he didn’t read much before he threw it away.  Oscar Wilde’s letters make it clear, however, that Douglas had been warned by Ross and More Adey that a negative letter was coming.

According to Douglas, what he received came with a cover letter from Ross apologizing that he had to send it, and telling him not to take it seriously because Oscar was not himself.

Robert Ross was a person who liked to involve himself in his friends’ affairs, not only their artistic business, but their relationships. In fact, Ross did try to defend Douglas to Wilde while he was in prison. Wilde would not hear of it. If Ross persuaded Wilde not to send De Profundis it could well be that he thought it would be too painful for Douglas.

If that is the case, it is feasible that Douglas’s account is true, that he never received the full letter but instead something mitigated by Ross.







Bosie: The Case for the Defense

On February 26, the Wandsworth LGBTQ+ Forum hosted a theatrical event, “The Trial of Lord Alfred Douglas,” the mock trial staged at the Oscar Wilde Temple, to determine whether Douglas was guilty of the physical and artistic murder of Oscar Wilde. The case for the prosecution was handled author and activist Peter Scott-Presland, who argued that Bosie was a horrible little reckless rat and but for him Wilde would have lived to be 95, would have written things far greater than he did in his life and would have a statue on horseback. (That is my paraphrase.) Counsel for the defense Andrew Lumsden, a member of the Gay Liberation Front argued that Bosie was a gay rights pioneer and that England, not he, was guilty of Wilde’s murder. Listening I had something of the sense of what would happen if you set Richard Ellmann’s “Oscar Wilde” up against Neil McKenna’s “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde” and the two books started to argue with each other.

The event was recorded, so you can listen for yourself and play your own part as a juror.


I don’t find myself in sympathy with either of these arguments. If you will indulge me, le me play the part of the defense for a moment:

As fun as it is to argue over whether Lord Alfred Douglas was a reckless little rat or admirable in his boldness for the cause of gay rights, it’s not actually all that relevant to the question of whether he is guilty of Wilde’s downfall. The question before the jury is whether Douglas knew or should have known that his actions would likely lead to Wilde’s downfall and early death.

To ask would Wilde have suffered an early death but for Douglas is to ask whether the outcome was inevitable. Looking back it sure seems that way. Looking forward, as they were, there were many possible paths.

For many reasons Wilde’s case was a-typical. Because of this, all of Wilde’s friends’ experience worked against them. As the prosecution points out, the circle of activists surrounding Wilde (Douglas was not the only champion of “the cause”) did know of the fallen martyrs, the people who were sent to jail. They also knew of many, many men who had their cases brushed under the rug because they were too publicly embarrassing. Or who paid the blackmail to the right renters and solicitors to make things go away. There were even cases of people they knew to be homosexual who sued over the libel of being called homosexual and won. It was perfectly reasonable to believe Wilde was going to win his libel suit or after that to win his criminal trials.

If we are to decide whether or not Wilde would have gone to prison but for Douglas, do we not need to also have trials for all the other “but fors” that had to line up just right to produce this historical outcome?

Douglas did urge Wilde to press on with his libel suit, and of course he had special influence, but he was not alone in this. Until years after Wilde’s death, it was common for people to talk about Wilde being urged on by his friends in the plural. None of these friends pushed him in that direction because they wanted Wilde dead, or didn’t care if he was destroyed. They believed he would triumph. Until the second day of Wilde’s libel trial, when things took a shocking turn for the worse, the press largely agreed. If there was that much public sentiment that the case would be ruinous–for Queensberry– can we expect Douglas or anyone else to be certain they were wrong?



Oscar and Bosie’s Sex Life

PhotoFunia-1553098252Let’s talk about sex, baby…

Oscar Wilde never spoke publicly about the nature of his physical relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas– except to deny in court that one existed. Therefore the only account we have comes from Bosie. For want of any other information, biographers have generally accepted his version of things.

