. The Fall of the House of Wilde
Oscar Wilde and his Family
London: Bloomsbury, 2016
Hardcover. 191 p. 495 b&w ills. ISBN 978-1408830116. £25
Reviewed by David Charles Rose
It is an intriguing title, The Fall of the House of Wilde, promising a many-layered study through its referents. Most obvious, of course, is Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’, which triggers thoughts of two notable Irishmen, Archbishop Usher of Armagh, remembered for his exact dating of the creation of the universe, and the writer Arland Ussher (1899-1980), author of Three Great Irishmen (1952), a comparative study of Shaw, Yeats, and Joyce – the first two being friends (more or less) of Oscar Wilde, while the last of whom connects with the setting of his story ‘The Dead’, 15 Usher’s Island in the Dublin Liberties. But what was the House of Wilde? ‘House’ in the non-physical sense is largely confined to royal families – the House of Windsor or the House of Habsburg – and, rather less grandiosely, the firms of couturiers. While the former suggests that the book is a dynastic history, the latter seems to propose Wilde the dandy, or Wilde the advocate of Rational Dress, all tied together by implying the House Beautiful. Emer O’Sullivan delivers on part of this, but also disappoints as well.
The disappointment need not lead to undervaluing this book. Some of her slips are simply uncorrected TS errors – ‘detract’ for retract, ‘a stringent’ for astringent, Tangara for Tanagra, or comically a ‘strangling moustache’ for a straggling one. Nor is the reference to Fritz comprehensible unless one realises that it is a slip for Fitz . More importantly, O’Sullivan appears not to have mastered the general historical background, as shown by her calling Wolfe Tone ‘Wolf’ and T.P. Gill and T.D. Sullivan respectively, I.P. and J.D. – trivial enough slips, no doubt, like that of dating an electoral defeat of Gladstone’s to 1814, but ones that prepare us for her confusing the actor-manager Charles Wyndham with the politician George Wyndham, something of a ‘howler’ given the place of each in the Wilde chronicle. (This also applies to O’Sullivan’s calling John Donoghue ‘Edward’ and, more risibly, the appearance of Samuel Henry Jeyes as Samuel Henry James.) Far more surprising is her belief that the I.R.B. (Irish Republican Brotherhood) and the I.R.A. (Irish Republican Army) were the same thing. O’Sullivan is also shaky on French detail, giving Edmond de Goncourt his particule where usage demands that it be dropped, and confusing Wilde’s stay in the Hôtel Marsollier with his stay in the Hôtel de Nice. And what infamy did Madame Roland commit to deserve the adjective infamous?
As for the Wilde dynasty, O’Sullivan pretty much confines herself to Sir William, Speranza, and their sons Willie and Oscar. Sir William’s brothers, Oscar’s sons, Willie’s daughter, are given very scant treatment – in the case of Willie’s daughter, the substantial biography by Joan Schenkar, Truly Wilde : The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde's Unusual Niece (2000) is not even listed in the bibliography. Isola, Oscar and Willie’s sister, who died in childhood, is barely mentioned, and we learn nothing new about Sir William’s illegitimate offspring, Henry, Mary and Emily. Moreover, if indeed the House of Wilde ever fell, it has certainly now risen again, given the current output of books on Wilde ranging from Ilze Kacane’s Oskars Vailds Latvijas Oskariana or Petra Dierkes-Thrun’s Salome's Modernity : Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression to Niall Laverty’s Romping Through Dorian Gray or Jörg W. Rademacher’s Wilde calendar, to say nothing of the output of Wilde’s grandson. A better acquaintance with the scholarly literature would have spared O’Sullivan from attaching credence to Frank Harris’s yacht on the Thames, ready to take Wilde to France, or from reflecting that ‘there is a common misconception that Dorian Gray is modelled on Lord Alfred Douglas’, which misconception is now rare indeed. Similarly, her note on the publishing history of De Profundis is defective, concluding with the statement that ‘the complete and corrected version was eventually published in 1962 in The Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited and compiled by Rupert Hart-Davis’, which ignores the subsequent editions by Merlin Holland.
