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).

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

RATING 7 / 10