Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Matthew Sturgis’s “Oscar”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st July, 2019

Oscar SturgisWhen I heard Matthew Sturgis was writing a biography of Oscar Wilde, my initial reaction was “Why?”. Surely everything had already been said? I have two whole bookcases full of books about Wilde and his work and his circle of family and friends, including three volumes of my own. For many years, Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde (1987) in its bright green dust-jacket was seen as definitive, but the meticulous work of scholars over the decades then identified a whole string of errors and omissions. I was very conscious when putting together my little book Wilde for Haus (2005) that Ellmann’s coverage of the writer’s two years of life after his release from prison was relatively concertinaed and, more seriously, more uniformly downbeat than some of the reality recounted in Wilde’s prolific correspondence of the time. Ellmann was himself near death as he struggleded to complete his book (for which he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize). So, yes, more than 30 years on perhaps it was time for a truly definitive biography of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde 3Given the immaculate research and elegant text of Matthew Sturgis’s Walter Sickert (2005) I should have been confident that Sturgis was the right man for the job. And indeed with his Oscar (Head of Zeus, £25) so he has proved to be. It is a massive work, full of detail not readily available elsewhere, especially not in a single place. There is illuminating coverage of Wilde’s lecture tours to America, for example, and by resisting the temptation to enter into critical analysis of the plays, poems and essays, Sturgis keeps the focus firmly on the man, his doings and his creative environment. Unlike many books on Wilde, moreover, this is neither hagiography nor a hatchet-job. Wilde’s literary importance as well as his significance as a social former ahead of his time are given due weight, as is Wilde’s championing of the “Uranian” lifestyle and his unbridled pursuit of comely youths after he went into exile. One sees both the light and dark sides of the playwright and watches how his character changes, first with growing arrogance and self-centredness during his heady rise to success and then acquiring a degree of humility and self-awareness through the almost redemptive horrors of prison life. The tumultuous relationship with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas of course figures large, but for all its intensity and disruptiveness, it was only one aspect of a very complex and extremely social life.

The Ballad of Reading GaolSo Sturgis’s book is what is sometimes popularly referred to as a “warts and all” biography. There are moments when Wiled’s emotional cruelty to his wife Constance or unfair criticism of devoted friends such as Robbie Ross make the reader recoil. But Matthew Sturgis avoids much overt moralising about this, instead letting the facts speak for themselves. I have always been a fan of Oscar, but after reading this book I feel I know him much better, seeing his weaknesses more clearly as well as his strengths. Because the book is so hefty I suspect many people will find it challenging to read straight through over a short period of time; I actually deliberately lingered over its reading for months. It was far too big and heavy to carry around so it became the book on the side table in the sitting room that I picked up and got back into whenever I sat in the comfortable armchair at its side. Knowing the main lines of the story pretty intimately, this was not an instance of wanting to know what happens next when reading the book, but rather I savoured each chapter slowly and with relish. Not perhaps what a book reviewer should normally do, but in this case well-justified and thoroughly rewarding. Quite simply this is a magnificent achievement by Matthew Sturgis, a monument to Oscar Wilde fitting to the 21st century. The book now sits in one of my Wilde bookcases and I know it will be consulted frequently as the authoritative source on a unique figure in the modern literary world.

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