The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde


""I have put my genius into my life but only my talent into my work." So said Oscar Wilde of his remarkable life - a life more complex, more troubled, and more triumphant than any of his contemporaries ever knew or suspected. In The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, Neil McKenna focuses on the tormented genius of Wilde's personal life, reproducing remarkable love letters and detailing Wilde's previously unknown relationships with men from various walks of life." "McKenna has spent years researching Wilde's life, drawing on extensive new material,
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""I have put my genius into my life but only my talent into my work." So said Oscar Wilde of his remarkable life - a life more complex, more troubled, and more triumphant than any of his contemporaries ever knew or suspected. In The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, Neil McKenna focuses on the tormented genius of Wilde's personal life, reproducing remarkable love letters and detailing Wilde's previously unknown relationships with men from various walks of life." "McKenna has spent years researching Wilde's life, drawing on extensive new material, including never-before published poems, letters, and other writings. He also quotes, for the first time, from recently discovered trial statements made by male prostitutes and blackmailers about Wilde. McKenna provides explosive evidence of the political machinations behind Wilde's trials for sodomy, as well as his central role in the burgeoning gay world of Victorian London." The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde is the first book to fully chart Wilde's odyssey through London's sexual underworld and to reconstruct his emotional and sexual life. McKenna creates as no one else has done the rich tableau of Victorian gay life and paints an astonishing vivid psychological portrait of a troubled genius who chose to martyr himself for the cause of love between men.
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Editorial Reviews

Charles Kaiser
This book reads like the great tragedy Wilde's life was. One of the greatest joys of writing it undoubtedly came from the numerous Wilde aphorisms that McKenna was able to intersperse in the text. Wilde once remarked that there were only three ways to get into society: feed it, amuse it or shock it. "He used all three tactics simultaneously," McKenna observes, and the results are magnificently recorded in these pages.
— The Washington Post
Library Journal
Drawing upon newly available poems, letters, and trial transcripts, British journalist McKenna offers a brilliant portrait of Wilde's literary genius and his often-tortured personal life. In exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, detail, McKenna provides an intimate look at Wilde's sexual appetites, revealing for the first time relationships with several men and boys, including male prostitutes, whose names have until now been unknown. Although more a sexual than a literary biography, McKenna's study chronicles Wilde's literary development as a reflection of his sexual activity. For example, he shows that The Picture of Dorian Gray stands as a complex exploration of Wilde's own sexuality as well as a reflection on his relationship with John Gray. In the end, McKenna reveals little that is new about Wilde's homosexuality and his sexual activities. Yet this majestic study offers a glimpse into the complex sexual mores of the Victorian world, where Wilde lived his homosexual literary life with bravado. A nice complement to Richard Ellmann's definitive Wilde biography, this is recommended for all libraries.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A tedious slog through the English author's sexual romps at the expense of his literary achievements. Wilde's "secret life" isn't exactly secret anymore, but British journalist McKenna aims to chronicle, in salacious detail, his relations with every boy from the time he arrived at Oxford's Magdalen College in 1874 through his imprisonment for "gross indecency" in 1895 and beyond. While reading classics at Oxford, the talented Irish poet was conflicted about his sexuality. His biographer charts Wilde's growing enchantment with "Greek love" in the form of flirtations with choirboys, artist Frank Miles and his "sodomite" circle, and many others. His reading of and friendship with Walter Pater, who urged followers to "grasp at any exquisite passion," helped convert Wilde to the Aesthetic Movement and the more "cultivated taste" of loving men. He also, however, attracted women, and his marriage seems to have been instigated by genuine feelings of love and protectiveness toward young Constance Lloyd, as well as the desire for some kind of stability to offset his erratic and dangerous cruising, blackmail by "rent boys," and police raids of pick-up places. Becoming a father did not dissuade Wilde from "playing with fire"; he proclaimed in his letters a "daring manifesto of amorality" and wrote to one young lover, "I myself would sacrifice everything for a new experience." The dizzying parade of transient bedfellows ended only when he met the love of his life, young Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), whose outraged father, the Marquis of Queensberry, eventually goaded Wilde into a libel suit and brought on his ruin. McKenna treats Wilde's work secondhand and only as "autobiographical prefigurations"of his homoerotic double life. In this author's hands, reading Wilde is reduced to a hunt for clues to his homosexuality; it's as titillating but trivial as finding "indiscreetly inscribed cigarette cases given to young men."Exhaustively documented, but ultimately reductive and incomplete.
From the Publisher
"A sensational new biography."

