The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde
September 5, 2016
Oscar Wilde is widely celebrated as an artist persecuted for his homosexuality, a sort of protomartyr for the cause of gay rights. The current celebration of Wilde as gay martyr is certainly one legitimate interpretation of his life, but it oversimplifies his complexity; indeed, it ignores the major movement of his life, a life that may also be seen as a long and difficult conversion to the Roman Catholic Church.
"I am not a Catholic," said Oscar Wilde. "I am simply a violent Papist." This statement, like so many of Wilde's outrageous paradoxes, conceals a sober truth beneath its blithe wit. Another example would be his jest that, of all religions, Catholicism is the only one worth dying in. Looking back over his life more than a hundred years later, we can be forgiven for seeing the irony in such statements, for Wilde's fascination with Catholicism, its mysteries and rituals, did set the stage for his death-bed conversion. And we can certainly perceive justice in the fact that the man who cracked such jokes also believed that life imitated art: ultimately, then, the joke was on him.
Wilde's name is much in the air these days. There are stage plays about his life, a recent feature film starring Stephen Fry and Jude Law, and articles in the national press. The centenary of his premature death in 1900 at age 46 was widely celebrated in the literary and gay communities with moving testimonies to Oscar Wilde, the persecuted genius and gay man, victim of a repressive and judgmental social order.
Many of these recent works do tell part of Wilde's story well. He was homosexual, promiscuously so, and his downfall was precipitated by his passion for a younger man. It was this young man, Lord Alfred Douglas, who in one of his poems called their desire "the love that dare not speak its name." The tale of their romance has classic, even operatic, features objections by the beloved's family, separation and exile, brief reunion before the lover's death. The heart left unmoved by their story would be hard indeed.
Yet this sad accounting fails to give us the whole of Oscar Wilde. He was prosecuted for "acts of gross indecency with other male persons, " found guilty, and sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor. But his reading during his imprisonment included works by St. Augustine, Dante, and Newman. When he emerged from prison, injured and in poor health, he fled across the channel to France to reunite with his lover. But his first act on his release had been to write to the Jesuits begging to make a six-month retreat at one of their London houses. Wilde is celebrated as the center of a circle of unconventional poets and artists known as decadents and aesthetes. But looking a little past these labels we find that many of these men became sincere converts to Catholicism Wilde being among the last of them, and entering the Church only in his final moments of life.
So the current celebration of Wilde as gay martyr dilutes his complexity and ignores the major movement of his life, a life that may more accurately be seen as a long and difficult conversion. But why this long conversion, and in what larger context?
Catholicism had held Wilde's interest all his adult life. Born in Dublin in 1854 to a Protestant Anglo-Irish family, Wilde came at age 20 to Oxford University in England, where he was taught by the critic and novelist Walter Pater. Under Pater's influence Wilde became fascinated aesthetically, at least by the mystery of Catholic ritual, and took to attending Mass regularly. One of Wilde's friends was David Hunter-Blair, a recent convert, who paid Wilde's way on a sojourn in Rome that included an audience with Pope Pius IX. Hunter-Blair had hopes of converting Wilde, but Wilde was apparently moved only to a kind of romantic excitement at this close brush with the dangerous Catholic Church.
Dangerous? Roman Catholicism was to poetic souls a sort of aesthetic temptation, while to many proper Englishmen the Roman Church was still the Whore of Babylon, the Anti-Christ. (It is well to remember that it had been less than fifty years since the Emancipation Bill that allowed Roman Catholics to hold public office in England, only thirty years since the defection to Rome of John Henry Newman and other prominent Anglicans, and just a few years since the First Vatican Council under Pius IX had debated and defined the dogma of papal infallibility a dogma that must have seemed to many an outbreak of medievalism at the very birth of the Age of Darwin.)
Hunter-Blair's evangelizing efforts had no immediate effect, and the two men parted, Hunter-Blair taking Holy Orders and Wilde turning to the literary world of London. Wilde was forthright about his motives: "To go over to Rome would be to sacrifice and give up my two great Gods: Money and Ambition." His entrance into London society was spectacular: his dandified dress, pronouncements on fashion, and opinions on art were exquisite and sensational. He published poems and stories and made a lecture tour of America in 1882. (The story goes that when asked by a U.S. customs agent if he had anything to declare, Wilde replied, "Only my genius"). In the 1880s he married, fathered two sons in two years, and published several books of stories for children (truly moving fairy tales of sacrifice and death and life beyond the grave that are well worth reading today). But the 1890s were to see Wilde's great rise and sudden fall.
