Part 2 out of 4
by Willie, Oscar's elder brother, whom I had met in Fleet Street. Willie was
then a tall, well-made fellow of thirty or thereabouts with an expressive
taking face, lit up with a pair of deep blue laughing eyes. He had any amount
of physical vivacity, and told a good story with immense verve, without for a
moment getting above the commonplace: to him the Corinthian journalism of "The
Daily Telegraph" was literature. Still he had the surface good nature and good
humour of healthy youth and was generally liked. He took me to his mother's
house one afternoon; but first he had a drink here and a chat there so that we
did not reach the West End till after six o'clock.
The room and its occupants made an indelible grotesque impression on me. It
seemed smaller than it was because overcrowded with a score of women and half
a dozen men. It was very dark and there were empty tea-cups and cigarette ends
everywhere. Lady Wilde sat enthroned behind the tea-table looking like a sort
of female Buddha swathed in wraps--a large woman with a heavy face and prominent
nose; very like Oscar indeed, with the same sallow skin which always looked
dirty; her eyes too were her redeeming feature--vivacious and quick-glancing
as a girl's. She "made up" like an actress and naturally preferred shadowed
gloom to sunlight. Her idealism came to show as soon as she spoke. It was a
necessity of her nature to be enthusiastic; unfriendly critics said hysterical,
but I should prefer to say high-falutin' about everything she enjoyed or
admired. She was at her best in misfortune; her great vanity gave her a certain
proud stoicism which was admirable.
The Land League was under discussion as we entered, and Parnell's attitude
to it. Lady Wilde regarded him as the predestined saviour of her country.
"Parnell," she said with a strong accent on the first syllable, "is the man
of destiny; he will strike off the fetters and free Ireland, and throne her
as Queen among the nations."
A murmur of applause came from a thin birdlike woman standing opposite, who
floated towards us clad in a sage-green gown, which sheathed her like an
umbrella case; had she had any figure the dress would have been indecent.
"How like 'Speranza'!" she cooed, "dear Lady Wilde!" I noticed that her glance
went towards Willie, who was standing on the other side of his mother, talking
to a tall, handsome girl. Willie's friend seemed amused at the lyrical outburst
of the green spinster, for smiling a little she questioned him:
"'Speranza' is Lady Wilde?" she asked with a slight American accent.
Lady Wilde informed the company with all the impressiveness she had at command
that she did not expect Oscar that afternoon; "he is so busy with his new poems,
you know; they say there has been no such sensation since Byron," she added;
"already everyone is talking of them."
"Indeed, yes," sighed the green lily, "do you remember, dear Speranza, what he
said about 'The Sphinx,' that he read to us. He told us the written verse was
quite different from what the printed poem would be just as the sculptor's clay
model differs from the marble. Subtle, wasn't it?"
"Perfectly true, too!" cried a man, with a falsetto voice, moving into the
circle; "Leonardo himself might have said that."
The whole scene seemed to me affected and middle-class, untidy, too, with an un-
English note about it of shiftlessness; the aesthetic dresses were extravagant,
the enthusiasms pumped up and exaggerated. I was glad to leave quietly.
It was on this visit to Lady Wilde, or a later one, that I first heard of that
other poem of Oscar, "The Harlot's House," which was also said to have been
written in Paris. Though published in an obscure sheet and in itself
commonplace enough it made an astonishing stir. Time and advertisement had been
working for him. Academic lectures and imitative poetry alike had made him
widely known; and, thanks to the small body of enthusiastic admirers whom I have
already spoken of, his reputation instead of waning out had grown like the Jinn
when released from the bottle.
The fuglemen were determined to find something wonderful in everything he did,
and the title of "The Harlot's House," shocking Philistinism, gave them a
certain opportunity which they used to the uttermost. On all sides one
was asked: "Have you seen Oscar's latest?" And then the last verse would be
quoted:--"Divine, don't ye think?"
"And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl."
In spite of all this extravagant eulogy Oscar Wilde's early plays and poems,
like his lectures, were unimportant. The small remnant of people in England who
really love the things of the spirit were disappointed in them, failed to find
in them the genius so loudly and so arrogantly vaunted.
But, if Oscar Wilde's early writings were failures, his talk was more successful
than ever. He still tried to show off on all occasions and sometimes fell flat
in consequence; but his failures in this field were few and merely comparative;
constant practice was ripening his extraordinary natural gift. About this time,
too, he began to develop that humorous vein in conversation, which later lent a
singular distinction to his casual utterances.
His talk brought him numerous invitations to dinner and lunch and introduced him
to some of the best houses in London, but it produced no money. He was earning
very little and he needed money, comparatively large sums of money, from week
Oscar Wilde was extravagant in almost every possible way. He wished to be well-
fed, well-dressed, well-wined, and prodigal of "tips." He wanted first editions
of the poets; had a liking for old furniture and old silver, for fine pictures,
Eastern carpets and Renascence bronzes; in fine, he had all the artist's desires
as well as those of the poet and "viveur". He was constantly in dire need of
cash and did not hesitate to borrow fifty pounds from anyone who would lend it
to him. He was beginning to experience the truth of the old verse:
'Tis a very good world to live in,
To lend or to spend or to give in,
But to beg or to borrow or get a man's own,
'Tis the very worst world that ever was known.
The difficulties of life were constantly increasing upon him. He despised bread
and butter and talked only of champagne and caviare; but without bread, hunger
is imminent. Victory no longer seemed indubitable. It was possible, it began
even to be probable that the fair ship of his fame might come to wreck on the
shoals of poverty.
It was painfully clear that he must do something without further delay, must
either conquer want or overleap it. Would he bridle his desires, live savingly,
and write assiduously till such repute came as would enable him to launch out
and indulge his tastes? He was wise enough to see the advantages of such a
course. Every day his reputation as a talker was growing. Had he had a little
more self-control, had he waited a little longer till his position in society
was secured, he could easily have married someone with money and position who
would have placed him above sordid care and fear for ever. But he could not
wait; he was colossally vain; he would wear the peacock's feathers at all times
and all costs: he was intensely pleasure-loving, too; his mouth watered for
every fruit. Besides, he couldn't write with creditors at the door. Like
Bossuet he was unable to work when bothered about small economies:--"s'il etait
a l'etroit dans son domestique".
What was to be done? Suddenly he cut the knot and married the daughter of a
Q.C., a Miss Constance Lloyd, a young lady without any particular qualities
or beauty, whom he had met in Dublin on a lecture tour. Miss Lloyd had a few
hundreds a year of her own, just enough to keep the wolf from the door. The
couple went to live in Tite Street, Chelsea, in a modest little house. The
drawing-room, however, was decorated by Godwin and quickly gained a certain
notoriety. It was indeed a charming room with an artistic distinction and
appeal of its own.
As soon as the dreadful load of poverty was removed, Oscar began to go about a
great deal, and his wife would certainly have been invited with him if he had
refused invitations addressed to himself alone; but from the beginning he
accepted them and consequently after the first few months of marriage his wife
went out but little, and later children came and kept her at home. Having
earned a respite from care by his marriage, Oscar did little for the next three
years but talk. Critical observers began to make up their minds that he was a
talker and not a writer. "He was a power in the art," as de Quincey said of
Coleridge; "and he carried a new art into the power." Every year this gift grew
with him: every year he talked more and more brilliantly, and he was allowed
now, and indeed expected, to hold the table.
In London there is no such thing as conversation. Now and then one hears a
caustic or witty phrase, but nothing more. The tone of good society everywhere
is to be pleasant without being prominent. In every other European country,
however, able men are encouraged to talk; in England alone they are discouraged.
People in society use a debased jargon or slang, snobbish shibboleths for the
most part, and the majority resent any one man monopolising attention. But
Oscar Wilde was allowed this privileged position, was encouraged to hold forth
to amuse people, as singers are brought in to sing after dinner.
Though his fame as a witty and delightful talker grew from week to week, even
his marriage did not stifle the undertone of dislike and disgust. Now
indignantly, now with contempt, men spoke of him as abandoned, a creature of
unnatural viciousness. There were certain houses in the best set of London
society the doors of which were closed to him.
CHAPTER VI--OSCAR WILDE'S FAITH AND PRACTICE
From 1884 on I met Oscar Wilde continually, now at the theatre, now in some
society drawing room; most often, I think, at Mrs. Jeune's (afterwards Lady St.
Helier). His appearance was not in his favour; there was something oily and fat
about him that repelled me. Naturally being British-born and young I tried to
give my repugnance a moral foundation; fleshly indulgence and laziness, I said
to myself, were written all over him. The snatches of his monologues which I
caught from time to time seemed to me to consist chiefly of epigrams almost
mechanically constructed of proverbs and familiar sayings turned upside down.
Two of Balzac's characters, it will be remembered, practised this form of
humour. The desire to astonish and dazzle, the love of the uncommon for its own
sake, was so evident that I shrugged my shoulders and avoided him. One evening,
however, at Mrs. Jeune's, I got to know him better. At the very door Mrs. Jeune
came up to me:
"Have you ever met Mr. Oscar Wilde? You ought to know him: he is so
delightfully clever, so brilliant!"
I went with her and was formally introduced to him. He shook hands in a limp
way I disliked; his hands were flabby, greasy; his skin looked bilious and
dirty. He wore a great green scarab ring on one finger. He was over-dressed
rather than well-dressed; his clothes fitted him too tightly; he was too stout.
He had a trick which I noticed even then, which grew on him later, of pulling
his jowl with his right hand as he spoke, and his jowl was already fat and
pouchy. His appearance filled me with distaste. I lay stress on this physical
repulsion, because I think most people felt it, and in itself, it is a tribute
to the fascination of the man that he should have overcome the first impression
so completely and so quickly. I don't remember what we talked about, but I
noticed almost immediately that his grey eyes were finely expressive; in turn
vivacious, laughing, sympathetic; always beautiful. The carven mouth, too, with
its heavy, chiselled, purple-tinged lips, had a certain attraction and
significance in spite of a black front tooth which shocked one when he laughed.
He was over six feet in height and both broad and thick-set; he looked like a
Roman Emperor of the decadence.
We had a certain interest in each other, an interest of curiosity, for I
remember that he led the way almost at once into the inner drawing room in order
to be free to talk in some seclusion. After half an hour or so I asked him to
lunch next day at "The Cafe Royal", then the best restaurant in London.
At this time he was a superb talker, more brilliant than any I have ever heard
in England, but nothing like what he became later. His talk soon made me forget
his repellant physical peculiarities; indeed I soon lost sight of them so
completely that I have wondered since how I could have been so disagreeably
affected by them at first sight. There was an extraordinary physical vivacity
and geniality in the man, an extraordinary charm in his gaiety, and lightning-
quick intelligence. His enthusiasms, too, were infectious. Every mental
question interested him, especially if it had anything to do with art or
literature. His whole face lit up as he spoke and one saw nothing but his
soulful eyes, heard nothing but his musical tenor voice; he was indeed what the
French call a "charmeur".
In ten minutes I confessed to myself that I liked him, and his talk was
intensely quickening. He had something unexpected to say on almost every
subject. His mind was agile and powerful and he took a delight in using it.
He was well-read too, in several languages, especially in French, and his
excellent memory stood him in good stead. Even when he merely reproduced
what the great writers had said perfectly, he added a new colouring. And
already his characteristic humour was beginning to illumine every topic with
It was at our first lunch, I think, that he told me he had been asked by
Harper's to write a book of one hundred thousand words and offered a large sum
for it--I think some five thousand dollars--in advance. He wrote to them
gravely that there were not one hundred thousand words in English, so he could
not undertake the work, and laughed merrily like a child at the cheeky reproof.
