- New Wilde Biography
THE “MORGUE YAWNS FOR ME,” Oscar Wilde wrote to his friend and biographer Frank Harris in February 1899. Indeed, Wilde’s last years, after his release from prison in May 1897, have often been seen as a sort of death in life: the accepted version of the story goes that the man who had once been a dazzling aesthete was now little more than a ghost of his former self, broken by gaol, exiled, impoverished, addicted to alcohol and robbed of inspiration, waiting for his demise in a squalid Paris hotel room. It seems inauspicious territory for a biographer. In his standard life of Wilde, Richard Ellmann ominously called this period Wilde’s “leftover years” and devoted to it less than a tenth of the total length of his book.
Nicholas Frankel’s new book sets out to change this picture, showing that Wilde’s post-prison life was much more interesting than it has been given credit for by biographers and critics so far. These were, in the wording of Frankel’s title, “unrepentant years,” in which Wilde threw himself back at life, continuing in his pursuit of pleasure and [End Page 419] holding on to the ambition (often, sadly, unrealised) to publish new works and revise old ones.
Frankel writes compassionately and effectively, even movingly at times. His tone is sober and scholarly without being pedantic. When dealing with the horrors of prison, for instance, he prefers to let witness accounts speak for themselves and deliberately steers clear of Queer martyrology. The main sources are Wilde’s published letters, which Frankel reads against the evidence of the unpublished correspondence of Wilde’s friends—mainly More Adey, Alfred Douglas and Robbie Ross. The difficulty of writing about this period when Wilde became a social outcast is that he spent a lot of his time with people who were also at the margins of society, in circles where reliable accounts are necessarily thin on the ground. Frankel wants to cut through the gossip and back-stabbing, and through the mythology about Wilde produced, sometimes opportunistically, by some of his acquaintances and early biographers. In this, he often lets himself be guided by financial transactions, about which we are given a lot of detail in this book. While this occasionally adds a certain dryness to the narrative, it is also an understandable choice, given that money was such a constant source of concern for Wilde in his last years—although one of Frankel’s interesting findings is that, in fact, he was better off than commonly assumed.
The Unrepentant Years is a biography but it also calls for a reassessment of the post-prison writings, which, as Frankel rightly claims, are mostly viewed as second-best when compared to the more widely studied pre-1895 works, or at least as completely separate from them. The chapter on Wilde’s prison experience is based on a sensitive reading of De Profundis, the work in which Wilde set “the terms upon which he expect[ed] to meet the world” after his release. But more than De Profundis, it is The Ballad of Reading Gaol that helps Frankel build the case for an “unrepentant” late Wilde. He writes intelligently about the difficult problem of how to understand the shift towards authenticity and realism in this work, which could almost be seen as a recantation of Wilde’s earlier aestheticism, or at least as taking a step back from his witty dissection of realism in “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist.” Wilde himself wrote to Laurence Housman that the poem could be seen as “a denial of [his] own philosophy of art in many ways.” And yet, as Frankel persuasively argues, much as prison had [End Page 420] challenged Wilde as an artist, we must take the self-conscious artfulness of The Ballad of Reading Gaol as seriously as its commitment to giving a truthful portrayal of prison life, based on autobiographical experience. For Frankel, it is an essentially hybrid work that encapsulates Wilde’s complex literary identity in his late...