Bosie’s story is that Oscar pursued him, and after a long, ardent seduction, Bosie finally gave in to him but never really liked sex with him. The sex, he says, did not consist of much anyway– certainly not anything that would amount to sodomy. After a short time they stopped and never continued after Wilde got out of prison. What interests me is that this story has been largely accepted even among people who are inclined to view Douglas as a liar.

I don’t know if Bosie’s story is true, and neither does anyone else. In Oscar’s Ghost, I explain how Bosie’s account of his sex life with Wilde corresponds to a Platonic ideal of love that was current at the time. The ideal love that Wilde described was between an older man and a younger. (In an era of strict gender roles, all relationships were expected to be asymmetrical, with a strong man in the role of protector.) The older man would act as a mentor to the younger. The younger was expected to have little sexual interest in the older and if the relationship truly blossomed it transcended its sexual beginning and led to a creative partnership and “pregnancy of the soul.” This ideal is exactly what Bosie described and it would, in those terms, be an ideal love story. Maybe that alone is a reason to take it with a grain of salt.

To our way of thinking, a sexless relationship is a loveless one. I’ve been wondering lately how this story about Oscar and Bosie’s sex life might affect how we as modern readers feel about their relationship and what other assumptions it might lead to.

In Richard Ellmann’s biography (the source material for the movie Wilde, where most people with casual interest probably get their information on the Wilde/Douglas relationship) the fact that Douglas was lukewarm about sex with Oscar is used to bolster the premise that Douglas was only attracted to Wilde for his money and fame.

Was Bosie lying about the nature of his relationship with Wilde? It is certainly possible. He had a great deal of incentive to do so. Gay men of the era could be counted upon to lie about their sex lives when they became public knowledge. Bosie initially tried to claim that nothing of the sort had happened between him and Oscar. No one believed him. After Frank Harris persuaded him that no one would listen to anything he said until he came clean, he told the story that is generally accepted today. Yes, there were “familiarities” but very little of that, and not for long. There is no one who can prove anything different.

In recent years a number of depositions taken for Wilde’s trials and not used in court came to light. One of the interesting tid bits was the testimony of a housekeeper who found a letter from Douglas to Wilde in which Bosie signed off “your darling boy to do whatever you like with.” Maybe Bosie wasn’t quite as ambivalent about sex with Wilde as he would have people believe.

In De Profundis, Wilde remembers how Bosie’s cheeks would flush “with wine or pleasure,” which implies that Wilde had a certain, fond familiarity with how Bosie looked on occasions in which he was experiencing the kind of pleasure that gets the blood pumping.

We never really know what goes on with anyone behind closed doors. In the long run it isn’t very important. But it is an interesting exercise to think about how our feelings about that relationship might shift if we imagine them as having a full active sex life.






Making and Remaking Oscar Wilde

I was reading a review today of Michele Mendelssohn’s Making Oscar Wilde in the New York Journal of Books. Paul Thomas Murphy writes:

Making Oscar Wilde focuses not upon the year-by-year existence of the person Oscar Wilde, but rather upon the persona: the unique, larger-than-life image of Wilde, as compelling today as it was in the 1890s. Specifically, Mendelssohn—meticulously, convincingly, and with great gusto—maps the creation of that image, largely forged in fire during one very tumultuous year of Wilde’s life: 1892, the year he toured America.

After his review of Mendelssohn’s “vivid account” Murphy concludes:

It’s also worth noting that the Oscar persona we now know and love is not exactly the same as the Oscar persona of the 1880s and early 1890s. As Mendelssohn writes, “Today, Wilde’s sainthood is secure. He has become gay history’s Christ figure.”

But that image of Wilde certainly did not exist in 1882. Our own iconographic sense of Oscar Wilde is nuanced by the knowledge of his passion: his suffering, exile, and death. A fuller exploration of what went into the creation of our icon, as opposed to the Victorians’, would be a valuable addition—or would make for a valuable sequel—to Making Oscar Wilde.