To pass on to the book’s strengths, the early part of The Fall of the House of Wilde is a thorough treatment of the first rise, the career of Sir William. O’Sullivan laments that there is no modern scholarly biography of this Victorian polymath, and one may assume that the absence from the bibliography of the books on Sir William and Lady Wilde (Speranza) by Eric Lambert and Patrick Byrne is a veiled comment on their quality. It is a pity that O’Sullivan did not decide to write a full scale study of Sir William, whom she obviously admires, rather than going on to write chapters on Speranza that add little to what Joy Melville and Sasha Tipper wrote in their books on her, just as her treatment of Constance Wilde has been anticipated in the 2012 biography by Franny Moyle (here called Fanny). This would have saved her covering ground that has already been ploughed by Gerard Hanberry in his 2011 study More Lives than One : The Remarkable Wilde Family through the Generations. That said, O’Sullivan writes dispassionately, taking both the elder Wildes seriously, and she writes well — the bathos on page 170 is an unexpected lapse: 'It is thus not surprising that Flaubert’s book, La Tentation de Saint Antoine, whose protagonist swoons with pleasure as he flogs himself, would in later years stand for [Oscar’s] vision of happiness, together with a cigarette'. Her phrase that for Speranza, Oscar and Willie, ‘death came as a release, as one would say in Ireland’ also rings oddly, for where in the anglophone world does one not say that? One can, however, forgive all this for the sake of the carefully crafted play on words, that Oscar for his American lecture tour ‘could hardly have hitched himself to a more obliging vehicle than D’Oyly Carte’.
Notably, O’Sullivan gives full measure to Sir William’s pioneering work on Celtic antiquities and Irish folklore, and the part played in this proto-Celtic Revival by George Petrie and Sir Samuel Ferguson (who might have been given more space). Her insistence that the Wildes saw such learned pursuits as a potential unifying force for Irish patriots is further validated when she makes clear Speranza’s cultural nationalism and opposition to the Fenians, an antipathy which Emer O’Sullivan fully shares. The complex relationship between Irish nationalists of different convictions and generations is, however, a subject beyond O’Sullivan’s purpose.
Speranza’s star waned as Oscar’s waxed. Although she tried to maintain her salons when she left Dublin for London, it is clear that they failed to attract the more significant personages even from the London Irish community, varied as the company was – it is surprising to find Eleanor Marx listed there. With a tiny income, and usually with the feckless Willie to support, she depended on Oscar’s generosity, which was never as forthcoming as was the flow of cash and comforts from Oscar to Lord Alfred Douglas. Her place in history is given due weight, but unfortunately this is not true of O’Sullivan’s account of her place in Kensal Green Cemetery: ‘As no further payment was made [for the grave], Jane’s remains were dug up after seven years and removed. The whereabouts of her remains […] remain unknown’  – but not unknown to readers of Donald Mead’s article in The Wildean (no.18, January 2001) on the commemoration at Kensal Green on 13 October 2000.
On the other hand, O’Sullivan’s insights are usually perceptive and frequently original. Here she is on The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘Lord Henry [takes] sexual pleasure in deflowering Dorian. It was, Lord Henry says, “Like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow”. This is teaching as erotic transaction, straight from Greek antiquity . 'The book celebrates homosexuality, though not explicitly. It was done with the wit and assurance of a man who showed how versatile prose is by means of what it implies rather than what it states' .
O’Sullivan offers an unusual reading of Lady Windermere's Fan, in which Mrs Erlynne is not simply a woman with a past, but a grand horizontale, her admirers in the play, her clients. These include Lord Windermere himself, his marriage a sham. Lord Windermere is, in effect, bunburying, of which O’Sullivan offers an interesting interpretation which itself eschews a gay reading of The Importance of being Earnest. This world of artifice extends as far as the green carnation worn by Wilde on the opening night. According to O’Sullivan it was not simply the colour but the flower itself that was artificial. By way of balance, she believes that the attraction of Lord Illingworth (A Woman of No Importance) to Gerald Arbuthnot is a homosexual one, citing the rather overblown remarks on the subject by Lytton Strachey. Nevertheless, all this deepens our understanding of Wilde’s critique of Victorian society.
Does this book deserve the epithet ‘indispensable’, with which the ever kindly Stephen Fry characterises it on the dust jacket? My answer can only be yes, if one dispenses with the other books I have mentioned: a good read, but weakened by its restricted use of sources, and not answering to the multi-layered expectations raised by its title.
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