It is perhaps true that we all become parodies of ourselves as we walk through life. We get a name for this or that, and suddenly that’s all we’re known by.
It seems to me that Oscar Wilde – that Irishman with a bon mot ever to hand – is treated like this more than many. His one-liners (or aphorisms, as he more accurately called them) were so smart, so amusing, and so daringly rule-breaking that they built his reputation, right from his student days at Trinity College Dublin.
And yet, Wilde himself was clear that smart quotes were not his all, claiming - “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works”.
I have been pondering these words as I study the life of Oscar Wilde, seeking to find moments of inspiration away from his more obvious, and wonderful, showmanship.
A moment in his life that sticks out for me is that of his arrest for indecent acts in 1895, from his rooms in the Cadogan Hotel in Central London.
For rather complicated legal reasons, Wilde had been given notice of his impending arrest for over two days. As was the case with many Victorian gentlemen, he considered the option of taking the train to Dover, in order to escape to France, and freedom. He had both the time and the means to do so, and his friends (Robbie Ross chief amongst them) begged him to make the journey and, thus, to save himself.
In this most sombre moment of his life, he chose to stand still. He savoured a drink amongst his friends, and awaited his destiny, and Her Majesty’s police.
His reasoning, it seems to me, was both stoic and noble: Wilde was sure that his impending arrest would be morally wrong, he was determined to stand up to a bullying legal system, and to his deranged and bullying accuser, Lord Queensbury. Most importantly, he was determined not to be cowed by the British Establishment which he had so cleverly infiltrated and exposed throughout his life as an artist.
Thus it was that Oscar Wilde, famous effete and bon viveur, sat in his rooms at the Cadogan Hotel and allowed the law and take its course and for infamy to follow. His courage (‘grace under pressure’, as Hemmingway described it) was captured for all time in the verse of John Betjeman:
“More hock, Robbie — where is the seltzer?
Dear boy, pull again at the bell!
They are all little better than cretins,
Though this is the Cadogan Hotel”
I find the story of Wilde’s choice in the face of arrest – freedom or fate –both moving and instructive. Perhaps it is often true that, behind the layers of wit and fun that render a man so beguiling, lie also layers of steel and grit.
It is Oscar Wilde’s beautiful mingling of the silly and the solemn that make his talent so profound and his genius so enduring.
Glasses up to Julia Bykov for the artwork. You can see more of her work here.