Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 5

Oscar’s Quarrel with Whistler and Marriage

The first round in the battle with Fate was inconclusive. Oscar Wilde had managed to get known and talked about and had kept his head above water for a couple of years while learning something about life and more about himself. On the other hand he had spent almost all his patrimony, had run into some debt besides; yet seemed as far as ever from earning a decent living. The outlook was disquieting.

Even as a young man Oscar had a very considerable understanding of life. He could not make his way as a journalist, the English did not care for his poetry; but there was still the lecture-platform. In his heart he knew that he could talk better than he wrote.

He got his brother to announce boldly in The World that owing to the “astonishing success of his ‘Poems’ Mr. Oscar Wilde had been invited to lecture in America.”

The invitation was imaginary; but Oscar had resolved to break into this new field; there was money in it, he felt sure.

Besides he had another string to his bow. When the first rumblings of the social storm in Russia reached England, our aristocratic republican seized occasion by the forelock and wrote a play on the Nihilist Conspiracy called Vera. This drama was impregnated with popular English liberal sentiment. With the interest of actuality about it Vera was published in September, 1880; but fell flat.

The assassination of the Tsar Alexander, however, in March, 1881; the way Oscar’s poems published in June of that year were taken up by Miss Terry and puffed in the press, induced Mrs. Bernard Beere, an actress of some merit, to accept Vera for the stage. It was suddenly announced that Vera would be put on by Mrs. Bernard Beere at The Adelphi in December, ‘81; but the author had to be content with this advertisement. December came and went and Vera was not staged. It seemed probable to Oscar that it might be accepted in America; at any rate, there could be no harm in trying: he sailed for New York.

It was on the cards that he might succeed in his new adventure. The taste of America in letters and art is still strongly influenced, if not formed, by English taste, and, if Oscar Wilde had been properly accredited, it is probable that his extraordinary gift of speech would have won him success in America as a lecturer.

His phrase to the Revenue officers on landing: “I have nothing to declare except my genius,” turned the limelight full upon him and excited comment and discussion all over the country. But the fuglemen of his caste whose praise had brought him to the front in England were almost unrepresented in the States, and never bold enough to be partisans. Oscar faced the American Philistine public without his accustomed claque, and under these circumstances a half-success was evidence of considerable power. His subjects were “The English Renaissance” and “House Decoration.”

His first lecture at Chickering Hall on January 9, 1882, was so much talked about that the famous impresario, Major Pond, engaged him for a tour which, however, had to be cut short in the middle as a monetary failure. The Nation gave a very fair account of his first lecture: “Mr. Wilde is essentially a foreign product and can hardly succeed in this country. What he has to say is not new, and his extravagance is not extravagant enough to amuse the average American audience. His knee-breeches and long hair are good as far as they go; but Bunthorne has really spoiled the public for Wilde.”

The Nation underrated American curiosity. Oscar lectured some ninety times from January till July, when he returned to New York. The gross receipts amounted to some £4,000: he received about £1,200, which left him with a few hundreds above his expenses. His optimism regarded this as a triumph.

One is fain to confess today that these lectures make very poor reading. There is not a new thought in them; not even a memorable expression; they are nothing but student work, the best passages in them being mere paraphrases of Pater and Arnold, though the titles were borrowed from Whistler. Dr. Ernest Bendz in his monograph on The Influence of Pater and Matthew Arnold in the Prose–Writings of Oscar Wilde has established this fact with curious erudition and completeness.

Still, the lecturer was a fine figure of a man: his knee-breeches and silk stockings set all the women talking, and he spoke with suave authority. Even the dullest had to admit that his elocution was excellent, and the manner of speech is keenly appreciated in America. In some of the Eastern towns, in New York especially, he had a certain success, the success of sensation and of novelty, such success as every large capital gives to the strange and eccentric.

In Boston he scored a triumph of character. Fifty or sixty Harvard students came to his lecture dressed to caricature him in “swallow tail coats, knee breeches, flowing wigs and green ties. They all wore large lilies in their buttonholes and each man carried a huge sunflower as he limped along.” That evening Oscar appeared in ordinary dress and went on with his lecture as if he had not noticed the rudeness. The chief Boston paper gave him due credit:

“Everyone who witnessed the scene on Tuesday evening must feel about it very much as we do, and those who came to scoff, if they did not exactly remain to pray, at least left the Music Hall with feelings of cordial liking, and, perhaps to their own surprise, of respect for Oscar Wilde.”6

As he travelled west to Louisville and Omaha his popularity dwined and dwindled. Still he persevered and after leaving the States visited Canada, reaching Halifax in the autumn.

One incident must find a place here. On September 6 he sent £80 to Lady Wilde. I have been told that this was merely a return of money she had advanced; but there can be no doubt that Oscar, unlike his brother Willie, helped his mother again and again most generously, though Willie was always her favourite.

Oscar returned to England in April, 1883, and lectured to the Art Students at their club in Golden Square. This at once brought about a break with Whistler who accused him of plagiarism:—“Picking from our platters the plums for the puddings he peddles in the provinces.”

