A review of The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde: An Intimate Biography by Neil McKenna (2003)
Irrefutable evidence Wilde was a lover of boys ****
Thoroughly researched, well written and gripping, this account of Wilde’s sex life is full of fascinating revelations. It is astonishing that so much new information essential to our understanding of him should emerge more than a century after his death. I feel bound to devote most of this review to explaining a serious flaw, so I should first stress that it is a good book, very well worth reading.
Its most obvious weakness is being overdone in terms of the homoerotic assumptions McKenna makes about both Wilde’s friendships and his writings. When combined with his failure to supply proper footnotes, this is severely damaging to his credibility, a great shame considering the importance of his work.
Similarly unfortunate are factual errors glaring enough to shake one’s faith in his knowledge and therefore understanding of the period. For example, he says the Duke of Cambridge in 1893 was the brother of the Prince of Wales. People then would have been just as familiar with their true relationship as people now are about the present incumbents of those titles.
McKenna’s narrow sexual focus has debatably helped him to delve deep into Wilde’s psyche, but at the cost of ignoring important aspects of his emotional and intellectual life that hold no erotic interest, such as his rapport with his sons.
The flaw in both this biography and the popular sexual perception of Wilde that requires far greater attention is the idea he was an apostle for the modern gay cause. In McKenna’s view, his life was “an epic struggle for the freedom of men to love men” and the story is concluded on an upliftingly triumphant note:
“A hundred years and many monstrous martyrdoms later, Oscar’s men are outcast men no more and the love that dared not speak its name has at last found its joyful voice.” I shall try to demonstrate what nonsense this is.
The known ages of Oscar's lovers ranged from 15 (Herbert Tankard and Giuseppe Loverdi) to 21 (Bosie Douglas when their affair was, briefly, sexual): McKenna would extend this to 24 with far-fetched assertions that he had sex with the likes of Frank Miles, but this is easily contradicted by the evidence. The best-known biography of Oscar by Richard Ellmann argues convincingly that 17 was his favourite age. So was he like today’s gays or was he a pederast, a lover of boys?
A vital precursor to any discussion of this is verifiable dismissal of the falsehood still widely perpetuated that there is no evidence for Oscar’s liaisons with boys. I know of only Oscar's own word (Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. R. Hart-Davis, OUP, 1979, pp. 355-6) for Giuseppe having been 15, but unlikely a place as Amazon may be for authentic historical revelations, let me finally here and now consign claimed doubts to the dustbin by pointing out hard evidence in the form of birth certificates for the ages of two other boys. Herbert was born on 5 March 1878, so was around his 15th birthday when Oscar took "indecent liberties" with him in the Savoy Hotel in March 1893. Alphonso Conway was born on 13 July 1878, so had just reached 16 when Oscar fellated him. To get this in better perspective, be aware that the average Victorian boy reached puberty at 16.
More important than quibbling over exactly how young Oscar’s boys were is understanding the ethos that underlay his liaisons. Were they relationships between equals, and so socially-correct in today’s terms, or were they age-structured affairs to which the older and younger lover contributed different but complimentary things? Here we need go no further than Oscar’s applause-rousing explanation to the jury of “the love that dare not speak its name” delineating precisely the disparate contributions to mutual affection contributed by an elder and younger man. The diplomatic use of “younger man” instead of “boy” should fool no one familiar with Oscar’s incessant praise of “paiderastia” or “Greek love” or his private self-designation as “a poet in prison for loving boys.” . Even McKenna frequently admits boys were what Oscar was about, as when he calls him “the champion not just of the legitimacy – but more importantly, the superiority – of sex between men and boys”.
Any notion that Oscar might have respected the law by abstaining from boys if he had lived in today’s Britain, legally tolerant of sex between men (though still socially intolerant of the age gap always present in his liaisons), runs counter to all he said and stood for: “I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws.” It was anyway every man’s duty to have “the courage” to commit “what are called sins.” Sex with boys was “like feasting with panthers. The danger was half the excitement.”
Let us now return to the claim that “Oscar’s men” are outcast no more, and how better than by examining what would happen today to Oscar himself as soon as suspicions of his sexual antics became public? The police would begin a massive trawl for “victims” which would bring in every boy who had met Oscar besides many others tempted by the financial inducements of victimhood and low burden of evidence required. His friends would soon be extradited where necessary and arrested, with Bosie and Robbie in particular headed for far worse fates than Oscar due to their firm preference for younger boys. Instead of waiting for his first trial, there would be an immediate public outcry against celebrity perverts and his plays and books would disappear from theatres and shops overnight. Instead of claiming him as their patron saint or even just standing up for him, the gay community would be at the forefront of the outrage, desperately anxious to repudiate him as one of them and furious with him for giving homosexuality a bad name. Far from being applauded, his speech at his trial defending misunderstood love would be fiercely denounced by all for its callous indifference to the “suffering” of his paramours, sorry, victims, as indeed would any dissenting or sympathetic voice.
In the unlikely event that Oscar survived the much longer prison sentence he would be given today, he would spend the rest of his life on the sex offenders’ register, while a SOPO would ensure he couldn’t move to a gentler land and alleviate his misery by having some fun with French and Italian boys. Instead he would eke out his last years hiding in some British backwater and living in daily terror of being found and murdered by a virtue-loving vigilante. Meanwhile society would never have stopped smugly congratulating itself on a handling of Oscar that showed how much more enlightened it was than those barbaric Victorians.
“The love that dare not speak its name” was the love between men and adolescent boys and has nothing to do with today’s gays. Despite Wilde’s martyrdom and all he did to remind the world of its noble past, it is spoken of today in ever more terrified whispers.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 22 Oct. 2013 (the seventh and eighth paragraphs revised 23 April 2020 on the basis of better information)