Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 20

The Results of His Second Fall: His Genius

“Non dispetto, ma doglia.”


Oscar Wilde did not stay long in Naples, a few brief months; the forbidden fruit quickly turned to ashes in his mouth.

I give the following extracts from a letter he wrote to Robert Ross in December, 1897, shortly after leaving Naples, because it describes the second great crisis in his life and is besides the bitterest thing he ever wrote and therefore of peculiar value:

“The facts of Naples are very bald. Bosie for four months, by endless lies, offered me a home. He offered me love, affection, and care, and promised that I should never want for anything. After four months I accepted his offer, but when we met on our way to Naples, I found he had no money, no plans, and had forgotten all his promises. His one idea was that I should raise the money for us both; I did so to the extent of £120. On this Bosie lived quite happy. When it came to his having to pay his own share he became terribly unkind and penurious, except where his own pleasures were concerned, and when my allowance ceased, he left.

“With regard to the £50037 which he said was a debt of honour, he has written to me to say that he admits the debt of honour, but as lots of gentlemen don’t pay their debts of honour, it is quite a common thing and no one thinks any the worse of them.

“I don’t know what you said to Constance, but the bald fact is that I accepted the offer of the home, and found that I was expected to provide the money, and when I could no longer do so I was left to my own devices. It is the most bitter experience of a bitter life. It is a blow quite awful. It had to come, but I know it is better I should never see him again, I don’t want to, it fills me with horror.”

A word of explanation will explain his reference to his wife, Constance, in this letter: by a deed of separation made at the end of his imprisonment, Mrs. Wilde undertook to allow Oscar £150 a year for life, under the condition that the allowance was to be forfeited if Oscar ever lived under the same roof with Lord Alfred Douglas. Having forfeited the allowance Oscar got Robert Ross to ask his wife to continue it and in spite of the forfeiture Mrs. Wilde continually sent Oscar money through Robert Ross, merely stipulating that her husband should not be told whence the money came. Ross, too, who had also sent him £150 a year, resumed his monthly payments as soon as he left Douglas.

My friendship with Oscar Wilde, which had been interrupted after he left prison by a silly gibe directed rather against the go-between he had sent to me than against him, was renewed in Paris early in 1898. I have related the little misunderstanding in the Appendix. I had never felt anything but the most cordial affection for Oscar and as soon as I went to Paris and met him I explained what had seemed to him unkind. When I asked him about his life since his release he told me simply that he had quarrelled with Bosie Douglas.

I did not attribute much importance to this; but I could not help noticing the extraordinary change that had taken place in him since he had been in Naples. His health was almost as good as ever; in fact, the prison discipline with its two years of hard living had done him so much good that his health continued excellent almost to the end.

But his whole manner and attitude to life had again changed: he now resembled the successful Oscar of the early nineties: I caught echoes, too, in his speech of a harder, smaller nature; “that talk about reformation, Frank, is all nonsense; no one ever really reforms or changes. I am what I always was.”

He was mistaken: he took up again the old pagan standpoint; but he was not the same; he was reckless now, not thoughtless, and, as soon as one probed a little beneath the surface, depressed almost to despairing. He had learnt the meaning of suffering and pity, had sensed their value; he had turned his back upon them all, it is true, but he could not return to pagan carelessness, and the light-hearted enjoyment of pleasure. He did his best and almost succeeded; but the effort was there. His creed now was what it used to be about 1892: “Let us get what pleasure we may in the fleeting days; for the night cometh, and the silence that can never be broken.”

