The Secret History of the (Oscar) Wilde Bunch

Published in this week’s Irish Examiner, my review of this excellent new volume on Oscar Wilde’s family.

Sir William Wilde

Oscar was not the brightest star in the Wilde dynasty — his father was…

More Lives than One: The Remarkable Wilde Family through the Generations 

Gerard Hanberry, Collins Press; €19.99

Review: Val Nolan

Saturday, September 24, 2011

OUTSIDE No 1 Merrion Square in Dublin there is a plaque which honours an extraordinary man, an “aural and ophthalmic surgeon, archaeologist, ethnologist, antiquarian, biographer, statistician, naturalist, topographer, historian, and folklorist”. Yet Sir William Wilde is remembered not for these things but for being the father of Oscar Wilde, a negation of his considerable achievements finally remedied by this group biography, the story of the Wilde family across seven generations from which the complex Sir William emerges as the standout figure.

Teasing out the veiled origins of the dynasty in this country — it was founded by English builders attracted by the boom of the early 18th century — Gerard Hanberry deftly creates the broad context of an Ireland in crisis, out of which Oscar Wilde’s intellect would eventually emerge. “I inherited from my father and mother a name of high distinction in literature and in art,” he once said, an uncharacteristic display of modesty given that his mother, Lady Jane, stirred a nation as the fiery revolutionary poet “Speranza”, while his father enjoyed a 30-year publishing career of his own.

A Protestant and a unionist, but one with a deep attachment to native Irish culture and folklore, Sir William lived through some of the nation’s most traumatic events. He witnessed rebellion, epidemics, and famine firsthand, fathered a string of illegitimate children (all of whom died young and tragically), and was even alleged to have seduced the future queen of Sweden. But there is another side to William Wilde, an unexpected heroism and a thirst for adventure which Hanberry’s fascinating narrative revels in.

Once, as a young medical student visiting Mayo, William single-handedly thwarted a cholera outbreak in the village of Kilmaine. Later, as a ship’s doctor he indulged in amateur naturalism and archaeology on a voyage to the Mediterranean, raiding tombs, scaling pyramids, and emerging from Hanberry’s lively account as a prototype of the Stephen Maturin character from Patrick O’Brien’s nautical historical novels.

On capturing a dolphin the dashing young doctor “immediately fell to dissecting and conducting experiments. He spent two days cutting and hacking the specimen, making notes and recording observations he would later use to write an essay on the subject of suckling in marine animals.”

That said, he was less precise in his antiquarian pursuits, removing skulls from graves in Jerusalem and, back home, often carrying off bones from ancient cairns in the name of the Royal Irish Academy.

When he met Jane Elgee, William finally found his match, their relationship built on a mutual respect little seen among their peers. The future Lady Jane’s literary salons and dinner parties were legendary, and after her marriage she became “the leading hostess in Dublin”. Her extensive circle of friends included the unjustly forgotten Limerick poet Aubrey de Vere, as well as the mathematician and astronomer William Rowan Hamilton who, on their first meeting, she asked to be Oscar’s godfather. Hamilton graciously declined.

Like William, Jane hailed from a unionist background and there is much here on her family’s displeasure at her conversion to Irish nationalism, sympathy roused by the plight of the downtrodden natives. As Speranza, her work tapped into the tempestuous sentiment of her day and she became a national celebrity through her involvement with the Young Irelanders. Oscar would later find it useful to be identified as Speranza’s son, never hesitating to play the Irish card in his talks.

Indeed, mother and son were very much alike, both proud and kind. While they took themselves seriously “they were also keenly aware of the fragility of the world”. Hanberry traces Oscar’s tendency to lie about his age to his mother, and “what seemed a harmless foible of vanity” actually played against him during his trial, allowing a clever barrister to catch him out in a lie and make him appear untrustworthy.

However, what More Lives Than One makes clear is how the tribulations experienced by the elder Wildes foreshadowed the later misfortune of their son. Hanberry offers up some of the more amusing gossip about the couple, routinely subject to rumour-mongering long before the playwright’s trial. He also details the first Wilde libel case — allegations made against Sir William — and draws parallels between Oscar’s growing pomposity in the face of literary success and his father’s similar demeanour a generation earlier.

That over half of the book is devoted to William and Jane’s relationship is no bad thing, allowing Hanberry to capture the changing atmosphere of Dublin through the years of their marriage. There is also much on Oscar’s early life and schooling.

His brother Willie was every bit as clever as he was, but Hanberry makes much of how he lacked either Sir William’s drive or Lady Jane’s powerful presence. Willie’s marriage eventually collapsed just as Oscar’s homosexuality began to blossom, leading to much distress for their mother. The prelude to Oscar’s fall — his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and his adventures in the male prostitute underground — are lucidly told, as is the trial itself.

The story of Oscar’s descendents is brief but engaging. His first son, Cyril, was killed by a sniper’s bullet in the First World War while Vyvyan, a year younger, worked as a translator for the BBC and received an OBE. He survived to see his father’s name rise once more to take its rightful place among the world greatest writers and, as such, Hanberry’s worthy and recommended book succeeds in giving Oscar’s story something it did not have in real life: a happy ending.

*Val Nolan is the winner of this year’s Penguin Ireland/RTÉ Guide Short Story Competition as well as the recent OxTravels/Daily Telegraph Travel Writing Contest. He lectures at NUI Galway.

This article originally published in The Irish Examiner, 24th September 2011, p.16.

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One Response to The Secret History of the (Oscar) Wilde Bunch

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