His novel of 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was a tremendous success. The "hysterical" reaction of the critics, as one modern editor calls it, only served to intensify the sensation and the sales. A typical review condemned it as "a poisonous book" full of "moral and spiritual putrefaction," which "constantly hints, not obscurely, at disgusting sins and abominable crimes." The device at the book's center sounds as if it might be simply a bit of cleverness. A beautiful young man exclaims to a painter: "I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose?... Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now!" Of course, the wish comes true. But what makes the fable frightening, what makes it more than a neat trick, is Wilde's careful portrayal of a sensitive man numbing himself to all feeling for others, of an ego turning monstrous, of a soul choosing evil. In Dorian Gray, Wilde is still a wit and an aphorist, but in the service of a profound theme, a theme that lies at the heart of Catholicism: the ruin of the soul brought about by sin.
There are hints in the novel at elements we now see as autobiographical. The young man, Dorian Gray, frequents opium dens and has furtive relationships that are clearly homosexual, all the while maintaining his mask of youthful purity. There is a young woman, driven to suicide by Dorian's betrayal of her we can't help but wonder whether she represents Wilde's wife, Constance, raising two children and managing the house while her husband lived out his hidden life. Dorian even attends Mass, drawn (as Wilde was) by the "eternal pathos of human tragedy" represented in the sacred rite. But all the while, up in a locked room of his home, behind a curtain that Dorian now and again pulls aside in fascinated horror, the face in the portrait grows more malevolent. Dorian realizes that "it had been like conscience to him. Yes, it had been conscience. He would destroy it." But when Dorian takes up a knife to stab the picture, he himself dies.
Another work of what a modern critic calls "morbid intensity" is Wilde's play Salome, a treatment of the story of John the Baptist's death. This, too, was a sensation, without even getting onto an English stage. In 1892 it was denied a license for production in London on the grounds that it portrayed biblical characters, a thing forbidden by law. The play (written in French by Wilde) was published in France in 1893 and in an English translation in England in 1894 with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, the pre-eminent artist of the English Decadence. The princess Salome is a virgin tormented by lust for the prophet Jokanaan, whose unassailable chastity acts on her as a powerful aphrodisiac. Salome dances for the lustful Herod, her mother's husband, and asks as her prize the head of Jokanaan. As she kisses the lips of the prophet's severed head, even Herod realizes that "she is monstrous... she is altogether monstrous," and orders his soldiers to kill her.
Wilde's partnership with Beardsley on Salome is notable, for the young artist was a match for Wilde in both prodigious talent and scandalous reputation. Beardsley's illustrations for the play are replete with phallic imagery and sneering hermaphroditic figures. Even more so than Wilde, Bearsley wanted to shock: he once famously remarked that "Nero set Christians on fire, like large tallow candles; the only light that Christians have ever been known to give." Yet Beardsley, soon diagnosed with tuberculosis and condemned to a slow, lingering death, became a Catholic in 1896. Another of Wilde's Oxford acquaintances who also converted to Catholicism, the poet Lionel Johnson, had this to say of Beardsley's religious experience: "His conversion was a spiritual work, and not a half-insincere aesthetic act of it.... He withdrew himself from certain valued intimacies, which he felt incompatible with his faith: that implies much, in these days when artists largely claim exemption in the name of art from laws and rules of life." In Beardsley's last letter to his family, which opens with the words "Jesus is our Lord and Judge," he asked that his drawings be destroyed. Beardsley died in 1898, at age 25.
