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Review for Books Ireland

Rory Brennan March 2018

Oscar Wilde. The Unrepentant Years. Nicholas Frankel. Harvard University Press.

Just there are people we love to hate there are those we love to love. This applies to writers too – who after all are people as well if they are sometimes treated over-differentially. We may respect a writer as a weaver and wielder of words while thoroughly disliking him or her as a person. I’ll leave out examples; everyone will have their own list. Conversely there are those writers we love to love and I strongly suggest that Oscar
Wilde is one of these. Why? Firstly he is seen as deeply wronged and brutally treated. Indeed this is true. In the century and more since his death he has changed from ogre to a sort of huge, numerous teddy bear, an affable dispenser of quips. These too are reasons he is greatly liked and even loved. Hi epigrams are sharp, pointed, very funny, but never bitter or cynical in the manner of Swift or the maxims of La Rochefoucauld.


They do not excoriate, they do not denounce. His are gentle and often depend on the reversal of commonassumptions, like work being the curse of the drinking classes. The grain of truth is there but its taste is not sour.  Wilde makes us all Wildeans; we are all in the gutter with him but gazing up at the heavenly stars as he advised us to do.

This finely-crafted and frequently riveting study of Wilde deals with his later years as the title implies.  Nicholas Frankel does not over-stress, or indeed stress at all, his Irishness. His progenitors, Sir William the surgeon and antiquarian, and Speranza the nationalist “poetess” are mentioned peripherally. His nationality is significantly mentioned when Wilde asks an editor of his plays to watch out for and expunge Irishisms in the dialogue. Dublin, Portora, Trinity may seep through but the settings of this book are London, Paris, parts of Italy, a dash of Switzerland and of course the town of Reading like a deadening knell. Wilde was accused
of sodomy by the irate Marquis of Queensberry, father of Lord Alfred Douglas, his handsome, even pretty lover. The term was comically misspelt but there the comedy ended. Wilde sued and this led to further trials and his two year conviction for indecency. The rent boys involved were sentenced to months. Wilde was done for his flamboyance, his sheer style, his clever-boots cheekiness, his flaunting of his sexuality; all outraged the stodgy puritanism of late Victorian England.


On the subject of a child death scene in Dickens Wilde declared no one can read of the death of Little Nell and not burst out.....laughing. His persecutors, given to a sentimental view of poverty, now had their chance to laugh, or rather sneer. Those who wept at
Little Nell now rejoiced in glee. Wilde had his comeuppance, and a worse one than you might imagine. The 
first part of Frankel’s study deals with his atrocious incarceration.

It is hard to stomach certain aspects of the Victorian age, the reactionary persistence in cruel child labour, the savage flogging of soldiers and sailors, the slum “rookeries” (and here we owe much to Dickens for exposing them) and the gross severity of the prison regime. Hard labour meant virtual solitary confinement, no conversation, degrading garb, pointless and enervating tasks such as fifteen miles a day on the massive treadmill, the inane turning of a crank (that could be tightened, hence “screw” for warder). But perhaps the worst is the revolting food, gruel and suet, that led to constant diarrhoea and stinking cells.

For someone of Wilde’s temperament - for anyone - this was incessant torture. Fears for his sanity led to his transfer to Reading where he might be put to gardening under a sympathetic governor and a humane warder (who was later sacked for giving a biscuit to a hungry child prisoner!).