"A bustling revealing and downright moving portrayal of the troubled genius."

"...a bold book."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780712669863
  • Publisher: Random House UK
  • Publication date: 10/23/2003
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.37 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Neil McKenna is an award-winning British writer and journalist who has written for the British newspapers, the Independent, the Independent on Sunday, the Observer, the Guardian, the New Statesman, as well as for Channel 4 Television. He has also worked extensively in the gay press in Britain and the United States. He is the author of two ground-breaking books — On the Margins and The Silent Epidemic — about men who have sex with men and the AID epidemic in the developing world. Neil McKenna trained as an art historian and has been interested in Oscar Wilde since he was 15. The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde is his first biography.

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Read an Excerpt

The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde

An Intimate Biography

By Neil McKenna Basic Books

Copyright © 2006 Neil McKenna
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780465044399

Chapter One

May 1895

It was unusually hot that last Saturday in May, and the small, cramped and badly ventilated courtroom at the Old Bailey was stifling. It was the last day of the second trial of Oscar Wilde on charges of gross indecency with young men, and everyone confidently expected that a verdict would be reached by the end of the afternoon. Every available seat was occupied, and the courtroom was, the Illustrated Police Budget reported, 'crowded to suffocation'.

The jury retired at half past three. Oscar's small but gallant band of friends and supporters in the public gallery were hoping against hope that the jury would fail to reach a verdict, as they had done just three weeks earlier. If they did, Oscar would almost certainly go free. A second retrial would surely be out of the question. 'You'll dine your man in Paris tomorrow,' Sir Frank Lockwood, who had prosecuted Oscar, remarked to Sir Edward Clarke, Oscar's barrister. But Clarke was not so sure. 'No, no, no,' he replied, shaking his head sadly.

The trials of Oscar Wilde had been going on for two months, since the fateful day in early March when Oscar had applied for a warrant for the arrest of the Marquis of Queensberry, the father of his lover Bosie, forcriminally libelling him as a 'ponce and sodomite'. Oscar had appeared - as either prosecutor or defendant - in no fewer than nine separate court proceedings, and had spent four gruelling days in the witness box being cross-examined by three of the greatest advocates of the day.

The wait for a verdict in the Old Bailey was interminable. An hour or so after the jury went out there was a ripple of excitement in the stuffy courtroom. Was the verdict imminent? But it turned out to be a false alarm. The jury had only requested some bottled water and some paper and pencils. Another hour dragged by and the atmosphere in the court became more and more tense, more and more expectant. A few minutes after five-thirty, Oscar was brought up from the cells below and took his place in the dock. As the jury filed back into court, he leant over the front of the dock, 'eagerly scanning the faces of the twelve good men and true, seemingly trying to read in their physiognomies his fate'.

No one spoke, no one hardly dared to breathe. 'The silence was so deep,' the Times reported, 'that it could almost be felt.' As the foreman of the jury rose to deliver the verdict, Oscar's face was as 'white as a miller's apron'. When the first of the seven verdicts of 'Guilty' rang out, Oscar 'clutched convulsively at the front rail of the dock':

His face became paler than before - if that was possible - his eyes glared and twitched from an unseen excitement within, and his body practically shook with nervous prostration, whilst a soft tear found a place in his eye.

