on 30 October 2003
Although the life of Oscar Wilde has been written countless times in the century since his death, surprisingly little has been written about his homosexuality. It has been for biographers the subject that dared not speak its name. It is spoken of in connection with his fall from grace, his trial and imprisonment of course, but otherwise the subject is passed over in as much silence as possible. It remains for us now almost as much as it did for his earliest biographers “The Problem of Oscar Wilde’s Inversion” and every sympathetic author strives to find a way of explaining it away. Neil McKenna's excellent book for the first time examines the evidence of Oscar Wilde's sexual orientation from his earliest youth and proves that the relationship which led to his fall was no aberration. Those who have read previous biographies may be surprised to learn that there is a secret life of Oscar Wilde to reveal but reading this book will certainly introduce a Wilde few people know.
Oscar once said that every great man has his disciples and it is usually Judas who writes the biography. This book is an honourable exception.
on 20 May 2014
After reading Neil McKennna's superlative 'Fanny & Stella: The Young Men who Shocked Victoria England' I immediately sought out this, his other book. I was not disappointed. I thought I knew about Oscar Wilde and his trials; but that is the pitfall with history written from the perspective of the whole of society and not from Oscar's personal viewpoint.
I don't know if it because Neil McKenna is himself a gay man or just a highly sensitive and insightful person, but he gets right to the heart of Oscar's life. He shows us Oscar's public and private lives and how a highly intelligent man came to realise that his sexuality and identity were so much aligned, that his love for another man would not, could not be separated. In this sense Oscar's suffering transformed him from the peacock of society into a pariah and simultaneously the first modern gay man. An icon indeed. Anyone who thinks that prison should be harder or that the death penalty is just should read this book and also refer to 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'.
Not only is it clear that 'the love that dare not speak its name' was not what most people think it was, but neither was Oscar and Bosie's relationship. The picture of a man dragged into hell by his love for a spoilt and damaged partner, Bosie gradually and heartbreakingly emerges.
Ignore all the reviews which claim that this is an immoral book: as Oscar said himself: '“There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.” This book is one of the former - fascinating, funny, surprising and ultimately moving. I was in tears as Oscar's fall from Grace unfolded, and strangely moved by his decline with his petty criminal associates.
Neil McKenna has left me with a problem: what to read while he generates and crafts another beautiful book!
on 23 October 2013
Having read Ellman's magisterial biography on Wilde (highly recommended, especially his biographies on two other Irish literary greats: Joyce and Yeats) I was reluctant to delve into another reading on the life of Oscar Wilde, so well written and informed was Ellman. However, Neil McKenna succeeds not just in providing an awe-inspiring amount of context relating to homosexuality in Victorian England but also how homosexuality underpinned everything Wilde wrote or did - something Ellman was not keen to stress. His fresh perspectives on "Dorian Gray" and everything which followed it (including a very perceptive insight into the homosexual connotations of words such as "worship" which meant fellatio in homosexual argot)provide one of the most riveting and entertaining biographies I have ever read. This is not a flimsy biography either, McKenna backs his ideas up with wonderful references to a wider Victorian context or here and there to a line from Wilde's work and there is extensive use of notes and a bibliography in the back. Indeed, McKenna draws on sources Ellman may not have had the usage of (around twenty years separates their respective books and, unfortunately, the death of Ellman before he could revise his biography). Other reviewers may have found fault with McKenna's (a professed homosexual himself) use of homosexual terminology and colloquialisms - but these are stuffy, ironically, Victorian reservations. This book, then, is a must buy if you love Oscar Wilde's work. Do not read it in isolation, Ellman should be read (ideally, first). But buy this book; Oscar may not necessarily be the perfect Christ-like, Socratic figure many would have you believe (indeed, he wilfully stated, as McKenna makes clear, that he sought to lead young men - not children or young teens - towards a 'higher philosophy' via sex and used rent-boys and lower class men for pleasure whilst fully engaged in a marriage he knew to be a sham). It is a book that might make prissy conservatives shudder but for the more enlightened liberals amongst us this book is a fresh and important insight which gives new light and shade to the genius of Oscar Wilde.
on 1 November 2003
This is a wonderful and amazing book. It is the sort of book that you want to read twice - I'm already on my second reading, savouring every moment. Why it is wonderful and amazing?
