OSCAR WILDE: THE UNREPENTANT YEARS by Nicholas Frankel, Reviewed by Josephine M. Guy

By Nicholas Frankel
(Harvard, 2017)
Reviewed by Josephine M. Guy on 2018-10-06.

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The idea of the part-biography, highlighting a crucial period of an individual's life, is not in itself new. Nor indeed is the ambition to revisit last years in order to challenge received opinion about the arc of a career. Writers, artists, and musicians have long been treated with the kind of retrospective framing that uses the circumstances of a death, especially if it seems premature, as a key to the significance of a life. Perhaps the best-known critique of this approach to biography is H. C. Robbins Landon's 1791: Mozart's Last Year (1988), which debunks such facile myth-making by showing that Mozart had no intention of dying, no premonition of such, and was not therefore feverishly writing his Requiem in D Minor to commemorate his own demise. Superficially, Wilde's life seems to resemble Mozart's: both were creative geniuses often pressed for money and popularly seen as dying before their time. Most importantly, both created works apparently prefiguring elements of their own fates: as Mozart's Requiem seems to anticipate his death, Wilde seems to prefigure his own final years in The Picture of Dorian Gray and An Ideal Husband, with their themes of hidden transgressions, discovery, and disgrace.

As Landon aimed to redefine the last year of Mozart's life, the title of Frankel's volume suggests that it aims to perform a similar service for Wilde, overturning the tendency of Wilde's previous biographers, and pre-eminently Richard Ellmann, to see the period after Wilde's imprisonment as one of inevitable and squalid decline. Against this pathetic and broken figure of popular iconography, The Unrepentant Years promises to reveal a Wilde who defiantly "feasted with panthers" (207) up to the end, to adapt the famous phrase Wilde used in De Profundis, and which Frankel invokes. He persevered despite (or perhaps partly because of) continuing disapproval from both family and establishment.

In thus retelling Wilde's last years, Frankel must confront head-on key elements in the "tragic Wilde" myth. These include the claim that prison permanently and irrevocably broke him, both creatively and personally; the widespread notion that his reconciliation with Lord Alfred Douglas is barely comprehensible, given the venom Wilde directed at Douglas in De Profundis, and Wilde's knowledge that resuming relations with his lover would eventually estrange him permanently from his children and cut off his only regular source of income; Wilde's impoverishment and his constant and apparently wholly unembarrassed importuning of his friends for money; and, finally, the social ostracism Wilde experienced and the consequent loneliness of his peripatetic exile.

Since Wilde's experience of incarceration is usually viewed as setting the pattern for his life on release, Part I of this book concentrates on his imprisonment. Frankel does not shy away from detailing the horrors, for Wilde, of those first weeks and months, and the various degradations of his treatment at Pentonville and Wandsworth. The evidence he compiles, including photographs, official records, and contemporary testimony, still has the power to shock. Frankel suggests that Wilde's subsequent removal to Reading Gaol--then considered a "country prison"--was probably prompted less by concerns about Wilde's deteriorating state of health than by a desire to have him out of sight of the London press as the "poster-boy for the inhumanity of the existing [prison] system" (49). Traumatized when he arrived at Reading and suffering from an untreated ear infection that would later contribute to his death, Wilde was further humiliated under the harsh regime of Lieutenant Henry Isaacson. It was not until June 1896, according to Frankel, and a year after sentencing, that a turning-point came. This was partly due to a report on Wilde's mental state that Frank Harris had written and sent to the new chairman of the Prison Commission. More significantly, when Isaacson was replaced by the more enlightened and sympathetic Major James O. Nelson, Wilde was given not only books, but also the time and materials to write the document--De Profundis--which has had such a formative influence on modern understandings of his life.

Interpretations of this work, including the sincerity and significance of Wilde's berating of Douglas, have been revolutionized in the last two decades by the scholarship of Ian Small in his OUP edition of De Profundis (2005) and by Douglas Murray in Bosie (2000), his recuperative biography of Douglas. Frankel's account seems highly indebted to these works, although the absence of a bibliography in this volume--which will irritate some readers--hinders a quick tracing of such sources. Small's careful re-examination of the De Profundis manuscript in the British Library raised questions about its expressive authenticity by highlighting its contrivance as a "made" document, involving elements of self-fashioning undertaken for different purposes and audiences. Along with Murray, Small also noted numerous discrepancies between Wilde's and Douglas's accounts of their relationship leading up to and after the trials, and thus largely exonerated Douglas from the more damning allegations Wilde had flung at him--that he hampered Wilde's creativity and selfishly neglected to visit him while in prison.

