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‘A First Class Ticket to Worthing’ - David Charles Rose

The Oscholars, February 2016

The summer of 1894 saw the creation of Oscar Wilde’s triumphant The Importance of Being Earnest and the climax of his love/hate relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. For the most part, the scene of both was the English seaside resort of Worthing, in Sussex. The events of that summer are the subject of Antony Edmonds’ thoroughly researched, scrupulously uncensorious microhistory, which brings to life both the town and its principal attraction for Wilde, the youth Alphonse Conway, whom Wilde fêted and petted. The reconstruction of how summer was celebrated at this resort is also valuable as social history. 14px

Unlike most of Wilde’s ‘panthers’, Conway was not a rent boy and must have been bewildered by first being taken up by Wilde and then being visited by detectives and summoned to give evidence against his benefactor in R. v Queensberry – testimony that in the upshot was not given, as Wilde pulled out of the case before Conway was. His relationship with Conway was, however, thoroughly explored by Carson in his examination of Wilde, who in his replies was both flippant and condescending. Carson himself, that stern man, stated ‘I could understand the generous instincts of a man who would say: “Here is a smart boy at Worthing whom I have met at the pier. I will try and get him employment; I will educate him; I will give him some money; I will try and assist him in any way I can”’ (p.192). Something of Carson’s own class prejudices comes out here and in the following sentence, where Carson put a different construction on Wilde’s flimflam about giving Conway a good time because he liked his happy-go-lucky nature. ‘I venture to say that if he [Wilde] was really anxious to assist Conway, the very worst thing he could have done was to take Conway out of his proper sphere and to begin [...] giving him champagne lunches, taking him to his hotel, treating him in a manner which, of course, Conway in the future could never expect to live up to’ (p.192). Although Carson was unlikely to have pointed it out (though Antony Edmonds might have done), there is a parallel in A Rebours, when des Esseintes gives a young man similar treats, deliberately hoping that when these are withdrawn the young man will turn to crime in order to have the money to continue. It is not probable that the kindly Wilde had the same intention, but it would be strange if he was totally unaware that he may have been corrupting Conway in the same fashion, which is the thrust of Carson’s remarks.

Though Edmonds’ research on Conway must be the most serious attention ever given to a newspaper boy, his magnifying glass is turned on many more events and persons of that Worthing summer. He is the first writer, as far as this reviewer is aware, to set out clearly all that is known about the Wildes’ footman Arthur, who came down to Worthing with the family, and it is a pity that the same attention to detail is not – no doubt cannot be – applied to the Swiss governess of Cyril and Vyvyan. Similar examination is given to the circumstances surrounding the death of Bosie Douglas’s brother Lord Drumlanrig – Edmonds is sceptical about the notion that Drumlanrig was the lover of Lord Rosebery.

This book had its origins in a series of articles in The Wildean, and that excellent publication, now nearing its fiftieth biannual issue, is invaluable as a proving ground for work such as Edmonds’, which, expanded to book length, and completed with appendices, illustrations and ample notes, shows how an episode which has only merited a few pages in the generality of Wilde biographies, can in the hands of a writer both dedicated and fluent, contribute greatly to our understanding of the complex figure that was Oscar Wilde.

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