New biography by VCU English professor reveals a new and revisionary understanding of Oscar Wilde’s final years

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Nicholas Frankel, Ph.D., an English professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has written a new biography of author, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde that provides a new understanding of Wilde’s final years, which he spent in poverty and exile following his release from an English prison for the crime of “gross indecency” between men.

Nicholas Frankel.
Nicholas Frankel.

In “Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years,” (Harvard University Press), Frankel challenges the prevailing, traditional view of Wilde as a broken, tragic victim of Victorian sexual morality, and instead reveals that he pursued his post-prison life with passion, enjoying new liberties while trying to resurrect his literary career.

Frankel is also the editor of two annotated scholarly editions of Wilde’s work, “The Annotated Importance of Being Earnest” (Harvard University Press) and “The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition” (Harvard University Press), and is editor of the forthcoming “The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde” (Harvard University Press).


What led you to want to tell the story of Oscar Wilde's final years, focusing on the time after he was released from prison?

Although he looms large in popular culture and in university and college courses, Wilde is still a misunderstood figure. And nobody until now has looked closely at the final 3 1/2 years of his life following his release from prison. Even the best of previous biographers treat him as an essentially tragic figure or a martyr, whose life and work went into a rapid, irreversible decline after he was convicted and imprisoned.

But Wilde was a man of great wit, imagination, and self-conviction, and he emerged from prison with an undiminished — and entirely justifiable — belief in his own powers. For the first two years or so of his self-imposed exile, he pursued life in much the same spirit as he’d done before his conviction — with good humor, enjoyment, ambition, and self-belief. He knew that he had a capacity to shock — he didn’t tolerate fools or prudes lightly — and to some extent he reveled in being the scandalous figure that many found him to be. He certainly didn’t have many years left to live, but the decline, when it came, was neither as immediate nor as self-willed as it’s sometimes been made out to be. (His death in 1900 was the result of meningoencephalitis.) I felt that the story of his final years needed to be retold.

What makes these years "unrepentant" for Wilde?

It’s sometimes said that he was a broken man after his imprisonment. But he certainly wasn’t broken in his own eyes, nor in those of many of his friends and companions. He remained defiant and rightly unapologetic about the “crimes” for which he had been imprisoned. (“Gross indecency” has now been decriminalized in Britain, and earlier this year the British government issued a formal, posthumous pardon to Wilde and thousands of other men — including the mathematician, cryptologist and war hero Alan Turing, the inventor of the modern computer — who were convicted of this crime in the years before its repeal). Of course, there were disappointments and great difficulties — not least poverty, social ostracism, and his loss of his right to ever see his children again. But in spite of continual setbacks, Wilde continued to live with passion and conviction in himself, just as he had before prison. He knew that he was ahead of his times, and that his life — like his writings — stood as a rebuke to Victorian pieties, cruelties, and hypocrisies. His final work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” [“gaol” means “jail”], written over the first six months after his release, is among other things a powerful indictment of the society that had imprisoned him.

Your new book challenges our understanding of Wilde's life after prison, suggesting that counter to the prevailing view, he did not emerge from prison as a tragic figure, broken by Victorian sexual morality. What was the truth that you found?

He continued to find pleasure in life, he was unashamed, even defiant, about his homosexuality, and at first he was strikingly productive too. He didn’t need to be furtive about his love for other men any longer — he was quite open about it (often shockingly so, even to many of his friends). He maintained a perfect belief in his right to love who and how he wanted. This particularly applies to his long-term lover Lord Alfred Douglas, to whom he returned three months after his release from prison, scandalizing friends and enemies alike. Wilde has often been seen as Douglas’ puppet or victim in this regard. But this is unfair to both of them, and he knew perfectly well what he was doing when he chose to cohabit with Douglas in Naples, Italy. It was a tremendously brave act on both their parts.

I understand that your book also overturns our understanding of Wilde's relationship with Douglas. What new information did you find?

