BOOK REVIEW: Conversations with Wilde: A Fictional Dialogue Based on Biographical Facts

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

OSCAR WILDE COVERWho 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.


Categories: LGBTQ

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19 replies

  1. Oh… this sounds great. Thanks!

  2. Sounds wonderful Paula – I love Oscar, and think he has so much more to him than people recognise. Wonderfully witty as he was, his writings often reveal a surprising depth. There’s a lovely collection from Notting Hill Editions which I review for Shiny New Books and highly recomment.

  3. This sounds like an intriguing way into Oscar’s biography. I do love his work and think he’s often really underrated as a dramatist.

  4. This sounds so good. thanks for the heads up and lovely review.

  5. This looks very interesting! Thanks for the review, Paula 🙂

  6. Your reviews are always excellent. And the text sounds an interesting one. However, I hope it’s not structured in a way that eliminates contingency. There is nothing ineluctable about a life except it went on. I’m intrigued by the comparative neglect of the socialism of Wilde in these postmodern times. Hence, I hope that the book includes some reference to The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Hopefully, Wilde was ahead of his time when he wrote:

    “The security of society will not depend, as it does now, on the state of the weather. If a frost comes we shall not have a hundred thousand men out of work, tramping about the streets in a state of disgusting misery, or whining to their neighbours for alms, or crowding round the doors of loathsome shelters to try and secure a hunch of bread and a night’s unclean lodging. Each member of the society will share in the general prosperity and happiness of the society, and if a frost comes no one will practically be anything the worse.”

    • Thank you for your kind words, John. I went off and read Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ after reading your message. I was obviously aware of his criticism of Victorian society via his satirical works and his efforts to bring about prison reform towards the end of his life but less so of his thoughts on socialism. It was fascinating to see the way he highlighted problems from the perspective of the artist. I will need to read this piece again to fully get to grips with it but I’m glad you raised the point. Your messages always make me think.

      Alas, you won’t find Oscar discussing the problems of society in this short work.

  7. I love the concept of the this series and Wilde is such an intriguing character. I must look out for this one. Great review as always, Paula 🙂

  8. This sounds an interesting way to look at a life – after all, there’s no shortage of Wilde biographies! I agree with Kaggsy and Cathy – his warmth and depth are often overlooked. What a brilliant writer he was, and what a sad end.

    • Oscar worked incredibly hard at appearing glib and flippant for much of his career – it was a mask he wore for years. Without a doubt he had ‘warmth and depth’, but so successful was he in creating this frivolous persona, people to this day regard him merely as an irreverent, Puckish sort of character and do not taste the cake beneath the icing. However, for those of us who have read his wider works, it’s difficult to continue seeing him in this light once you have read De Profundis, for instance. Happily, there are a fair few of us about these days. 😊


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