The central thrust of Frankel’s book is that Wilde e merged from his voyage au bout de la nuit as a person who had greatly suffered but who was aiming to resume his life as a homosexual and man of letters, ready to
enjoy bright cities and smart company as much as he could even if he was tormented by separation from his two sons and the threat of divorce from his wife Constance. Frankel’s narrative is always sprightly and has few longeurs, his perceptions generally highly persuasive, but he slips a little into the “must have” school of history. (Napoleon must have shuddered when he first saw St Helena. Well he may have been asleep when
the ship hove to.) Wilde “must have” recalled the mean streets around his prison when he was released since they echo scenes from his fiction – but he may well have only thought about a glass of good wine. Wilde had friends who stayed firm and were deeply fond of him. These include Robert Ross and the rather dubious journalist Frank Harris whose biography of Wilde was the first I ever read. Harris has long been regarded as a yarn spinner but Frankel is well able to sort out the spurious from the genuine. Wilde moved to 
Dieppe where the English expatriates cold-shouldered him. This spurning by his fellow citizens (for Wilde had been truly subsumed into “Englishness”) followed him to Naples and Paris. He moved to a nearby
village where he held a party for local schoolboys with treats to eat. No school girls; signs of things to come.A friend took him to a brothel, an experience he endured rather than enjoyed; he seems to have been a reluctant bisexual.

Bosie, as Lord Alfred Douglas was affectionately if rather coyly called, hovered and sent friendly signals. Wilde’s return to companionship and intimacy with him has been labelled his “second fall” by Richard Ellman in his major biography. Incidentally I recall Ellman stating that Wilde’s sexuality was more voyeuristic than vigorously active. Frankel produces evidence that it was frequent and brazen with men and boys to an extent it shocked other gay men such as the novelist Andre Gide. Bosie has had had a hard time from posterity. His photographs don’t help as he has the sullen pout of the spoilt and petulant. However though he quarrelled with Wilde and broke with him after they set up again together in a small villa,
Douglas was generous in his final verdict on his lover, declaring his final years to have been brave and productive ones, though they were often desperate and bitterly lonely too. Douglas’s reputation as a writer himself has undergone positive revaluation and he is regarded as a lyricist of some capacity. Indeed Frankelgoes so far as to suggest that he may have had a hand in a few stanzas of Reading Gaol; he was a balladeer in the imitative mode of the day. Wilde had great hopes for the work and pushed hard for its publication in fine and popular editions, even for newspaper publication in the US for a high fee. It is his real memorial
with its heart-wrenching line “the little tent of blue that prisoners call the sky”. Poverty dominated the years after release as did alcohol. Both hastened, if they did not directly cause, his death.

Constance had private means and Oscar had an apparent right to call on them. She settled £150 a year on him, provided he stayed clear of Douglas. When he “fell” again this adequate allowance ceased. Enough to live on in a moderate way, it could not sustain Wilde’s compulsive and neurotic spendthrift habits. Without it he faced destitution. Douglas too had his remittance curtailed by his mother, which forced them apart. Frankel recounts that theirs was truly a love affair, the word love dominating the trite term affair. Neither can have been an easy or biddable partner. A rich friend took him to Switzerland but he was bored. In the cafes of Paris he had a burst of bravura, a threadbare renaissance of sorts, associating with Toulouse Lautrec
among others and entrancing audiences with his inimitable skills as a raconteur. His morning Pernod developed into deadly doses of absinthe. His ear infection began to cause him agony and finally finished him. His dire poverty drove him to hustling, begging from acquaintances, and to sharp practice. Shaw’s harsh verdict is that Wilde died a drunkard and a swindler, but an unforgiving and judgemental world played its part in that tragedy. All the time he took lovers, boys he described as “jonquil-like” or “fauns” or “sweet narcissus”. Wilde is now rightly seen as a homosexual martyr. But today he would be unquestionably condemned as a paedophile, the boys being like one of Bosie’s, “ a dreadful little ragamuffin of fourteen”.


Itwould be fatuous to pretend that all such boyfriends were “of an age of consent”. We find this utterly wrong; today Wilde would go to jail, for far longer I suspect, but in far less severe conditions. He may have excused himself yet he stated, “I would sooner have fifty unnatural vices than one unnatural virtue”, thus spearing self-righteous postures once again. But it is still not enough to cite autre temps, autre moeurs.


However this is not the Oscar Wilde we wish to recall or celebrate. He left us incomparable plays and a majestic grief-stricken poem. Light and laughter is his legacy, says Frankel. “Good on you Oscar” is the message in a poem about him by Brendan Behan.


Let us echo that as we pause by his elegant statue in Merrion Square.