There was a stunned silence after the verdict had been read, interrupted only by the heavy tread of Oscar's friend, Alfred Taylor, who had already been found guilty, as he climbed the wooden stairs that led directly into the dock. The judge, seventy-seven-year-old Mr Justice Wills, did not mince his words in passing sentence. 'It is the worst case I have ever tried,' he said:

That you, Taylor, kept a kind of male brothel, it is impossible to doubt. And that you, Wilde, have been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men, it is equally impossible to doubt. I shall, under the circumstances, be expected to pass the severest sentence the law allows. In my judgement it is totally inadequate for such a case as this. The sentence of the court is that each of you be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for two years.

There were a few gasps at the severity of the sentence and some loud cries of 'Shame' from the public gallery. Oscar seemed temporarily stunned by the sentence. 'And I?' he said hoarsely. 'May I say nothing, my lord?' But Mr Justice Wills merely waved his hand dismissively to the warders who hurried the two prisoners down the stairs leading to the cells.

Later, Oscar and Alfred Taylor were taken by Black Maria to Pentonville, the first of three prisons where Oscar would serve his sentence. Oscar saw himself as a martyr to Love. He had chosen to go to prison rather than repudiate his love for Bosie and his love for men. 'It is perhaps in prison that I am going to test the power of love,' he had written in his last, achingly beautiful letter to Bosie before his conviction. 'I am going to see if I cannot make the bitter waters sweet by the intensity of love I bear you.'

Towards the end of his sentence, from the silence and solitude of his prison cell in Reading Gaol - 'this tomb for those who are not yet dead' - Oscar would reflect on the 'scarlet threads' of his life that Fate had woven into so strange and paradoxical a pattern. And it was there, beneath the flaring gas jets in his small brick cell, that Oscar wrote, night after night, De Profundis, the great apologia for his life and for his love affair with Bosie.

'The two great turning points in my life,' he wrote, 'were when my father sent me to Oxford, and society sent me to prison.' These two events were carefully chosen: they marked the beginning and the end of a long and eventful sexual odyssey, in the course of which he discovered the secret of his sexual nature and learned to speak its name with pride and with passion. His great journey from Oxford University to Reading Gaol took him twenty-one years, almost to the day. By May 1895, Oscar's love had come of age.

Wonder and remorse

'Oxford is the capital of romance ... in its own way as memorable as Athens.'

There was something different, even remarkable, about Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde when he arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford in October 1874. He was certainly striking to look at. He was tall - taller than most of his contemporaries - and athletically built, though he always claimed to spurn exercise. And he looked rather younger than he really was, more like a gawky seventeen-year-old than a young man of twenty. His hair was dark and slightly wavy, rather longer than was usual, or indeed acceptable, causing several of his friends and fellow students to comment on it. It was 'much too long', recalled G.T. Atkinson, and he wore it 'sometimes parted in the middle, sometimes at the side, and he tossed it off his face'.

Oscar's face was large and pale and putty-coloured - 'moonlike', Atkinson called it - with extraordinarily large and expressive greenish-yellow eyes of remarkable lustre and intelligence. His lips were dark and flat and rather noticeable, and his teeth were discoloured. But when he smiled or spoke or laughed, he radiated a captivating aura of geniality and openness. The novelist Julia Constance Fletcher, who met Oscar in Italy in 1877, described his expression as 'singularly mild yet ardent'.

Oscar was different in another way. He was Irish, and his Irishness was evident from the mellifluous and delightful lilt in his voice, which, as the years in England multiplied, would virtually vanish. It was not uncommon for students from wealthy Anglo-Irish families to go to Oxford, but it was comparatively rare for a student with a discernible Irish accent to study there. It made him an outsider. 'He did not come from an English public school, and so he was, in a way, detached from what is largely a continuance of school life and friendships,' Atkinson wrote perceptively. This sense of detachment and difference, of otherness and apartness, was with Oscar all his life. At Oxford and afterwards, he seemed to have as many enemies as he had friends, and, bewilderingly, his greatest friends could often turn abruptly into his deadliest enemies. Women liked him, and sometimes fell a little in love with him. Men, on the other hand, were often hostile, irrationally so.

