Oxford Today Logo

Richard Lofthouse, Oxford Today Online Edition, 7 November 2014

Leaping to late Victorian Britain, we have Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer, a detailed rendering of the summer of 1894 in which Wilde took his family to Worthing and wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. The author, Antony Edmonds, who like his subject attended Magdalen, suggests that the Worthing summer is a perfect capsule of Wilde at the mid-point between marriage and downfall. The first thing to say is that this is a very readable, very compelling book. Secondly, and more perhaps than the author may have realized, it makes for oddly discomforting reading in light of Jimmy Savile (etc.)

Of course it goes without saying that we have to distinguish the literature from the life, and the present from history, and same-sex relations from under-age relations. Yep. But the stuff contained in this book will still revise your take on Oscar Wilde. For example, a former teenage lover (victim? Robbie Ross, age 17 in 1886, discussed here page 12, later Wilde’s executor) of Wilde’s visited a clergyman who ran a boarding school in Belgium, groomed a boy, Claude Dansey, who had barely turned 16, brought him back to England and seduced him; handed him to Lord Alfred Douglas who trawled him off to Wilde like a bit of chicken on a string. This was the Spring of 1893: ‘On Saturday the boy slept with Douglas, on Sunday he slept with Oscar. On Monday he slept with a woman at Douglas’ expense. On Tuesday he returned to Bruges three days late.’

Dansey’s father was set to sue but decided not to because of the collateral damage. This and other narratives are reminiscent of so many scandals of our own times that you can’t be light-hearted about the crashing echoes.

Yes, I know you wanted me to serve up some epigrams, and Edmonds brightly insists, early on and at the end, that The Importance of Being Earnest is ‘the most-performed and best-loved comedy in the English language outside the works of Shakespeare’. But he also wisely notes at the end how ‘the passage of the years has a curious relationship with awkward truths,” and how one campaigner wanted the blue plaque to Wilde removed from Worthing because it was attracting the wrong types. And all this in the bit of the Diocese of Chichester most centrally (and very recently) in the firing line for paedophilia in the Church of England. So erm, actually, you won’t come out of this book with quite the same view of Wilde’s quip, ‘Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.’ It just doesn’t sound cool in the same way it used to. It just doesn’t.

Oxford Today Logo