- Oscar Wilde: An Iatrogenic Diagnosis of an Idiopathic Patient
ASHLEY ROBINS takes the title of his biographical study from Wilde’s celebrated remark to André Gide in January 1895: “Would you like to know the great drama of my life?—It’s that I’ve put my genius into my life; I’ve only put my talent into my work.” Robins bases the subtitle of his volume, in turn, on his conclusions about the latter portion of Wilde’s “life.” According to Robins, the three trials and multiple tribulations that commenced for Wilde a few months after he spoke to Gide issued principally “from his extraordinary character and temperament.” In dissecting Wilde’s disposition, Robins draws on decades of academic and clinical experience in psychiatry at Groote Schur Hospital and the University of Cape Town. His diagnostic procedure provides, throughout much of the book, valuable and plausible data about Wilde’s life and leanings, but it generates more questionable hypotheses in the volume’s closing chapters and appendix.
As Robins acknowledges, his investigation exhibits “a narrow and somber focus” in concentrating upon “the adversities and misfortunes” of Wilde’s career. In chapter one, he seeks to uncover Wilde’s real motivations in commencing a lawsuit against the Marquess of Queensberry. Although unable to establish a definitive motivation, Robins does demonstrate persuasively that the only successful way for Wilde to have shaken off Queensberry’s destructive pursuit “would have been to terminate, [End Page 101] decisively and effectively, his association with Bosie,” a choice Wilde was unwilling to make.
The second, third, and fourth chapters comprise the most cogent and illuminating sections of Robins’s book. Here, he draws upon extensive research in The National Archives (Kew, Surrey), especially on the Home Office and Prison Commission documents that relate to Wilde’s imprisonment. As Robins reminds us, Wilde experienced incarceration in a surprisingly large number of jails: Holloway (for two weeks, while awaiting bail), Newgate (for two days, before transfer to Pentonville), Pentonville (for five weeks), Wandsworth (for four and a half months), and Reading (for eighteen months). Doggedly digging into the historical archive, Robins unearths a memo that suggests the transfer from Pentonville to Wandsworth arose primarily from government alarm that Wilde’s supporters were exerting undue influence on Pentonville prison guards and officials. The transfer from Wandsworth to Reading Gaol also arose from government concern, this time about bad publicity resulting from the deterioration in Wilde’s physical and mental health at Wandsworth. In chapter three, Robins reproduces in full— and analyzes in detail—the lengthy report on Wilde’s health that was composed in October 1895 by the government-appointed psychiatrists David Nicolson and Richard Brayn, a report that led to Wilde’s transfer to Reading Gaol in November 1895. In chapter four, he documents the pivotal role in the restoration of “Wilde’s dignity and humanity” played by the chairman of the Prison Commission, Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise, not least in his replacing of the odious Henry Isaacson with the compassionate James Nelson as Governor of Reading.
In the middle section of his volume, Robins tracks and analyzes Wilde’s post-prison wanderings, waverings, and woes, including disputes with his wife Constance about the life interest from their marriage settlement, the terms of their separation, and access to their two children. Here, Robins provides valuable background information on the Divorce Act of 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act of 1883. He also makes fruitful use of the Adela Schuster–More Adey correspondence, housed at UCLA’s Clark Library, in order to understand Wilde’s frequent irritation with his loyal helper and supporter Adey, a person whom (as Robins notes) Wilde unkindly accused on one occasion of being “incapable of managing the domestic affairs of a tom-tit in a hedge for a single afternoon.” In this middle section, Robins also expands on an earlier essay (co-written with the otologist Sean Sellars and published in the Lancet in 2000) that addressed the causes of...