- Wilde’s Life & Books
Thomas Wright. Built of Books. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008. xiv + 370 pp. $26.00
Jean-Paul Sartre’s decision to write L’Idiot de le famille, his unfinished biography of Flaubert, was motivated by the conundrum that Flaubert’s work posed: how could an author who lived a retiring and apparently uneventful life have produced such a controversial and complex body of novels? Sartre’s tactic—in part at least—was to examine elements of Flaubert’s psychology. By contrast for a writer like Wilde it has typically been external (and particularly sexual) factors, and not mental events, which have dominated biographies. Moreover, where biographers have tried to explore Wilde’s interior life it has been via his sexuality. Thomas Wright’s Built of Books represents a refreshing contrast to this pattern.
His aim is to write a life of Wilde by reference to the books which Wilde owned and read. In Wright’s own words, “Wilde did not so much discover as create himself through his reading: he was a man who built himself out of books.” A key element of this project is a diligent process of recovery of the physical objects (the actual copies of works which Wilde owned), or if this has not proved to be possible, the texts of works he read. Of course this is only the beginning of the journey: those books are important to the literary critic principally insofar as they allow the reconstruction—to adapt Wordsworth’s phrase—of the growth of a writer’s mind. In other words there are two elements of Wright’s work [End Page 104] which need discussion. The first is the quality of its empirical research; the second is the manner and the quality of his interpretation of it.
The details of the external life, rather than the reading, which Wright traces, follow a familiar course and are described via a simple chronology. In successive chapters we encounter Wilde as a child in his parents’ home in Merrion Square in Dublin, during his school days at Portora, his early undergraduate career at Trinity, then at Oxford. The years in the early 1880s are not as full, but once Wilde is in his Tite Street home, Wright is able to describe in impressive detail Wilde’s reading and its relation to his developing intellectual and emotional interests. Then come the first meetings with Robert Ross, Lionel Johnson (“the Pier-rot-like homunculus”), Lord Alfred Douglas (“the upper-class Adonis”), Wilde’s increasing involvement with London’s homosexual subculture, his imprisonment and his self-imposed exile. What of course is unfamiliar in this otherwise familiar narrative is that Wright’s emphasis is always on Wilde’s commerce with his reading.
Wright has tracked down an impressive number of Wilde’s books by acquiring them himself, and by visiting libraries, public archives and private collections. He reconstructs the works which Wilde could or would have read as a student by examining the syllabuses of both Trinity College, Dublin and that of the Greats curriculum at the University of Oxford. Occasionally this detective work reveals little gems. For example, in an early Trinity College notebook, Wright finds doodles and sketches of male and female figures, which are reproduced in the book. Although Wright does not note it, this habit persisted through Wilde’s writing career up to the composition of the society comedies: in the Herbert Beerbohm Tree Collection in the University of Bristol some typescript drafts of A Woman of No Importance also have the same sorts of drawings. In the Trinity example Wright hypothesizes a bored student seeking distraction. If so, it is amusing to know that boredom persisted into adult life. Other details concern the reading Wilde could have undertaken at his parents’ house as Wright attempts to reconstruct the family’s library. In particular he notes Wilde’s enthusiasm for the work of Benjamin Disraeli, an interest which may explain his later decision to review Disraeli’s correspondence (although this review was never published in his lifetime), and to see in Disraeli a prototype dandy rather than the statesman he later became. Equally revealing is the...