Oscar's avowed lack of interest in games drove a wedge between him and many of his contemporaries. Sport - playing sport, watching sport, talking sport - was a major constituent of the social cement that bound Oxford men together. Many felt that there was something not quite right about a man who professed himself so profoundly bored with the subject of sport. And some found it distinctly odd that while Oscar ridiculed athleticism, he could at the same time profess his admiration for the bodies of athletes.

Oscar's obvious intelligence and superior knowledge - and his willingness to demonstrate them - both attracted and repelled. It was galling that a man who boasted that he never did a stroke of work should be so successful academically. He was an accomplished and energetic talker, already among the best in Oxford. His talk was intelligent, articulate and incisive and, at the same time, allusive, imaginative, profound and richly poetic. Julia Constance Fletcher said he spoke 'like a man who has made a study of expression', and, perhaps more importantly, 'listened like one accustomed to speak'.

Oscar had been studying the art of conversation ever since he was a child. He and his older brother, Willie, were allowed to sit at Sir William and Lady Wilde's large dinner table in their house in Merrion Square, Dublin, where the great, the good and the interesting assembled to talk. Sir William was a successful surgeon, as well as an acknowledged expert on Irish antiquities. His wife described him as 'a Celebrity - a man eminent in his profession, of acute intellect and much learning, the best conversationalist in the metropolis, and author of many books, literary and scientific'. Lady Wilde had become famous in her youth as an ardent Irish nationalist and poet. Writing under the nom de plume 'Speranza', she published revolutionary poems urging the Irish to rise up against the English oppressor. Oscar had continued his apprenticeship in the art of conversation at Trinity College, Dublin when he came into the orbit of the remarkable classical scholar, John Pentland Mahaffy. In a city of great talkers, Mahaffy was among the greatest, and he would go on to write The Principles of the Art of Conversation.

Oscar was different in another way too - a difference invisible to the naked eye, but nonetheless one that could be sensed, however imperfectly, by his contemporaries. By the time he arrived in Oxford he had almost certainly begun to experience within himself some vague, hard-to-pin-down feelings of warmth and attraction towards young men. But it was hard for him to isolate, define or articulate these faint emotional stirrings. All he knew was that, as time went by, they slowly, almost imperceptibly, resolved themselves into the first weak flutterings of something very like love.

How and when this long and sometimes painful process started is impossible to know, but it could well have begun when Oscar was sixteen - the time of his 'sex-awakening', he told his friend, the journalist, writer and celebrated womaniser, Frank Harris - and was about to leave Portora Royal School, the boarding school he and Willie attended near Enniskillen. Many years later, Oscar admitted that he had had some 'sentimental friendships' with boys at Portora, one of which struck him as particularly significant. 'There was one boy, and one peculiar incident,' he told Frank Harris towards the end of his life. Oscar had been very friendly with a boy who was a year or so younger. 'We were great friends,' he said. 'We used to take long walks together and I talked to him interminably.' On the day Oscar left Portora for the last time, his friend came to the railway station with him to say his goodbyes. As the Dublin train was about to depart, the boy suddenly turned and cried out 'Oh, Oscar!':

Before I knew what he was doing he had caught my face in his hot hands, and kissed me on the lips. The next moment he had slipped out of the door and was gone.

Oscar was shocked and shaken. He became aware of 'cold, sticky drops' trickling down his face. They were the boy's tears. Oscar was strangely affected by the experience. It was a kind of epiphany, a moment of revelation. 'This is love,' he said to himself, trembling slightly. 'For a long while I sat,' he told Frank Harris, 'unable to think, all shaken with wonder and remorse.' This combination of wonder and remorse would characterise Oscar's complex and ambivalent attitudes towards his attraction to young men for many years to come.