"I have sent their letters and my reply to the press," he added, and laughed
again, while probing me with inquisitive eyes: how far did I understand the need
About this time an impromptu of his moved the town to laughter. At some
dinner party it appeared the ladies sat a little too long; Oscar wanted to
smoke. Suddenly the hostess drew his attention to a lamp the shade of which
"Please put it out, Mr. Wilde," she said, "it's smoking."
Oscar turned to do as he was told with the remark:
The delightful impertinence had an extraordinary success.
Early in our friendship I was fain to see that the love of the uncommon, his
paradoxes and epigrams were natural to him, sprang immediately from his taste
and temperament. Perhaps it would be well to define once for all his attitude
towards life with more scope and particularity than I have hitherto done.
It is often assumed that he had no clear and coherent view of life, no belief,
no faith to guide his vagrant footsteps; but such an opinion does him injustice.
He had his own philosophy, and held to it for long years with astonishing
tenacity. His attitude towards life can best be seen if he is held up against
Goethe. He took the artist's view of life which Goethe was the first to state
and indeed in youth had overstated with an astonishing persuasiveness: "the
beautiful is more than the good," said Goethe; "for it includes the good."
It seemed to Oscar, as it had seemed to young Goethe, that "the extraordinary
alone survives"; the extraordinary whether good or bad; he therefore sought
after the extraordinary, and naturally enough often fell into the extravagant.
But how stimulating it was in London, where sordid platitudes drip and drizzle
all day long, to hear someone talking brilliant paradoxes.
Goethe did not linger long in the halfway house of unbelief; the murderer may
win notoriety as easily as the martyr, but his memory will not remain. "The
fashion of this world passeth away," said Goethe, "I would fain occupy myself
with that which endures." Midway in life Goethe accepted Kant's moral
imperative and restated his creed: "A man must resolve to live," he said,
"for the Good, and Beautiful, and for the Common Weal."
Oscar did not push his thought so far: the transcendental was not his field.
It was a pity, I sometimes felt, that he had not studied German as thoroughly
as French; Goethe might have done more for him than Baudelaire or Balzac, for
in spite of all his stodgy German faults, Goethe is the best guide through the
mysteries of life whom the modern world has yet produced. Oscar Wilde stopped
where the religion of Goethe began; he was far more of a pagan and individualist
than the great German; he lived for the beautiful and extraordinary, but not for
the Good and still less for the Whole; he acknowledged no moral obligation; "in
commune bonis" was an ideal which never said anything to him; he cared nothing
for the common weal; he held himself above the mass of the people with an
Englishman's extravagant insularity and aggressive pride. Politics, social
problems, religion--everything interested him simply as a subject of art; life
itself was merely material for art. He held the position Goethe had abandoned
The view was astounding in England and new everywhere in its onesidedness.
Its passionate exaggeration, however, was quickening, and there is, of course,
something to be said for it. The artistic view of life is often higher than
the ordinary religious view; at least it does not deal in condemnations and
exclusions; it is more reasonable, more catholic, more finely perceptive.
"The artist's view of life is the only possible one," Oscar used to say,
"and should be applied to everything, most of all to religion and morality.
Cavaliers and Puritans are interesting for their costumes and not for their
convictions. . . .
"There is no general rule of health; it is all personal, individual. . . . .
I only demand that freedom which I willingly concede to others. No one
condemns another for preferring green to gold. Why should any taste be
ostracized? Liking and disliking are not under our control. I want to
choose the nourishment which suits "my" body and "my" soul."
I can almost hear him say the words with his charming humorous smile and
exquisite flash of deprecation, as if he were half inclined to make fun of
his own statement.
It was not his views on art, however, which recommended him to the aristocratic
set in London; but his contempt for social reform, or rather his utter
indifference to it, and his English love of inequality. The republicanism he
flaunted in his early verses was not even skin deep; his political beliefs and
prejudices were the prejudices of the English governing class and were all in
favour of individual freedom, or anarchy under the protection of the policeman.
"The poor are poor creatures," was his real belief, "and must always be hewers
of wood and drawers of water. They are merely the virgin soil out of which men
of genius and artists grow like flowers. Their function is to give birth to
genius and nourish it. They have no other "raison d'etre". Were men as
intelligent as bees, all gifted individuals would be supported by the community,
as the bees support their queen. We should be the first charge on the state
just as Socrates declared that he should be kept in the Prytaneum at the
"Don't talk to me, Frank, about the hardships of the poor. The hardships of
the poor are necessities, but talk to me of the hardships of men of genius, and
I could weep tears of blood. I was never so affected by any book in my life as
I was by the misery of Balzac's poet, Lucien de Rubempre."
Naturally this creed of an exaggerated individualism appealed peculiarly to the
best set in London. It was eminently aristocratic and might almost be defended
as scientific, for to a certain extent it found corroboration in Darwinism. All
progress according to Darwin comes from peculiar individuals; "sports" as men of
science call them, or the "heaven-sent" as rhetoricians prefer to style them.
The many are only there to produce more "sports" and ultimately to benefit
by them. All this is valid enough; but it leaves the crux of the question
untouched. The poor in aristocratic England are too degraded to produce
"sports" of genius, or indeed any "sports" of much value to humanity. Such
an extravagant inequality of condition obtains there that the noble soul is
miserable, the strongest insecure. But Wilde's creed was intensely popular
with the "Smart Set" because of its very one-sidedness, and he was hailed as
a prophet partly because he defended the cherished prejudices of the "landed"
It will be seen from this that Oscar Wilde was in some danger of suffering from
excessive popularity and unmerited renown. Indeed if he had loved athletic
sports, hunting and shooting instead of art and letters, he might have been the
selected representative of aristocratic England.
In addition to his own popular qualities a strong current was sweeping him to
success. He was detested by the whole of the middle or shop-keeping class which
in England, according to Matthew Arnold, has "the sense of conduct--and has but
little else." This class hated and feared him; feared him for his intellectual
freedom and his contempt of conventionality, and hated him because of his light-
hearted self-indulgence, and also because it saw in him none of its own sordid
virtues. "Punch" is peculiarly the representative of this class and of all
English prejudices, and "Punch" jeered at him now in prose, now in verse,
week after week. Under the heading, "More Impressions" (by Oscuro Wildgoose)
I find this:
"My little fancy's clogged with gush,
My little lyre is false in tone,
And when I lyrically moan,
I hear the impatient critic's 'Tush!'
"But I've 'Impressions.' These are grand!
Mere dabs of words, mere blobs of tint,
Displayed on canvas or in print,
Men laud, and think they understand.
"A smudge of brown, a smear of yellow,
No tale, no subject,--there you are!
Impressions!--and the strangest far
Is--that the bard's a clever fellow."
A little later these lines appeared:
"My languid lily, my lank limp lily,
My long, lithe lily-love, men may grin--
Say that I'm soft and supremely silly--
What care I, while you whisper still;
What care I, while you smile? Not a pin!
While you smile, while you whisper--
'Tis sweet to decay!
I have watered with chlorodine, tears of chagrin,
The churchyard mould I have planted thee in,
Upside down, in an intense way,
In a rough red flower-pot, "sweeter than sin",
That I bought for a halfpenny, yesterday!"
The italics are mine; but the suggestion was always implicit; yet this
constant wind of puritanic hatred blowing against him helped instead of
hindering his progress: strong men are made by opposition; like kites they
go up against the wind.
CHAPTER VII--OSCAR'S REPUTATION AND SUPPORTERS
"Believe me, child, all the gentleman's misfortunes arose from his being
educated at a public school. . . . ."--Fielding.
In England success is a plant of slow growth. The tone of good society, though
responsive to political talent, and openly, eagerly sensitive to money-making
talent, is contemptuous of genius and rates the utmost brilliancy of the talker
hardly higher than the feats of an acrobat. Men are obstinate, slow, trusting
a bank-balance rather than brains; and giving way reluctantly to sharp-witted
superiority. The road up to power or influence in England is full of pitfalls
and far too arduous for those who have neither high birth nor wealth to help
them. The natural inequality of men instead of being mitigated by law or
custom is everywhere strengthened and increased by a thousand effete social
distinctions. Even in the best class where a certain easy familiarity reigns
there is circle above circle, and the summits are isolated by heredity.
The conditions of English society being what they are, it is all but impossible
at first to account for the rapidity of Oscar Wilde's social success; yet if
we tell over his advantages and bring one or two into the account which have
not yet been reckoned, we shall find almost every element that conduces to
popularity. By talent and conviction he was the natural pet of the aristocracy
whose selfish prejudices he defended and whose leisure he amused. The middle
class, as has been noted, disliked and despised him: but its social influence is
small and its papers, and especially "Punch", made him notorious by attacking
him in and out of season. The comic weekly, indeed, helped to build up his
reputation by the almost inexplicable bitterness of its invective.
Another potent force was in his favour. From the beginning he set himself to
play the game of the popular actor, and neglected no opportunity of turning the
limelight on his own doings. As he said, his admiration of himself was "a
lifelong devotion," and he proclaimed his passion on the housetops.
Our names happened to be mentioned together once in some paper, I think it was
"The Pall Mall Gazette". He asked me what I was going to reply.
"Nothing," I answered, "why should I bother? I've done nothing yet that
"You're making a mistake," he said seriously. "If you wish for reputation and
fame in this world, and success during your lifetime, you ought to seize every
opportunity of advertising yourself. You remember the Latin word, 'Fame springs
from one's own house.' Like other wise sayings, it's not quite true; fame comes
from oneself," and he laughed delightedly; "you must go about repeating how
great you are till the dull crowd comes to believe it."
"The prophet must proclaim himself, eh? and declare his own mission?"
"That's it," he replied with a smile; "that's it.
"Every time my name is mentioned in a paper, I write at once to admit that I am
the Messiah. Why is Pears' soap successful? Not because it is better or
cheaper than any other soap, but because it is more strenuously puffed. The
journalist is my 'John the Baptist.' What would you give, when a book of yours
comes out, to be able to write a long article drawing attention to it in "The
Pall Mall Gazette"? Here you have the opportunity of making your name known
just as widely; why not avail yourself of it? I miss no chance," and to do him
justice he used occasion to the utmost.
Curiously enough Bacon had the same insight, and I have often wondered since
whether Oscar's worldly wisdom was original or was borrowed from the great
Elizabethan climber. Bacon says:
"'Boldly sound your own praises and some of them will stick.' . . . . It will
stick with the more ignorant and the populace, though men of wisdom may smile at
it; and the reputation won with many will amply countervail the disdain of a
few. . . . . And surely no small number of those who are of solid nature, and
who, from the want of this ventosity, cannot spread all sail in pursuit of their
own honour, suffer some prejudice and lose dignity by their moderation."
Many of Oscar's letters to the papers in these years were amusing, some of them
full of humour. For example, when he was asked to give a list of the hundred
best books, as Lord Avebury and other mediocrities had done, he wrote saying
that "he could not give a list of the hundred best books, as he had only written
Winged words of his were always passing from mouth to mouth in town.
Some theatre was opened which was found horribly ugly: one spoke of it as
"No, no," replied Oscar, "nothing so distinctive. 'Early Maple,' rather."
Even his impertinences made echoes. At a great reception, a friend asked him
in passing, how the hostess, Lady S----, could be recognized. Lady S---- being
short and stout, Oscar replied, smiling:
"Go through this room, my dear fellow, and the next and so on till you come to
someone looking like a public monument, say the effigy of Britannia or Victoria
--that's Lady S----."
Though he used to pretend that all this self-advertisement was premeditated
and planned, I could hardly believe him. He was eager to write about himself
because of his exaggerated vanity and reflection afterwards found grounds to
justify his inclination. But whatever the motive may have been the effect
was palpable: his name was continually in men's mouths, and his fame grew by
repetition. As Tiberius said of Mucianus:
""Omnium quae dixerat feceratque, arte quadam ostentator"" (He had a knack of
showing off and advertising whatever he said or did).
