Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 7

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 deserves trumpeting.”

“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 five.”

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 “Early Victorian.”

“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 recognised. 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 quæ 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 “æsthetes” 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 Cæsar, 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 in London.

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 æsthetes. 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 to eminence.

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 these occurrences.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30