I hope you will not find it too self-serving of me to point out that there is such a book. Oscar’s Ghost chronicles how Wilde mourned the violent death of the “Oscar Wilde” persona that he had begun to create in America by writing De Profundis. In that long essay he told a story of an operatic tragedy, a love that destroyed its object, a great man brought down and his path to rebirth. This story became the template that Wilde’s later literary executor used to rehabilitate and mythologize the posthumous Wilde. This led to a feud between Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas as they warred over Wilde’s legacy and their own places in it, a fight that itself had implications for how we understand Wilde today. If you have read Making Oscar Wilde, and have an interest in how the Wilde myth progressed, might I humbly suggest you pick up a copy of Oscar’s Ghost?

Oscar Wilde: It’s Complicated

A while back, the Oscar Wilde Literary Society posted a link on Facebook to an article arguing that it is time for “the left” to stop idolizing Oscar Wilde because “he is a pervert.” [I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to any article that sets up a straw man of “the right” or “the left” and argues against the people to whom it ascribes a belief rather than the underlying ideas, but that is not the issue at the moment.] The thought-provoking article in The Federalist  argues that in the #MeToo era we should find Wilde’s behavior as distasteful as his contemporaries did.

The most common response to the Federalist article among those who appreciate Wilde was a variant of “I admire the art, but not the man.” But there is something unsatisfying in this answer, especially because Wilde’s biography, as much as his writing, has been a source of fascination, inspiration and social commentary.  No one is out there building a shrine to “The Importance of Being Earnest.” They are making shrines to Wilde the gay martyr, and that is based on an understanding of the man’s biography. The repeated attempts to canonize him points to a real need for such a figure, a man who takes on all of the abuse heaped upon gay men through the ages, and rises again. LGBT history has produced many tragic figures, but none has risen from the dead quite like Wilde. 

But Wilde was not a “gay man” as we understand it. He was not proponent of “gay liberation” but of “The New Chivalry,” a worldview that idealized the sexual mentorship of a younger man by an older, and by “younger” they often meant an age that would, today, make us shudder. I find the whole subject messy and complex. The tricky question is the issue of consent, something we conceptualize differently than Victorians did. 

In a previous article in which I broached this subject, I wrote about the age of consent in Wilde’s time. It was an era of shifting values in England. The age of consent had recently been raised for girls (male-male sexuality was strictly illegal) from 12 to 16. It was still 13 in France. Wilde was not uniquely “perverted” then in hiring prostitutes who had not yet seen 20 years. The Victorian era was notorious for its child labor and for sending children to prison to be treated as adults. Society as a whole seemed to view what we consider to be children (at least when they were working class) as laborers, criminals– people capable of making adult decisions and being punished accordingly. The age of Wilde’s partners (mostly teenagers), although noted, wasn’t much of an issue for the court. They were more concerned about their gender and social class.

Wilde was a product of his time and could not help but view these boys as capable of consent. While we cannot blame Wilde for lacking the wisdom of another age, we should question those values and show them for what they were.

Today, our ideal of love is a partnership between equals. This was not the case in the Victorian era.  Their view of love was hierarchical. The man was the head of the household. Women were viewed in child-like terms. They were virginal, innocent and vulnerable and thus needed to be shielded and protected. As women were supposed to be less worldly than men, men would guide them and keep them safe. The woman would be an object of beauty and inspiration and she would support the man in his endeavors. This was the nature of pure love.

Victorian men who were attracted to their own sex tried to find a way to superimpose their desire onto that model. They imagined a great love would be between a person of superior status who nurtured, protected and guided a beautiful, but less worldly person. Men of the educated classes like Oscar Wilde found in classical Greek texts a model for this– the love of the beautiful boy.  An older man would take the younger under his wing. He would write hymns to his beauty, and teach him about the world and, as in that other great love– betwixt man and maid– there would be a sexual element.

Both of these ideals are viewed as unhealthy today. In our ethics of love there should not be an imbalance of power. In theirs, this was assumed. In fact, it was considered part of love’s beauty. When Wilde gave a speech in court about the love of an older man for a younger, he received applause from the gallery.

We do not blame our great-grandfather, who lived in an era before women’s suffrage, for assuming the woman’s place was in the home, even as we condemn that point of view.  Likewise, if Wilde had been raised in our time we have to believe that he would have thought about, and acted upon, his attractions in an entirely different way.