But no personal qualities, however eminent, no gifts, no graces of heart or
head or soul could have brought a young man to Oscar Wilde's social position
and popularity in a few years.
Another cause was at work lifting him steadily. From the time he left Oxford he
was acclaimed and backed by a small minority of passionate admirers whom I have
called his fuglemen. These admirers formed the constant factor in his progress
from social height to height. For the most part they were persons usually
called "sexual inverts," who looked to the brilliancy of his intellect to gild
their esoteric indulgence. This class in England is almost wholly recruited
from the aristocracy and the upper middle-class that apes the "smart set." It
is an inevitable product of the English boarding school and University system;
indeed one of the most characteristic products. I shall probably bring upon
myself a host of enemies by this assertion, but it has been weighed and must
stand. Fielding has already put the same view on record: he says:
"A public school, Joseph, was the cause of all the calamities which he
afterwards suffered. Public schools are the nurseries of all vice and
immorality. All the wicked fellows whom I remember at the University were
bred at them....."
If boarding-school life with its close intimacies between boys from twelve to
eighteen years of age were understood by English mothers, it is safe to say that
every boarding-house in every school would disappear in a single night, and
Eton, Harrow, Winchester and the rest would be turned into day-schools.
Those who have learned bad habits at school or in the 'Varsity are inclined to
continue the practices in later life. Naturally enough these men are usually
distinguished by a certain artistic sympathy, and often by most attractive,
intellectual qualities. As a rule the epicene have soft voices and ingratiating
manners, and are bold enough to make a direct appeal to the heart and emotions;
they are considered the very cream of London society.
These admirers and supporters praised and defended Oscar Wilde from the
beginning with the persistence and courage of men who if they don't hang
together are likely to hang separately. After his trial and condemnation
"The Daily Telegraph" spoke with contempt of these "decadents" and "aesthetes"
who, it asserted, "could be numbered in London society on the fingers of one
hand"; but even "The Daily Telegraph" must have known that in the "smart set"
alone there are hundreds of these acolytes whose intellectual and artistic
culture gives them an importance out of all proportion to their number. It was
the passionate support of these men in the first place which made Oscar Wilde
notorious and successful.
This fact may well give pause to the thoughtful reader. In the middle ages,
when birth and position had a disproportionate power in life, the Catholic
Church supplied a certain democratic corrective to the inequality of social
conditions. It was a sort of "Jacob's Ladder" leading from the lowest strata of
society to the very heavens and offering to ingenuous, youthful talent a career
of infinite hope and unlimited ambition. This great power of the Roman Church
in the middle-ages may well be compared to the influence exerted by those whom I
have designated as Oscar Wilde's fuglemen in the England of today. The easiest
way to success in London society is to be notorious in this sense. Whatever
career one may have chosen, however humble one's birth, one is then certain of
finding distinguished friends and impassioned advocates. If you happen to be in
the army and unmarried, you are declared to be a strategist like Caesar, or an
organizer like Moltke; if you are an artist, instead of having your faults
proclaimed and your failings scourged, your qualifications are eulogised and
you find yourself compared to Michel Angelo or Titian! I would not willingly
exaggerate here; but I could easily give dozens of instances to prove that
sexual perversion is a "Jacob's Ladder" to most forms of success in our time
It seems a curious effect of the great compensatory balance of things that a
masculine rude people like the English, who love nothing so much as adventures
and warlike achievements, should allow themselves to be steered in ordinary
times by epicene aesthetes. But no one who knows the facts will deny that these
men are prodigiously influential in London in all artistic and literary matters,
and it was their constant passionate support which lifted Oscar Wilde so quickly
From the beginning they fought for him. He was regarded as a leader among
them when still at Oxford. Yet his early writings show no trace of such a
prepossession; they are wholly void of offence, without even a suggestion of
coarseness, as pure indeed as his talk. Nevertheless, as soon as his name came
up among men in town, the accusation of abnormal viciousness was either made or
hinted. Everyone spoke as if there were no doubt about his tastes, and this in
spite of the habitual reticence of Englishmen. I could not understand how the
imputation came to be so bold and universal; how so shameful a calumny, as I
regarded it, was so firmly established in men's minds. Again and again I
protested against the injustice, demanded proofs; but was met only by shrugs
and pitying glances as if my prejudice must indeed be invincible if I needed
evidence of the obvious.
I have since been assured, on what should be excellent authority, that the evil
reputation which attached to Oscar Wilde in those early years in London was
completely undeserved. I, too, must say that in the first period of our
friendship, I never noticed anything that could give colour even to suspicion
of him; but the belief in his abnormal tastes was widespread and dated from his
life in Oxford.
From about 1886-7 on, however, there was a notable change in Oscar Wilde's
manners and mode of life. He had been married a couple of years, two children
had been born to him; yet instead of settling down he appeared suddenly to have
become wilder. In 1887 he accepted the editorship of a lady's paper, "The
Woman's World", and was always mocking at the selection of himself as the
"fittest" for such a post: he had grown noticeably bolder. I told myself that
an assured income and position give confidence; but at bottom a doubt began to
form in me. It can't be denied that from 1887-8 on, incidents occurred from
time to time which kept the suspicion of him alive, and indeed pointed and
strengthened it. I shall have to deal now with some of the more important of
CHAPTER VIII--OSCAR'S GROWTH TO ORIGINALITY ABOUT 1890
The period of growth of any organism is the most interesting and most
instructive. And there is no moment of growth in the individual life which
can be compared in importance with the moment when a man begins to outtop his
age, and to suggest the future evolution of humanity by his own genius. Usually
this final stage is passed in solitude:
"Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille,
Sich ein Charakter in dem Strome der Welt."
After writing a life of Schiller which almost anyone might have written, Carlyle
retired for some years to Craigenputtoch, and then brought forth "Sartor
Resartus", which was personal and soul-revealing to the verge of eccentricity.
In the same way Wagner was a mere continuator of Weber in "Lohengrin" and
"Tannhaeuser", and first came to his own in the "Meistersinger" and "Tristan",
after years of meditation in Switzerland.
This period for Oscar Wilde began with his marriage; the freedom from sordid
anxieties allowed him to lift up his head and be himself. Kepler, I think, it
is who praises poverty as the foster-mother of genius; but Bernard Palissy was
nearer the truth when he said:--"Pauvrete empeche bons esprits de parvenir"
(poverty hinders fine minds from succeeding). There is no such mortal enemy of
genius as poverty except riches: a touch of the spur from time to time does
good; but a constant rowelling disables. As editor of "The Woman's World "Oscar
had some money of his own to spend. Though his salary was only some six pounds
a week, it made him independent, and his editorial work gave him an excuse for
not exhausting himself by writing. For some years after marriage; in fact, till
he lost his editorship, he wrote little and talked a great deal.
During this period we were often together. He lunched with me once or twice a
week and I began to know his method of work. Everything came to him in the
excitement of talk, epigrams, paradoxes and stories; and when people of great
position or title were about him he generally managed to surpass himself: all
social distinctions appealed to him intensely. I chaffed him about this one day
and he admitted the snobbishness gaily.
"I love even historic names, Frank, as Shakespeare did. Surely everyone prefers
Norfolk, Hamilton and Buckingham to Jones or Smith or Robinson."
As soon as he lost his editorship he took to writing for the reviews; his
articles were merely the "resume" of his monologues. After talking for months
at this and that lunch and dinner he had amassed a store of epigrams and
humorous paradoxes which he could embody in a paper for "The Fortnightly Review"
or "The Nineteenth Century".
These papers made it manifest that Wilde had at length, as Heine phrased it,
reached the topmost height of the culture of his time and was now able to say
new and interesting things. His "Lehrjahre" or student-time may be said to have
ended with his editorship. The articles which he wrote on "The Decay of Lying,"
"The Critic as Artist," and "Pen, Pencil and Poison"; in fact, all the papers
which in 1891 were gathered together and published in book form under the title
of "Intentions," had about them the stamp of originality. They achieved a
noteworthy success with the best minds, and laid the foundation of his fame.
Every paper contained, here and there, a happy phrase, or epigram, or flirt of
humour, which made it memorable to the lover of letters.
They were all, however, conceived and written from the standpoint of the artist,
and the artist alone, who never takes account of ethics, but uses right and
wrong indifferently as colours of his palette. "The Decay of Lying" seemed to
the ordinary, matter-of-fact Englishman a cynical plea in defence of mendacity.
To the majority of readers, "Pen, Pencil and Poison" was hardly more than a
shameful attempt to condone cold-blooded murder. The very articles which
grounded his fame as a writer, helped to injure his standing and repute.
In 1889 he published a paper which did him even more damage by appearing to
justify the peculiar rumours about his private life. He held the opinion,
which was universal at that time, that Shakespeare had been abnormally vicious.
He believed with the majority of critics that Lord William Herbert was addressed
in the first series of Sonnets; but his fine sensibility or, if you will, his
peculiar temperament, led him to question whether Thorpe's dedication to
"Mr. W. H." could have been addressed to Lord William Herbert. He preferred
the old hypothesis that the dedication was addressed to a young actor named
Mr. William Hughes, a supposition which is supported by a well-known sonnet.
He set forth this idea with much circumstance and considerable ingenuity in an
article which he sent to me for publication in "The Fortnightly Review". The
theme was scabrous; but his treatment of it was scrupulously reserved and adroit
and I saw no offence in the paper, and to tell the truth, no great ability in
his handling of the subject. (confer Appendix: "Criticisms by Robert Ross.")
He had talked over the article with me while he was writing it, and I told him
that I thought the whole theory completely mistaken. Shakespeare was as sensual
as one could well be; but there was no evidence of abnormal vice; indeed, all
the evidence seemed to me to be against this universal belief. The assumption
that the dedication was addressed to Lord William Herbert I had found it
difficult to accept, at first; the wording of it is not only ambiguous but
familiar. If I assumed that "Mr. W. H." was meant for Lord William Herbert,
it was only because that seemed the easiest way out of the maze. In fine, I
pointed out to Oscar that his theory had very little that was new in it, and
more that was untrue, and advised him not to publish the paper. My conviction
that Shakespeare was not abnormally vicious, and that the first series of
Sonnets proved snobbishness and toadying and not corrupt passion, seemed to
Oscar the very madness of partisanship.
He smiled away my arguments, and sent his paper to the "Fortnightly" office when
I happened to be abroad. Much to my chagrin, my assistant rejected it rudely,
whereupon Oscar sent it to Blackwoods, who published it in their magazine. It
set everyone talking and arguing. To judge by the discussion it created, the
wind of hatred and of praise it caused, one would have thought that the paper
was a masterpiece, though in truth it was nothing out of the common. Had it
been written by anybody else it would have passed unnoticed. But already Oscar
Wilde had a prodigious notoriety, and all his sayings and doings were eagerly
canvassed from one end of society to the other.
"The Portrait of Mr. W. H." did Oscar incalculable injury. It gave his enemies
for the first time the very weapon they wanted, and they used it unscrupulously
and untiringly with the fierce delight of hatred. Oscar seemed to revel in
the storm of conflicting opinions which the paper called forth. He understood
better than most men that notoriety is often the forerunner of fame and is
always commercially more valuable. He rubbed his hands with delight as the
discussion grew bitter, and enjoyed even the sneering of the envious. A wind
that blows out a little fire, he knew, plays bellows to a big one. So long as
people talked about him, he didn't much care what they said, and they certainly
talked interminably about everything he wrote.
The inordinate popular success increased his self-confidence, and with time his
assurance took on a touch of defiance. The first startling sign of this
gradual change was the publication in "Lippincott's Magazine" of "The Picture
of Dorian Gray." It was attacked immediately in "The Daily Chronicle", a
liberal paper usually distinguished for a certain leaning in favour of artists
and men of letters, as a "tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French
"decadents"--a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the
mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction."
