Oscar Wilde took inspiration from France’s reverence for the arts, but made a tactical error in assuming that the English establishment would accord artists the same respect.
Oscar Wilde is remembered for his comedies, but the play that he valued most was the tragedy Salomé, which he wrote in French. When its performance was banned in England in 1892, Wilde was indignant and threatened to take up French citizenship. This insistence that he was a citizen of the world who belonged in the company of France’s literary lions was not new behaviour on Wilde’s part, and comes through in his earlier correspondence with the diarist Edmond de Goncourt.
From his youthful fascination with Balzac’s character Lucien Chardon onwards, Wilde had held French writers in high regard. In The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891), Wilde extolled the French for allowing artists greater freedom than the English. Wilde expressed admiration in the Soul of Man for Victor Hugo and Baudelaire, and singled Gustave Flaubert out as “a supreme artist”. In his prison letter known as De Profundis, Wilde credited the “soul of Christ” for the existence of Hugo’s Les Misérables and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal.
His friend Robert Sherard recalled that Wilde sat at the desk in his Parisian hotel room wearing a robe like Balzac’s, hoping that by imitating a master he could become one.
“In the daytime, when [Wilde] was at work, he dressed in a white dressing-gown fashioned after the monkish cowl that Balzac used to wear at his writing-table. At that time he was modelling himself on Balzac. Besides the dressing-gown, he had acquired an ivory cane with a head of turquoises—turkis-stones we used to call them—which was a replica of the famous walking-stick which Honoré de Balzac used to carry when love had transformed the recluse into a fop … But [Wilde] was not borrowing from the master these foibles of toilette alone. … [Wilde] had inspired himself with that passage in La Cousine Bette in which Balzac declares that constant labour is the law of art as it is the law of life …”
Robert Sherard, Oscar Wilde: The Story of An Unhappy Friendship
In Paris, Wilde ingratiated himself with Mallarmé and his circle. Wilde met Verlaine, Victor Hugo, Zola and Alphonse Daudet, and cultivated friendships with young French writers such as André Gide, who fell under Wilde’s spell. Whereas Wilde used his time in America primarily to earn a living and generate publicity, in Paris Wilde sought acceptance amongst the literary elite. Writing from prison some years later, Wilde bitterly regretted having allowed his infatuation with Lord Alfred Douglas to have spoilt his friendship with a literary man such as Pierre Louÿs.
“When I compare my friendship with you to my friendship with such still younger men as John Gray and Pierre Louÿs I feel ashamed. My real life, my higher life was with them and such as they.”
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, written in 1897
Wilde’s identification with French artists contributed to his downfall in that Wilde made the mistake of thinking that he would be Flaubert or Baudelaire for a day, and deploy his oratorical skills in court to defend Art. (Flaubert had been charged with immorality over his novel Madame Bovary, but was acquitted; Baudelaire had been fined for offending public morality with his poetry, but was not imprisoned.) Wilde was indeed magnificent when defending his work during his legal trials, but his opponents steered the discussion away from lofty ideals and towards the gritty details of Wilde’s personal behaviour.
Wilde failed to realise that he was not on trial for his writing, but for his refusal to be discreet about his sexuality. By publicly wining and dining both aristocrats and working class men, Wilde had compounded this error by crossing class lines. Furthermore, the English did not hold the arts and artists in the esteem accorded by the French. Wilde’s private behaviour would not be excused on the grounds that he was an artist. His writing was simply submitted as further evidence of his depravity. It did not help Wilde’s case that he had been influenced by French writers such as Gautier and Joris-Karl Huysmans; during his cross-examination of Wilde, Edward Carson made much mileage from English prejudices about “yellow” French literature. To be an Irishman in England who championed French literature was not just daring, but dangerous.
© JD Ellevsen 2016