Wolfson History Prize judges: "An authoritative and tremendously readable biography of Oscar Wilde by an author who brings to life a man whose anarchic genius never fades. A superb, original and balanced study. "
Introducing his Oscar: A Life, Matthew Sturgis, a historian, biographer and acknowledged expert on the English Decadence of the 1890s, addresses the Ellmann in the room, as it were, by pointing out the absence from that “monumental green volume” of vital new material, including a full transcript of the libel trial of 1895, an early notebook kept by Wilde and more than 60 previously unknown letters.
Equally convincing is his decision to examine his subject not through the prism of his work, as literary critic Ellmann did, but with a historian’s perspective that will “return Wilde to his times, and to the facts”. What follows is a meticulous documenting of key events and influences that avoids imbuing them with any false sense of foreshadowed tragedy. In taking this approach, Sturgis realises his stated ambition, “to give a sense of contingency, to chart [Wilde’s] own experience of his life as he experienced it”.
Matthew Sturgis’s Oscar: A Life gives us a portrait of Wilde as a failure. Or, if not quite a failure, then a man who might very nearly have been one, had he not propelled himself with self-belief and a desire for fame – or infamy. Sturgis offers a new and at times revelatory perspective on the life, rebalancing it in two main ways: giving new emphasis to the early disappointments and shortcomings Wilde endured, and reassessing the relationship between his life and literary works “with an historian’s eye”.
Sturgis’s account of the hearing at the Old Bailey is as gripping as it is grim, with Wilde entertainingly witty when interrogated on his writings, but increasingly rattled when pressed on his relationship with a teenage servant. With testimonies looming from male prostitutes, he took his counsel’s advice to drop the case. Queensberry’s vengefulness was not to be deflected. Soon, his solicitor was demanding a prosecution. Constance urged her husband to flee abroad, but Sturgis believes he was too stunned to take the escape route that most in the establishment would have preferred. He was arrested and, the next day, committal proceedings began against him and Alfred Taylor, in whose rented rooms many of his sexual encounters had taken place.
The last phases of Wilde’s life story are still painful to read: his conviction and sentencing to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour; the collapse of his health in Reading prison; the composition of De Profundis, his self-condemnatory “letter” to Bosie. He never saw his sons again: Constance took them to live with her brother in Switzerland, changing her and their name to Holland. Ailing from a spine injury after a fall, she died in 1898. On his release, Wilde travelled to Dieppe and later to Italy, where he was reunited with Douglas. He ended up in Paris, supported by Robert Ross, who had been his first male lover, and who emerges as the only hero of the story.
It’s not written, as Sturgis says, as if all the events of Oscar’s life were leading to its inevitable conclusion, but “to give a sense of contingency, to chart his own experience of his life as he experienced it”. And he succeeds. You read this account with a sense of anticipation, wanting to find out what comes next, even though you know you know what comes next. That’s a terrific achievement... We get an illuminating account of his exceptional parents — his mother Speranza (her pen-name as an Irish nationalist poet) and his father, the distinguished if rackety medic Sir William Wilde... Wilde was the kindest of men; to his wife, however, whom he loved, he could be wilfully cruel. But that’s the beauty of this biography: it gives a portrait of this astonishing Irishman in light and shade.
Sturgis’s evocation of Wilde’s jail term is especially well done in its light and shade (he helped warders with newspaper competitions, winning them a silver tea-service and a grand piano) and the diminuendo of his final days is desperately moving. However much you think you know Wilde, this book will absorb and entertain you. It thickens the texture of every aspect of his unique life — dazzling, decadent and doomed.
I suppose it does no harm to tell Wilde’s story again. Matthew Sturgis, an expert on the English Aesthetic Movement, has found more than 60 new letters by Wilde, scoured census records from Naples to San Francisco and dug out local press reports, playbills and other ephemera. Running to almost 900 pages, Sturgis’s is an old-school biography that takes us smoothly from the cradle to the crematorium. Few publishers would take on a biography of this size today. Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde, published some 30 years ago, contains numerous ‘deficiencies’ of fact, however, which Sturgis has seen fit to remedy. Well-written and wholly absorbing, Oscar may be as heavy as a house brick, but it does the 6ft 4in Anglo-Irish dandy proud.
Yet that is the historian Sturgis’s problem — his biography lacks the style, fizz, vim, zest and all the other ingredients of a literary critic’s cocktail cabinet. Ellmann was a writer, and an artist. I don’t care if there were factual “mistakes” — laundry list blips — the prose is magnificent. Wilde is lovingly evoked as a great soaring individualist, a showman, an actor. That 1987 biography puts Sturgis’s effort in the shade...Sturgis’s Wilde, stripped of his romance and gaiety, reduced to a historian’s hard facts, becomes a modish victim, where Ellmann’s Oscar, a literary figure, was a hero and an example.
Do we really need another biography of Oscar Wilde? Actually, despite what you might imagine, there have not been so many books that aspire to provide a definitive womb-to-deathbed account... It is a commonplace of Wilde biographies to cast him as a martyred genius tormented by ignorant philistines who did not understand him or realise the value of what they were criticising... Much of what is here on the successful plays is very familiar territory, but Sturgis also gives due attention to Wilde’s essays... While I could find little that I did not know in this book, it is convenient to have so much information about Wilde’s life in one place (though some more dates would have been helpful). This book is authoritative and accurate, and Sturgis writes in a cheery, readable style. He fleshes out Wilde’s early years in London, when he was ‘perhaps best known for being less well known than his friends and supporters thought he should be’.
Matthew Sturgis hasn’t the style of a great storyteller – the tone of this new biography is stolidly impersonal – but he is a tremendous orchestrator of material, fastidious, unhurried, indefatigable. Do we need a new life of Wilde? He thinks so; the last major biography, by Richard Ellmann in 1987, took a literary critic’s approach, to the detriment of the facts and chronology of Wilde’s life. It was strewn with errors, and tended to blur truth and legend – something Wilde himself often connived at. At 720 pages in my edition, with a further 137 pages of endnotes, that may be rather more contingency than your average reader can handle. But Oscar repays the effort, even for those who have read the Ellmann and the earlier biographies by Hesketh Pearson and Montgomery Hyde – and all the letters. I’m not sure if I already knew certain details about the early life, but I was glad to be reminded.