The old doctrine of original sin, we now call reversion to type; the most lovely garden rose, if allowed to go without discipline and tendance, will in a few generations become again the common scentless dog-rose of our hedges. Such a reversion to type had taken place in Oscar Wilde. It must be inferred perhaps that the old pagan Greek in him was stronger than the Christian virtues which had been called into being by the discipline and suffering of prison. Little by little, as he began to live his old life again, the lessons learned in prison seemed to drop from him and be forgotten. But in reality the high thoughts he had lived with, were not lost; his lips had been touched by the divine fire; his eyes had seen the world-wonder of sympathy, pity and love and, strangely enough, this higher vision helped, as we shall soon see, to shake his individuality from its centre, and thus destroyed his power of work and completed his soul-ruin. Oscar’s second fall — this time from a height — was fatal and made writing impossible to him. It is all clear enough now in retrospect though I did not understand it at the time. When he went to live with Bosie Douglas he threw off the Christian attitude, but afterwards had to recognise that “De Profundis” and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” were deeper and better work than any of his earlier writings. He resumed the pagan position; outwardly and for the time being he was the old Oscar again, with his Greek love of beauty and hatred of disease, deformity and ugliness, and whenever he met a kindred spirit, he absolutely revelled in gay paradoxes and brilliant flashes of humour. But he was at war with himself, like Milton’s Satan always conscious of his fall, always regretful of his lost estate and by reason of this division of spirit unable to write. Perhaps because of this he threw himself more than ever into talk.

He was beyond all comparison the most interesting companion I have ever known: the most brilliant talker, I cannot but think, that ever lived. No one surely ever gave himself more entirely in speech. Again and again he declared that he had only put his talent into his books and plays, but his genius into his life. If he had said into his talk, it would have been the exact truth.

People have differed a great deal about his mental and physical condition after he came out of prison. All who knew him really, Ross, Turner, More Adey, Lord Alfred Douglas and myself, are agreed that in spite of a slight deafness he was never better in health, never indeed so well. But some French friends were determined to make him out a martyr.

In his picture of Wilde’s last years, Gide tells us that “he had suffered too grievously from his imprisonment. . . . His will had been broken . . . nothing remained in his shattered life but a mouldy ruin,38 painful to contemplate, of his former self. At times he seemed to wish to show that his brain was still active. Humour there was; but it was far-fetched, forced and threadbare.”

These touches may be necessary in order to complete a French picture of the social outcast. They are not only untrue when applied to Oscar Wilde, but the reverse of the truth; he never talked so well, was never so charming a companion as in the last years of his life.

In the very last year his talk was more genial, more humorous, more vivid than ever, with a wider range of thought and intenser stimulus than before. He was a born improvisatore. At the moment he always dazzled one out of judgment. A phonograph would have discovered the truth; a great part of his charm was physical; much of his talk mere topsy-turvy paradox, the very froth of thought carried off by gleaming, dancing eyes, smiling, happy lips, and a melodious voice.

The entertainment usually started with some humorous play on words. One of the company would say something obvious or trivial, repeat a proverb or commonplace tag such as, “Genius is born, not made,” and Oscar would flash in smiling, “not ‘paid,’ my dear fellow, not ‘paid.’”

An interesting comment would follow on some doing of the day, a skit on some accepted belief or a parody of some pretentious solemnity, a winged word on a new book or a new author, and when everyone was smiling with amused enjoyment, the fine eyes would become introspective, the beautiful voice would take on a grave music and Oscar would begin a story, a story with symbolic second meaning or a glimpse of new thought, and when all were listening enthralled, of a sudden the eyes would dance, the smile break forth again like sunshine and some sparkling witticism would set everyone laughing.

The spell was broken, but only for a moment. A new clue would soon be given and at once Oscar was off again with renewed brio to finer effects.

The talking itself warmed and quickened him extraordinarily: he loved to show off and astonish his audience, and usually talked better after an hour or two than at the beginning. His verve was inexhaustible. But always a great part of the fascination lay in the quick changes from grave to gay, from pathos to mockery, from philosophy to fun.

There was but little of the actor in him. When telling a story he never mimicked his personages; his drama seldom lay in clash of character, but in thought; it was the sheer beauty of the words, the melody of the cadenced voice, the glowing eyes which fascinated you and always and above all the scintillating, coruscating humour that lifted his monologues into works of art.

Curiously enough he seldom talked of himself or of the incidents of his past life. After the prison he always regarded himself as a sort of Prometheus and his life as symbolic; but his earlier experiences never suggested themselves to him as specially significant; the happenings of his life after his fall seemed predestined and fateful to him; yet of those he spoke but seldom. Even when carried away by his own eloquence, he kept the tone of good society.

