The Contrary View: Wilde Deserved His Fate
‘They drove poor Oscar to his grave,’ The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon sings on his album, ‘Absent Friends’, echoing the revised opinion that had transformed Oscar Wilde from ‘reviled pervert’ to ‘martyred genius’. As various anniversaries arrived, the genius of Oscar was commemorated with great style and occasional crassness. Reformed public opinion was well under way back in 1960 when two Oscar Wilde films went head-to-head, with the writer played by Peter Finch and Robert Morley. Of the two, the cheaper Morley version came out better. Both pleaded cases for greater understanding of the injustice against Wilde. It was history writ largely and made simple; a wronged artist against a rabid extremist (who was probably mad).
The biographies arrived and kept on coming. The LGBT community had a figurehead martyr. We were now a long way from the Holland family – they had changed their family name to avoid the shame. The awkwardly-named Vyvyan Holland, second son of Oscar, had turned to limericks of such dreary vacuity that I actually binned my copy (you can still pick them up for about six quid). Then there was the grimly deserved fate of Lord Alfred Douglas, usually described as The Tragic and Litigious, although after reading his tome ‘The Duke of Berwick and Other Rhymes’ it’s hard to avoid adding And Astonishingly Stupid. How about:
‘I wish you may have better luck/ Than to be bitten by the Duck/ And though he looks so small and weak/ He has a very powerful beak.’
Even when he tackled the story of his own life, ‘Oscar Wilde and Myself’ he had to have it ghost-written, but in such cases the name makes the sale. Bosie became a rabid Wilde-hating anti-Semite and is buried in Sussex, where he puts the creepy into Crawley.
So, by the time we get to 1997 the film ‘Wilde’ positions Oscar as the Story of the First Modern Man (I should know, I came up with that). Working on the film required me to go over the court transcripts and other documents that were only just seeing the light of day, not because they had been hidden but because public interest had reached a fresh peak.
That was where the nagging feeling began; that while Oscar had not exactly Brought This On Himself, he had certainly been so astoundingly blind, arrogant and ignorant of the protection afforded by his position that he actively courted and dared retribution. Again and again in the court reports, especially in the early stages his sense of entitlement is overpowering, as he simply refuses to take the matter seriously and skirts around the law in order to play to the gallery. Out of the court his behaviour does not change one iota. Loving the limelight, he exaggerates his image and steps further to the edge.
It’s only in the second trial that Wilde starts to treat the situation as seriously as Carson, Queensberry’s QC, who meticulously draws the net of the law more tightly around him. A graceful but still rather theatrical show of contrition comes too late. Wilde is sentenced and creates a wave of rabid homophobia across the country that will see young men beaten up and thrown in jails for decades to come. So when I come across lines like ‘they drove poor Oscar to his grave’ I think ‘No, they didn’t’. Wilde adopted the attitude of privileged protection afforded to the upper classes without recognising that the code covering it required just one thing; to keep it within one’s own circle. Searching for a bit of nostalgie de la boue he stepped outside of his class not from rebelliousness but out of desire. And so he did what he wanted until the end, and others suffered for it, and while I am in awe of the man’s talent I find it hard to think of Wilde as ‘Poor Oscar’.
Feel free to vent. That’s what this site is all about.