Oscar as a matter of course replied and the tone of his reply is characteristic
of his growth in self-assurance: he no longer dreads the imputation of
viciousness; he challenges it: "It is poisonous, if you like; but you cannot
deny that it is also perfect, and perfection is what we artists aim at."
When Oscar republished "The Picture of Dorian Gray" in book form in April, 1891,
he sent me a large paper copy and with the copy he wrote a little note, asking
me to tell him what I thought of the book. I got the volume and note early one
morning and read the book until noon. I then sent him a note by hand: "Other
men," I wrote, "have given us wine; some claret, some burgundy, some Moselle;
you are the first to give us pure champagne. Much of this book is wittier even
than Congreve and on an equal intellectual level: at length, it seems to me, you
have justified yourself."
Half an hour later I was told that Oscar Wilde had called. I went down
immediately to see him. He was bubbling over with content.
"How charming of you, Frank," he cried, "to have written me such a divine
"I have only read a hundred pages of the book," I said; "but they are
delightful: no one now can deny you a place among the wittiest and most
humorous writers in English."
"How wonderful of you, Frank; what do you like so much?"
Like all artists, he loved praise and I was enthusiastic, happy to have the
opportunity of making up for some earlier doubting that now seemed unworthy:
"Whatever the envious may say, you're with Burke and Sheridan, among the very
ablest Irishmen . . . .
"Of course I have heard most of the epigrams from you before, but you have put
them even better in this book."
"Do you think so, really?" he asked, smiling with pleasure.
It is worth notice that some of the epigrams in "Dorian Gray" were bettered
again before they appeared in his first play. For example, in "Dorian Gray"
Lord Henry Wotton, who is peculiarly Oscar's mouthpiece, while telling how he
had to bargain for a piece of old brocade in Wardour Street, adds, "nowadays
people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." In "Lady
Windermere's Fan" the same epigram is perfected, "The cynic is one who knows
the price of everything and the value of nothing."
Nearly all the literary productions of our time suffer from haste: one must
produce a good deal, especially while one's reputation is in the making, in
order to live by one's pen. Yet great works take time to form, and fine
creations are often disfigured by the stains of hurried parturition. Oscar
Wilde contrived to minimise this disability by talking his works before writing
The conversation of Lord Henry Wotton with his uncle, and again at lunch when
he wishes to fascinate Dorian Gray, is an excellent reproduction of Oscar's
ordinary talk. The uncle wonders why Lord Dartmoor wants to marry an American
and grumbles about her people: "Has she got any?"
Lord Henry shook his head. "American girls are as clever at concealing their
parents as English women are at concealing their past," he said, rising to go.
"They are pork-packers, I suppose?"
"I hope so, Uncle George, for Dartmoor's sake. I am told that pork-packing is
the most lucrative profession in America, after politics."
All this seems to me delightful humour.
The latter part of the book, however, tails off into insignificance. The first
hundred pages held the result of months and months of Oscar's talk, the latter
half was written offhand to complete the story. "Dorian Gray" was the first
piece of work which proved that Oscar Wilde had at length found his true vein.
A little study of it discovers both his strength and his weakness as a writer.
The initial idea of the book is excellent, finer because deeper than the
commonplace idea that is the foundation of Balzac's "Peau de Chagrin," though
it would probably never have been written if Balzac had not written his
book first; but Balzac's sincerity and earnestness grapple with the theme and
wring a blessing out of it, whereas the subtler idea in Oscar's hands dwindles
gradually away till one wonders if the book would not have been more effective
as a short story. Oscar did not know life well enough or care enough for
character to write a profound psychological study: he was at his best in a
short story or play.
One day about this time Oscar first showed me the aphorisms he had written as an
introduction to "Dorian Gray." Several of them I thought excellent; but I found
that Oscar had often repeated himself. I cut these repetitions out and tried to
show him how much better the dozen best were than eighteen of which six were
inferior. I added that I should like to publish the best in "The Fortnightly."
He thanked me and said it was very kind of me.
Next morning I got a letter from him telling me that he had read over my
corrections and thought that the aphorisms I had rejected were the best, but
he hoped I'd publish them as he had written them.
Naturally I replied that the final judgment must rest with him and I published
them at once.
The delight I felt in his undoubted genius and success was not shared by others.
Friends took occasion to tell me that I should not go about with Oscar Wilde.
"Why not?" I asked.
"He has a bad name," was the reply. "Strange things are said about him. He
came down from Oxford with a vile reputation. You have only got to look at
"Whatever the disease may be," I replied, "it's not catching--unfortunately."
The pleasure men take in denigration of the gifted is one of the puzzles of life
to those who are not envious.
Men of letters, even people who ought to have known better, were slow to admit
his extraordinary talent; he had risen so quickly, had been puffed into such
prominence that they felt inclined to deny him even the gifts which he
undoubtedly possessed. I was surprised once to find a friend of mine taking
this attitude: Francis Adams, the poet and writer, chaffed me one day about my
liking for Oscar.
"What on earth can you see in him to admire?" he asked. "He is not a great
writer, he is not even a good writer; his books have no genius in them; his
poetry is tenth rate, and his prose is not much better. His talk even is
fictitious and extravagant."
I could only laugh at him and advise him to read "The Picture of Dorian Gray."
This book, however, gave Oscar's puritanic enemies a better weapon against him
than even "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." The subject, they declared, was the same
as that of "Mr. W. H.," and the treatment was simply loathsome. More than one
middle-class paper, such as "To-Day" in the hands of Mr. Jerome K. Jerome,
condemned the book as "corrupt," and advised its suppression. Freedom of speech
in England is more feared than licence of action: a speck on the outside of the
platter disgusts your puritan, and the inside is never peeped at, much less
Walter Pater praised "Dorian Gray" in the "Bookman"; but thereby only did
himself damage without helping his friend. Oscar meanwhile went about boldly,
meeting criticism now with smiling contempt.
One incident from this time will show how unfairly he was being judged and how
imprudent he was to front defamation with defiance.
One day I met a handsome youth in his company named John Gray, and I could not
wonder that Oscar found him interesting, for Gray had not only great personal
distinction, but charming manners and a marked poetic gift, a much greater gift
than Oscar possessed. He had besides an eager, curious mind, and of course
found extraordinary stimulus in Oscar's talk. It seemed to me that intellectual
sympathy and the natural admiration which a younger man feels for a brilliant
senior formed the obvious bond between them. But no sooner did Oscar republish
"Dorian Gray" than ill-informed and worse-minded persons went about saying that
the eponymous hero of the book was John Gray, though "Dorian Gray" was written
before Oscar had met or heard of John Gray. One cannot help admitting that this
was partly Oscar's own fault. In talk he often alluded laughingly to John Gray
as his hero, "Dorian." It is just an instance of the challenging contempt which
he began to use about this time in answer to the inventions of hatred.
Late in this year, 1891, he published four stories completely void of offence,
calling the collection "A House of Pomegranates." He dedicated each of the
tales to a lady of distinction and the book made many friends; but it was
handled contemptuously in the press and had no sale.
By this time people expected a certain sort of book from Oscar Wilde and wanted
nothing else. They hadn't to wait long. Early in 1892 we heard that Oscar had
written a drama in French called "Salome", and at once it was put about that
Sarah Bernhardt was going to produce it in London. Then came dramatic surprise
on surprise: while it was being rehearsed, the Lord Chamberlain refused to
license it on the ground that it introduced Biblical characters. Oscar
protested in a brilliant interview against the action of the Censor as "odious
and ridiculous." He pointed out that all the greatest artists--painters and
sculptors, musicians and writers--had taken many of their best subjects from the
Bible, and wanted to know why the dramatist should be prevented from treating
the great soul-tragedies most proper to his art. When informed that the
interdict was to stand, he declared in a pet that he would settle in France and
take out letters of naturalisation:
"I am not English. I am Irish--which is quite another thing." Of course the
press made all the fun it could of his show of temper.
Mr. Robert Ross considers "Salome" "the most powerful and perfect of all Oscar's
dramas." I find it almost impossible to explain, much less justify, its
astonishing popularity. When it appeared, the press, both in France and in
England, was critical and contemptuous; but by this time Oscar had so captured
the public that he could afford to disdain critics and calumny. The play was
praised by his admirers as if it had been a masterpiece, and London discussed it
the more because it was in French and not clapper-clawed by the vulgar.
The indescribable cold lewdness and cruelty of "Salome" quickened the prejudice
and strengthened the dislike of the ordinary English reader for its author. And
when the drama was translated into English and published with the drawings of
Aubrey Beardsley, it was disparaged and condemned by all the leaders of literary
opinion. The colossal popularity of the play, which Mr. Robert Ross proves so
triumphantly, came from Germany and Russia and is to be attributed in part to
the contempt educated Germans and Russians feel for the hypocritical vagaries of
English prudery. The illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, too, it must be
admitted, were an additional offence to the ordinary English reader, for they
intensified the peculiar atmosphere of the drama.
Oscar used to say that he invented Aubrey Beardsley; but the truth is, it was
Mr. Robert Ross who first introduced Aubrey to Oscar and persuaded him to
commission the "Salome" drawings which gave the English edition its singular
value. Strange to say, Oscar always hated the illustrations and would not have
the book in his house. His dislike even extended to the artist, and as Aubrey
Beardsley was of easy and agreeable intercourse, the mutual repulsion deserves a
word of explanation.
Aubrey Beardsley's genius had taken London by storm. At seventeen or eighteen
this auburn-haired, blue-eyed, fragile looking youth had reached maturity with
his astounding talent, a talent which would have given him position and wealth
in any other country. In perfection of line his drawings were superior to
anything we possess. But the curious thing about the boy was that he expressed
the passions of pride and lust and cruelty more intensely even than Rops, [sic]
more spontaneously than anyone who ever held pencil. Beardsley's precocity was
simply marvellous. He seemed to have an intuitive understanding not only of his
own art but of every art and craft, and it was some time before one realised
that he attained this miraculous virtuosity by an absolute disdain for every
other form of human endeavour. He knew nothing of the great general or
millionaire or man of science, and he cared as little for them as for fishermen
or 'bus-drivers. The current of his talent ran narrow between stone banks, so
to speak; it was the bold assertion of it that interested Oscar.
One phase of Beardsley's extraordinary development may be recorded here. When I
first met him his letters, and even his talk sometimes, were curiously youthful
and immature, lacking altogether the personal note of his drawings. As soon as
this was noticed he took the bull by the horns and pretended that his style in
writing was out of date; he wished us to believe that he hesitated to shock
us with his "archaic sympathies." Of course we laughed and challenged him to
reveal himself. Shortly afterwards I got an article from him written with
curious felicity of phrase, in modish polite eighteenth-century English. He had
reached personal expression in a new medium in a month or so, and apparently
without effort. It was Beardsley's writing that first won Oscar to recognition
of his talent, and for a while he seemed vaguely interested in what he called
his "orchid-like personality."
They were both at lunch one day when Oscar declared that he could drink nothing
but absinthe when Beardsley was present.
"Absinthe," he said, "is to all other drinks what Aubrey's drawings are to
other pictures: it stands alone: it is like nothing else: it shimmers like
southern twilight in opalescent colouring: it has about it the seduction of
strange sins. It is stronger than any other spirit, and brings out the sub-
conscious self in man. It is just like your drawings, Aubrey; it gets on one's
nerves and is cruel.
"Baudelaire called his poems "Fleurs du Mal," I shall call your drawings "Fleurs
du Peche"--flowers of sin.
"When I have before me one of your drawings I want to drink absinthe, which
changes colour like jade in sunlight and takes the senses thrall, and then I can
live myself back in imperial Rome, in the Rome of the later Caesars."
