The late nineteenth century in Western Europe and the USA was bristling with concepts that ran against the material aspect of bourgeois society. Religion was faced with Nonconformism, Spiritualism, mediumship, eastern-based philosophies and occult ritual societies such as the Golden Dawn. Socialism and Communism were spoken of more and more as both viable and desirable alternatives to Capitalism.
Art followed suit as significant elements of the visual arts moved from the realist school of recording natural themes and depicted life interpreted through the artifice of humankind. The Impressionists and later schools took away both the monumental subjects of previous art, such as Classicism, or laced them with domestic and quotidian scenes, and the tightly-controlled brushwork was replaced with broader daubs of colour and points of paint.
This would result in Cubism, the notorious movement where contemporary reality was just the support structure for a radically different visual language than had come before. Literature accompanied the visual departure from consensus reality by creating worlds within books that were seen as replacing that external reality. In the United Kingdom, those whose work has been classified as Decadent would touch upon, or indulge in, taboo subjects. The clearest example of this was the artist Aubrey Beardsley, whose monochrome pen-and-ink illustrations of naked characters displaying androgynous and exaggerated sexual characteristics (such as unfeasibly large phalluses) challenged the contemporary reader.
Oscar Wilde was an Irish writer at a time when Ireland was ruled from London. His parents were Jane and Sir William Wilde. Jane was a poet and was a researcher of Irish folklore along with Sir William . Oscar was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford. After touring the United States, lecturing on the Aesthetic movement, he settled in London, married Constance Lloyd and established himself as a wit, playwright and author. His notoriety began as he became involved with various younger men, especially Lord Alfred Douglas. This led to his suing the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, which backfired and consequently led to Oscar’s arrest for sodomy. Sentenced to hard labour for two years, he spent the end of his imprisonment in Reading. After his release, he embarked for France. He lived there until his death a scant few years later, in part due to his health being compromised whilst in prison.
Nina Antonia is a writer whose early career was in music journalism. She first caught the public eye with her acclaimed biography of the guitarist Johnny Thunders, *Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood*, who himself became known as a member of the band The New York Dolls. From there she wrote about other musicians, including The New York Dolls as a whole. Her direction changed somewhat in 2016 when her short story, South-West 13, was published in an anthology, Soliloquy for Pan. The next year, her novel, The Greenwood Faun, a continuation of Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, solidified her change of direction. Mainly writing work concerning the Decadent era of late 19th-Century Britain, these pieces and books led towards the current book.
The current volume itself consists of essays linked together by their subject, Oscar Wilde, therefore there is an exhaustive examination of Wilde’s relationships and the influences that helped shape his life and writings. The strange curse of the Douglas family, which seemed to be reflected in the unconventional relationships into which they became entangled, somehow attached itself to Oscar via his affair with the notorious Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie. There was also the effect that seemed to follow from Wilde’s infamous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Oscar’s life seemed to take cues from his own novel.
This book looks not only at the strange influences around Wilde which led up to his being introduced to Bosie but also at the leading figures around which events revolved, leading to Wilde’s downfall. In order to do this, Nina Antonia has clearly researched the people involved and the fin-de-siècle milieu exhaustively. The same enthusiasm has gone into cataloguing the events which shaped Wilde’s life, from his folklore-obsessed Irish parents to the strangely prophetic The Picture of Dorian Gray. Mediums are consulted and even the currently-ubiquitous Aleister Crowley muscles his way in! Antonia’s writing moves at a pace.
It is also clear and compelling. This is both an excellent introduction to the life, times and characters around Oscar Wilde and has information that even the well-informed Wilde follower would benefit from discovering.
- Trevor Pyne
The book may be ordered from Amazon, using this link: Dancing With Salome