When you came afterwards to think over one of those wonderful evenings when he had talked for hours, almost without interruption, you hardly found more than an epigram, a fugitive flash of critical insight, an apologue or pretty story charmingly told. Over all this he had cast the glittering, sparkling robe of his Celtic gaiety, verbal humour, and sensual enjoyment of living. It was all like champagne; meant to be drunk quickly; if you let it stand, you soon realised that some still wines had rarer virtues. But there was always about him the magic of a rich and puissant personality; like some great actor he could take a poor part and fill it with the passion and vivacity of his own nature, till it became a living and memorable creation.

He gave the impression of wide intellectual range, yet in reality he was not broad; life was not his study nor the world-drama his field. His talk was all of literature and art and the vanities; the light drawing-room comedy on the edge of farce was his kingdom; there he ruled as a sovereign.

Anyone who has read Oscar Wilde’s plays at all carefully, especially “The Importance of Being Earnest,” must, I think, see that in kindly, happy humour he is without a peer in literature. Who can ever forget the scene between the town and country girl in that delightful farce-comedy. As soon as the London girl realises that the country girl has hardly any opportunity of making new friends or meeting new men, she exclaims:

“Ah! now I know what they mean when they talk of agricultural depression.”

This sunny humour is Wilde’s especial contribution to literature: he calls forth a smile whereas others try to provoke laughter. Yet he was as witty as anyone of whom we have record, and some of the best epigrams in English are his. “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” is better than the best of La Rochefoucauld, as good as the best of Vauvenargues or Joubert. He was as wittily urbane as Congreve. But all the witty things that one man can say may be numbered on one’s fingers. It was through his humour that Wilde reigned supreme. It was his humour that lent his talk its singular attraction. He was the only man I have ever met or heard of who could keep one smiling with amusement hour after hour. True, much of the humour was merely verbal, but it was always gay and genial: summer-lightning humour, I used to call it, unexpected, dazzling, full of colour yet harmless.

Let me try and catch here some of the fleeting iridescence of that radiant spirit. Some years before I had been introduced to Mdlle. Marie Anne de Bovet by Sir Charles Dilke. Mdlle. de Bovet was a writer of talent and knew English uncommonly well; but in spite of masses of fair hair and vivacious eyes she was certainly very plain. As soon as she heard I was in Paris, she asked me to present Oscar Wilde to her. He had no objection, and so I made a meeting between them. When he caught sight of her, he stopped short: seeing his astonishment, she cried to him in her quick, abrupt way:

“N’est-ce pas, M. Wilde, que je suis la femme la plus laide de France?” (Come, confess, Mr. Wilde, that I am the ugliest woman in France.)

Bowing low, Oscar replied with smiling courtesy:

“Du monde, Madame, du monde.” (In the world, madame, in the world.)

No one could help laughing; the retort was irresistible. He should have said: “Au monde, madame, au monde,” but the meaning was clear.

Sometimes this thought-quickness and happy dexterity had to be used in self-defence. Jean Lorrain was the wittiest talker I have ever heard in France, and a most brilliant journalist. His life was as abandoned as it could well be; in fact, he made a parade of strange vices. In the days of Oscar’s supremacy he always pretended to be a friend and admirer. About this time Oscar wanted me to know Stephane Mallarmé. He took me to his rooms one afternoon when there was a reception. There were a great many people present. Mallarmé was standing at the other end of the room leaning against the chimney piece. Near the door was Lorrain, and we both went towards him, Oscar with outstretched hands:

“Delighted to see you, Jean.”

For some reason or other, most probably out of tawdry vanity, Lorrain folded his arms theatrically and replied:

“I regret I cannot say as much: I can no longer be one of your friends, M. Wilde.”

The insult was stupid, brutal; yet everyone was on tiptoe to see how Oscar would answer it.

“How true that is,” he said quietly, as quickly as if he had expected the traitor-thrust, “how true and how sad! At a certain time in life all of us who have done anything like you and me, Lorrain, must realise that we no longer have any friends in this world; but only lovers.” (Plus d’amis, seulement des amants.)

