By Merlin Holland
“Well, dear boy, this is a surprise, but a very pleasant one, and I’m delighted that you decided on Paris. I don’t think I could have faced going back to London”
Who has not at some point read, overheard or discovered themselves quoting a witty epigram accredited to the Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde? We frequently find ourselves able to “resist everything except temptation” or ironically forgiving our enemies because “nothing annoys them so much”, but how often, I wonder, do we stop to consider the person behind the pithy aphorisms?
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900) was a hugely popular playwright and spokesperson for aestheticism in the latter decades of the 19th century. He became successful in numerous spheres, from penning clever essays and writing a Gothic novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890) to lecturing in America and editing a fashionable ladies’ periodical (The Woman’s World). It was, though, with his amusing but subversive comedies of manners that he became a sensation among Victorian theatregoers. At the very height of his celebrity, however, he was convicted for ‘gross indecency with men’ and sentenced to two-years’ hard labour. On his release in 1897, he was broken in body and spirit. He died alone and in penury at the age of 46.
In his excellent Foreword to Conversations with Wilde, Simon Callow describes Oscar’s fame as “never being greater.” Certainly, in the modern world he is widely remembered as a gifted writer, conversationalist and gay martyr – but this was far from true during his lifetime. Indeed, he was treated as a pariah by the British establishment and cast out of ‘decent’ society. As Callow so impeccably asserts: “His savage treatment at the hands of the English law was for many generations a potent image of its vicious absurdity, and its eventual reform is in some senses a posthumous redemption of his suffering.”
Merlin Holland – biographer, editor and sole grandson of Oscar Wilde – has for many years researched his grandfather’s life and works. In this “fictional dialogue based on biographical facts”, Holland deftly traces his distinguished relative from his birth in Dublin to those heady days at Oxford University; through scintillating conversations in London’s finest drawing rooms to his great literary triumphs; leading us inexorably towards Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde’s final humiliating downfall.
This innovative little book – part of a series that currently includes Conversations with JFK by Michael O’Brien and Conversations with Casanova by Derek Parker – presents a biographical essay followed by a question and answer style interview with Oscar, which is greatly enhanced by Holland’s intimate knowledge of his subject.
Conversations with Wilde is an entertaining read tinged with sadness and not a little bitterness for the cruel ruination of a unique talent at the peak of his creative genius. It also brings to the fore the many and varied reasons why almost 120 years after his death we continue to be enthralled by Oscar Wilde.
Many thanks to Watkins Publishing for providing an advance review copy of this title.