Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde: A Review

After the disappointment of Selina Hastings’s biography of Somerset Maugham, I didn’t expect much from Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, a book that has served as an inspiration to Hastings. Still, I was too sick to process anything more complex than a biography, so I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, I really liked it.

For one, McKenna doesn’t take on a task that would be excessively hard for him to carry out and never promises anything he will not be able to deliver. He makes it very clear from the start that this book is dedicated exclusively to Wilde’s sexual biography and nothing else. Unlike Hastings, he doesn’t attempt to cover every aspect of his subject’s life or offer inane pronouncements on the subject of his literary work. Wilde’s artistic production is discussed only in terms of its connection to his sexuality.

It is obvious that McKenna has done an incredible amount of research. However, he is different from Hastings in that he doesn’t expose the readers to a barrage of irrelevant minute details of Wilde’s existence. Every new personage he introduces is relevant to the culminating moment of the book: Wilde’s trial. McKenna never forgets to attract the readers’ attention to the information that will become crucial much later in the book. Every fact that the author mentions serves to advance the story, so it’s easy to follow the narrative without getting distracted from the story-line. McKenna makes every effort to remain objective and, unlike Hastings, never tries to offer inane judgements where none are needed. This is quite a feat for a biographer of somebody as controversial as Wilde.

In spite of McKenna’s objectivity, Wilde comes off like a very disgusting individual who bullied underage boys into having sex with him and might have been on the verge of pimping his 9-year-old son to Lord Albert Douglas on the very eve of the scandal that eventually put him in jail. One of the reasons I rarely read writers’ biographies is that I’m fearful of being so disappointed in them that it will prevent me from enjoying their work ever again. Of course, there are artists of such stature that you can forgive them anything. Francisco de Quevedo was an anti-Semite and a hater of women. Dostoyevsky was also a rabid anti-Semite who treated his wife horribly. Juan Goytisolo is a passionate misogynist. Still, they created works of art of such magnitude as to be enough to redeem our entire civilization with all its faults. In my view, Wilde is nowhere near that category.Biographies are often boring, especially if they discuss people whose life journey has been written about and filmed many times. This is not the case with The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. McKenna offers some very interesting findings. I used to think that my knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Wilde’s trial and incarceration was quite good. This book, however, proved me wrong. After reading it, I realized that the case was a lot more complex than I thought. The book really reads like a mystery novel.

Of course, I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t find anything in this biography to make fun of. McKenna sometimes creates phrases that are quite heavy-handed. I will give you a few of my favorite examples:
  1. Certain events were enough “to send him rushing towards the bacteriological sanctity and safety of marriage.” You have to agree that the bacteriological safety of marriage sounds perfectly hilarious. Coupled with the general tone of the book that often borders on pompous, this turn of phrase is priceless.
  2. Oscar performed his husbandly duties manfully and to good effect. Just four months after her marriage, Constance found herself pregnant.” It is highly debatable whether the appearance of children in such a loveless and miserable marriage was such a good effect, of course.
  3. The love of Oscar for Constance, and of Constance for Oscar, was a strangely arbitrary, ill-considered, precipitate sort of love.” This sounds like there is love that isn’t arbitrary or precipitate, which is hardly possible. A calculated and well-pondered sort of love is no love at all.
  4. The locus of Oscar’s sexual interest in Constance lay in her virginity, and in robbing her of that virginity.” I don’t know how it’s possible to “rob” anyone of their virginity, as if it were an actual object and not a social construct. It is especially difficult to do so within a fully consensual relationship.
  5. Pierre Louis is usually regarded as a red-blooded heterosexual.” This, of course, immediately made me wonder what other kinds of blood heterosexuals might possess.
  6. The letters were from Oscar, Lucas D’Oyly Carte and others, and were indeed compromising. Wood knew that they were worth their weight in-gold.” Given that letters don’t weigh all that much (and here we are talking about pretty short letters, too), one is left to wonder whether their weight in gold was really that big of an amount. 
  7. Charlie even accepted a preserved cherry from Oscar’s own mouth. `My brother took it into his, and this trick was repeated three or four times.’ It was quite clear to everybody that Oscar wanted Charlie to take more than just a preserved cherry into his mouth.” We cannot possibly know what was clear to everybody who was in the room at that time or what Oscar wanted Charlie to take into his mouth. Thankfully, such heavy-handed attempts at guessing are very few in the book.
McKenna is, however, perfectly capable of creating a very powerful, pithy, incisive sentence. Consider this one, for example: “In the eyes of the Victorians, there was only one thing worse than a sodomite, and that was a proselytising sodomite.” In spite of some minor slips, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde is a very good book that I enjoyed a lot.
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