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  • On Becoming Oscar Wilde: Transformations Seen In a Biographer’s Journal
  • Barbara Belford

Every day I walk into the nineteenth century with Oscar Wilde on my arm and in my mind. It has been sixteen months now and the love affair has peaked. I am at that first stage of the biographical process: identification. I make notes on the words and deeds that made Wilde the most fascinating personality of his time. I envy him even as I wish to lose my shyness in his social bravado.

Be it the Savoy, the Café Royal or Kettner’s, Wilde is a dutiful escort; I hesitate to say date. Everywhere and anywhere he is the center of attention. I slip from his arm and leave the party alone and unnoticed. I cannot compete with his syntaxial acrobatics. I am fearful of the next epigram. Will I understand it? Should my response be a sardonic laugh or a smile of complicity?

(I remember family dinners. We were required to answer the Reader’s Digest word quiz. I bought the magazine ahead of time. Oscar would have approved. One must accept Wilde and not compete. His rapt listeners are grateful to be relieved of the burden of their own wit. I too become part of a passive audience watching either a performance or a grown-up man seeking attention.)

Why do I find Wilde so attractive? It must be the eroticism of charm. I haven’t dreamed about him yet. I doubt if the dreams would be sexual. I would not want to kiss him or hold his hand. I find his large pouty lips distasteful and his large pasty hands unattractive. One offended woman likened him to a giant white caterpillar. For me, he is neither sibling nor parent but some kind of unattainable other. In my daydreams we are always at a restaurant, my chin cupped in my hands, elbows burrowed into the crusty linen tablecloth. I lean into [End Page 333] his words. I want him to like me: all I have to do is listen. Why this need for endless validation of his existence? He must be insecure. I am insecure. Perhaps his mother really did not love him. I know the truth about my mother.

Masks Without Faces

Who was Wilde? What did he think and feel? He wrote hundreds of letters but they are all paper masks. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” he said. “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth” (Intentions, 233). But he also said, “If one tells the truth one is sure, sooner or later to be found out” (Beckson, 183). Wilde told the truth about his homosexual desires when he should have worn the mask of insincerity.

But what happens when behind one mask is another mask and yet another? Why has no biographer been able to break through, to solve the enigma of Wilde? Why is he so difficult to fathom? Not his full inner life, of course, for that would be impossible. All a biographer can ask for are a few insights behind the layers of masks.

But first I must complete the journey of identification and transference. The true biographical process begins precisely at the moment when my naive form of love and identification breaks down. This is the moment of personal disillusionment, the uncoupling. Then begins the struggle with aesthetic objectivity: what facts to put in and what facts to leave out; which scenes to reconstruct and which scenes (if they do not fit my thesis) to omit. Perhaps this effort will reveal only a small insight, but it will be my insight. I want to love and understand Wilde, but I also want to mother him and rehabilitate him and help him remove the martyr’s crown he has worn so uneasily during the twentieth century. I want him to be Prince Oscar, as virtuous and caring as his own happy prince, but with a heart that will never turn to stone.

“To love oneself,” Wilde said, “is the beginning of a life-long romance” (Beckson, 125). Wilde’s life was a search for pleasure, for a succession of...

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pp. 333-346
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