A smile of approval lighted up every face.

“Well said, well said,” was the general exclamation. His humour was almost invariably generous, kind.

One day in a Paris studio the conversation turned on the character of Marat: one Frenchman would have it that he was a fiend, another saw in him the incarnation of the revolution, a third insisted that he was merely the gamin of the Paris streets grown up. Suddenly one turned to Oscar, who was sitting silent, and asked his opinion: he took the ball at once, gravely.

Ce malheureux! Il n’avait pas de veine — pour une fois qu’il a pris un bain. . . . ” (Poor devil, he was unlucky! To come to such grief for once taking a bath.)

For a little while Oscar was interested in the Dreyfus case, and especially in the Commandant Esterhazy, who played such a prominent part in it with the infamous bordereau which brought about the conviction of Dreyfus. Most Frenchmen now know that the bordereau was a forgery and without any real value.

I was curious to see Esterhazy, and Oscar brought him to lunch one day at Durand’s. He was a little below middle height, extremely thin and as dark as any Italian, with an enormous hook nose and heavy jaw. He looked to me like some foul bird of prey: greed and cunning in the restless brown eyes set close together, quick resolution in the out-thrust, bony jaws and hard chin; but manifestly he had no capacity, no mind: he was meagre in all ways. For a long time he bored us by insisting that Dreyfus was a traitor, a Jew, and a German; to him a trinity of faults, whereas he, Esterhazy, was perfectly innocent and had been very badly treated. At length Oscar leant across the table and said to him in French with, strange to say, a slight Irish accent, not noticeable when he spoke English:

“The innocent,” he said, “always suffer, M. le Commandant; it is their métier. Besides, we are all innocent till we are found out; it is a poor, common part to play and within the compass of the meanest. The interesting thing surely is to be guilty and so wear as a halo the seduction of sin.”

Esterhazy appeared put out for a moment, and then he caught the genial gaiety of the reproof and the hint contained in it. His vanity would not allow him to remain long in a secondary rôle, and so, to our amazement, he suddenly broke out:

“Why should I not make my confession to you? I will. It is I, Esterhazy, who alone am guilty. I wrote the bordereau. I put Dreyfus in prison, and all France can not liberate him. I am the maker of the plot, and the chief part in it is mine.”

To his surprise we both roared with laughter. The influence of the larger nature on the smaller to such an extraordinary issue was irresistibly comic. At the time no one even suspected Esterhazy in connection with the bordereau.

Another example, this time of Oscar’s wit, may find a place here. Sir Lewis Morris was a voluminous poetaster with a common mind. He once bored Oscar by complaining that his books were boycotted by the press; after giving several instances of unfair treatment he burst out: “There’s a conspiracy against me, a conspiracy of silence; but what can one do? What should I do?”

“Join it,” replied Oscar smiling.

Oscar’s humour was for the most part intellectual, and something like it can be found in others, though the happy fecundity and lightsome gaiety of it belonged to the individual temperament and perished with him. I remember once trying to give an idea of the different sides of his humour, just to see how far it could be imitated.

I made believe to have met him at Paddington, after his release from Reading, though he was brought to Pentonville in private clothes by a warder on May 18th, and was released early the next morning, two years to the hour from the commencement of the Sessions at which he was convicted on May 25th. The Act says that you must be released from the prison in which you are first confined. I pretended, however, that I had met him. The train, I said, ran into Paddington Station early in the morning. I went across to him as he got out of the carriage: grey dawn filled the vast echoing space; a few porters could be seen scattered about; it was all chill and depressing.

“Welcome, welcome, Oscar!” I cried holding out my hands. “I am sorry I’m alone. You ought to have been met by troops of boys and girls flower-crowned, but alas! you will have to content yourself with one middle-aged admirer.”

“Yes, it’s really terrible, Frank,” he replied gravely. “If England persists in treating her criminals like this, she does not deserve to have any. . . . ”

“Ah,” said an old lady to him one day at lunch, “I know you people who pretend to be a great deal worse than you are, I know you. I shouldn’t be afraid of you.”

