Legacy and Lament: The Life and Works of Oscar Wilde as Told by his Son Vyvyan Holland

Vyvyan Holland, in his introduction to the 1966 edition of Oscar Wilde's works, provides an insightful overview of his father's lineage, life, and literary career

Vyvyan Holland, in his introduction to the 1966 edition of Oscar Wilde’s works, provides an insightful overview of his father’s lineage, life, and literary career. He recounts the family’s Dutch origin, Oscar’s upbringing and education, his rise in London society, and his contributions to literature, from poetry and essays to renowned plays like The Importance of Being Earnest. Holland also touches on the darker aspects of Wilde’s life, including his trial, imprisonment, and posthumous conversion to Catholicism, ultimately painting a complex and enduring portrait of one of the most celebrated figures in literary history.

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by Vyvyan Holland

Oscar Wilde’s family is Dutch in origin. The first Wilde to settle in Ireland was a certain Colonel de Wilde, the son of an artist, examples of whose work hang in the Art Gallery at The Hague; he was a soldier of fortune who was granted lands in Connaught at the end of the seventeenth century for his services to King William III of England. He is said to have repented his adherence to the English king and to have become ‘more Irish than the Irish’. From that time the family were land agents and doctors.

My father’s parents were both distinguished in their own way. Sir William Wilde was the foremost eye and ear specialist of his time, and a physician of international repute. He invented the operation for cataract and performed it on King Oscar of Sweden, for which he received the Order of the Polar Star. His mother, Lady Wilde, born Jane Francesca Elgee, was a staunch Irish Nationalist, who wrote fierce poems and articles in the Irish Nationalist newspaper The Nation, under the name of ‘Speranza’, a name she had adopted from her motto ‘Fidanza, Constanza, Speranza’ – Faith, Constancy, Hope. Lady Wilde had three children, William, Oscar and Isola, who died when she was ten, to Oscar’s lasting grief. Oscar Wilde was born on 16 October 1854, and was given the names Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.

His education began at Portora Royal School In Enniskillen, from which he obtained a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin, where he won the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek. From there he received a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford. While at Oxford he came under the Influence of John Ruskin and Walter Pater. Pater preached the love of Art for Art’s sake, and Oscar Wilde, going one step further, set out to idolise beauty for beauty’s sake and filled his rooms looking over the Cherwell with blue china and reproductions of paintings by Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Aestheticism was the key-note of his creed and he declared that beauty was the ideal after which everyone should strive.

My father’s life at Oxford, one gathers from his letters, was a joyous one. He entered whole-heartedly into the undergraduate life of the University and distinguished himself by winning the Newdigate Prize for English verse and getting a double first in Classics. Upon this note he came to London in 1879 with the remains of a small patrimony and started to make his living by his pen. True to his doctrine of beauty he established himself as the ‘Apostle of Aestheticism’ and drew attention to himself by the eccentricity of his dress. It must be remembered that at this period the clothing of the British upper middle classes was rigidly conventional, and the sight of him in the evening in a velvet coat edged with braid, knee-breeches, black silk stockings, a soft loose shirt with a wide turn-down collar and a large flowing tie, was bound to arouse indignant curiosity.

At the same time he was writing poems, and in 1880 he also wrote Vera, a rather immature play, which ran for one week in New York in 1883 and never reached the boards in London. In 1881 his collected poems were published, and in 1882, being short of money, he was persuaded to go on a lecture tour to America. This proved to be a brilliant success and he returned to England in 1883, covered, if not with glory, at least with considerable notoriety.

On his return to Europe, he retired to Paris to finish another play, The Duchess of Padua, for the American actress Mary Anderson; but when she received the play, she turned it down flatly. This was really a disaster for Oscar Wilde, and he returned to England and went on a series of lecture tours in the provinces. However, this nomadic life soon palled and he returned to London where, in 1884, he married Constance Mary, daughter of a distinguished Irish barrister, Horace Lloyd, Q.C. Oscar was romantically in love with his beautiful young wife and for some years he was ideally happy. He had two sons by his wife – Cyril, born in 1885, and myself in 1886.

Oddly enough, although his literary activities had been almost entirely confined to writing poetry until his marriage, he now turned largely to prose and, with the exception of The Sphinx, the idea of which had occurred to him much earlier, he wrote few poems until after his imprisonment, when he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Boris Brasol, who wrote one of the only two carefully considered lives of my father, sums up his poetic period as follows:

‘He began his literary career as a composer of sonorous and pleasing verses in which, however, as he himself admitted, ‘there was more rhyme than reason’; yet as he grew older, he seemed to have lost all taste for poetry, and though there Is nothing that would justify the contention that he ever regarded his early poems as callow productions, the fact remains that upon reaching maturity he took no further interest in that delightful occupation which Browning aptly called “the unlocking of hearts with sonnet keys”.’