Of course in any ideal, people fail to live up to it. Our supposedly equal relationships are not in many ways. Wilde used the concept of love with an ennobling asymmetry to justify a lot of questionable actions. His attempt to cast his relations with prostitutes as a noble example of man of higher class and education raising up the less fortunate can only be seen as a desperate excuse.

Maria Roberts, an excellent Wilde researcher, tracked down the records of one of Wilde’s blackmailers, Freddie Atkins, who appears to have been born in 1872. His partner in crime, was a man named James Dennis Burton, alias Watson. Their age-old con worked like this: Atkins would go to the public urinals and other notorious pick-up spots and get someone to take him home at which point Burton, claiming to be his uncle, would barge in and demand money for his silence. Their con was famous enough in certain circles that Burton was known as “Uncle Burton.”

Atkins and Burton are usually described in a jaunty way as “a two act.” This description gives Atkins far more agency than he could have had, for if Robert’s identification is correct, he started working for the thirty-six-year-old bookmaker when he was only nine years old. He may have been old enough to consent under law (had he been a girl) when Wilde met him, but his life had not put him in a place where he had many choices.

We sometimes become unwitting conspirators in objectifying Wilde’s partners. There is an expression that is often used by people writing about Oscar Wilde and his circle in his more promiscuous period.  I encountered it most recently in a review of Rupert Everett’s film Happy Prince in reference to Maurice Gilbert, a young man who was often in Wilde’s company in his final years.

The review described him as someone who had been “passed around” by Wilde and his friends. It was common for Wilde and his friends, Robert Ross, Alfred Douglas, and Reggie Turner to have the same sexual partners. Gilbert was one of these young men. Saying Gilbert was “passed around” makes the higher status men the actors and the person we know little about the one who is acted upon. We could equally describe Maurice Gilbert as someone who enjoyed sexual play with his circle of friends.

Even though Wilde was ultimately convicted based on what he did with prostitutes, that would not have been enough to bring him to trial in the first place. The world was prepared to look the other way. It was his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas that brought everything to light. The whole thing happened because society felt that Douglas, and young men like him, needed to be protected from sodomy, even if the men loved each other and wanted to express their feelings that way.

But because Queensberry’s libel accused Wilde of “posing as a sodomite” rather than being one, he had a challenge proving that his slur was made in the public interest. Why does the public need to be alerted about how the writer seemed? His defense team argued that Wilde’s pose was dangerous because of his influence on innocent young men. He might be such an effective propagandist for vice that unsuspecting young men would be seduced into doing more than pose. We do not believe that anyone can be seduced into changing his sexual orientation. Wilde did not have the power to make anyone turn gay. That is, in effect, what his accusers believed he was capable of. A person could be persuaded to sin– enticed into deviancy. We see it differently, and the Wilde trials have become a symbol of how misguided, and damaging historic homophobia was. It was, indeed.

When we entertain the thought that some of the young men who hero-worshipped Wilde might have been confused or troubled by his advances, or encouraged to engage in activities they might not otherwise have, or that the immature undergraduate Alfred Douglas might have been heavily influenced by the older artist, we find we’re dangerously close to saying that the prosecution was right. So admirers of Wilde tend to avoid that.

Douglas was the symbol par excellence of the golden youth wilted by Wilde. In order to maintain any semblance of his position in society Wilde had to create an alternative to this narrative.

Over the past few years we’ve started to recognize the kind of stories that prominent men tell in order to defend themselves against charges of abuses of power: She was not as innocent as people think. She was promiscuous. She was the one who tempted me. My main fault was that I was too weak. She was only interested in my money and fame. Anyway, she is hysterical, emotionally unstable. It isn’t right that we should allow someone like that to bring a great man down.

Does this not sound a lot like the description of Lord Alfred Douglas in De Profundis?

In spite of Oscar’s vivid description of the young man as always being in pursuit, it is possible to see the story through another lens, one in which Oscar wants Bosie around, but always on his own terms. He resents him when he wants to do something Oscar does not, or wants Oscar’s attention when he doesn’t want to give it. Oscar is the one with all the power. Where does this leave us? Was Wilde wronged or in the wrong? It was, I fear, a combination of both.