"Don't forget the simple pleasures of that life, Oscar," said Aubrey; "Nero set
Christians on fire, like large tallow candles; the only light Christians have
ever been known to give," he added in a languid, gentle voice.
This talk gave me the key. In personal intercourse Oscar Wilde was more English
than the English: he seldom expressed his opinion of person or prejudice boldly;
he preferred to hint dislike and disapproval. His insistence on the naked
expression of lust and cruelty in Beardsley's drawings showed me that direct
frankness displeased him; for he could hardly object to the qualities which were
making his own "Salome" world-famous.
The complete history of the relations between Oscar Wilde and Beardsley, and
their mutual dislike, merely proves how difficult it is for original artists to
appreciate one another: like mountain peaks they stand alone. Oscar showed a
touch of patronage, the superiority of the senior, in his intercourse with
Beardsley, and often praised him ineptly, whereas Beardsley to the last spoke
of Oscar as a showman, and hoped drily that he knew more about literature than
he did about art. For a moment, they worked in concert, and it is important
to remember that it was Beardsley who influenced Oscar, and not Oscar who
influenced Beardsley. Beardsley's contempt of critics and the public, his
artistic boldness and self-assertion, had a certain hardening influence on
Oscar: as things turned out a most unfortunate influence.
In spite of Mr. Robert Ross's opinion I regard "Salome," as a student work, an
outcome of Oscar's admiration for Flaubert and his "Herodias," on the one hand,
and "Les Sept Princesses," of Maeterlinck on the other. He has borrowed the
colour and Oriental cruelty with the banquet-scene from the Frenchman, and from
the Fleming the simplicity of language and the haunting effect produced by
the repetition of significant phrases. Yet "Salome" is original through the
mingling of lust and hatred in the heroine, and by making this extraordinary
virgin the chief and centre of the drama Oscar has heightened the interest of
the story and bettered Flaubert's design. I feel sure he copied Maeterlinck's
simplicity of style because it served to disguise his imperfect knowledge of
French and yet this very artlessness adds to the weird effect of the drama.
The lust that inspires the tragedy was characteristic, but the cruelty was
foreign to Oscar; both qualities would have injured him in England, had it
not been for two things. First of all only a few of the best class of English
people know French at all well, and for the most part they disdain the sex-
morality of their race; while the vast mass of the English public regard French
as in itself an immoral medium and is inclined to treat anything in that tongue
with contemptuous indifference. One can only say that "Salome" confirmed
Oscar's growing reputation for abnormal viciousness.
It was in 1892 that some of Oscar's friends struck me for the first time as
questionable, to say the best of them. I remember giving a little dinner to
some men in rooms I had in Jermyn Street. I invited Oscar, and he brought a
young friend with him. After dinner I noticed that the youth was angry with
Oscar and would scarcely speak to him, and that Oscar was making up to him.
I heard snatches of pleading from Oscar--"I beg of you . . . . It is not true
. . . . You have no cause" . . . . All the while Oscar was standing apart from
the rest of us with an arm on the young man's shoulder; but his coaxing was in
vain, the youth turned away with petulant, sullen ill-temper. This is a mere
snap-shot which remained in my memory, and made me ask myself afterwards how I
could have been so slow of understanding.
Looking back and taking everything into consideration--his social success, the
glare of publicity in which he lived, the buzz of talk and discussion that arose
about everything he did and said, the increasing interest and value of his work
and, above all, the ever-growing boldness of his writing and the challenge of
his conduct--it is not surprising that the black cloud of hate and slander which
attended him persistently became more and more threatening.
CHAPTER IX--THE SUMMER OF SUCCESS: OSCAR'S FIRST PLAY
No season, it is said, is so beautiful as the brief northern summer. Three-
fourths of the year is cold and dark, and the ice-bound landscape is swept by
snowstorm and blizzard. Summer comes like a goddess; in a twinkling the snow
vanishes and Nature puts on her robes of tenderest green; the birds arrive in
flocks; flowers spring to life on all sides, and the sun shines by night as by
day. Such a summertide, so beautiful and so brief, was accorded to Oscar Wilde
before the final desolation.
I want to give a picture of him at the topmost height of happy hours, which will
afford some proof of his magical talent of speech besides my own appreciation of
it, and, fortunately, the incident has been given to me. Mr. Ernest Beckett,
now Lord Grimthorpe, a lover of all superiorities, who has known the ablest
men of the time, takes pleasure in telling a story which shows Oscar Wilde's
influence over men who were anything but literary in their tastes. Mr. Beckett
had a party of Yorkshire squires, chiefly fox-hunters and lovers of an outdoor
life, at Kirkstall Grange when he heard that Oscar Wilde was in the neighbouring
town of Leeds. Immediately he asked him to lunch at the Grange, chuckling to
himself beforehand at the sensational novelty of the experiment. Next day
"Mr. Oscar Wilde" was announced and as he came into the room the sportsmen
forthwith began hiding themselves behind newspapers or moving together in groups
in order to avoid seeing or being introduced to the notorious writer. Oscar
shook hands with his host as if he had noticed nothing, and began to talk.
"In five minutes," Grimthorpe declares, "all the papers were put down and
everyone had gathered round him to listen and laugh."
At the end of the meal one Yorkshireman after the other begged the host to
follow the lunch with a dinner and invite them to meet the wonder again. When
the party broke up in the small hours they all went away delighted with Oscar,
vowing that no man ever talked more brilliantly. Grimthorpe cannot remember a
single word Oscar said: "It was all delightful," he declares, "a play of genial
humour over every topic that came up, like sunshine dancing on waves."
The extraordinary thing about Oscar's talent was that he did not monopolise the
conversation: he took the ball of talk wherever it happened to be at the moment
and played with it so humorously that everyone was soon smiling delightedly.
The famous talkers of the past, Coleridge, Macaulay, Carlyle and the others,
were all lecturers: talk to them was a discourse on a favourite theme, and in
ordinary life they were generally regarded as bores. But at his best Oscar
Wilde never dropped the tone of good society: he could afford to give place to
others; he was equipped at all points: no subject came amiss to him: he saw
everything from a humorous angle, and dazzled one now with word-wit, now with
the very stuff of merriment.
Though he was the life and soul of every social gathering, and in constant
demand, he still read omnivorously, and his mind naturally occupied itself
with high themes.
For some years, the story of Jesus fascinated him and tinged all his thought.
We were talking about Renan's "Life" one day: a wonderful book he called it, one
of the three great biographies of the world, Plato's dialogues with Socrates as
hero and Boswell's "Life of Johnson" being the other two. It was strange, he
thought, that the greatest man had written the worst biography; Plato made of
Socrates a mere phonograph, into which he talked his own theories: Renan did
better work, and Boswell, the humble loving friend, the least talented of the
three, did better still, though being English, he had to keep to the surface of
things and leave the depths to be divined. Oscar evidently expected Plato and
Renan to have surpassed comparison.
It seemed to me, however, that the illiterate Galilean fishermen had proved
themselves still more consummate painters than Boswell, though they, too, left a
great deal too much to the imagination. Love is the best of artists; the puddle
of rain in the road can reflect a piece of sky marvellously.
The Gospel story had a personal interest for Oscar; he was always weaving little
fables about himself as the Master.
In spite of my ignorance of Hebrew the story of Jesus had always had the
strongest attraction for me, and so we often talked about Him, though from
Renan I felt had missed Jesus at his highest. He was far below the sincerity,
the tenderness and sweet-thoughted wisdom of that divine spirit. Frenchman-
like, he stumbled over the miracles and came to grief. Claus Sluter's head of
Jesus in the museum of Dijon is a finer portrait, and so is the imaginative
picture of Fra Angelico. It seemed to me possible to do a sketch from the
Gospels themselves which should show the growth of the soul of Jesus and so
impose itself as a true portrait.
Oscar's interest in the theme was different; he put himself frankly in the
place of his model, and appeared to enjoy the jarring antinomy which resulted.
One or two of his stories were surprising in ironical suggestion; surprising
too because they showed his convinced paganism. Here is one which reveals his
"When Joseph of Arimathea came down in the evening from Mount Calvary where
Jesus had died he saw on a white stone a young man seated weeping. And Joseph
went near him and said, 'I understand how great thy grief must be, for certainly
that Man was a just Man.' But the young man made answer, 'Oh, it is not for that
I am weeping. I am weeping because I too have wrought miracles. I also have
given sight to the blind, I have healed the palsied and I have raised the dead;
I too have caused the barren fig tree to wither away and I have turned water
into wine . . . and yet they have not crucified me.'"
At the time this apologue amused me; in the light of later events it assumed a
tragic significance. Oscar Wilde ought to have known that in this world every
real superiority is pursued with hatred, and every worker of miracles is sure
to be persecuted. But he had no inkling that the Gospel story is symbolic--the
life-story of genius for all time, eternally true. He never looked outside
himself, and as the fruits of success were now sweet in his mouth, a pursuing
Fate seemed to him the most mythical of myths. His child-like self-confidence
was pathetic. The laws that govern human affairs had little interest for the
man who was always a law unto himself. Yet by some extraordinary prescience,
some inexplicable presentiment, the approaching catastrophe cast its shadow
over his mind and he felt vaguely that the life-journey of genius would be
incomplete and farcical without the final tragedy: whoever lives for the highest
must be crucified.
It seems memorable to me that in this brief summer of his life, Oscar Wilde
should have concerned himself especially with the life-story of the Man of
Sorrows who had sounded all the depths of suffering. Just when he himself was
about to enter the Dark Valley, Jesus was often in his thoughts and he always
spoke of Him with admiration. But after all how could he help it? Even Dekker
saw as far as that:
"The best of men
That e'er wore earth about Him."
This was the deeper strain in Oscar Wilde's nature though he was always
disinclined to show it. Habitually he lived in humorous talk, in the epithets
and epigrams he struck out in the desire to please and astonish his hearers.
One evening I learned almost by chance that he was about to try a new experiment
and break into a new field.
He took up the word "lose" at the table, I remember.
"We lose our chances," he said, laughing, "we lose our figures, we even lose
our characters; but we must never lose our temper. That is our duty to our
neighbour, Frank; but sometimes we mislay it, don't we?"
"Is that going in a book, Oscar?" I asked, smiling, "or in an article? You have
written nothing lately."
"I have a play in my mind," he replied gravely. "To-morrow I am going to
shut myself up in my room, and stay there until it is written. George Alexander
has been bothering me to write a play for some time and I've got an idea
I rather like. I wonder can I do it in a week, or will it take three? It
ought not to take long to beat the Pineros and the Joneses." It always annoyed
Oscar when any other name but his came into men's mouths: his vanity was
Naturally enough he minimised Mr. Alexander's initiative. The well-known actor
had "bothered" Oscar by advancing him L100 before the scenario was even
outlined. A couple of months later he told me that Alexander had accepted
his comedy, and was going to produce "Lady Windermere's Fan." I thought the
"Territorial names," Oscar explained, gravely, "have always a "cachet" of
distinction: they fall on the ear full toned with secular dignity. That's how
I get all the names of my personages, Frank. I take up a map of the English
counties, and there they are. Our English villages have often exquisitely
beautiful names. Windermere, for instance, or Hunstanton," and he rolled the
syllables over his tongue with a soft sensual pleasure.
I had a box the first night and, thinking it might do Oscar some good, I took
with me Arthur Walter of "The Times". The first scene of the first act was as
old as the hills, but the treatment gave charm to it if not freshness. The
delightful, unexpected humour set off the commonplace incident; but it was only
the convention that Arthur Walter would see. The play was poor, he thought,
which brought me to wonder.