Building on this body of research, Frankel continues the task of redressing the balance between the two men, showing not only how much Douglas fed Wilde's creativity but also how hard he tried to contact Wilde when Wilde was in prison, and to have his sentence commuted. Frankel later uses these points to explain Wilde's reconciliation with Douglas. Douglas, Frankel argues, never saw the venomous elements of De Profundis, which Chapter 2 of this book probes in detail, and which in any case sprang from a mood that Wilde had largely flung off by the time he left prison. At the end of the first section of this volume, "The Prison Years: 1895-1897," we therefore see a Wilde who returns to the world in a relatively optimistic frame of mind, in good basic health, being slimmer and fitter from the prison regime than during his trial, and eagerly looking forward to a reunion with Douglas.

Part Two, "Oscar Wilde in Exile: 1897-1900," sets out to document the precise contours of Wilde's post-prison years. In each of seven chronologically arranged chapters, Frankel treats what he sees as a distinct phase in Wilde's last three years. On his release, Wilde stayed briefly and unsatisfactorily in Dieppe; once he was reconciled with Douglas, they decided to take a house together in Naples; when this arrangement collapsed, Douglas returned to Paris; subsequently, Wilde moved to Paris and resumed his relationship with Douglas, although the two did not take rooms together; Wilde involved himself in the Dreyfus affair and fell out with his old friend Carlos Blacker; Douglas returned to London and Wilde left Paris for the Riviera; and finally, Wilde spent his restless last months travelling between Switzerland, Genoa, and Le Havre, ending up back in Paris and the Hôtel d'Alsace, in whose rooms he would die.

Frankel vividly depicts the various places Wilde stayed in, the people he met, the meals he ate, and the bars he drank in. He also details Wilde's efforts to restart his literary career, analysing at length the only work he completed in exile, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. In between, Frankel tracks Wilde's tortuous and tortured negotiations with his wife, his wife's family, and various intermediaries and authorities, as he sought redress for the wrongs done to him, both private (the withholding of access to his children) and public (the inhumanity of the prison system). Though much of this narrative is familiar ground, Frankel strikes a fresh balance between what he sees as the pleasurable versus the painful experiences of these years. In Frankel's retelling, Wilde's life outside prison proved more difficult than he had imagined it might be at the time of his release, and eventually this life overwhelmed him. Yet as Frankel is at pains to stress, this post-prison life nonetheless held many riches--emotional, sexual, and intellectual--and for certain periods of time, and in certain locations (notably in Naples with Douglas, and later in Paris) Wilde could resume elements of his pre-prison lifestyle, including fine-dining and frequent sexual encounters. He could also feel himself once again the center of attention, holding forth for hours to rapt audiences, albeit in bars rather than in London drawing-rooms or the West End stage. Crucially, Frankel sees Wilde's reunion with Douglas as motivated by genuine love and devotion on the part of both; the eventual failure of their attempt to set up life together, he argues, sprang largely from the prejudice and hostility of others. Indeed, the portrait he paints of the two men holed up in their villa in Naples, with their cook, maid, and "two boys," "Peppino and Michele" (139) to wait on them, and both busy at their writing, comes as close to a domestic and creative harmony--as Frankel tells it--as at any time in Wilde's life.

Largely to correct the assiduous moralizing of Wilde's life by his contemporaries, the most recent of Wilde's biographers have tended to be non-judgmental. Frankel's volume largely continues this tendency. Using the available evidence from Wilde's letters and works set alongside the views of friends, contemporary observers, and the members of officialdom with whom he came in contact, Frankel constructs a narrative that tries to make sense, psychologically speaking, of Wilde's actions at this time, while also not judging them. The resulting tone is measured and sympathetic, yet also in places somewhat inhibited, as if Frankel balks at pursuing the implications of some of the evidence he brings to light. Two examples will illustrate this point.

