The Resurrection of Oscar Wilde
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th May, 2007
Passers-by in Sloane Street last night might have imagined that a film-shoot was taking place, as an open carriage, drawn by a magnificent pair of horses and bearing a solitary, diminutive figure in full Victorian black mourning dress, drew up outside the Cadogan Hotel. This was in fact the cultural critic Julia Wood, arriving for the launch of her first book, The Resurrection of Oscar Wilde: A Cultural Afterlife (The Lutterworth Press, £15). The hotel was the place where Wilde was arrested in 1895, an event commemorated in a poem by John Betjamen, which is frequently intoned by members of the Oscar Wilde Society, who were out in force at last night’s event.
As Julia Wood writes in her insightful book, Wilde is a figure who has come to mean different things to different people and the squabble over who and what he represents is part of the process of trying to make sense of his legacy. This is in a constant state of evolution, but he has achieved immortality through the reproduction of his image. He is many ways a modern figure who has helped shape the nature of our post-modern world, in which he has become an eternal, universal man.
The book correctly points out that the centenary of Wilde’s death in 2000 capitalised on millennium angst and the stock-taking that goes on at these arbitrary moments in time. The author highlights a number of the activities that were organised in the run-up to the centenary, as well as during the year itself, many of which I attended. These included the unveiling of Maggi Hambling’s remarkable statue in Adelaide Stret, near Charing Cross Station, in which Oscar is half rising from a coffin, cigarette in hand, and clearly in mid-conversation. It was he, of course, who declared that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. In his resurrected form, the sinner is now widely seen as a martyred saint, and one can forgive his smug smile of satisfaction.