A review of Oscar Wilde's Scandalous Summer by Antony Edmonds, Stroud, 2014
Wilde & company brought convincingly to life ****
In the summer of 1894, England's greatest dramatist of the day, Oscar Wilde, his wife Constance and their two sons rented a house at the seaside resort of Worthing in Sussex, during which time they were much visited by Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, the great love of Wilde's life, and once by Wilde's publisher, Arthur Humphreys, with whom the lonely Constance fell platonically in love. It was scandalous because Wilde there seduced a working-class boy of (just) sixteen called Alfonso Conway, whom he had met and befriended on the beach, and in the following spring the evidence of this played an important part in the libel trial that caused Wilde's tragic downfall. Despite the miserable final outcome, the story of Oscar and Alfonso is touching. Their friendship appears warm and genuine, and the scandalous sex, limited as it was to pleasuring of the boy without request for reciprocation, could only shock the most closed-minded.
It is a fascinating story, which due to the short time it covered, Edmonds is able to cover exhaustively. Sandwiched between well-presented introductory and concluding chapters are ones devoted to the place, its festivals, Bosie, Alfonso, Constance and Wilde's greatest play, The Importance of Being Earnest, which he wrote during their stay. Each of these characters, their hopes and their sorrows are beautifully brought to life.
Wilde's sex life was explored at greatest length by Neil McKenna in his Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, a gripping, well-written and well-researched biography marred by homosexual bias and a failure to give sources for its often sensational claims. Edmonds could hardly be more innocent of these faults. Everything is substantiated as far as possible with copious notes, the only slight flaws being a few statements the authority for which turn out to be unsourced claims by McKenna. Though in the end he comes to some unduly harsh conclusions about Wilde that I shall come to, he is otherwise admirably impartial. Probabilities and possible motives are carefully and convincingly weighed up. Speculation is often inevitable, but is clearly differentiated from fact. The result is a book one can trust, and it is the combination of this with the riveting story that makes it so satisfying.
Considering the painstaking efforts the author has made to unearth every known record of Alfonso Conway, the least known of the main characters, it is remarkably unfortunate that he has missed one of the most authoritative and informative: his birth certificate, showing his and his mother's surname was then Payne, not Conway, so that the two interesting and meticulously researched appendices aspiring to have identified his probable parents are misjudged, and another on the name Alphonse needs redrafting. The details of this are likely to bore the general reader, who had better skip the next paragraph.
In case the author or anyone else is interested, since Alfonso (as was after all his original name) was born in Bognor, Sussex in 1878/9 according to the 1891 census, he is hardly likely not have been the only boy born in Sussex in those years with a name resembling Alfonso, and the details given on that boy's birth certificate remove any doubt: his full forenames were "Alfonso Conway [an irresistible coincidence] White", and the place (Bognor), month (July, though on the 13th, not 10th) and mother's forenames (Sarah Julia) all match. Unlike in the baptismal register, no pretence is made that he was legitimate (confirming the author's guess that he was not), so the space for his father's name has a line through it and he then bore his mother's surname of Payne. Hopefully, with this information, more can be found.
Edmonds appears to try hard to be impartial in his judgment of Wilde, but nevertheless makes unfair criticisms of him, of which I shall cite the three most important. First, having coldly defined Greek love as practised in ancient Athens as an exchange in which "the man gave the boy the benefit of his wisdom and experience, and the boy gave the man his body," he says Wilde's famous and more idealistic description of it in his trial "was high-flown hypocrisy ... there was nothing Greek about his relationship with the boys and young men with whom he was involved," because "sexual desire was the driving force." Actually, it is implicit in the Greek word paiderasteia that Greek love was also driven by eros, however much more it generally included, and irrespective of Plato's peculiar ideals. Moreover, Wilde's speech was in direct response to the phrase "the love that dare not speak its name" in his correspondence with Bosie, and their love had early on become platonic, ie. intense and without sex. Finally, it is an extraordinary criticism in view of Edmonds having admitted that even with rent boys Wilde was interested in more than sexual gratification, and his having given a sympathetic and convincing account of the emotional and intellectual appeal for Alfonso of succumbing to seduction. How could Alfonso not benefit in wisdom from tête-à-tête champagne lunches and long expeditions with "the best conversationalist in Europe"? And what about Wilde's strong lifelong friendship with Robert Ross, who aged seventeen had initiated him into homosex?
Secondly, he says "Wilde's prosecution of Queensberry was at best ignoble, at worst wicked" because Queensberry was innocent of libel and could have gone to prison if found guilty. He was legally innocent, yes, but he deliberately goaded Wilde into prosecuting him, and, in doing so, Wilde was acting in self-defence to pre-empt Queensberry from malevolently destroying him through use of an iniquitous law.
Thirdly, he rejects the idea that Wilde was "a martyr to Victorian injustice" on the grounds that society today would be even fiercer in its denunciation of Wilde as evil, on account of his liaisons being with boys, not men. But so what? Why should 19th century people be judged by the common values of the 21st century any more than those of the classical age? If Wilde were here to stand up for himself, he would surely reply that it was Victorian society that was evil, and 21st century society by extension even more so, in their treatment of what he called "the noblest form of love", and he would bring in the Greeks to show how easy it has been for the high-minded to take a radically different view.
Nevertheless, the author's statement that "today men who have sexual relations with boys under sixteen can be sentenced to up to fourteen years in prison, and paying for sex with a boy of sixteen or seventeen carries a sentence of up to seven years. Wilde probably committed the first of these offences, and he was certainly guilty of the second," is true, and important in exposing the dishonesty of the many who seek to make a modern hero out of him by pretending his sexual taste was for young men rather than youths. As it happens, Edmonds need not have added that "probably." In a letter to Robert Ross of 16 April 1900 from Rome, regarding his dalliance with one Giuseppe Loverde, Wilde reported he was "fifteen and most sweet ... He said he never would [forget me]: and indeed I don't think he will, for every day I kissed him behind the high altar." (Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. R. Hart-Davis (OUP, 1979) pp.355-6).
However unfair some of his criticisms of Wilde, it must also be admitted they are untypically mild for one under no illusions as to Wilde's sexuality and writing in today's moral climate. He is at pains to make it clear Wilde was not a child abuser, but a traditional pederast, a lover of teenage boys, which he calls "more complex territory." If only such a grasp of nuance was general amongst writers on the subject!
This is an immensely detailed book, probably too much so for some, but my attention only flagged over the chapter on Worthing Festivals, which in its parochialism jarred oddly with the supremely colourful character of the main protagonist. Definitely recommended.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 18 Sept. 2016.