The dominating aspects of the "unrepentant years" that Frankel documents are money and sex. On leaving prison Wilde was often chronically short of money. Yet as Frankel shows, he sometimes had more money than might be supposed, and on occasion more than he claimed to the various friends and acquaintances from whom he so regularly demanded handouts. Wilde also managed to fall out with precisely those who had treated him most generously. Although Frankel carefully details the circumstances surrounding these disagreements, including those that conspired to sour his relationship with Constance and her family, this book prompts the discomforting suspicion that Wilde's difficulties over money arose partly because he shared something of that sense of entitlement that was identified with the Anglo-Irish ascendency, and was later articulated by W. B. Yeats. When Wilde's creativity failed him, he seems never to have thought of trying to earn a living by any way other than writing; nor, when he did receive handouts, did he think he might have spent the money better than on luxuries he could ill afford, such as lavish entertaining. Frankel acknowledges Wilde's complete lack of responsibility about money, which long predated his trial, but more or less leaves it at that. The reader is thus invited to see such irresponsibility as part and parcel of Wilde's antinomianism--of that insouciant, defiant personality that disregarded establishment norms about what constituted "proper" behaviour. Yet clearly there are other ways of reading his financial mismanagement that speak less certainly of the Wilde Frankel aims to rehabilitate. Frankel's account of him does not entirely banish the sense of desperation and self-loathing, as well as--more straightforwardly--a careless, self-pitying disregard of other people's feelings, which were elements of Ellmann's Wilde.

Frankel's volume also gives ample evidence that Wilde enjoyed much sexual pleasure in his late life, and that he continued to be a witty companion capable of inspiring loyalty and affection in those around him. Yet one cannot fail to be struck by the fact that these encounters were often fleeting (as Frankel acknowledges) and nearly always involved men (including male prostitutes) much younger than Wilde--his "boys," as Wilde euphemistically termed them. At the same time, Wilde often seems to have bitterly resented the interventions into his post-prison life of male friends of his own age, including former lovers like Ross; despite their efforts to support him, he fell out with most of them at various points. Although, as noted above, Frankel carefully explains how these tensions arose-- sometimes from Wilde's efforts to keep favor with friends whom he knew disapproved of Douglas--this pattern of behaviour nonetheless suggests a complex power (im)balance that might have been explored more thoroughly, and that seems inadequately explained by what Frankel calls Wilde's "frank, public, and unapologetic" attitude towards his "relationships with young men" (215).

A case in point is the occasion, which Frankel describes in some detail, on which Wilde invited twelve boys from a local school to a tea party at the villa, the Chalet Bourgeat, that he was renting in the grounds of a local hotel in Berneval. Frankel suggests that Wilde sought partial compensation for his distress at missing his own children, for he was then "pining for his sons" (111). Yet as Frankel also concedes, only boys were invited to this party, with their school mistress and the girls excluded. When details became known, people began to gossip, and Wilde again found himself shunned. Deploying the phrase "whatever its [the party's] motivations" (112)--the "it" rather than "he" neatly circumventing discussion of what Wilde might have intended--Frankel tactfully avoids speculating on what may have aroused the suspicions of Wilde's neighbors, and whether, in the circumstances, they were justified, and Wilde's behaviour imprudent. Frankel also fails to link this episode with earlier incidents in Wilde's life, such as the Phillip Danny affair, when Wilde, Ross, and Douglas were all involved with a 16-year-old schoolboy, and in order to avoid scandal and possible prosecution, Douglas was spirited off to Egypt. There are also Wilde's mentions of his "school" at Babbacombe Cliff. In a letter to Lady Mount-Temple, it is a school where his son Cyril "studies French in the nursery" and Douglas "studies Plato with his tutor for his degree at Oxford"; but later correspondence to that tutor, Campell Dodgson, has a different inflection, as Wilde writes of school "rules" involving "brandy and sodas (not to exceed seven) for boys", "[d]inner with compulsory champagne", "compulsory reading in bed", and "[a]ny boy found disobeying this rule" to be "immediately woken up" (The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, eds. Merlin Holland & Rupert Hart-Davis, London: Fourth Estate, 547, 556).

Of course, we can never know the precise nature of such incidents and encounters, not least because neither Wilde's letters--which frequently deploy a self-consciously heightened rhetoric--nor his literary works can be taken as a reliable guide to his own feelings or experiences. As a result, and despite the considerable detail that Frankel marshals in this thoroughly readable and elegantly produced volume, key aspects of Wilde's life and personality remain opaque. The Unrepentant Years, while a welcome addition to the already crowded shelves of the Wilde biography industry, is thus unlikely to be the last word on the late years of his life.

Josephine M. Guy is Professor of English at the University of Nottingham, UK.

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