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Saturday 10 October 2009

Proclamations of the Red Queen

7th December 2008

Review: Thomas Wright: Oscar’s Books (2008)

Posted by: Craig Young

oscar.jpgThomas Wright: Oscar’s Books: London: Chatto and Windus: 2008.

Oscar Wilde scholar Thomas Wright has managed the impossible, providing a wholly new perspective on perennial nineteenth century gay icon Oscar Wilde- through perusing his library.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to confine myself largely to the gay volumes and influences on Wilde’s life and thought, within his mammoth personal library, shamefully dismantled and sold on after his conviction for ’sodomy’ in 1895.

As with many educated European lesbians and gay men in the nineteenth century, Greco-Roman classicism was an important cultural source of validation, legitimacy and empowerment, at a time when gay men could still be imprisoned, and when lesbians and gay men alike were subject to conservative religious dogma and emergent categories of medical psychopathology.

Inspired by mother, Irish nationalist and feminist Jane (”Esperanza”) Wilde, Oscar developed a passion for the classics, which stood him at good stead at Portora, his Anglo-Irish finishing school. Afterward, one primary influence was Dr John Mahaffy, author of Social Life in Greece (1874). Although an Anglican vicar, Mahaffy condemned Victorian era vilification of same-sex love in ancient Greece. John Addington Symonds was another influence on Wilde’s thought- his Studies of the Greek Poets (1874) endorsed the continued relevance of Greco-Roman antiquity to Victorian modernity. Finally, Wilde also developed intellectual resonance for his views on lesbian and gay emancipation from Plato’s Symposium and other classical dialogues, especially the relationship between Socrates and his beloved Alcibiades, as well as other dialogues such as Phaedrus and Charmides, where Socrates delivers life advice to a beautiful late adolescent.

Wilde also had a taste for the ornate, outre, camp and lewd. I was gratified to discover that he held Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony and Salammbo in such high esteem. I certainly  concur with his assessment of these sumptuous, decadent and vivid historical masterpieces. However, he also read campy, overblown melodramas of the period, like Margaret Maliphant, Hazel Fane and Eugenia.  He also had several Boys Own Annuals, and lionised legendary gay graphic artist Aubrey Beardsley, who illustrated some of his work.

Although he was a mediocre scholar himself, Lord Alfred Douglas edited The Spirit Lamp (1892/3), a volume of “Uranian” poetry. Even here, the influence of classicism can be felt, for the term “Uranian” is derived from Plato’s Symposium and his use of the metaphor of Aphrodite Urania as goddess of same-sex love.  Wilde and Douglas participated in a nineteenth century British gay community, where the aforementioned John Addington Symonds, Lionel Johnson, gay Jewish artist Simeon Solomon, Walt Whitman and gay utopian socialist Edward Carpenter all moved in the same cultural and political circles. Wilde was also a friend of George Ives, founder of a nineteenth gay social club called the Order of Chaeronea. The playwright also admired nineteenth century gay erotica, like “John Saul’s” Sins of the Cities of the Plain (1881). After his imprisonment was over, he was provided with the work of Andre Gide.

Wright has made a notable contribution to the burgeoning field of Wilde scholarship. In itself, that should be sufficient commendation for this work of rich and vivid scholarship.

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