Books

The Price He Was Willing to Pay: 'Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years'

By picking up his subject after the most infamous event in Wilde's life, Frankel is able to rebuild the narrative of Wilde's post-prison life from the detritus of his public undoing.

Oscar Wilde's life famously followed an eventful trajectory more suitable to the central character of a tragic novel than to that of a renowned artist. When Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor in 1895, his stature as a writer was eminent. In spite of their celebrity, writers seldom make such sensational headlines for the events of their personal lives. For a contemporary equivalent, we might have to turn to Salman Rushdie for a writer as renowned yet whose life took such an unexpected turn (as when Rushdie was famously forced underground following the fatwa proclaimed against him for publishing The Satanic Verses). Yet even for Rushdie, the scorn he faced from religious fundamentalists was most certainly outweighed by the praise for his subsequent career. For Wilde, the rehabilitation of his reputation would come largely after his death in 1900 (at age 46).


Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years

Nicholas Frankel

(Harvard University Press)

October 2017

Just as his years in hiding provided Rushdie with material for the eventual Joseph Anton: A Memoir, the appalling turn in Wilde's career provided the inspiration for his two most successful post-prison works: The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis. There's no mistaking the fact that Wilde left prison a different man than the feted writer who had entered it. He had been dishonored and humiliated in the eyes of his countrymen, abandoned by his wife and children, and painfully severed from Lord Alfred Douglas, his young lover and companion. As author Nicholas Frankel explains, Constance Wilde's refusal to reconcile with her estranged husband or to permit Oscar to see his sons was emotionally devastating. Yet the subject matter of his two post-prison works demonstrate what weighed most heavily on Wilde's mind in his final years: the grueling and dehumanizing prison system (Reading Gaol); and his unshakable love for Douglas (De Profundis).

Frankel approaches his subject with a willingness to see Wilde as he truly was in those final years. He doesn't whitewash the depths of Wilde's anguish, particularly over being denied the right to reunite with his sons. But Frankel pieces his reexamination of this stage of Wilde's life together largely with the man's own letters (and those of his friends and contemporaries). As we are reminded, Wilde wrote in An Ideal Husband: "Sooner or later, we all have to pay for what we do." And, in fact, Wilde later acknowledged that he knew his liaisons with Douglas would lead down a tragic road (it was eventually Douglas' incendiary father who prompted the trial against Wilde for "gross indecency").

By picking up his subject after the most infamous event in Wilde's life, Frankel is able to rebuild the narrative of Wilde's post-prison life from the detritus of his public undoing. He faithfully documents the mercurial nature of Wilde's post-release emotions, from his conflicting attitude toward Constance; to his unconcerned and inevitable decision to reunite with Douglas. What comes through clearly is Wilde's unceasing determination to reach for the world he lost (either through Constance, Douglas, or literary inspiration), even if much of it remains always only out of reach. If Frankel sought to demonstrate that the post-prison Wilde was not some sorely broken man, forever debilitated, and slouching toward a premature and lonely death, he has succeeded masterfully.

Wilde's ill-advised attempt to reunite with Douglas, along with other events of his post-release life make clear that he remained, to some degree, Unrepentant. It's impossible to read a book like Oscar Wilde and not contemplate the power and abuse of a world so close to the dawn of sexual liberation. It's equally impossible not to ponder what Wilde might have achieved had his life unfolded in the closing years of the 20th century, rather than the 19th. Wilde's literary legacy has far outlived the ignominy in which it was wrapped when he died, yet it is his legacy as a victim of homophobia that deserves equal consideration. It was, after all, these acts for which Wilde remained Unrepentant after prison. As Frankel reminds us in the book's Epilogue, when accused of engaging in "the Love that dare not speak its name" during his trial, Wilde spake its name. In his reply, Wilde elevated "sodomy" to something far more profound than his accusers were willing to challenge: "The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one on the pillory for it."

Oscar Wilde was a magnificent artist, an inspiring figure, and a powerful voice for all those who followed unapologetically. Frankel explains exactly where the power resided in Wilde's life: "If we are wrong to see Wilde as a martyr to Victorian morality, we are wrong too to see him as Alfred Douglas's victim. To view Wilde this way is to rob him of all agency. He knew perfectly well what he was doing and risking in returning to Douglas." After all, "Sooner or later, we all have to pay for what we do", and we all owe Wilde respect for the price he was willing to pay.

Rating: 8

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pay Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.