So this is the heart of the problem: When you go back in history, the lawful and respectable often turns into the regretted immoral. The person who proved he was not a communist during the Red Scare avoided the blacklist, but was shunned years later for having named names, while the person whose career was left in shambles is lauded for his bravery.

One of the characters in the Wilde circle, who I have continued to research, was considered a problem because of his sexuality and the bad company he kept. To learn more about him, I delved into this family, and found that some of its highly esteemed members were involved in the coolie trade, and wrote about Chinese indentured laborers in ways that compared their efficiency to cattle. It is not until you read something like that that you’re confronted with how close to the slave years these people were and how much they took colonialism and rigid social hierarchy for granted.

Michele Mendelssohn, in Making Oscar Wilde, chronicles Wilde’s pilgrimage to meet the Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and the inspiration Wilde took from blackface minstrel shows. Years later when he and Lord Alfred Douglas sampled the sex tourism in Algiers their senses of entitlement and their views of the natives were on ugly display, if Andre Gide’s account is accurate. (Lord Alfred Douglas wrote to Gide complaining more about the betrayal of confidence than the context of what Gide wrote, so the broad outlines are most likely true, although probably heightened for literary effect.) Wilde was fascinated by criminality, Douglas said of him that he “would love to chat with an assassin and would happily invite him to dine in his room. This would involve danger. He believes this would be truly fun.” In this spirit he befriended Esterhazy, a spy who allowed an innocent Jewish man, Alfred Dreyfus, to take the blame in a show trial charged with anti-Semitism.

So when I read the sign at the Oscar Wilde shrine:

White Supremacy

Only Love Here

It doesn’t seem to fit. As much as we need Wilde as a symbol of a man who stood in opposition of the homophobic biases of his time, he also stood well within others of its biases. So he was in one sense exactly the gay martyr he is made out to be. He was convicted because his partners were male, not because they were young. He was stalked into bringing a disastrous libel suit in the first place because of fear and disgust at his love, not his intemperate lusts. We are justified in seeing him as the symbol of a profound tragedy– an era in which a kind of sexuality that we no longer disapprove of was criminalized and an artist was destroyed because he could not conform. That is what the Oscar Wilde shrine is all about. The dying and rising of a great man under an unjust law, and with him the dying of the old world and the birth of the new.

The other side of that coin is that there were things Wilde’s contemporaries did not disapprove of that we now find problematic. By making shrines to him, we run the risk of elevating them as well. (Whatever the opposite of that expression about babies and bathwater is.)

And that tells us something about our own time. Human relations are messy and complicated. Justice is never as neat or clear as we would like it to be. A century from now people will look back at some of the things we took for granted and find them appalling. We have no idea what they are. All we can do is stumble around, making our best efforts to be good to one another. I find it all incredibly complicated, and fascinating.


Oscar’s “Mistake”

06I was reading an interview with Rupert Everett about his film “The Happy Prince.”

“Wilde was a contrary character, and made many bad decisions: keeping in contact with Bosie after his release from jail was one of them, Everett says.”

Wilde’s reunion with Lord Alfred Douglas was not well-received. It drew attention to the fact that Wilde had not been cured of his unnatural attractions by prison. It ran the risk of re-igniting Queensberry’s vendetta. Society would never accept Wilde with Douglas, and the choice likely meant turning his back on social rehabilitation.

It was certainly a risk, but what do we mean when we say it was the wrong decision? Does this mean that we believe the best decision would have been for Wilde to give up living with the partner of his choice and renounce his sexuality in order to better fit in? In modern terms, to live a closeted life? Would that have been the good decision? Would it even have been possible?

Whether Douglas was part of his life or not, Wilde could never go back to balancing family with a secret homosexual life. He was too famous. Having been exposed, he was now forced to chose one life or the other. He might have had more people on his side, but would he have been happier and more artistically inspired had he chosen respectability?

