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Oscar’s Legacy

Blog | Feb 26, 2019

Oscar Wilde in his favourite coat. New York, 1882. Picture taken by Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896)

Some years ago when he was commissioned by George Weidenfield to write a biography of Oscar Wilde, Sheridan Morley asked whether it was a good idea when so many had already appeared. ‘Maybe,’ said the publisher, ‘but the story is so moving it needs to be retold every ten years or so.’ If one trebles the time-span to a generation, the same, I feel, is true for the book that my father wrote in 1954, Son of Oscar Wilde, if only to remind the world that Oscar Wilde was married, had two sons and that the family line continues.

Conditioned as we were in the mid-Fifties (and still are to a great extent) to the either/or of sexual polarities, the idea of Oscar Wilde as a loving father and an intermittently dutiful parent, mending his children’s toys and crawling around their nursery floor, was improbable; so improbable, in fact, that it generated more than two hundred letters to my father, Vyvyan, from complete strangers, most of whom were writing to say that they had never imagined Wilde with a wife, let alone children. Oscar Wilde as a warm-hearted, approachable, fallible human being, behaving like the rest of us at home, whatever he got up to in the West End, was quite a new angle. It gave the story added poignancy, especially since it came from his own son, who finally at the age of seventy had found the courage to relive a childhood brought crashing to the ground by the madness of his father.

Constance Wilde and Cyril, 1889

Those who had known Vyvyan before the War said that the change in him after writing the book was astounding. He had, as it were, laid to rest the bitter memory of those early years by the cathartic effect of recording them for posterity.

However, it is only in the last few years, while researching a book on Wilde’s posthumous reputation, that I have realised how the repercussions of Wilde’s downfall and disgrace went far beyond my father’s childhood and affected the greater part of his adult life. Having to leave England for the Continent with ‘a grim and hysterical governess’ shortly after Oscar’s arrest in April 1895 was something of an adventure; Vyvyan and his elder brother Cyril, respectively ten and eleven, then had no proper schooling for a year and only the minimum necessary adult supervision, the dream of any child of that age; the change of name to Holland on account of a Swiss hotel-keeper, who asked them to leave because he felt that having the wife and children of the infamous Oscar Wilde under his roof would be bad for business, was vaguely disturbing but no more than that. No, the real tragedy started in April 1898, less than a year after Oscar’s release, with their mother Constance’s death, and with it the single object of love in their fragile world was removed and its place was taken by Victorian self-righteous hypocrisy at its worst.

Letters which have surfaced since my father wrote his book show that Oscar started corresponding with his wife almost as soon as he was released from prison. She in turn wrote to him once a week and sent him photographs of his sons. There was talk of a reunion, but she was dissuaded by family and friends who were concerned that Oscar could be a corrupting influence on his children, so on her death there was no question of his having any hand in their upbringing. They were dispatched back to England, to be remoulded by straitlaced relatives whose principal aim was to brainwash the boys into forgetting their father completely, even suggesting obliquely that he was no longer alive and thus preventing the boys from asking after him.

One of the constant and distressing features of the next nine years in my father’s life was to be the sense of uncleanness and contamination which Oscar Wilde’s name seemed to evoke with these figures in authority. It was the start of many years of concealment and having to cope with what the outside world perceived as the shame of their family history, which Cyril would take to his grave at the Front in 1915 and would stay with my father until he was sixty.

Cyril (left) and Vyvyan in Heidelberg, 1896

My father’s first marriage, for example, in 1914 made Fleet Street headlines – ‘Oscar Wilde’s Son To Be Married’ – much to his own embarrassment and the fury of his mother’s family, who boycotted the wedding. Cyril’s application to become a career soldier in the Royal Artillery in 1903 had to be accompanied by a copy of his birth certificate on which he naturally figured as the son of Oscar Wilde, a fact which he also gave on the application form under ‘Father’s Name’ but which was heavily scored through and replaced in another hand with ‘Father Dead’. The Civil Service Commission needed to preserve the birth certificate and the documents relating to his change of name for its records, but on the file it states that the Commission was ‘specially desired to regard this evidence as confidential’.

Vyvyan Holland and me about the time he wrote Son of Oscar Wilde. I was then exactly the same age as my father had been when he last saw Oscar

Later, in the 1920s, my father was asked by Frank Harris to contribute openly to the corrections in his Life of Oscar Wilde, but he refused, saying that he craved anonymity and self-effacement to the extent of signing his published translations from the French with his initials only, and those reversed as HBV.

If the writing of Son of Oscar Wilde helped my father to come to terms with his past, I believe it also prepared important ground for the future. The acceptance of Oscar ‘warts and all’ was a stage through which the general public needed to pass as much as the son who felt himself so betrayed by what he saw as the self-destructive behaviour of his father. There was a tendency, even as late as 1960, to keep Wilde the man and Wilde the writer at arm’s length from one another, the former still tainted with his scandal and unmentionable depravities. All this was changed by the publication of Oscar’s collected letters in 1962, but it needed a further act of courage on Vyvyan’s part to allow their unexpurgated publication, especially those from the period after prison which are often unequivocally homosexual in tone. I am certain that the critical acclaim of his autobiography played no small part in the decision to allow his father to appear ‘full frontal’ to the public, but it is a sobering thought that the law under which Oscar Wilde was convicted in 1895 was not repealed until three months before my father’s death in 1967.