“Naturally we pretend to be bad, dear lady,” he replied; “it is the only way to make ourselves interesting to you. Everyone believes a man who pretends to be good, he is such a bore; but no one believes a man who says he is evil. That makes him interesting.”

“Oh, you are too clever for me,” replied the old lady nodding her head. “You see in my day none of us went to Girton and Newnham. There were no schools then for the higher education of women.”

“How absurd such schools are, are they not?” cried Oscar. “Were I a despot, I should immediately establish schools for the lower education of women. That’s what they need. It usually takes ten years living with a man to complete a woman’s education.”

“Then what would you do,” asked someone, “about the lower education of man?”

“That’s already provided for, my dear fellow, amply provided for; we have our public schools and universities to see to that. What we want are schools for the higher education of men, and schools for the lower education of women.”

Genial persiflage of this sort was his particular forte whether my imitation of it is good or bad.

His kindliness was ingrained. I never heard him say a gross or even a vulgar word, hardly even a sharp or unkind thing. Whether in company or with one person, his mind was all dedicated to genial, kindly, flattering thoughts. He hated rudeness or discussion or insistence as he hated ugliness or deformity.

One evening of this summer a trivial incident showed me that he was sinking deeper in the mud-honey of life.

A new play was about to be given at the Français and because he expressed a wish to see it I bought a couple of tickets. We went in and he made me change places with him in order to be able to talk to me; he was growing nearly deaf in the bad ear. After the first act we went outside to smoke a cigarette.

“It’s stupid,” Oscar began, “fancy us two going in there to listen to what that foolish Frenchman says about love; he knows nothing about it; either of us could write much better on the theme. Let’s walk up and down here under the columns and talk.”

The people began to go into the theatre again and, as they were disappearing, I said:

“It seems rather a pity to waste our tickets; so many wish to see the play.”

“We shall find someone to give them to,” he said indifferently, stopping by one of the pillars.

At that very moment as if under his hand appeared a boy of about fifteen or sixteen, one of the gutter-snipe of Paris. To my amazement, he said:

“Bon soir, Monsieur Wilde.”

Oscar turned to him smiling.

“Vous êtes Jules, n’est-ce pas?” (you are Jules, aren’t you?) he questioned.

“Oui, M. Wilde.”

“Here is the very boy you want,” Oscar cried; “let’s give him the tickets, and he’ll sell them, and make something out of them,” and Oscar turned and began to explain to the boy how I had given two hundred francs for the tickets, and how, even now, they should be worth a louis or two.

“Des jaunets” (yellow boys), cried the youth, his sharp face lighting up, and in a flash he had vanished with the tickets.

“You see he knows me, Frank,” said Oscar, with the childish pleasure of gratified vanity.

“Yes,” I replied drily, “not an acquaintance to be proud of, I should think.”

“I don’t agree with you, Frank,” he said, resenting my tone, “did you notice his eyes? He is one of the most beautiful boys I have ever seen; an exact replica of Emilienne D’Alençon,39 I call him Jules D’Alençon, and I tell her he must be her brother. I had them both dining with me once and the boy is finer than the girl, his skin far more beautiful.

“By the way,” he went on, as we were walking up the Avenue de l’Opera, “why should we not see Emilienne; why should she not sup with us, and you could compare them? She is playing at Olympia, near the Grand Hotel. Let’s go and compare Aspasia and Agathon, and for once I shall be Alcibiades, and you the moralist, Socrates.”

“I would rather talk to you,” I replied.

“We can talk afterwards, Frank, when all the stars come out to listen; now is the time to live and enjoy.”

“As you will,” I said, and we went to the Music Hall and got a box, and he wrote a little note to Emilienne D’Alençon, and she came afterwards to supper with us. Though her face was pretty she was pre-eminently dull and uninteresting without two ideas in her bird’s head. She was all greed and vanity, and could talk of nothing but the hope of getting an engagement in London: could he help her, or would Monsieur, referring to me, as a journalist get her some good puffs in advance? Oscar promised everything gravely.

