Wilde’s Last Stand author Philip Hoare harks back to 1895, the year when London belonged to Oscar Wilde, before it was taken away in the dock at the Old Bailey
Imagine, if you will, lowering your evening paper as you read on the tube, crammed into your seat on the way back home after a hard day at work –and glimpsing an extraordinary spectacle. A tall gentleman with a green carnation in his buttonhole, extravagant lustrous locks of hair, a fur-collared coat and knee high breeches, accessorised with a silver-topped cane and lavender gloves. You might not be surprised by that sight in 2015. But back in the 1880s, the vision would have been startling, and all the more so when you realised, if you were an adept scrutineer of the gossip columns, that the orchidaceous personage, your fellow commuter – was Mr Oscar Wilde himself.
From 1887 to 1889, Wilde was editing The Woman’s World magazine in the City, walking from his Chelsea home at 16 Tite Street to Sloane Square station where he would take the tube to Charing Cross, then walk to his office in Cassell’s publishing house, on Ludgate Hill, where he was acknowledged as the best dressed man on his arrival – at the remarkably early hour for him – 11am. It’s a measure of how much Oscar Wilde was both an invention and an inventor of the modern notion of celebrity that he was such a Londoner, for all his Irish birth. As a flâneur, an elegant wanderer of the streets, Wilde epitomised the modern city and what it could offer.
Oscar Wilde was both an invention and inventor of the modern notion of celebrity
From the broad streets of Piccadilly, where he first became famous, parading down the street carrying a sunflower – the very emblem of the Aesthetic Movement of which he was the living cynosure – to the semi-village environs of bohemian Chelsea, to the darker alleyways of Fitzrovia or Soho where he sought his more private pleasures; the city belonged to Oscar. At no time more so than in his pomp and peak, the glorious year of 1895, when it seemed he had not only taken over London, but the country, and indeed the rest of the world. It was a process hard won, and long fought for. At Oxford, Wilde had made himself evident with his ‘blue and white china’ remark and Ravenna, the poem for which he won the Newdigate Prize in 1878. Leaving college for the metropolis, he became a man about town, more famous for the way he looked than for what he had actually achieved. All that changed with his momentous 1881 lecture tour of America, ironically conceived by the D’Oyly Carte organisation as a means of promoting Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, Patience, in which Wilde was satirised as the fey aesthete, Bunthorne.
Like any modern pop group, Oscar broke America to make it big around the world. After a year-long tour – with over 100 public appearances, and many more private ones – Wilde returned to London far more famous than he had left it. He was absolutely recognisable, wreathed in his fame. In 1884, to celebrate his marriage to Constance, and to mark the installation of the Wildes as the most stylish couple in town, Oscar began a new revamp. In June that year, the Wildes moved to 16 Tite Street. At first he asked James Whistler to decorate it for him; but the American artist, perhaps quite rightly, retorted, ‘No, Oscar, you have been lecturing to us about the House Beautiful; now is your chance to show us one’. Wilde turned inevitably to Edwin Godwin, who had designed the startlingly modern interior of Whistler’s house at 35 Tite Street, an airy and pale series of rooms in the high Aesthetic style. Wilde, of course, went one better. The result was astonishing. Everywhere was white gloss, heightened with golds, blues and greens. Jewel-like Morris carpets covered the floors. The library was lavish evocation of Moorish style. Japanese feathers were inserted into the plaster. One room was entirely white, with a yellow ceiling.
The effect of this avant-garde statement was matched by the couple themselves. Wilde art-directed their forays with costumes which would put Lady Gaga to shade. When they were seen strolling down the King’s Road in particularly medieval get-ups, Oscar in a many-buttoned brown suit like a page’s costume, and Constance wreathed about in white feathers, Wilde reported that they were followed by ‘a number of rude boys’. When one shouted, ‘Hamlet and Ophelia out for a walk, I suppose!’, Wilde retorted, ‘My little fellow, you are quite right!’
How sudden the fall. Wilde’s mistake was to believe in his own invulnerability. Even as he gave his final performance in the dock at the Old Bailey, not an interior he ever thought he’d grace, it seemed he might avoid his fate. Friends encouraged him to flee England before he could be arrested. Frank Harris even claimed to have a boat ready on the banks of the Thames to ferry Oscar to freedom. It was not to be. From seeing his name on West End theatre marquees with The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde now saw his name disgraced in court reports from the Old Bailey. As a result of the prejudices of the time, he was sentenced to hard labour in Reading Gaol.
The erstwhile dandy commuter, lion of the stage and the salon, was reduced to standing, shackled on the platform at Clapham Junction, openly jeered at by passersby for half an hour. One man spat in his face. It was a terrible contrast to his earlier promenades and tube rides. And a reminder of the fickleness of public opinion. Even before he was sentenced, the contents of 16 Tite Street, including all Wilde’s books and papers, were sold at auction at the insistence of his creditors. It was as if what Wilde had represented were being wiped from the national memory. My own mother, growing up in the 1930s, knew that his name meant something wicked – but she had no idea why.
It is hard to imagine now, in 2015, that a man might suffer so merely for the act of loving someone. But we do have his abiding revenge: his words, the ultimate vindication of a man who seemed to achieve everything so effortlessly – even his own downfall. Wilde died in his Parisian exile in 1900, aged just forty-six, having announced, ‘If I were to outlive the century, it would be more than the English could stand’. Happily, England decided it rather liked him, after all.
Philip Hoare’s Wilde’s Last Stand is published by Duckworth. He will be giving a Proms Extra talk, 1895 and Oscar Wilde at the Royal College of Music, 3 August, to be broadcast on Radio 3 that evening; Prince Consort Road SW7 2BS; rcm.ac.uk