If one compares this lecture with Oscar’s on “The English Renaissance of Art,” delivered in New York only a year before, and with Whistler’s well-known opinions, it is impossible not to admit that the charge was justified. Such phrases as “artists are not to copy beauty but to create it . . . a picture is a purely decorative thing,” proclaim their author.

The long newspaper wrangle between the two was brought to a head in 1885, when Whistler gave his famous Ten o’clock discourse on Art. This lecture was infinitely better than any of Oscar Wilde’s. Twenty odd years older than Wilde, Whistler was a master of all his resources: he was not only witty, but he had new views on art and original ideas. As a great artist he knew that “there never was an artistic period. There never was an Art-loving nation.” Again and again he reached pure beauty of expression. The masterly persiflage, too, filled me with admiration and I declared that the lecture ranked with the best ever heard in London with Coleridge’s on Shakespeare and Carlyle’s on Heroes. To my astonishment Oscar would not admit the superlative quality of Whistler’s talk; he thought the message paradoxical and the ridicule of the professors too bitter. “Whistler’s like a wasp,” he cried, “and carries about with him a poisoned sting.” Oscar’s kindly sweet nature revolted against the disdainful aggressiveness of Whistler’s attitude. Besides, in essence, Whistler’s lecture was an attack on the academic theory taught in the universities, and defended naturally by a young scholar like Oscar Wilde. Whistler’s view that the artist was sporadic, a happy chance, a “sport,” in fact, was a new view, and Oscar had not yet reached this level; he reviewed the master in the Pall Mall Gazette, a review remarkable for one of the earliest gleams of that genial humour which later became his most characteristic gift: “Whistler,” he said, “is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler himself entirely concurs.”

Whistler retorted in The World and Oscar replied, but Whistler had the best of the argument. . . . “Oscar — the amiable, irresponsible, esurient Oscar — with no more sense of a picture than of the fit of a coat, has the courage of the opinions . . . of others!”

It should be noted here that one of the bitterest of tongues could not help doing homage to Oscar Wilde’s “amiability”: Whistler even preferred to call him “amiable and irresponsible” rather than give his plagiarism a harsher attribute.

Oscar Wilde learned almost all he knew of art7 and of controversy from Whistler, but he was never more than a pupil in either field; for controversy in especial he was poorly equipped: he had neither the courage, nor the contempt, nor the joy in conflict of his great exemplar.

Unperturbed by Whistler’s attacks, Oscar went on lecturing about the country on “Personal Impressions of America,” and in August crossed again to New York to see his play “Vera” produced by Marie Prescott at the Union Square Theatre. It was a complete failure, as might have been expected; the serious part of it was such as any talented young man might have written. Nevertheless I find in this play for the first time, a characteristic gleam of humour, an unexpected flirt of wing, so to speak, which, in view of the future, is full of promise. At the time it passed unappreciated.

September, 1883, saw Oscar again in England. The platform gave him better results than the theatre, but not enough for freedom or ease. It is the more to his credit that as soon as he got a couple of hundred pounds ahead, he resolved to spend it in bettering his mind.

His longing for wider culture, and perhaps in part, the example of Whistler, drove him to Paris. He put up at the little provincial Hotel Voltaire on the Quai Voltaire and quickly made acquaintance with everyone of note in the world of letters, from Victor Hugo to Paul Bourget. He admired Verlaine’s genius to the full but the grotesque physical ugliness of the man himself (Verlaine was like a masque of Socrates) and his sordid and unclean way of living prevented Oscar from really getting to know him. During this stay in Paris Oscar read enormously and his French, which had been school-boyish, became quite good. He always said that Balzac, and especially his poet, Lucien de Rubempré, had been his teachers.

While in Paris he completed his blank-verse play, “The Duchess of Padua,” and sent it to Miss Mary Anderson in America, who refused it, although she had commissioned him, he always said, to write it. It seems to me inferior even to “Vera” in interest, more academic and further from life, and when produced in New York in 1891 it was a complete frost.

In a few months Oscar Wilde had spent his money and had skimmed the cream from Paris, as he thought; accordingly he returned to London and took rooms again, this time in Charles Street, Mayfair. He had learned some rude lessons in the years since leaving Oxford, and the first and most impressive lesson was the fear of poverty. Yet his taking rooms in the fashionable part of town showed that he was more determined than ever to rise and not to sink.

It was Lady Wilde who urged him to take rooms near her; she never doubted his ultimate triumph. She knew all his poems by heart, took the strass for diamonds and welcomed the chance of introducing her brilliant son to the Irish Nationalist Members and other pinchbeck celebrities who flocked about her.

It was about this time that I first saw Lady Wilde. I was introduced to her 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 bird-like 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 unEnglish note about it of shiftlessness; the æsthetic 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 to 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 était à l’étroit 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.

6 By way of heaping coals of fire on the students’ heads Oscar presented a cast of the Hermes (then recently unearthed) to the University of Harvard.

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


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