Review for Books Ireland

Rory Brennan March 2017

Jonathan  Swift. The Reluctant Rebel. Viking.

Do the best biographies kick off with an anecdote? This seems to be a fashion today.

Anyway this excellent one does. Two Trinity students in 1710, after a night’s jollification, deface the equestrian statue of King William. They steal his baton. In turn they too are nicked, but the matter is treated as no mere jape. They get heavily fined and threatened with exposure holding a repentant sign in College Green, a sort of stocks or pillory sentence which could result in serious injury from a vindictive crowd. In the end this is rescinded, but the story is an illustration of the violence and insecurity of the times. Trinity, stoutly Protestant, overreacts to a lark perpetrated on their monarch-saviour, who delivered them from the Papist (in the phrase of the day) James.


They still fear the Jacobite ghost prowling outside, perhaps even lurking within the college.


The Williamite wars and James brief ascendancy in Ireland profoundly marked Swift and his largely administrative-level class of clergy and lawyers, causing many to flee to England.

One might compare their brief if intense trauma to the longer agonies of the still recent Northern upheavals. But the young Swift was born to the cries and strains of an earlier threat – the rebellion in the 1640s of the Old English Catholic gentry and Gaelic chiefs with its real atrocities and greatly exaggerated massacres. Disinformation galore is not new if topically pertinent. John Stubbs’s life of Swift is as much a story of the times, and he evinces a mastery of Irish affairs as much as he does of the intrigues of court matters in London. This earlier war shadowed Swift’s youth in the way our War of Independence scarred our own politics. These parallels are mine and not intended to be exact, but they set Swift in an understandable context. To the societal unease of his time is added bereavement and separation. Swift’s father died of “the itch”, then a term for syphilis, contacted it was suggested not by intercourse but by filthy bed linen when travelling. Swift had a notorious abhorrence of uncleanliness all his life, perversely coupled with a taste for the scatological, most famously illustrated when Gulliver urinates on the blazing palace of the Lilliputian king. The separation that also must have deeply estranged him was the near-kidnapping of him by his wet-nurse, a standard figure of the age for the reasonably well-off. She took him to Whitehaven, the first of his many voyages across the Irish Sea.  Now a note on his sense of Irishness. Swift claimed to be English and with real justification as both his parents were from there, and indeed his mother Abigail died in Leicester.  But Ireland so completely formed - or deformed! - him as to make his assertion virtually ridiculous. 


There is something mischievous and contrarian in his pose. Perhaps an analogy is an Ulster person today who constantly decries his or her province but rounds on anyone from England or the South who mildly criticizes it. The Ireland that Swift came to defend was the Anglican one, indeed he had more sympathy with the routed and powerless Catholics than with the Nonconformists or Dissenting Presbyterians whom he categorised as fanatical. A glance at today’s chronic intransigence in Stormont could be said to still affirm his point. Kilkenny College exposed him to a severely classical curriculum, not dissimilar from Shakespeare’s a century or so before. Note that Luke Wadding, the Franciscan scholar, attended Kilkenny too, attesting that wealthier “Papists” could gain entry. Swift’s performance at Trinity was infamously poor, rather in the tradition of brilliant writers doing poorly at university – their originality upsets their staid mentors. He took his degree “by special grace” but in fact his attendance was interrupted by the campaign of James to keep his throne. Stubbs says he read history instead of the prescribed works, a choice that enriched his mind for the magnificent diatribes, arguments and vitriolic polemics to come. 


His employment as secretary to the diplomat Sir William Temple at Moor Park near London was due to family connections. Influence was all in his time as the obsequious dedications of literary works demonstrates. It applied to every field, civil, military, ecclesiastical and obviously political. To be without it could mean destitution, even starvation. His status at Moor Park was that of upper servant, not professional as we would understand it. Here he encountered the child Esther Jonson, daughter of a housekeeper there, who would mature into his friend/muse/companion/putative lover Stella. Temple had him organize his writings, but more significantly involved him in political affairs, entrusting him with a message to King William. His first encounter with the sycophancy of the court revolted him; the satirist stirred, and we are on our way to the idiot bickering in Gulliver over the height of heels and which end of an egg to crack. Later he would complain of the sting of being treated like a schoolboy (his phrase) by Temple but it was through him that Swift gained contact and entry to the fickle world of Whig and Tory and the magnates who fought for dominance in them.


