Wilde Tamed?

John Simon in The Weekly Standard:

Wilde"There are two ways of disliking my plays. One is to dislike them, the other is to like Earnest." If it were not for that “my,” you might think this written by some philistine—after all, The Importance of Being Earnest is the wittiest comedy in the English language. To be sure, Oscar Wilde, who was right about a lot of things, could also be wrong about others, such as his involvement with “renters,” young male prostitutes, some of whom testified against him at his fateful trial. But Nicholas Frankel, author of Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years, is only passingly concerned with Wilde’s pre-trial life; his book is mostly about the three and a half years between Wilde’s release from prison in 1897 and his pitiful, untimely death. Frankel, who previously edited the uncensored version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, has done a thorough job of digging through the plethora of material about Wilde that has been committed to paper. His purpose is to refute the traditional view of Wilde ending as a broken martyr, a victim of hypocritical Victorian morality. As explained on the book’s dust jacket, Frankel aims to give us a Wilde who pursues his “post-prison life with passion, enjoying new liberties while trying to resurrect his literary career.” Wilde was not successful in the attempt. As Frankel shows, Wilde was unable to produce new work during these final years—with the exception of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by far his best poem, about his and his fellow prisoners’ reactions to the hanging of a wife-killer.

When you come right down to it, why shouldn’t Wilde have been unrepentant? He had paid heavily for a crime not unpopular in Britain, albeit generally practiced more clandestinely. How it must have rankled that, for example, Lord Rosebery remained free. Wilde, as he emerges from Frankel’s book, was basically a kindly, warm-hearted chap. He himself, and everyone he encountered, attested to his talk being superior to his writings, delightful as they are. Many people live by their wits, but the exiled Wilde largely lived by his wit alone. No wonder he had several devoted friends, starting with his first gay lover and later literary executor, the Canadian Robbie Ross, who commissioned and is buried in a small compartment of Wilde’s large, heroic funerary monument by Jacob Epstein. Only at the very last did Wilde become anything less than a charming companion and exquisite conversationalist, when soliciting money from everyone he knew, however slightly.

More here.