After the first act I went downstairs to the "foyer" and found the critics in
much the same mind. There was an enormous gentleman called Joseph Knight, who
"The humour is mechanical, unreal." Seeing that I did not respond he challenged
"What do you think of it?"
"That is for you critics to answer," I replied.
"I might say," he laughed, "in Oscar's own peculiar way, 'Little promise and
less performance.' Ha! ha! ha!"
"That's the exact opposite to Oscar's way," I retorted. "It is the listeners
who laugh at his humour."
"Come now, really," cried Knight, "you cannot think much of the play?"
For the first time in my life I began to realise that nine critics out of ten
are incapable of judging original work. They seem to live in a sort of fog,
waiting for someone to give them the lead, and accordingly they love to discuss
every new play right and left.
"I have not seen the whole play," I answered. "I was not at any of the
rehearsals; but so far it is surely the best comedy in English, the most
brilliant: isn't it?"
The big man started back and stared at me; then burst out laughing.
"That's good," he cried with a loud unmirthful guffaw. "'Lady Windermere's Fan'
better than any comedy of Shakespeare! Ha! ha! ha! 'more brilliant!' ho! ho!"
"Yes," I persisted, angered by his disdain, "wittier, and more humorous than 'As
You Like It,' or 'Much Ado.' Strange to say, too, it is on a higher intellectual
level. I can only compare it to the best of Congreve, and I think it's better."
With a grunt of disapproval or rage the great man of the daily press turned away
to exchange bleatings with one of his "confreres".
The audience was a picked audience of the best heads in London, far superior in
brains therefore to the average journalist, and their judgment was that it was a
most brilliant and interesting play. Though the humour was often prepared, the
construction showed a rare mastery of stage-effect. Oscar Wilde had at length
come into his kingdom.
At the end the author was called for, and Oscar appeared before the curtain.
The house rose at him and cheered and cheered again. He was smiling, with a
cigarette between his fingers, wholly master of himself and his audience.
"I am so glad, ladies and gentlemen, that you like my play. (confer Appendix:
"Criticisms by Robert Ross.") I feel sure you estimate the merits of it almost
as highly as I do myself."
The house rocked with laughter. The play and its humour were a seven days'
wonder in London. People talked of nothing but "Lady Windermere's Fan."
The witty words in it ran from lip to lip like a tidbit of scandal. Some
clever Jewesses and, strange to say, one Scotchman were the loudest in applause.
Mr. Archer, the well-known critic of "The World", was the first and only
journalist to perceive that the play was a classic by virtue of "genuine
dramatic qualities." Mrs. Leverson turned the humorous sayings into current
social coin in "Punch", of all places in the world, and from a favourite Oscar
Wilde rapidly became the idol of smart London.
The play was an intellectual triumph. This time Oscar had not only won success
but had won also the suffrages of the best. Nearly all the journalist-critics
were against him and made themselves ridiculous by their brainless strictures;
"Truth" and "The Times", for example, were poisonously puritanic, but thinking
people came over to his side in a body. The halo of fame was about him, and the
incense of it in his nostrils made him more charming, more irresponsibly gay,
more genial-witty than ever. He was as one set upon a pinnacle with the
sunshine playing about him, lighting up his radiant eyes. All the while,
however, the foul mists from the underworld were wreathing about him, climbing
higher and higher.
CHAPTER X--THE FIRST MEETING WITH LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
Thou hast led me like an heathen sacrifice, With music and with fatal pomp of
flowers, To my eternal ruin.--Webster's "The White Devil".
"Lady Windermere's Fan" was a success in every sense of the word, and during
its run London was at Oscar's feet. There were always a few doors closed to
him; but he could afford now to treat his critics with laughter, call them
fogies and old-fashioned and explain that they had not a decalogue but a
millelogue of sins forbidden and persons tabooed because it was easier to
condemn than to understand.
I remember a lunch once when he talked most brilliantly and finished up by
telling the story now published in his works as "A Florentine Tragedy." He
told it superbly, making it appear far more effective than in its written form.
A well-known actor, piqued at being compelled to play listener, made himself
ridiculous by half turning his back on the narrator. But after lunch Willie
Grenfell (now Lord Desborough), a model English athlete gifted with peculiar
intellectual fairness, came round to me:
"Oscar Wilde is most surprising, most charming, a wonderful talker."
At the same moment Mr. K. H---- came over to us. He was a man who went
everywhere and knew everyone. He had quiet, ingratiating manners, always spoke
in a gentle smiling way and had a good word to say for everyone, especially for
women; he was a bachelor, too, and wholly unattached. He surprised me by taking
up Grenfell's praise and breaking into a lyric:
"The best talker who ever lived," he said; "most extraordinary. I am so
infinitely obliged to you for asking me to meet him--a new delight. He brings a
supernal air into life. I am in truth indebted to you"--all this in an affected
purring tone. I noticed for the first time that there was a touch of rouge on
his face; Grenfell turned away from us rather abruptly I thought.
At this first roseate dawn of complete success and universal applause, new
qualities came to view in Oscar. Praise gave him the fillip needed in order
to make him surpass himself. His talk took on a sort of autumnal richness
of colour, and assumed a new width of range; he now used pathos as well as
humour and generally brought in a story or apologue to lend variety to the
entertainment. His little weaknesses, too, began to show themselves and they
grew rankly in the sunshine. He always wanted to do himself well, as the phrase
goes, but now he began to eat and drink more freely than before. His vanity
became defiant. I noticed one day that he had signed himself, Oscar O'Flahertie
Wilde, I think under some verses which he had contributed years before to his
College magazine. I asked him jokingly what the O'Flahertie stood for. To my
astonishment he answered me gravely:
"The O'Flaherties were kings in Ireland, and I have a right to the name; I am
descended from them."
I could not help it; I burst out laughing.
"What are you laughing at, Frank?" he asked with a touch of annoyance.
"It seems humorous to me," I explained, "that Oscar Wilde should want to be
an O'Flahertie," and as I spoke a picture of the greatest of the O'Flaherties,
with bushy head and dirty rags, warming enormous hairy legs before a smoking
peat-fire, flashed before me. I think something of the sort must have
occurred to Oscar, too, for, in spite of his attempt to be grave, he could not
"It's unkind of you, Frank," he said. "The Irish were civilised and Christians
when the English kept themselves warm with tattooings."
He could not help telling one in familiar talk of Clumber or some other great
house where he had been visiting; he was intoxicated with his own popularity,
a little surprised, perhaps, to find that he had won fame so easily and on the
primrose path, but one could forgive him everything, for he talked more
delightfully than ever.
It is almost inexplicable, but nevertheless true that life tries all of us,
tests every weak point to breaking, and sets off and exaggerates our powers.
Burns saw this when he wrote:
"Wha does the utmost that he can Will whyles do mair."
And the obverse is true: whoever yields to a weakness habitually, some day
goes further than he ever intended, and comes to worse grief than he deserved.
The old prayer: "Lead us not into temptation", is perhaps a half-conscious
recognition of this fact. But we moderns are inclined to walk heedlessly, no
longer believing in pitfalls or in the danger of gratified desires. And Oscar
Wilde was not only an unbeliever; but he had all the heedless confidence of the
artist who has won world-wide popularity and has the halo of fame on his brow.
With high heart and smiling eyes he went to his fate unsuspecting.
It was in the autumn of 1891 that he first met Lord Alfred Douglas. He was
thirty-six and Lord Alfred Douglas a handsome, slim youth of twenty-one, with
large blue eyes and golden-fair hair. His mother, the Dowager Lady Queensberry,
preserves a photograph of him taken a few years before, when he was still at
Winchester, a boy of sixteen with an expression which might well be called
When I met him, he was still girlishly pretty, with the beauty of youth,
coloring and fair skin; though his features were merely ordinary. It was
Lionel Johnson, the writer, a friend and intimate of Douglas at Winchester, who
brought him to tea at Oscar's house in Tite Street. Their mutual attraction had
countless hooks. Oscar was drawn by the lad's personal beauty, and enormously
affected besides by Lord Alfred Douglas' name and position: he was a snob as
only an English artist can be a snob; he loved titular distinctions, and Douglas
is one of the few great names in British history with the gilding of romance
about it. No doubt Oscar talked better than his best because he was talking to
Lord Alfred Douglas. To the last the mere name rolled on his tongue gave him
extraordinary pleasure. Besides, the boy admired him, hung upon his lips with
his soul in his eyes; showed, too, rare intelligence in his appreciation,
confessed that he himself wrote verses and loved letters passionately. Could
more be desired than perfection perfected?
And Alfred Douglas on his side was almost as powerfully attracted; he had
inherited from his mother all her literary tastes--and more: he was already a
master-poet with a singing faculty worthy to be compared with the greatest.
What wonder if he took this magical talker, with the luminous eyes and charming
voice, and a range and play of thought beyond his imagining, for a world's
miracle, one of the Immortals. Before he had listened long, I have been told,
the youth declared his admiration passionately. They were an extraordinary pair
and were complementary in a hundred ways, not only in mind, but in character.
Oscar had reached originality of thought and possessed the culture of
scholarship, while Alfred Douglas had youth and rank and beauty, besides
being as articulate as a woman with an unsurpassable gift of expression.
Curiously enough, Oscar was as yielding and amiable in character as the boy
was self-willed, reckless, obstinate and imperious.
Years later Oscar told me that from the first he dreaded Alfred Douglas'
aristocratic, insolent boldness:
"He frightened me, Frank, as much as he attracted me, and I held away from him.
But he wouldn't have it; he sought me out again and again and I couldn't resist
him. That is my only fault. That's what ruined me. He increased my expenses
so that I could not meet them; over and over again I tried to free myself from
him; but he came back and I yielded--alas!"
Though this is Oscar's later gloss on what actually happened, it is fairly
accurate. He was never able to realise how his meeting with Lord Alfred Douglas
had changed the world to him and him to the world. The effect on the harder
fibre of the boy was chiefly mental: to Alfred Douglas, Oscar was merely a
quickening, inspiring, intellectual influence; but the boy's effect on Oscar was
of character and induced imitation. Lord Alfred Douglas' boldness gave Oscar
"outre-cuidance", an insolent arrogance: artist-like he tried to outdo his
model in aristocratic disdain. Without knowing the cause the change in Oscar
astonished me again and again, and in the course of this narrative I shall have
to notice many instances of it.
One other effect the friendship had of far-reaching influence. Oscar always
enjoyed good living; but for years he had had to earn his bread: he knew the
value of money; he didn't like to throw it away; he was accustomed to lunch or
dine at a cheap Italian restaurant for a few shillings. But to Lord Alfred
Douglas money was only a counter and the most luxurious living a necessity. As
soon as Oscar Wilde began to entertain him, he was led to the dearest hotels and
restaurants; his expenses became formidable and soon outran his large earnings.
For the first time since I had known him he borrowed heedlessly right and left,
and had, therefore, to bring forth play after play with scant time for thought.
Lord Alfred Douglas has declared recently:
"I spent much more in entertaining Oscar Wilde than he did in entertaining me";
but this is preposterous self-deception. An earlier confession of his was much
nearer the truth: "It was a sweet humiliation to me to let Oscar Wilde pay for
everything and to ask him for money."
There can be no doubt that Lord Alfred Douglas' habitual extravagance kept Oscar
Wilde hard up, and drove him to write without intermission.
There were other and worse results of the intimacy which need not be exposed
here in so many words, though they must be indicated; for they derived of
necessity from that increased self-assurance which has already been recorded.
As Oscar devoted himself to Lord Alfred Douglas and went about with him
continually, he came to know his friends and his familiars, and went less into
society so-called. Again and again Lord Alfred Douglas flaunted acquaintance
with youths of the lowest class; but no one knew him or paid much attention to
him; Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, was already a famous personage whose every
movement provoked comment. From this time on the rumours about Oscar took
definite form and shaped themselves in specific accusations: his enemies began
triumphantly to predict his ruin and disgrace.