Well, in the first place it's is a stunning biography. Neil McKenna has uncovered masses of amazing new material about Oscar Wilde, especially about his sex life and about the conspiracy to send him to prison, and has produced a truly psychologically convincing biography. The whole thing feels very fresh, very new. I felt as if I were reading about Oscar Wilde's
life for the very first time. One of the best and most striking things about the book is its readability. McKenna writes with a beautiful, almost poetic clarity. Though a long book, every page is an absolute pleasure to read. I can't remember ever reading a more beautifully written biography, by turns taut, exciting, resonant, witty and touching. Everyone who likes Oscar Wilde must read this book.
on 24 October 2003
Neil McKenna is one of the very best gay writers of our generation. His book is a triumphant, uncensored account of Oscar Wilde's sexual odyssey through the hotels, restaurants, bars and backstreets of 19th-century London's homosexual underworld, the story of his sex life with poets and students, rent boys and blackmailers. All of this is set against a fascinating, sometimes hilarious and ultimately moving interpretation of the controversial sexual themes in Oscar's plays, poems, essays and novels - work which often shocked the press and polite society but won Oscar legions of adoring young fans and acolytes. And, on top of that, we have the story of Oscar's involvement with an elite coterie of poets and writers who were slowly clawing their way towards a modern interpretation of the noble tradition of Greek love and devoting their literary and political efforts to 'The Cause' of tolerance and liberation for men who loved other men.
on 20 May 2013
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 given ages of Oscar's lovers ranged from 13 or 14 if one counts "indecent liberties" taken with Herbert Tankard or "about 14" (the testimony of a Savoy chambermaid) to 24 (but only if one accepts McKenna's assertion that Frank Miles was one). Fitting neatly into the middle of this, we have Bosie's word that 19 was "just Oscar's style" when he was 45. 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. These have often centred on the age of Alphonso Conway whom McKenna admits Oscar fellated at 15 in 1894, but others have claimed may have been much older. Amazon may be an unlikely place for authentic historical revelations, but nevertheless let me finally here and now consign the latter claim to the dustbin. Anyone caring to look at the 1891 census will find that the only boy in England with a remotely similar name was "Alphus. Conway" living in Worthing (matches) with his widowed mother (matches) and aged 12 (proves the point). 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.
Edmund Marlowe, author of Alexander's Choice, an Eton boy's love story, www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1481222112
on 22 August 2005
I have read many books on Oscar Wilde but it was not until reading The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde that I felt I knew him at all. This book feels like the first biography written about Oscar. It also led me to re-read Oscar's collected works with a new light. This book has instantly made my top ten which is not easy to do. Every day I devoured the pages with a hint of sadness knowing it would bring me closer to the end. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, this book is an instant classic!
on 8 April 2013
Having just read The Story of Fanny & Stella which was very enjoyable I thought that this would also be a good read.
Not yet finished the book but am enjoying it. Not quite as enjoyable as Fanny & Stella but still quite a facinating insight into Oscar Wilde's life.
Book was promptly dispatched and in great condition for a second hand book. Would recommend buying from the vendor.
on 16 January 2015
A superb read - light years away from 'your usual' dry, dull, dusty academic biography. This book had me gripped from start to finish thanks to its journalistic narrative style. Certainly the 'purists' might criticise this approach - and also the fact that there is no biography at the end, just notes - but, for me, I'd far rather learn about history from this style of narrative than the insomnia-inducing academic style.
The only place the account falls down and loses a little momentum is, I think, the last section, after Wilde's release from gaol, but this may be simply down to available sources; I can't say.
I must add that, owing to the 'get down to the nitty gritty' nature of the book's angle and, as a consequence, some of the terminology and descriptions, this is probably not a book I would pass on to my elderly mother. But, for me, it was a superb read. Highly recommended. I have now moved onto McKenna's other book: Fanny & Stella which looks to be just as enthralling, engaging and readable.
on 30 January 2015
Neil McKenna's book is interesting in that he is one of the few authors who has any time for Alfred Douglas. He really gives him a voice, which is helpful for students of Wilde as it opens a new window of understanding. Brave in his controversial assertions,Neil McKenna also shines a light on the man who stood trial with him; Alfred Taylor and his world of boys and tea parties. Mr McKenna relates his meticulously researched biography to Wilde's work and I found his analysis of Wilde's elusive poem In the Forest compelling and satisfying to read in addition to his comparisons between Wilde and Shakespeare. This writer's work was also useful in its information about significant events going on around Wilde before his ill-advised libel action; the death of the Marquess of Queensberry's eldest son Drumlanrig. Rosebery comes across with little credit. This is an excellent book, though I take the view that it should be read alongside Ellmann's ground-breaking biography of 1987.