Upon what, then, does his reputation as an author rest? His early poems were mostly lyrical, and certain of them will undoubtedly pass the test of time. His true literary life was spread over seven years only, from 1888 until 1894. In 1887 he had become editor of Woman’s World in which capacity he continued until 1889 when he resigned. He had gathered a reputation for eccentricity and, still more, as a conversationalist. There are few people alive now who remember his conversation, but when in 1954 a plaque was unveiled by Sir Compton Mackenzie on the house in Tite Street where my family lived for eleven years, he read the following message from Sir Max Beerbohm (the Incomparable Max!), who felt too frail to undertake the journey to London to be present:

‘I have had the privilege of listening to many masters of table talk – Meredith and Swinburne, Edmund Gosse and Henry James, Augustine Birrell and Arthur Balfour, Gilbert Chesterton and Desmond MacCarthy and Hilaire Belloc – all of them splendid in their own way. But Oscar was the greatest of them all – the most spontaneous and yet the most polished, the most soothing and yet the most surprising…Nobody was willing to interrupt the music of so magnificent a virtuoso. To have heard him consoled me for not having heard Dr Johnson or Edmund Burke, Lord Brougham or Sidney Smith.’

Winston Churchill was once asked whom he would like to meet and talk with in after life, and he replied, without hesitation: ‘Oscar Wilde.’

Wilde’s first memorable work was The Happy Prince, which appeared in 1888. The stories in The Happy Prince are really poems in prose more than fairytales for children; and yet the remarkable thing is that they appeal equally to children and adults.

In 1891 he produced a small volume ot tour stories which he had written some time previously. The book was called Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories, the other three tales being The Canterville Ghost’, The Sphinx without a Secret’ and ‘The Model Millionaire’. The first two of these stories have been dramatised and their substance has been copied on several occasions; they possess the light-hearted gaiety and insouciance that find their fullest expression in The Importance of Being Earnest, and show the buoyancy of my father’s spirit at that time.

A House of Pomegranates, my father’s other book of short stories – one can hardly call them fairy tales – appeared with illustrations by Charles Shannon, R.A. in the same year. This book completely puzzled the critics, who thought that the stories were meant for children and protested, quite rightly, that no child could understand them. This was followed by The Sphinx, which really dated from his Oxford days, and upon which he had worked at intervals ever since. The critics were again confused by the poem, which was really nothing more than an experiment with words. He revelled in finding rhymes for words such as hieroglyph and catafalque, which he rhymed with hippogriff and Amenalk.

In 1891, too, Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, appeared in book form, enlarged from the original which had been already published in Lippincott’s Magazine. The publication of this work was greeted with a storm of protest by the critics. The English Press was almost unanimous in its condemnation of the book. The Idea of the book had first come to my father some years before. Hesketh Pearson tells the story of it in his Life of Oscar Wilde;’ In the year 1884 Wilde used to drop in at the studio of a painter, Basil Ward, one of whose sitters was a young man of exceptional beauty…When the portrait was done and the youth had gone, Wilde happened to say, “What a pity that such a glorious creature should ever grow old!” The artist agreed, adding, “How delightful it would be if he could remain exactly as he is, while the portrait aged and withered in his stead!” Wilde expressed his obligation by calling the painter in his story Basil Hallward.’

By far the most interesting and entertaining book of essays that Oscar Wilde wrote was Intentions, in which he really gave rein to his imagination. In my own opinion, it is the most absorbing of all his works. The Critic as Artist occupies considerably more than half of it; its sub-title ‘with some remarks upon the importance of doing nothing’ shows the curious charm the word ‘importance’ had for him; it occurs in the titles of two of his plays, and is constantly cropping up in his essays. It is almost as though the word held a strange sonorousness for him and that he liked to roll it, if not round his tongue, then round his mind.
But the most interesting essay in the book is The Decay of Lying. The essay is in the form of a dialogue, the dominant theme being the vast superiority of Art over Nature, leading to the conclusion that Nature follows Art.

Oscar Wilde now entered into his final stage, the one for which he was destined, that of a dramatist. In 1891 he wrote Lady Windermere’s Fan, which he described as ‘one of those modern drawing-room plays with pink lampshades’. It was produced at the St James’s Theatre in February, 1892 by George Alexander. There were loud cries of ‘Author!’ at the end of the play and Wilde came onto the stage with a cigarette in his gloved hand and said: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen. I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendering of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do.’