There were no words that could accurately or adequately describe the feelings Oscar was beginning to experience in his first year at Oxford. Words like 'sodomy' and 'sodomite', derived from the Old Testament story of the city of Sodom which was destroyed by fire and brimstone because of the unnatural sexual practices of its inhabitants, did not apply. Oscar's feelings were emotional and were not - as yet - sexual. Any suggestion of sodomy, which in law explicitly meant anal sex, would have been utterly repugnant to him. Sodomy was taboo. It was the crimen tantum horribile non inter Christianos nominandum, 'the too horrible vice which is not to be named among Christians', and was regarded, if anything, as more horrible than murder. In 1828, in the lifetimes of Sir William and Lady Wilde, the penalty for sodomy had been increased from imprisonment to death, and was reduced to penal servitude for life only in 1861. When, in 1895, the Marquis of Queensberry publicly accused Oscar of being 'a ponce and sodomite', it was the worst insult that could be thrown at a man.

Nor could Oscar describe himself or his feelings as in any way 'homosexual', as the term had been coined only five years earlier in Germany by Karl Maria Kertbeny, and would not come into common usage in English until the turn of the century. By the time he went up to Oxford, Oscar could only invoke the concept of 'Greek love' to define his feelings for young men. As an outstanding Greek scholar, he would have known all about the tradition of friendship - 'the romantic medium of impassioned friendship', as he described it in his Commonplace Book at Oxford - between men and boys which was accepted as natural in ancient Greece.

Greek love was much on Oscar's mind in 1874. Before he went up to Oxford, he spent several weeks helping his friend and mentor Mahaffy with his forthcoming book, Social Life in Greece, which was the first book to contain a frank discussion of the phenomenon. Mahaffy took the bull by the horns, though he was careful to frame the discussion in conventional moral terms. Greek love was, he said:

that strange and to us revolting perversion, which reached its climax in later times, and actually centred upon beautiful boys all the romantic affections which we naturally feel between opposite sexes, and opposite sexes alone.

'These things are so repugnant and disgusting that all mention of them is usually omitted in treating of Greek culture,' he wrote. Nevertheless, Mahaffy believed that it was worthwhile examining the social context of the 'peculiar delight and excitement felt by the Greeks in the society of handsome youths'. Though Greek love could sometimes lead to 'strange and odious consequences', it was, more often than not, a friendship of 'purity and refinement'. Oscar's exact role in Mahaffy's book is not known, though some have detected his youthful voice raised for the first time in defence of Greek love in the sentence: 'As to the epithet unnatural, the Greeks would answer probably, that all civilisation was unnatural.' Mahaffy certainly paid generous tribute to 'my old pupil Mr Oscar Wilde of Magdalen College' for his 'improvements and corrections all through the book'. Oscar reciprocated. Mahaffy was 'my first and my best teacher', Oscar said many years later, 'the scholar who showed me how to love Greek things'.

At Oxford, the word 'Greek' began to creep into Oscar's vocabulary, invariably to describe youthful male beauty, present and past. There was Armitage, 'who has the most Greek face I ever saw', the athlete Stevenson, whose 'left leg is a Greek poem', the poet Keats's 'Greek sensuous delicate lips', and Harmodious, 'a beautiful boy in the flower of Greek loveliness'. When he was a student, Oscar began to write poetry in earnest, and many of his poems written in Oxford invoke and celebrate great male lovers from Greek history and mythology. For the time being, at least, Oscar's Greek feelings towards other young men were spiritual and emotional, more than sexual. But, in the course of his four years at Oxford, the 'purity and refinement' of his Greek feelings gave way to a frankly more erotic interest in young men, and would soon result in the 'strange and odious consequences' that Mahaffy had spoken of. It was not long before there was unpleasant gossip. In October 1875, Oscar's friend John Bodley recorded in his diary that people were saying that 'old Wilde is a damned compromising acquaintance' and that he was in the habit of leaving 'foolish letters from people who are "hungry" for him ... for his friends to read'.


Excerpted from The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna Copyright © 2006 by Neil McKenna. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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