Jonathan Fryer

Merlin Holland after Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th October, 2012

When Merlin Holland was invited to the United States some years ago to give a lecture on his grandfather, Oscar Wilde, the woman at immigration at JFK asked him what claim he had to be an authority on the Irish playwright. Merlin confessed the blood link, at which point the immigration officer — rather surprisingly, perhaps — said, ‘Oh, when Oscar Wilde came to America didn’t he say “I have nothing to declare but my genius!”? So what do you have to declare?’ Merlin replied, ‘only my albatross.’ And indeed for much of his adult life being Wilde’s only grandchild did weigh like an albatross on his shoulders. Fortunately, in a more liberal age than that his father Vyvyan lived in Merlin did not have to confront acrimony or shame; on the contrary, Wilde is now such a cultural icon that the problem is more one of heightened expectation. At times Merlin feels like a letterbox receiving Oscar’s undelivered mail. All these points came out this evening at the 21st annual Oscar Wilde birthday dinner put on by the Oscar Wilde Society (OWS) at the National Liberal Club, at which Merlin was the guest speaker, giving a preview of his next book, After Wilde, which will recount aspects of the Wilde legacy as experienced by him and his family. The OWS Chairman, Don Mead, had been trying to get Merlin — who now lives in France — to address such a dinner for several years, so finally ‘bagging’ him for this sell-out occasion was a triumph, and he did not disappoint. He is a stickler for accuracy when it comes to his grandfather’s life and works, for which all serious Wildean scholars must be truly grateful. I certainly benefited from his help and advice when I was writing my three books about Oscar and his coterie. Being a stickler didn’t always make Merlin popular however; he has pointed out errors and possibly unfounded speculation in Richard Ellmann’s classic biography of Wilde, for example. Those shortcomings (some of which could be put down to the fact that Ellmann was dying of motor-neurone disease while trying to complete his book) have been scrupulously analysed and corrected by the German schollar Horst Schroeder, who fittingly introduced Merlin this evening. The thanks were given in a bravura performance by Gyles Brandreth, who has been making a good living from a series of detective novels based on the conceit of implications of the friendship between Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle. At least Brandreth makes no bones about fabricating his stories, and he has certainly added to the gaiety of Wildean circles.

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