When Wilde had finished Lady Windermere’s Fan he retired to Paris and wrote his Biblical play Salome in French, dedicated to Pierre Louys who made certain corrections in the French, but did not otherwise interfere with it. Sarah Bernhardt was immensely attracted to this play, and she put it into rehearsal at the Palace Theatre in London, with herself in the title-role. However, the Lord Chamberlain refused to grant it a licence, on the ground that no play which contained Biblical characters was allowed to be performed on the English stage. This so annoyed Wilde that he announced his intentions of renouncing his British nationality and becoming a Frenchman, there being no such restrictions in France. As matters turned out, it is a pity that he did not carry out his threat.

In the summer of 1892 he wrote A Woman of No Importance, which was produced with immediate success by Herbert Beerbohm Tree at the Haymarket in 1893. Once again the audience rose to its feet and called for the author. This time remembering the bad impression he had made on the first night of Lady Windermere’s Fan, he got up in the box in which he was sitting and announced: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I regret to inform you that Mr Oscar Wilde is not in the house.’

On 3 January 1895, Oscar Wilde’s third important play An Ideal Husband was produced by Lewis Waller. The Prince of Wales was present at the first night. It was almost unprecedented for Royalty to be present at a first night, and it seemed now that Wilde’s future was assured. George Bernard Shaw’s comment on the play is worth repeating: ‘Mr Oscar Wilde’s new play at the Haymarket is a dangerous subject, because he has the property of making his critics dull…He plays with everything; with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.’

And so we come to Oscar Wilde’s last, and his most brilliant play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde originally wrote the play in four acts, as he had written his other three major plays. He submitted it in this form to George Alexander who, with the object of making room for a ‘curtain raiser’, as was usual in those days, asked Wilde to cut it to three acts. When, four years later, Leonard Smithers published the play in book form, it was this three-act version that he had printed, and each subsequent edition has followed this pattern. Why this has been so is not clear, but the play as written by Oscar Wilde, with two extra characters in it, is the play as given in this volume. As Mr Philip Drake, who is responsible for this edition of Wilde’s works, remarked, it seems a pity that George Alexander should have a permanent influence on the play.

The Importance of Being Earnestwas produced at the St James’s Theatre on 14 February 1895. Wilde had now reached the pinnacle of his success. Two plays of his were drawing crowded audiences in the West End, and actormanagers were falling over one another to beg him to write for them. Then the Marquess of Queensberry, with the object of attacking his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, because of his friendship with Wilde, launched a campaign of ungovernable fury on Wilde. The story has been told often enough; Alfred Douglas, whose only object was to see his father in the dock, persuaded Oscar Wilde to bring a prosecution for criminal libel against him. Lord Queensberry was triumphantly acquitted and his place in the dock was taken by Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced to two years imprisonment.

While in prison, Wilde wrote the letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, part of which was published in 1905 by Robert Ross, under the title of De Profundis. In a letter to Robert Ross he wrote: ‘This is indeed an Encyclical letter, and as the Bulls of the Holy Father are named from their opening words, it may be spoken of as Epistola: in Carcere el Vinculis.’ The manuscript was not revised by Wilde, although he intended to do this, as is shown by the letter he wrote to Robert Ross: ‘As soon as you have read it, I want you to have it copied for me. As regards the method of copying, I wish the copy to be done on good paper and a wide rubricated margin should be left for corrections.’ A copy of De Profundis was made and sent to Alfred Douglas; but after reading the first few pages, he destroyed it, probably thinking, rather naively, that there was no other copy in existence. Douglas strenuously denied ever having received the letter, and he could not go back on this without contradicting himself.

After my father’s death in 1900, Alfred Douglas tried to get hold of the manuscript, but Robert Ross settled the matter by sealing it up and presenting it to the British Museum, with the proviso that it should remain sealed for sixty years, that is to say until 1960, at the end of which time it might safely be presumed that everyone mentioned in it would be dead.

The copying was done hastily and without much care, because the version printed in 1949 varied in several particulars from the original manuscript, although, of course, the substance was the same. The version here printed has been carefully compared with the original and is exactly as Wilde wrote it.
The Portrait of Mr. W. H. was first published as an article of 12,000 words in Blackwood’s Magazine for July, 1889. Oscar Wilde became more and more obsessed with the idea contained in the article and during the next four years he re-wrote the story and added to it, bringing the total up to 25,000 words. The manuscript disappeared at the time of the sale of my father’s effects at Tite Street, together with others, and did not re-appear until the year 1920 in America, where it was published in a limited edition by Mitchell Kennerley. The expanded version is printed in this edition.

The only work that my father wrote after 1897 was the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he wrote at Berneval, so that Douglas’s claim to have had a large share in writing it may be ignored, as he and Wilde did not meet again until later.

All his life, my father had an intense leaning towards religious mysticism and was strongly attracted to the Catholic Church, into which he was received on his death bed in 1900. His remains now lie in the French National Cemetery of Pere Lachaise.

SOURCE: Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, with an introduction by Vyvyan Holland, Collins, 1966


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