While we were supping inside, Oscar caught sight of the boy passing along the Boulevard. At once he tapped on the window, loud enough to attract his attention. Nothing loth, the boy came in, and the four of us had supper together — a strange quartette.

“Now, Frank,” said Oscar, “compare the two faces and you will see the likeness,” and indeed there was in both the same Greek beauty — the same regularity of feature, the same low brow and large eyes, the same perfect oval.

“I am telling my friend,” said Oscar to Emilienne in French, “how alike you two are, true brother and sister in beauty and in the finest of arts, the art of living,” and they both laughed.

“The boy is better looking,” he went on to me in English. “Her mouth is coarse and hard; her hands common, while the boy is quite perfect.”

“Rather dirty, don’t you think?” I could not help remarking.

“Dirty, of course, but that’s nothing; nothing is so immaterial as colouring; form is everything, and his form is perfect, as exquisite as the David of Donatello. That’s what he’s like, Frank, the David of Donatello,” and he pulled his jowl, delighted to have found the painting word.

As soon as Emilienne saw that we were talking of the boy, her interest in the conversation vanished, even more quickly than her appetite. She had to go, she said suddenly; she was so sorry, and the discontented curiosity of her look gave place again to the smirk of affected politeness.

Au revoir, n’est-ce pas? à Charing Cross, n’est-ce-pas, Monsieur? Vous ne m’oublierez pas? . . .

As we turned to walk along the boulevard I noticed that the boy, too, had disappeared. The moonlight was playing with the leaves and boughs of the plane trees and throwing them in Japanese shadow-pictures on the pavement: I was given over to thought; evidently Oscar imagined I was offended, for he launched out into a panegyric on Paris.

“The most wonderful city in the world, the only civilised capital; the only place on earth where you find absolute toleration for all human frailties, with passionate admiration for all human virtues and capacities.

“Do you remember Verlaine, Frank? His life was nameless and terrible, he did everything to excess, was drunken, dirty and debauched, and yet there he would sit in a café on the Boul’ Mich’, and everybody who came in would bow to him, and call him maître and be proud of any sign of recognition from him because he was a great poet.

“In England they would have murdered Verlaine, and men who call themselves gentlemen would have gone out of their way to insult him in public. England is still only half-civilised; Englishmen touch life at one or two points without suspecting its complexity. They are rude and harsh.”

All the while I could not help thinking of Dante and his condemnation of Florence, and its “hard, malignant people,” the people who still had something in them of “the mountain and rock” of their birthplace:—“E tiene ancor del monte e del macigno.

“You are not offended, Frank, are you, with me, for making you meet two caryatides of the Parisian temple of pleasure?”

“No, no,” I cried, “I was thinking how Dante condemned Florence and its people, its ungrateful malignant people, and how when his teacher, Brunetto Latini, and his companions came to him in the underworld, he felt as if he, too, must throw himself into the pit with them. Nothing prevented him from carrying out his good intention (buona voglia) except the fear of being himself burned and baked as they were. I was just thinking that it was his great love for Latini which gave him the deathless words:

. . . “Non dispetto, ma doglia

La vostra condizion dentro mi fisse.

“Not contempt but sorrow. . . . ”

“Oh, Frank,” cried Oscar, “what a beautiful incident! I remember it all. I read it this last winter in Naples. . . . Of course Dante was full of pity as are all great poets, for they know the weakness of human nature.”

But even “the sorrow” of which Dante spoke seemed to carry with it some hint of condemnation; for after a pause he went on:

“You must not judge me, Frank: you don’t know what I have suffered. No wonder I snatch now at enjoyment with both hands. They did terrible things to me. Did you know that when I was arrested the police let the reporters come to the cell and stare at me. Think of it — the degradation and the shame — as if I had been a monster on show. Oh! you knew! Then you know, too, how I was really condemned before I was tried; and what a farce my trial was. That terrible judge with his insults to those he was sorry he could not send to the scaffold.