Everything is known in London society; like water on sand the truth spreads
wider and wider as it gradually filters lower. The "smart set" in London has
almost as keen a love of scandal as a cathedral town. About this time one heard
of a dinner which Oscar Wilde had given at a restaurant in Soho, which was said
to have degenerated into a sort of Roman orgy. I was told of a man who tried to
get money by blackmailing him in his own house. I shrugged my shoulders at all
these scandals, and asked the talebearers what had been said about Shakespeare
to make him rave as he raved again and again against "back-wounding calumny";
and when they persisted in their malicious stories I could do nothing but show
disbelief. Though I saw but little of Oscar during the first year or so of his
intimacy with Lord Alfred Douglas, one scene from this time filled me with
suspicion and an undefined dread.
I was in a corner of the Cafe Royal one night downstairs, playing chess, and,
while waiting for my opponent to move, I went out just to stretch my legs. When
I returned I found Oscar throned in the very corner, between two youths. Even
to my short-sighted eyes they appeared quite common: in fact they looked like
grooms. In spite of their vulgar appearance, however, one was nice looking in a
fresh boyish way; the other seemed merely depraved. Oscar greeted me as usual,
though he seemed slightly embarrassed. I resumed my seat, which was almost
opposite him, and pretended to be absorbed in the game. To my astonishment he
was talking as well as if he had had a picked audience; talking, if you please,
about the Olympic games, telling how the youths wrestled and were scraped with
strigulae and threw the discus and ran races and won the myrtle-wreath. His
impassioned eloquence brought the sun-bathed palaestra before one with a magic
of representment. Suddenly the younger of the boys asked:
"Did you sy they was niked?"
"Of course," Oscar replied, "nude, clothed only in sunshine and beauty."
"Oh, my," giggled the lad in his unspeakable Cockney way. I could not stand it.
"I am in an impossible position," I said to my opponent, who was the amateur
chess player, Montagu Gattie. "Come along and let us have some dinner." With a
nod to Oscar I left the place. On the way out Gattie said to me:
"So that's the famous Oscar Wilde."
"Yes," I replied, "that's Oscar, but I never saw him in such company before."
"Didn't you?" remarked Gattie quietly; "he was well known at Oxford. I was at
the 'Varsity with him. His reputation was always rather--"'high,'" shall we
I wanted to forget the scene and blot it out of my memory, and remember my
friend as I knew him at his best. But that Cockney boy would not be banned;
he leered there with rosy cheeks, hair plastered down in a love-lock on his
forehead, and low cunning eyes. I felt uncomfortable. I would not think of
it. I recalled the fact that in all our talks I had never heard Oscar use a
gross word. His mind, I said to myself, is like Spenser's, vowed away from
coarseness and vulgarity: he's the most perfect intellectual companion in the
world. He may have wanted to talk to the boys just to see what effect his talk
would have on them. His vanity is greedy enough to desire even such applause as
theirs. . . . . Of course, that was the explanation--vanity. My affection for
him, tormented by doubt, had found at length a satisfactory solution. It was
the artist in him, I said to myself, that wanted a model.
But why not boys of his own class? The answer suggested itself; boys of his own
class could teach him nothing; his own boyhood would supply him with all the
necessary information about well-bred youth. But if he wanted a gutter-snipe in
one of his plays, he would have to find a gutter-lad and paint him from life.
That was probably the truth, I concluded. So satisfied was I with my discovery
that I developed it to Gattie; but he would not hear of it.
"Gattie has nothing of the artist in him," I decided, "and therefore cannot
understand." And I went on arguing, if Gattie were right, why "two" boys?
It seemed evident to me that my reading of the riddle was the only plausible
one. Besides it left my affection unaffected and free. Still, the giggle, the
plastered oily hair and the venal leering eyes came back to me again and again
in spite of myself.
CHAPTER XI--THE THREATENING CLOUD DRAWS NEARER
There is a secret apprehension in man counselling sobriety and moderation,
a fear born of expediency distinct from conscience, which is ethical; though
it seems to be closely connected with conscience acting, as it does, by
warnings and prohibitions. The story of Polycrates and his ring is a symbol
of the instinctive feeling that extraordinary good fortune is perilous and
can not endure.
A year or so after the first meeting between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
I heard that they were being pestered on account of some amorous letters which
had been stolen from them. There was talk of blackmail and hints of an
Towards the end of the year it was announced that Lord Alfred Douglas had gone
to Egypt; but this "flight into Egypt," as it was wittily called, was gilded
by the fact that a little later he was appointed an honorary attache to Lord
Cromer. I regarded his absence as a piece of good fortune, for when he was in
London, Oscar had no time to himself, and was seen in public with associates
he would have done better to avoid. Time and again he had praised Lord Alfred
Douglas to me as a charming person, a poet, and had grown lyrical about his
violet eyes and honey-coloured hair. I knew nothing of Lord Alfred Douglas,
and had no inkling of his poetic talent. I did not like several of Oscar's
particular friends, and I had a special dislike for the father of Lord Alfred
Douglas. I knew Queensberry rather well. I was a member of the old Pelican
Club, and I used to go there frequently for a talk with Tom, Dick or Harry,
about athletics, or for a game of chess with George Edwards. Queensberry was
there almost every night, and someone introduced me to him. I was eager to
know him because he had surprised me. At some play ("The Promise of May" was
produced in November, 1882.), I think it was "The Promise of May," by Tennyson,
produced at the Globe, in which atheists were condemned, he had got up in his
box and denounced the play, proclaiming himself an atheist. I wanted to know
the Englishman who could be so contemptuous of convention. Had he acted out of
aristocratic insolence, or was he by any possibility high-minded? To one who
knew the man the mere question must seem ridiculous.
Queensberry was perhaps five feet nine or ten in height, with a plain, heavy,
rather sullen face, and quick, hot eyes. He was a mass of self-conceit, all
bristling with suspicion, and in regard to money, prudent to meanness. He
cared nothing for books, but liked outdoor sports and under a rather abrupt,
but not discourteous, manner hid an irritable, violent temper. He was combative
and courageous as very nervous people sometimes are, when they happen to be
strong-willed--the sort of man who, just because he was afraid of a bull and
had pictured the dreadful wound it could give, would therefore seize it by the
The insane temper of the man got him into rows at the Pelican more than once.
I remember one evening he insulted a man whom I liked immensely. Haseltine was
a stockbroker, I think, a big, fair, handsome fellow who took Queensberry's
insults for some time with cheerful contempt. Again and again he turned
Queensberry's wrath aside with a fair word, but Queensberry went on working
himself into a passion, and at last made a rush at him. Haseltine watched him
coming and hit out in the nick of time; he caught Queensberry full in the face
and literally knocked him heels over head. Queensberry got up in a sad mess: he
had a swollen nose and black eye and his shirt was all stained with blood spread
about by hasty wiping. Any other man would have continued the fight or else
have left the club on the spot; Queensberry took a seat at a table, and there
sat for hours silent. I could only explain it to myself by saying that his
impulse to fly at once from the scene of his disgrace was very acute, and
therefore he resisted it, made up his mind not to budge, and so he sat there the
butt of the derisive glances and whispered talk of everyone who came into the
club in the next two or three hours. He was just the sort of person a wise man
would avoid and a clever one would use--a dangerous, sharp, ill-handled tool.
Disliking his father, I did not care to meet Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar's newest
I saw Oscar less frequently after the success of his first play; he no longer
needed my editorial services, and was, besides, busily engaged; but I have one
good trait to record of him. Some time before I had lent him L50; so long as he
was hard up I said nothing about it; but after the success of his second play,
I wrote to him saying that the L50 would be useful to me if he could spare it.
He sent me a cheque at once with a charming letter.
He was now continually about again with Lord Alfred Douglas who, it appeared,
had had a disagreement with Lord Cromer and returned to London. Almost
immediately scandalous stories came into circulation concerning them:
"Have you heard the latest about Lord Alfred and Oscar? I'm told they're being
watched by the police," and so forth and so on interminably. One day a story
came to me with such wealth of weird detail that it was manifestly at least
founded on fact. Oscar was said to have written extraordinary letters to
Lord Alfred Douglas: a youth called Alfred Wood had stolen the letters from
Lord Alfred Douglas' rooms in Oxford and had tried to blackmail Oscar with them.
The facts were so peculiar and so precise that I asked Oscar about it. He met
the accusation at once and very fairly, I thought, and told me the whole story.
It puts the triumphant power and address of the man in a strong light, and so I
will tell it as he told it to me.
"When I was rehearsing 'A Woman of No Importance' at the Haymarket," he began,
"Beerbohm Tree showed me a letter I had written a year or so before to Alfred
Douglas. He seemed to think it dangerous, but I laughed at him and read the
letter with him, and of course he came to understand it properly. A little
later a man called Wood told me he had found some letters which I had written
to Lord Alfred Douglas in a suit of clothes which Lord Alfred had given to him.
He gave me back some of the letters and I gave him a little money. But the
letter, a copy of which had been sent to Beerbohm Tree, was not amongst them.
"Some time afterwards a man named Allen called upon me one night in Tite Street,
and said he had got a letter of mine which I ought to have.
"The man's manner told me that he was the real enemy. 'I suppose you mean that
beautiful letter of mine to Lord Alfred Douglas,' I said. 'If you had not been
so foolish as to send a copy of it to Mr. Beerbohm Tree, I should have been glad
to have paid you a large sum for it, as I think it is one of the best I ever
wrote.' Allen looked at me with sulky, cunning eyes and said:
"'A curious construction could be put upon that letter.'
"'No doubt, no doubt,' I replied lightly; 'art is not intelligible to the
criminal classes.' He looked me in the face defiantly and said:
"'A man has offered me L60 for it.'
"'You should take the offer,' I said gravely; 'L60 is a great price. I myself
have never received such a large sum for any prose work of that length. But I
am glad to find that there is someone in England who will pay such a large sum
for a letter of mine. I don't know why you come to me,' I added, rising, 'you
should sell the letter at once.'
"Of course, Frank, as I spoke my body seemed empty with fear. The letter could
be misunderstood, and I have so many envious enemies; but I felt that there was
nothing else for it but bluff. As I went to the door Allen rose too, and said
that the man who had offered him the money was out of town. I turned to him
"'He will no doubt return, and I don't care for the letter at all.'
"At this Allen changed his manner, said he was very poor, he hadn't a penny in
the world, and had spent a lot trying to find me and tell me about the letter.
I told him I did not mind relieving his distress, and gave him half a sovereign,
assuring him at the same time that the letter would shortly be published as a
sonnet in a delightful magazine. I went to the door with him, and he walked
away. I closed the door; but didn't shut it at once, for suddenly I heard a
policeman's step coming softly towards my house--pad, pad! A dreadful moment,
then he passed by. I went into the room again all shaken, wondering whether
I had done right, whether Allen would hawk the letter about--a thousand vague
"Suddenly a knock at the street door. My heart was in my mouth, still I went
and opened it: a man named Cliburn was there.
"'I have come to you with a letter of Allen's.'
"'I cannot be bothered any more,' I cried, 'about that letter; I don't care
twopence about it. Let him do what he likes with it.'
"To my astonishment Cliburn said:
"'Allen has asked me to give it back to you,' and he produced it.
"'Why does he give it back to me?' I asked carelessly.
"'He says you were kind to him and that it is no use trying to "rent" you;
you only laugh at us.'
"I looked at the letter; it was very dirty, and I said:
"'I think it is unpardonable that better care should not have been taken of
a manuscript of mine.'
"He said he was sorry; but it had been in many hands. I took the letter up
"'Well, I will accept the letter back. You can thank Mr. Allen for me.'
