New texts elaborate on rent boys, French art, and that barbed wit
As Claude J. Summers notes in “The Gay & Lesbian Literary Heritage,” Wilde was “one of the most accomplished writers of his generation, but quite apart from his actual literary achievement, he is significant as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness, the crucial final decade of the nineteenth century.”
Yes, besides his brilliant plays, stories and essays, Wilde, some feel, left us his style. His wit. His pomp. His green carnations. Would gay humor have been so deliciously bitchy without Wilde as our icon? Who knows? If so, what a dreary lot we would have been without Oscar as our modern Socrates.
But what has fascinated most Wilde fanatics over the years are their hero’s trials and imprisonment, followed by his untimely death shortly after his release.
Why did Wilde sue his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, for writing on a card that Wilde was posing as a sodomite? Then why did Wilde break down in court and incriminate himself?
Well, more is revealed with the release of Merlin Holland’s “The Real Trial Of Oscar Wilde.” This is as complete a compendium of the transcripts of Wilde’s trials as we’ll ever have, and Holland is Wilde’s grandson.
Yes, Wilde had two sons, and Merlin is the offspring of Vyvyan. At the time of their father’s legal difficulties, the boys’ surname was changed to protect them from scandal, and decades later it still remains Holland.
Chatting with the Paris-based heir of the bon mots crafter, who never actually met Oscar, I asked Holland why he did not regain the name Wilde.
“I did consider the possibility in the year of 2000,” Holland admitted in his refined voice. Holland, who once sold paper and later imported ceramics before becoming a Wilde expert, continued, “The point of it would have been not only for Oscar, but also for his mother and his father, because both of them were extraordinary people in the history of Ireland in their own way. It would have been a question of putting the Wilde family name back on the map. I did think about it quite seriously. My son was going to be 21, my book of Wilde’s collected letters was out already, and I possibly could have said, ‘All right, That’s it! I’m going to stop writing about him. I’m going to move on and do other things.’ Nobody then could have accused me of trying to cash in on the name.
“Then I mulled it over,” Holland noted, “and I thought perhaps if I’d been living in the States, I might have done it. People would have just slapped me on the back and said, ‘Good for you,’ and then forgotten about it. But the English are snipers by nature. I just thought all I’m going to do if I do change the name back is to build up a whole lot of trouble for myself. People are going to sort of bicker about it behind my back, and do I really want that? [Laughs] But perhaps I have to admit that I didn’t really have the courage to do it. Nothing to do with Oscar, but I’ve lived as Holland all my life, and my dad was called Holland, and my son’s called Holland. Do I really want to change my identity? I said to someone the other day, if there is a time to do it, it will be on my deathbed, leaving everybody else to pick up the pieces.”
Moving back to the book, I wondered aloud what was so special about the edition. After all, previous transcripts had been published over the years.
“Oh, I worked it out to about 28,000 words in previous editions of that first trial, and we’ve now 85,000,” Holland proudly recounted. “It’s nearly three times as long anything we’ve ever had before. The new material will be fascinating for the Wilde buffs, the lawyers, and the students of psychology. Looking at the way which [Queensberry’s lawyer] Edward Carson conducts his defense, what it ultimately amounts to is almost a prosecution of Wilde. In cross-examination, I, familiar as I am with the material, frequently forget that it’s not Oscar who’s on trial but Queensberry. When you see how aggressively Carson cross-examines him, one can be forgiven for believing that this is actually the trial of Wilde himself.
“Now this has never really come out with that strength before. The previous editions have been edited down to more or less the bare facts. For example, Oscar gets much more rattled much earlier than that famous occasion when he’s asked did he kiss that boy, and he replies, ‘No, he was far too ugly.’ This is, of course, the great turning point in the whole story. But before that, there are several exchanges with Carson where Carson really goes at him, and Oscar actually appeals once to his counselor and once to the judge even, saying do I have to be continually put under this pressure of cross-examination when I’ve given you my answer.
“With this new transcript,” Holland added, “the whole thing comes alive. Previously it was like only having black-and-white production stills. Suddenly we’ve got the full Dolby sound, wide-screen, Technicolor version. It’s there and it lives. People have said to me to read it as a play, and it’s laid out like a play. It’s gripping. It’s exciting. It’s depressing. It’s awful to see how Oscar off his guard suddenly basically talks himself into prison. There are bits in there which were left out––a whole examination of Oscar’s views on Huysmans, the French writer, which was just five lines in square brackets in previous versions, and it’s now 1,500 words. His views on French art and literature. There is much more for example on the rent boys. In the end, it’s almost a good as having a tape recording of the trial.”
But more important, the transcript and Holland’s commentary prove that although Wilde did not go to court to be a gay martyr, by the end he accepted his fate, and he did indeed proudly take on his queer mantle.