In 1905, Lord Alfred Douglas (writing as A) explained how he saw Wilde’s post-prison creative slump:

Wilde's Last Years

If he is right about this: that Wilde reflected life and his life in Paris was not worth reflecting, would the alternative life we imagine for him have been more worthy of relfection? Would the smart society women who had once served as his sounding board have invited him back into their salons if not for Bosie? It’s doubtful.

The most tragic and wrenching aspect of choosing an outcast’s life was that it meant Wilde never saw his sons again. For this reason alone we might say that Wilde made a terrible choice. Yet we don’t know how it would have gone if Wilde had renounced his disreputable life. Would he have been allowed to have a relationship with his sons? This was the road not taken. When a historical choice leads to a poor outcome, we tend to assume that another course would have ended well.  Yet we can never know if this is true. Deciding never to speak to Bosie again could have led to a happy ending or another tragic one.

Wilde and his wife might have met and come to a happy agreement that included regular visits with his sons. On the other hand, Wilde tended to resent it when his wife made demands of him. Would he have balked under her conditions? Would she have faced too much pressure from her friends to allow that to happen? Constance Wilde did not have long to live after her husband was released from jail. It is unlikely there would have been enough time for a full reconciliation. So even if she were in favor of her husband having a relationship with the children, after her death it would have fallen to the guardians to make that decision. They were adamant that the boys should not have any relationship with or knowledge of their father. They went so far as to turn down royalties from his work to avoid any connection. It seems likely that whether Wilde reunited with Douglas or not, he would not have been able to be in his son’s lives after the scandal.

How might the story have gone? Oscar Wilde in order to protect Bosie and to avoid being separated from him, goes into jail vowing to test the bounds of love. He loses everything he values. In the horrible conditions of prison, he turns against his former love. He comes out of jail and never contacts Bosie again. He meets with his wife and she agrees, with some reservations, to allow her husband to see his sons again, but she dies before he has the opportunity and the guardians will not allow it. He renounces his indiscretions and starts to enjoy a few invitations back into society, but he is largely seen as a debauched and dangerous figure. He never regained his status before the ear infection that had gone untreated in prison killed him.

Oscar Wilde knew better than anyone just what a steep climb it would be to regain any semblance of his former life. Of course he was conflicted. To abandon any hope of returning to his old life, and to jettison his family along with it, was a frightening and wrenching prospect.

Did he want to make the herculean effort to win the conditional acceptance of a society that despised him? In time he might have regained some of his favor, but how much? Or should he cast his lot with the marginal people (and a few other courageous souls) who were willing to stand by him even in shame?

In the end, he chose not to try to go back to a life irretrievably ruined, but to go forward to something new and more authentic: as we would call it now, the life of an openly gay man. He would stay on the continent where (people often forget) homosexuality was looked down upon, but was not a crime. He would live out his days with the person he loved (with all of the difficulties that came with it). He would be an artist– maybe a better one, drawing inspiration from darkness as well as light.

“Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer…At the end of a month, when the June roses are in all their wanton opulence, I will, if I feel able, arrange through Robbie to meet you in some quiet foreign town,” Wilde wrote to Douglas from prison. “I hope that our meeting will be what a meeting between you and me should be, after everything that has occurred. In the old days there was always a wide chasm between us, the chasm of achieved art and acquired culture; there is a still wider chasm between us now, a chasm of sorrow; but to humility there is nothing impossible, and to love all things are easy…Remember also that I have yet to know you. Perhaps we have yet to know each other…And incomplete, imperfect, as I am, yet from me you may still have much to gain. You came to me to learn the pleasure of life and the pleasure of art. Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful– the meaning of sorrow and its beauty.”

Was it a tragic mistake to reunite with Douglas or was it, as Nicholas Frankel argues, an act of defiant “unrepentance”? I think it was something much simpler. They wanted to be together. They’d chosen each other, and they were brave, foolish or besotted enough to risk society’s disapproval. It didn’t work out. To paraphrase John Mellencamp, they fought authority, authority always won. That doesn’t mean it was wrong to try.