“I never told you the worst thing that befell me. When they took me from Wandsworth to Reading, we had to stop at Clapham Junction. We were nearly an hour waiting for the train. There we sat on the platform. I was in the hideous prison clothes, handcuffed between two warders. You know how the trains come in every minute. Almost at once I was recognised, and there passed before me a continual stream of men and boys, and one after the other offered some foul sneer or gibe or scoff. They stood before me, Frank, calling me names and spitting on the ground — an eternity of torture.”

My heart bled for him.

“I wonder if any punishment will teach humanity to such people, or understanding of their own baseness?”

After walking a few paces he turned to me:

“Don’t reproach me, Frank, even in thought. You have no right to. You don’t know me yet. Some day you will know more and then you will be sorry, so sorry that there will be no room for any reproach of me. If I could tell you what I suffered this winter!”

“This winter!” I cried. “In Naples?”

“Yes, in gay, happy Naples. It was last autumn that I really fell to ruin. I had come out of prison filled with good intentions, with all good resolutions. My wife had promised to come back to me. I hoped she would come very soon. If she had come at once, if she only had, it might all have been different. But she did not come. I have no doubt she was right from her point of view. She has always been right.

“But I was alone there in Berneval, and Bosie kept on calling me, calling, and as you know I went to him. At first it was all wonderful. The bruised leaves began to unfold in the light and warmth of affection; the sore feeling began to die out of me.

“But at once my allowance from my wife was stopped. Yes, Frank,” he said, with a touch of the old humour, “they took it away when they should have doubled it. I did not care. When I had money I gave it to him without counting, so when I could not pay I thought Bosie would pay, and I was content. But at once I discovered that he expected me to find the money. I did what I could; but when my means were exhausted, the evil days began. He expected me to write plays and get money for us both as in the past; but I couldn’t; I simply could not. When we were dunned his temper went to pieces. He has never known what it is to want really. You have no conception of the wretchedness of it all. He has a terrible, imperious, irritable temper.”

“He’s the son of his father,” I interjected.

“Yes,” said Oscar, “I am afraid that’s the truth, Frank; he is the son of his father; violent, and irritable, with a tongue like a lash. As soon as the means of life were straitened, he became sullen and began reproaching me; why didn’t I write? Why didn’t I earn money? What was the good of me? As if I could write under such conditions. No man, Frank, has ever suffered worse shame and humiliation.

“At last there was a washing bill to be paid; Bosie was dunned for it, and when I came in, he raged and whipped me with his tongue. It was appalling; I had done everything for him, given him everything, lost everything, and now I could only stand and see love turned to hate: the strength of love’s wine making the bitter more venomous. Then he left me, Frank, and now there is no hope for me. I am lost, finished, a derelict floating at the mercy of the stream, without plan or purpose. . . . And the worst of it is, I know, if men have treated me badly, I have treated myself worse; it is our sins against ourselves we can never forgive. . . . Do you wonder that I snatch at any pleasure?”

He turned and looked at me all shaken; I saw the tears pouring down his cheeks.

“I cannot talk any more, Frank,” he said in a broken voice, “I must go.”

I called a cab. My heart was so heavy within me, so sore, that I said nothing to stop him. He lifted his hand to me in sign of farewell, and I turned again to walk home alone, understanding, for the first time in my life, the full significance of the marvellous line in which Shakespeare summed up his impeachment of the world and his own justification: the only justification of any of us mortals:

“A man more sinn’d against than sinning.”

37 This was the sum promised by the whole Queensberry family and by Lord Alfred Douglas in particular to Oscar to defray the costs of that first action for libel which they persuaded him to bring against Lord Queensberry. Ross has since stated in court that it was never paid. The history of the monies promised and supplied to Oscar at that time is so extraordinary and so characteristic of the age that it might well furnish a chapter to itself. Here it is enough just to say that those who ought to have supplied him with money evaded the obligation, while others upon whom he had no claim, helped him liberally; but even large sums slipped through his careless fingers like water.

38 Cfr. Appendix: “Criticisms by Robert Ross.”

39 One of the prettiest daughters of the game to be found in Paris at the time.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02