I examined Douglas’ personal letters  closely, as well as articles and poems that Douglas wrote during Wilde’s imprisonment, and as a result a more sympathetic picture of him — and of Wilde’s relationship with  him — emerged. Douglas has traditionally been demonized in Wilde scholarship, as a kind of Judas or Iago who manipulated Wilde into making decisions that only served himself and were destructive to Wilde. Wilde himself is partly to blame for this, because in prison he wrote a 50,000 word letter to Douglas, reflecting on his past and future, in which he turned on Douglas, denigrating him and his influence upon his life. The letter was never sent or published in Wilde’s lifetime, but it was a ticking time bomb. Parts of it were first published in 1905 under the title “De Profundis” (meaning “from the depths”) five years after Wilde’s death, and when the full contents became known publicly in 1913, Douglas was immediately and forever cast as Wilde’s destroyer on the testimony of Wilde himself. But the letter, which Wilde wrote over the last six months of his prison sentence, and which I discuss in detail in my book, cannot be taken at face value, in part because of the circumstances in which it was written. Wilde still harbored hopes of reconciling with his estranged wife, he knew that the letter would be read by the prison authorities — who vetted the text each morning — and in many respects the vitriol Wilde expressed in the letter served a purely personal purpose, allowing Wilde to reconcile himself to prison conditions that had nearly killed him. And of course, Wilde returned to Douglas — rather than reconcile with his wife and children — with considerable eagerness just three months after his release. “I love him and have always loved him,” he told a shocked friend after arriving with Douglas in Naples: “I must remake my maimed life on my own lines.”

What sort of research went into this book? It's incredible that after 120 years, we are still learning more about Oscar Wilde and his life.

I wanted to give an intimate picture, to allow Wilde to speak for himself.

I worked in library archives examining the memoirs and correspondence — both published and unpublished — of Wilde’s friends and those who knew him. I also used Wilde’s own voluminous correspondence, most of which has long been published. I wanted to give an intimate picture, to allow Wilde to speak for himself, to reconstruct Wilde’s moods and relationships as faithfully and meticulously as I could. But I also wanted to give a distinctive account of the places Wilde inhabited — of the Hotel D’Alsace, for instance, the cheap hotel in Paris’ Latin Quarter where he spent much of his final three years (ironically now a boutique hotel that trades proudly on its association with Wilde). I also felt it was important to explain why, as a writer who was also an active homosexual, he was attracted to cities such as Paris (where he spent most of his exile and died), Naples, and Rome. Here, more recent scholarship, particularly in the emerging field of “queer geography,” was of help.

This is your first biography of Oscar Wilde, but two of your previous books were annotated versions of Wilde's two most famous works, including a newly uncensored version of "The Picture of Dorian Gray." What is about Oscar Wilde that makes you find him and his work so fascinating?

Like the best artists and writers, he was uncompromising and possessed a distinctive, clear vision. His command of the English language — at least in prose — and his wit are unsurpassed, although ironically this may have something to do with his Irish roots and his familiarity with Celtic folklore. He approached everything with a consummate sense of artistry, determined to find and express the beauty in everything. And in the end, he lived life as if it was itself a work of art. In an age of sometimes grim realism, he was perhaps the last Romantic.

Does your research into Wilde's life after prison change our understanding of his writings produced in his later years?

Very much so. For one thing, I call my readers’ attention to the brilliance of the writings he composed in this period — both the “De Profundis” letter, which he wrote in prison, and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which he composed when he came out and which proved to be the bestselling of all his writings in his own lifetime. (These take pride of place in “The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde,” which I have just finished editing for Harvard University Press, for publication in early 2018.) But I also show that Wilde’s earlier writings are more intimately connected with this period of his life than has traditionally been understood, and that his defiance of the sexual puritanism of his own day — for which of course, he was imprisoned — goes to the heart of his work.

Did the existing misconceptions of Wilde's later years affect people's overall view of him? Did his reputation as a writer suffer because of it?

I wouldn’t say his writings suffered as a result — he’s always been regarded as a consummate stylist, storyteller, and the writer of some of the greatest plays in the English language — but his writings have certainly been misunderstood. They have been seen as less socially engaged, less “political,” and (at least where his pre-prison writings are concerned) less personal than they in fact are. But our sense of Wilde himself has suffered, and we are only beginning to understand that, far from being crushed, he was someone who remained — entirely, unapologetically, and at times quite unreasonably — determined to control his own destiny, until laid low by terminal illness in the final months of his life.


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