From The Literary Review:

Maddox_09_08 Attempting to tell an author’s life through the books he read is a risky enterprise. In this remarkable new biography of Oscar Wilde, Thomas Wright makes a convincing start with his claim that books were the greatest single influence on his subject’s life. Wilde’s first reading of some of his favourites was, says Wright, ‘as significant as his first meetings with friends and lovers’. Indeed, he later used gifts of books to seduce young men.

Wilde, born in 1854 and raised in a well-to-do, book-filled house in Dublin’s Merrion Square by a literary mother who called herself Speranza and performed public recitations of poetry, devoured the printed word from an early age. At his Enniskillen boarding school, Portora, he ran up a staggering book-bill of £11 5s 9d. The autograph and date (2 September 1865) on his copy of Voltaire’s L’Histoire de Charles XII make it the one book known to have been in his possession at the age of eleven, and mark his excellence in French. At Portora he also mastered the King James Bible, won a prize for Scripture and became a fine classical scholar, preferring Greek to Latin.

The most unconventional aspect of Wilde’s adolescent taste, in Wright’s view, was his love of French fiction. His passion was Balzac. He later said he wept ‘tears of blood’ when he read of the death in prison of the poet Lucien de Rubempré: ‘I was never so affected by any book.’  After Trinity College, Dublin he went on to Magdalen College, Oxford. There, in 1874, Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance struck him with the force of a revelation and he claimed never to travel without this book ‘which has had such a strange influence over my life’.

When disaster struck in 1895 and he was tried and found guilty of ‘gross indecency’, it struck his books too. Auctioneers descended on the house in Tite Street, Chelsea that Wilde shared with his wife Constance and their two sons. His cherished book collection was sold at auction to pay his creditors. According to Wright, who has consulted the ‘Tite Street Catalogue’, Lot 114 included ‘about’ 100 unidentified French novels.

Among the humiliations Wilde suffered after being sent to prison were not only compulsory silence – prisoners were forbidden to speak to one another – but deprivation of books. All he had in his cell at Pentonville, apart from his bed (a plank laid across two trestles), were a Bible, a prayer book and a hymnal. When at last his sympathetic MP won him permission to have more books, Wilde nominated Pater’s The Renaissance along with the works of Flaubert and some by Cardinal Newman. These were allowed, but only at the rate of one a week. Moved to Reading Gaol, he found himself under a more sympathetic prison governor. His book request lists after July 1896 show him developing an interest in more recently published titles, including novels by George Meredith and Thomas Hardy. Wilde later said that he also read Dante every day in prison and that Dante had saved his reason.

More here.