"I gave Cliburn half a sovereign for his trouble, and said to him:
"'I am afraid you are leading a desperately wicked life.'
"'There's good and bad in every one of us,' he replied. I said something about
his being a philosopher, and he went away. That's the whole story, Frank."
"But the letter?" I questioned.
"The letter is nothing," Oscar replied; "a prose poem. I will give you a copy
Here is the letter:
"My own boy,--Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red
rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song
than for the madness of kissing. Your slim-gilt soul walks between passion and
poetry. No Hyacinthus followed Love so madly as you in Greek days. Why are you
alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there and cool your
hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things. Come here whenever you like. It
is a lovely place and only lacks you. Do go to Salisbury first. Always with
This letter startled me; "slim-gilt" and the "madness of kissing" were
calculated to give one pause; but after all, I thought, it may be merely
an artist's letter, half pose, half passionate admiration. Another thought
"But how did such a letter," I cried, "ever get into the hands of a
"I don't know," he replied, shrugging his shoulders. "Lord Alfred Douglas
is very careless and inconceivably bold. You should know him, Frank; he's
a delightful poet."
"But how did he come to know a creature like Wood?" I persisted.
"How can I tell, Frank," he answered a little shortly; and I let the matter
drop, though it left in me a certain doubt, an uncomfortable suspicion.
The scandal grew from hour to hour, and the tide of hatred rose in surges.
One day I was lunching at the Savoy, and while talking to the head waiter,
Cesari, who afterwards managed the Elysee Palace Hotel in Paris, I thought I saw
Oscar and Douglas go out together. Being a little short-sighted, I asked:
"Isn't that Mr. Oscar Wilde?"
"Yes," said Cesari, "and Lord Alfred Douglas. We wish they would not come here;
it does us a lot of harm."
"How do you mean?" I asked sharply.
"Some people don't like them," the quick Italian answered immediately.
"Oscar Wilde," I remarked casually, "is a great friend of mine," but the super-
subtle Italian was already warned.
"A clever writer, I believe," he said, smiling in bland acquiescence.
This incident gave me warning, strengthened again in me the exact apprehension
and suspicion which the Douglas letter had bred. Oscar I knew was too self-
centred, went about too continually with admirers to have any understanding of
popular feeling. He would be the last man to realize how fiercely hate, malice
and envy were raging against him. I wanted to warn him; but hardly knew how to
do it effectively and without offence: I made up my mind to keep my eyes open
and watch an opportunity.
A little later I gave a dinner at the Savoy and asked him to come. He was
delightful, his vivacious gaiety as exhilarating as wine. But he was more like
a Roman Emperor than ever: he had grown fat: he ate and drank too much; not that
he was intoxicated, but he became flushed, and in spite of his gay and genial
talk he affected me a little unpleasantly; he was gross and puffed up. But he
gave one or two splendid snapshots of actors and their egregious vanity. It
seemed to him a great pity that actors should be taught to read and write: they
should learn their pieces from the lips of the poet.
"Just as work is the curse of the drinking classes of this country," he said
laughing, "so education is the curse of the acting classes."
Yet even when making fun of the mummers there was a new tone in him of arrogance
and disdain. He used always to be genial and kindly even to those he laughed
at; now he was openly contemptuous. The truth is that his extraordinarily
receptive mind went with an even more abnormal receptivity of character: unlike
most men of marked ability, he took colour from his associates. In this as in
love of courtesies and dislike of coarse words he was curiously feminine.
Intercourse with Beardsley, for example, had backed his humorous gentleness with
a sort of challenging courage; his new intimacy with Lord Alfred Douglas, coming
on the top of his triumph as a playwright, was lending him aggressive self-
confidence. There was in him that "hubris" (insolent self-assurance) which the
Greek feared, the pride which goeth before destruction. I regretted the change
in him and was nervously apprehensive.
After dinner we all went out by the door which gives on the Embankment, for it
was after 12.30. One of the party proposed that we should walk for a minute or
two--at least as far as the Strand, before driving home. Oscar objected. He
hated walking; it was a form of penal servitude to the animal in man, he
declared; but he consented, nevertheless, under protest, laughing. When we
were going up the steps to the Strand he again objected, and quoted Dante's
"Tu proverai si come sa di sale
Lo pane altrui; e com' e duro calle
Lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale."
The impression made by Oscar that evening was not only of self-indulgence but
of over-confidence. I could not imagine what had given him this insolent self-
complacence. I wanted to get by myself and think. Prosperity was certainly
doing him no good.
All the while the opposition to him, I felt, was growing in force. How could I
verify this impression, I asked myself, so as to warn him effectually?
I decided to give a lunch to him, and on purpose I put on the invitations: "To
meet Mr. Oscar Wilde and hear a new story." Out of a dozen invitations sent out
to men, seven or eight were refused, three or four telling me in all kindness
that they would rather not meet Oscar Wilde. This confirmed my worst fears:
when Englishmen speak out in this way the dislike must be near revolt.
I gave the lunch and saw plainly enough that my forebodings were justified.
Oscar was more self-confident than ever, but his talk did not suffer; indeed,
it seemed to improve. At this lunch he told the charming fable of "Narcissus,"
which is certainly one of his most characteristic short stories.
"When Narcissus died the Flowers of the Field were plunged in grief, and asked
the River for drops of water that they might mourn for him.
"'Oh,' replied the River, 'if only my drops of water were tears, I should not
have enough to weep for Narcissus myself--I loved him.'
"'How could you help loving Narcissus?' said the flowers, 'so beautiful was he.'
"'Was he beautiful?' asked the River.
"'Who should know that better than you?' said the flowers, 'for every day, lying
on your bank, he would mirror his beauty in your waters.'"
Oscar paused here, and then went on:
"'If I loved him,' replied the River, 'it is because, when he hung over me,
I saw the reflection of my own loveliness in his eyes.'"
After lunch I took him aside and tried to warn him, told him that unpleasant
stories were being put about against him; but he paid no heed to me.
"All envy, Frank, and malice. What do I care? I go to Clumber this summer;
besides I am doing another play which I rather like. I always knew that play-
writing was my province. As a youth I tried to write plays in verse; that was
my mistake. Now I know better; I'm sure of myself and of success."
Somehow or other in spite of his apparent assurance I felt he was in danger
and I doubted his quality as a fighter. But after all it was not my business:
wilful man must have his way.
It seems to me now that my mistrust dated from the second paper war with
Whistler, wherein to the astonishment of everyone Oscar did not come off
victorious. As soon as he met with opposition his power of repartee seemed to
desert him and Whistler, using mere rudeness and man-of-the-world sharpness,
held the field. Oscar was evidently not a born fighter.
I asked him once how it was he let Whistler off so lightly. He shrugged his
shoulders and showed some irritation.
"What could I say, Frank? Why should I belabour the beaten? The man is a wasp
and delights in using his sting. I have done more perhaps than anyone to make
him famous. I had no wish to hurt him."
Was it magnanimity or weakness or, as I think, a constitutional, a feminine
shrinking from struggle and strife. Whatever the cause, it was clear that
Oscar was what Shakespeare called himself, "an unhurtful opposite."
It is quite possible that if he had been attacked face to face, Oscar would have
given a better account of himself. At Mrs. Grenfell's (now Lady Desborough)
he crossed swords once with the Prime Minister and came off victorious. Mr.
Asquith began by bantering him, in appearance lightly, in reality, seriously,
for putting many of his sentences in italics.
"The man who uses italics," said the politician, "is like the man who raises his
voice in conversation and talks loudly in order to make himself heard."
It was the well-known objection which Emerson had taken to Carlyle's overwrought
style, pointed probably by dislike of the way Oscar monopolised conversation.
Oscar met the stereotyped attack with smiling good-humour.
"How delightful of you, Mr. Asquith, to have noticed that! The brilliant phrase,
like good wine, needs no bush. But just as the orator marks his good things by
a dramatic pause, or by raising or lowering his voice, or by gesture, so the
writer marks his epigrams with italics, setting the little gem, so to speak,
like a jeweller--an excusable love of one's art, not all mere vanity, I like to
think"--all this with the most pleasant smile and manner.
In measure as I distrusted Oscar's fighting power and admired his sweetness of
nature I took sides with him and wanted to help him. One day I heard some talk
at the Pelican Club which filled me with fear for him and quickened my resolve
to put him on his guard. I was going in just as Queensberry was coming out with
two or three of his special cronies.
"I'll do it," I heard him cry, "I'll teach the fellow to leave my son alone.
I'll not have their names coupled together."
I caught a glimpse of the thrust-out combative face and the hot grey eyes.
"What's it all about?" I asked.
"Only Queensberry," said someone, "swearing he'll stop Oscar Wilde going about
with that son of his, Alfred Douglas."
Suddenly my fears took form: as in a flash I saw Oscar, heedless and smiling,
walking along with his head in the air, and that violent combative insane
creature pouncing on him. I sat down at once and wrote begging Oscar to lunch
with me the next day alone, as I had something important to say to him. He
turned up in Park Lane, manifestly anxious, a little frightened, I think.
"What is it, Frank?"
I told him very seriously what I had heard and gave besides my impression of
Queensberry's character, and his insane pugnacity.
"What can I do, Frank?" said Oscar, showing distress and apprehension. "It's
"Who is Bosie?" I asked.
"That is Lord Alfred Douglas' pet name. It's all Bosie's fault. He has
quarrelled with his father, or rather his father has quarrelled with him.
He quarrels with everyone; with Lady Queensberry, with Percy Douglas, with
Bosie, everyone. He's impossible. What can I do?"
"Avoid him," I said. "Don't go about with Lord Alfred Douglas. Give
Queensberry his triumph. You could make a friend of him as easily as possible,
if you wished. Write him a conciliatory letter."
"But he'll want me to drop Bosie, and stop seeing Lady Queensberry, and I like
them all; they are charming to me. Why should I cringe to this madman?"
"Because he is a madman."
"Oh, Frank, I can't," he cried. "Bosie wouldn't let me."
"'Wouldn't let you'? I repeated angrily. "How absurd! That Queensberry man
will go to violence, to any extremity. Don't you fight other people's quarrels:
you may have enough of your own some day."
"You're not sympathetic, Frank," he chided weakly. "I know you mean it kindly,
but it's impossible for me to do as you advise. I cannot give up my friend. I
really cannot let Lord Queensberry choose my friends for me. It's too absurd."
"But it's wise," I replied. "There's a very bad verse in one of Hugo's plays.
It always amused me--he likens poverty to a low door and declares that when we
have to pass through it the man who stoops lowest is the wisest. So when you
meet a madman, the wisest thing to do is to avoid him and not quarrel with him."
"It's very hard, Frank; of course I'll think over what you say. But really
Queensberry ought to be in a madhouse. He's too absurd," and in that spirit he
left me, outwardly self-confident. He might have remembered Chaucer's words:
Beware also to spurne again a nall;
Strive not as doeth a crocke with a wall;
Deme thy selfe that demest others dede,
And trouth thee shall deliver, it is no drede.
CHAPTER XII--DANGER SIGNALS: THE CHALLENGE
These two years 1893-4 saw Oscar Wilde at the very zenith of success.
Thackeray, who always felt himself a monetary failure in comparison with
Dickens, calls success "one of the greatest of a great man's qualities," and
Oscar was not successful merely, he was triumphant. Not Sheridan the day after
his marriage, not Byron when he awoke to find himself famous, ever reached such
a pinnacle. His plays were bringing in so much that he could spend money like
water; he had won every sort of popularity; the gross applause of the many, and
the finer incense of the few who constitute the jury of Fame; his personal
popularity too was extraordinary; thousands admired him, many liked him; he
seemed to have everything that heart could desire and perfect health to boot.
Even his home life was without a cloud. Two stories which he told at this time
Back to Full Books