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Anne Hill, Sussex Life, December 2014

Worthing mostly revels in the fact that Wilde wrote his most popular and successful play, The Importance of Being Earnest, while staying in the town. Indeed, there is a blue plaque to commemorate the fact. 14px

Yet as Antony Edmonds mentions towards the end of his new book, Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer, whether this should be cause for celebration was questioned as recently as 2009, when another local historian claimed Wilde had seduced boys as young as 14 during his visit. Campaigners even tried to get the blue plaque removed, with one champion saying he “would fight tooth and nail... to erase a link between Worthing and a child abuser”.

Edmonds’ carefully researched account explores the playwright’s 1894 summer sojourn in greater depth, identifying it as a pivotal time for Wilde, encompassing both the pinnacle of his dramatic prowess and one of his most reckless flings.

The account of the events surrounding his flight from London and eight-week stay touch on all aspects of Wilde’s life: his money troubles and attempts to write himself out of them; his failing marriage and wife’s unhappiness; his affectionate but largely absent parenting of two sons; his blind love for Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) and his ‘friendships’ with local youths, one of whom was named in the trial which led to Wilde’s imprisonment within the year.

Edmonds’ approach is somewhat scholarly, and much of the material was previously published as articles for the journal of the Oscar Wilde Society. On occasion this means he takes readers’ knowledge of key events and texts in Wilde’s story for granted, but his narrative is mostly clear and engaging, and the presence of copious footnotes and appendices need not impede the casual reader. The large plates section, which includes many photographs of the town, is also a useful inclusion.

The book covers in detail all the locations, activities, characters and ramifications of the Worthing visit. Edmonds’ conclusions, where they are made, are carefully argued – mostly with the aid of letters sent by the people concerned – sometimes with reference to facts which came out during the later trial.

What emerges is the story of a rather more tarnished hero than the one popularised by Stephen Fry’s amusing and avuncular film portrayal. Edmonds does not shy away from the more damning and shocking details, and speculates on how Wilde’s sexual activities would be viewed in today’s social climate, where homosexuality is accepted but awareness and condemnation of child abuse is much greater.

Among the many myths tackled is the age of the key Worthing ‘boy’, Alphonse Conway. Edmonds’ research places him at 16, rather than the more controversial 14. A minor distinction, but perhaps the blue plaque is safe this time around.

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