Material from Oscar Wilde's Scandalous Summer used by Matthew Sturgis in Oscar - A Life.
Until Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer was published in 2014, no book had given more than cursory biographical attention to the Wildes’ stay in Worthing in 1894 during which Wilde wrote the first draft of The Importance of Being Earnest. Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography of 1969, for example, devotes just five sentences to the holiday. Sturgis was therefore to a great extent dependent on Edmonds’s researches, narrative and chronology.
Sturgis’s use of much – but by no means all – of Edmonds’s research is end-noted, but there is no general acknowledgment of the debt Sturgis owed his progenitor’s book in respect of his account of the Worthing holiday.
Matters Meriting Comment
In reference to the three boys Oscar and Bosie regularly took out on sailing-boat trips during the Worthing summer, Sturgis writes: “Whether Douglas also had sex with Alphonso, or with either of his friends, is unknown, but it certainly possible” ('Oscar', p. 517).
The idea that there might have been Uranian orgies off the coast of Worthing in the summer of 1894 runs counter to all that we know about the boat outings and the atmosphere of that holiday. It is true that Wilde and Douglas were often incautious in their dealings with the shady youths with whom they consorted in London, but these youths would never have considered going to the authorities because they had too much to lose. Oscar and Bosie would have had to be much more circumspect with regard to three respectable and innocent teenage boys in a small Sussex seaside town – boys, indeed, whose parents were certainly in the offing.
We do not know how old Percy was, but Wilde said in court that Stephen was younger than the sixteen-year-old Alphonse. Wilde and Alphonse rapidly formed a special bond, and Wilde spoilt the boy with numerous presents and substantial sums of money. He clearly felt on safe ground when he made his move. However it is highly improbable that Oscar or Bosie seduced either Stephen or Percy. If this had been the case, Alphonse would have known of it, and been jealous and upset; Queensberry’s detectives would in due course have tracked the two boys down; and there would have been mention of the matter in Alphonse’s witness statement for the libel trial.
It is true that the previous summer Oscar and Bosie had both had sexual relations with Claude Dansey, another “respectable” teenage boy (Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer, paperback edition, pp. 25-6 ), but it is all but inconceivable that Wilde would have passed Alphonse Conway on to Bosie, not least because he was clearly unusually fond of the boy.
In the context of the boat-trips, Sturgis says that Alphonse and Stephen took Wilde’s sons out prawning in the sailing-boat that Wilde regularly hired (Oscar, p. 517). This, however, is an unjustified extrapolation from the evidence in Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer, where it is suggested (paperback edition, p. 17) that it is “just possible” that the “man” Constance refers to as bringing to the Haven the prawns and lobsters caught during Oscar’s and Cyril’s outing one afternoon may have been Alphonse.
Also there is no evidence that that Wilde’s younger son, Vyvyan, was ever on any of the boat outings with Alphonse and the others. During the libel trial Wilde claimed that Cyril, specifically, was friends with Alphonse, but even this was almost certainly an exaggeration, since it was important for Wilde to try to establish that Alphonse was fully integrated into the family holiday – rather than that he had been a special friend with whom he was having sexual relations. Meanwhile Vyvyan, still not yet eight and a much less confident child than Cyril, probably spent much of his holiday time with his mother or with Arthur Fenn, the young man-servant whose role in Worthing was partly to look after the boys.
Sturgis follows Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer in using Alphonse as Conway’s “real” first name throughout his narrative, but this is not universally accepted, and “Alfonso” and “Alphonso” both have their adherents. The article accessed by the first link on the Oscariana page of this website concludes that Conway and those around him probably at various times used different variants of his first name, both in speech and in writing – and that therefore there was probably no definitive version.
Finally, Sturgis is wrong to follow Franny Moyle's 2011 biography of Constance Wilde in stating that the boys “established an aquarium”. In fact Cyril and Vyvyan had separate aquariums, as is made clear in an end-note in Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer (paperback edition, p. 170): “Although the ‘S’ in Constance’s letter of 11 August to Lady Mount Temple is small, it is definitely present; and indeed it makes sense – two small boys with a shared aquarium would have been a recipe for ructions, broken glass, and crabs on the carpet.”
In all but one of the nine end-notes in which Sturgis cites Antony Edmonds’s researches, the source quoted is one of his twelve articles about Oscar Wilde’s time in Worthing that were published in The Wildean between January, 2011 and July 2014 – articles that then coalesced, along with much new material, into Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer.
Although Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer was published four years before Oscar: A Life, Sturgis perhaps only became aware of it at a relatively late stage in his researches. However it is unfortunate that it is The Wildean that he generally cites in respect of Edmonds’s my researches, since it is the book rather than the articles that is the comprehensive and definitive version of the period in question. Perhaps the end-note references in question will be adjusted for the paperback edition of Oscar: A Life.
As already indicated, Sturgis has for the most part been punctilious in sourcing Edmonds’s material, but there are a few instances where it is surprising that his work is not given an appropriate credit.
Perhaps the most notable of these is where the source given is three letters from Constance Wilde to Arthur Humphreys that were cited by Edmonds, but he has been wholly “by-passed” (Oscar, note 4, p. 829). This is not a trivial omission, because in the paragraph to which the note refers, Sturgis has repeated Edmonds’s unassailable – and important – discovery that the principal love-letter Constance wrote to Humphreys was written while Humphreys was still at the Wildes’ house in Worthing during a visit he paid to Worthing on 11 August. This was a point missed by Moyle when she studied Constance’s letters for her biography. Sturgis also repeats Edmonds’s finding that the visit was a day-visit, rather than the overnight stay that had originally been planned, which Moyle wrongly states actually applied. Finally, Sturgis – having presumably found Edmonds’s detailed analysis persuasive – also follows him, rather than Moyle, in the important conclusion that it is unlikely that Constance and Humphreys had an affair.
A lesser instance of Edmonds’s detailed research not being credited is where (Oscar, p. 520) Sturgis says that it was on 12 September that Constance left Worthing. Moyle is again in error here, giving 4 September, which was the departure date that had been originally intended.
Equally the paragraph (Oscar, p. 522) in which Sturgis describes Bosie’s final brief visit to Worthing at the end of September 1894, bringing a particularly unsuitable “companion” with him, is clearly derived from Edmonds’s narrative. However the only source given in the end-notes is The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, so in this instance also Edmonds has been “by-passed”.
This kind of “by-passing” is easily avoided – and, indeed, in one of his end-note references, Sturgis uses the helpful formula “quoted in Antony Edmonds, Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer”. It is reasonable to suggest that this formula might have been applied on more than just this one occasion.