His pen was his key, his weapon. The pamphlet, frequently anonymous, was something like the investigative programme of its day, the evening TV news, even something of the crude, simplifying sloganeering of the tweet. In this Swift came to excel and so was invaluable, if most of the issues seem dusty and arcane today. Whigs, siding on the rights of parliament, Tories leaning towards the King, were basically factions, not parties as we know them, riddled with bribery and barefaced opportunism. Swift too swapped sides, ending with the Tories for he was what we might now term “a natural conservative”, prizing stability overall, accepting that some (or many) must endure disabilities. His works aside from Gulliver, the Tale of a Tub, the Battle of the Books, are known because he wrote them; only scholars read them. A rebel then? Swift had the conceit of the intellectual, the arrogance of the man of ability who knows his worth, whose display of such qualities inhibits his promotion. The rebel emerged in the scorn. But Swift too had charm, a sociable nature, was witty, perceptive and humane, all qualities his overshadowed but brilliant poems reveal. He had fortitude, enduring vertigo, diagnosed since as Meniere’s disease with “millstones grinding in his ears”.

As a young man Swift curiously returned to Dublin, took orders and embarked on a career in the Church of Ireland. Curious because he ranked Ireland as a backwater. One senses, faute de mieux, settling for what’s available. He held a poor living in Kilroot on the Antrim coast, among the Dissenters he despised. He had few parishioners, but one was Jane Waring whom he clumsily courted, she becoming Varina in his writings. Everyone has sobriquets, himself as Presto, Esther Vanhomrigh, his other possible marriage blanc relationship, as Vanessa.


He obtained a decent living at Laracor in Meath which allowed him to sojourn in London among the great lords, Oxford and Bolingbroke, who notoriously failed to reward him with high clerical office for all his propagandizing.  Exiled to his native land, this paradox produced great literature, the blistering Modest Proposal with its hideous cloak of reasonable civility, the supreme example of irony’s lethal rapier. His “misanthropy” has its roots in ineradicable human folly and in the bitter, jostling groups with little to divide them – shall we say Fianna Fail and Fine Gael? Or the Tweedle Dum-Dee of Blair and Cameron?  He also missed his fellow scribblers and their eponymous club, the convivial if rivalrous company of Pope, Addison, Congreve, Steele et al. Stubbs delves into all aspects of Swift’s life with assured skill, missing nothing, sprinkling his massive endeavour with a few caustic epigrams of his own. Stella and Vanessa were set up in separate establishments and circumspectly visited though tongues wagged like dog’s tails. Stubbs refutes Denis Johnston’s theory that Stella and Swift were the natural children (a coy term) of Temple and so could not marry. The dates do not tally. His bizarre emotional and sexual proclivities still fascinate. He was no brothel frequenter like his repellent fellow-cleric Laurence Sterne. 

The reluctant Irishman took up arms in his land’s defence. The commercial iniquities imposed in England’s interest (yes, Brexit), most famously under the nom de plume or rather nom de guerre of Drapier, denouncing an allegedly debased currency.  He was hailed in Dublin, was saluted with fireworks and bequeathed to the city the mental hospital that still exists, progressive for its day. The liberty he served was not ours, living on the tithes of those who rejected his church, supporting the Treaty of Utrecht that endorsed slavery. His epitaph surely concerns freedom of speech, however we see it.


Our smartphones, the computer I am using now, may have parts sourced under cruelly exploited labour. Swift remains relevant. His sad decline and confused end in the deanery is well known.

Stubbs has given us a vibrant and memorable portrait of a highly gifted, haunted man.


The term magisterial is overblown, but this is a very fine book.

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