BOOKS MAKETH THE MAN
By Thomas Wright (Chatto & Windus 384pp £16.99)
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Attempting to tell an author's life through the books he read is a risky enterprise. In this remarkable new biography of Oscar Wilde, Thomas Wright makes a convincing start with his claim that books were the greatest single influence on his subject's life. Wilde's first reading of some of his favourites was, says Wright, 'as significant as his first meetings with friends and lovers'. Indeed, he later used gifts of books to seduce young men.
Wilde, born in 1854 and raised in a well-to-do, book-filled house in Dublin's Merrion Square by a literary mother who called herself Speranza and performed public recitations of poetry, devoured the printed word from an early age. At his Enniskillen boarding school, Portora, he ran up a staggering book-bill of £11 5s 9d. The autograph and date (2 September 1865) on his copy of Voltaire's L'Histoire de Charles XII make it the one book known to have been in his possession at the age of eleven, and mark his excellence in French. At Portora he also mastered the King James Bible, won a prize for Scripture and became a fine classical scholar, preferring Greek to Latin.
The most unconventional aspect of Wilde's adolescent taste, in Wright's view, was his love of French fiction. His passion was Balzac. He later said he wept 'tears of blood' when he read of the death in prison of the poet Lucien de Rubempré: 'I was never so affected by any book.'
After Trinity College, Dublin he went on to Magdalen College, Oxford. There, in 1874, Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance struck him with the force of a revelation and he claimed never to travel without this book 'which has had such a strange influence over my life'.
When disaster struck in 1895 and he was tried and found guilty of 'gross indecency', it struck his books too. Auctioneers descended on the house in Tite Street, Chelsea that Wilde shared with his wife Constance and their two sons. His cherished book collection was sold at auction to pay his creditors. According to Wright, who has consulted the 'Tite Street Catalogue', Lot 114 included 'about' 100 unidentified French novels.
Among the humiliations Wilde suffered after being sent to prison were not only compulsory silence - prisoners were forbidden to speak to one another - but deprivation of books. All he had in his cell at Pentonville, apart from his bed (a plank laid across two trestles), were a Bible, a prayer book and a hymnal. When at last his sympathetic MP won him permission to have more books, Wilde nominated Pater's The Renaissance along with the works of Flaubert and some by Cardinal Newman. These were allowed, but only at the rate of one a week. Moved to Reading Gaol, he found himself under a more sympathetic prison governor. His book request lists after July 1896 show him developing an interest in more recently published titles, including novels by George Meredith and Thomas Hardy. Wilde later said that he also read Dante every day in prison and that Dante had saved his reason.
When he was discharged in May 1897, he was not allowed to take his accumulated books with him and faced what he called the horror of 'going out into the world without a single book'. But friends rallied round. Entering the hotel room in Dieppe where he was to begin his exile, he found it full of books furnished by his friends and he broke down and wept. He soon received a copy of Poems by his old lover, Alfred Douglas, and their relationship resumed. Wilde, after being received into the Roman Catholic church, died in a Paris hotel on 30 November 1900.
In a moving Afterword, Wright gives what might have served better as an introduction. Besotted with Wilde, he had read The Portrait of Dorian Gray fifteen or twenty times by the age of fifteen. As a young man he began a literary mission and tried to read every book Wilde ever read. He covered Plato, Keats, Shakespeare, Flaubert, the Greek tragedians, Dante, Pater, Rossetti, Ruskin and others. He went up as a student to Magdalen College, which holds the manuscripts of some of Wilde's witty undergraduate letters.
Wanting to touch every book Wilde had ever touched, he took the £5,000 prize he won from the Royal Society of Literature/Jerwood Foundation for his proposal for a work of non-fiction and blew it all at Sotheby's on Wilde's copy of Swinburne's Essays and Studies. He 'savoured the musty smell of its foxed and yellowed pages' and the inscription 'Oscar Wilde Magdalen College July 1877', and saw it as a talisman to complete his work.
The result is an original and compelling book. Wright completely makes his case: the range of Wilde's reading is staggering. It even included an English edition of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic.
But Oscar's Books contains a grievous flaw: reliance on conjecture. All biographers have to struggle with what is not known. There are various tactics for skirting the missing fact but 'the writing-desk was probably placed in front of the window' is not the way to do it. Wright's pages are spattered with 'probablys', 'perhapses', and invitations to speculate: 'The exact moment Wilde dedicated himself, with vows, to poetry, is unknown to us, but it is pleasant to imagine it having occurred during one of Speranza's recitations.'
No, it is not pleasant to imagine. It is far more satisfying to read Wright's Appendix II, retrieved from archives, which lists the books requested by Wilde during his imprisonment from 1895 to 1897. Such facts speak for themselves.