Matters Hellenic


In the “storm letter” from Wilde to Douglas – dated in Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer to 10 September 1894 – Wilde writes: "He [Alphonse Conway] also says, from time to time, ‘Percy [the third boy on some of Wilde and Bosie’s sailing-boat expeditions] was the Lord’s favourite,’ which makes me think of Percy as the infant Samuel – an inaccurate reminiscence, as Percy was Hellenic."

An initial assumption would be that the word “Hellenic” simply implies that Percy was good-looking and fair-haired, like an idealised Greek boy from antiquity.

In the course of an e-mail exchange with Antony Edmonds in September 2018, however, John Wagstaff, the author of four articles about Wilde’s stay in Worthing published in the Wildean in 1994-6, mentioned in passing that he had been informed by a reliable source at the time that the adjective “Hellenic” was homosexual code from the 1890s for a male who had not been circumcised – this being the opposite of “Hebraic”, as would have applied to the infant Samuel.

This is persuasive, and indeed perfectly fits the passage from Wilde’s letter, in a way that the initial, vaguer interpretation does not fully do.

This does not, of course, mean that either Wilde or Bosie had intimate acquaintance with Percy’s membrum virile. Alphonse, Stephen and Percy would probably have swum naked from Wilde’s sailing-boat when it was out at sea and, even if they did not, Wilde and Douglas would have had the opportunity to assess the boys’ circumcisionary status while they were changing.