As for Dorian Gray and its connection to Wilde's eventual conversion, the novel sits at the intersection of several fictional and actual spiritual paths. The fictional Dorian is partly coaxed into his amoral aestheticism and self-regard by reading a "poison book," a yellow-backed novel written by a Frenchman. The book he had in mind, Wilde later affirmed, was a novel of the French Decadence published in 1884 entitled A Rebours (in English, "Against the Grain" or "Against Nature"). A Rebours chronicles the life of a fictional aristocrat who gives himself over to the most perverse pleasures he can dream of. A Rebours was a daringly new sort of fiction and worked powerfully on Wilde's literary imagination. He wrote, "the heavy odor of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain." The fictional hero of A Rebours , as Wilde well knew, ends contemptuous of everything and unable to have faith in anything except perhaps "the terrible God of Genesis and the pale martyr of Golgotha...." The novel ends with his prayer, "Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe...." Seven years after A Rebours was published, its author, J.-K. Huysmans, sought out a priest. In 1892 he returned to the Church and in 1900 became an oblate at a Benedictine monastery. His last three works were religious novels with Catholic settings. As for the sincerity of his religious faith, a modern editor of his work attests that he "put the doctrine into effect... in six months of atrocious agony, heroically borne, that preceded his death from cancer."
So in many respects we see that Wilde was thinking like a Catholic about sin and conscience, and even (judging by his fairy tales for children) about love and redemption. And we see too that many of Wilde's acquaintances and peers had converted to Catholicism: the list would eventually include Robbie Ross, a young Canadian who claimed that Wilde had introduced him to homosexuality, and who was later to play the role of loyal friend in Wilde's darkest moments. But at this point Wilde's personal life was caught up in its "morbid intensity," far too much an imitation of his art. Just as Dorian Gray was being published, Wilde met a young man who was to excite in him the greatest passion of his life, one that would speed him down the path to ruin and disgrace. Lord Alfred Douglas was a beautiful youth, an Oxford poet, the son of Sir John Sholto Douglas, the Eighth Marquess of Queensberry (the same Marquess who in 1867 had established the modern rules of boxing). Like Dorian, Alfred let his beauty and good name mask a secret life that Wilde only too willingly shared. Together they explored the unseen side of Victorian London the haunts of male prostitutes, blackmailers, and opium addicts. As time passed, they allowed themselves more and more public displays of outrageous behavior.
The sportsman father of the handsome son spoke out against them and badgered them, on one occasion even bursting into Wilde's home. Early in 1895 he left a calling card at a London club addressed to "Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite [sic]." Whatever his prowess in the boxing ring, the athletic Marquess was clearly no match for Wilde in a war of words, so Wilde (against good advice) decided to bring an action for libel against him. Wilde had at the time two hit plays running in London. He had everything to lose and he lost it. Why, then, did he take the Marquess to court? Perhaps his fatal flaw lay in desiring attention for himself, no matter what the venue. Perhaps he was so confident in his ability to give a very public verbal thrashing to a philistine like the Marquess that he couldn't resist. Or perhaps he was remembering the celebrated libel trial of 1878 between his friend, the painter James McNeill Whistler, and the art critic John Ruskin. That trial had been a sensation, pitting as it did the the champion of new art against the voice of the English art establishment.
Whatever the reason behind it, the trial of the Marquess for libel lasted only two days, for on the third day Wilde's counsel, realizing that the defendant had abundant evidence of the fact of Wilde's sodomy, withdrew the action. That very afternoon the Crown issued a warrant for Wilde's arrest on charges of gross indecency. His first trial ended when the jury returned an undecided vote. Wilde was released on bail but refused to follow his friends' advice to flee to France (Lord Alfred had already fled). A new trial was begun, and on May 25, 1895, Oscar Wilde was found guilty of sodomy. In September of the same year he appeared again in court and was declared bankrupt. A single episode from this time illustrates how broken-hearted he was: as he emerged from his bankruptcy trial, Wilde was exposed to the insults of a sizable crowd. In the midst of this mayhem, Wilde's young Catholic friend, Robbie Ross, stepped out of the crowd and with deliberate politeness tipped his hat to the fallen man. Wilde was deeply moved by this one small gesture of sympathy: "Men have gone to heaven for less."
Oscar Wilde, convicted of sodomy, was sentenced under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 to serve two years of hard labor at Reading Gaol, and his time in prison brought Wilde once again face to face with the Catholic themes of sin and suffering. Now they were purged of any tinge of romanticism and exoticism they were facts of daily life. Wilde's sensitive nature was tortured by the cruelties he witnessed in prison: the anonymous shame of the inmates, the frightened faces of children torn from their parents, the execution of a young soldier convicted of murder. He spent his free time reading and writing. The writing was to result in two works quite different from what he had done before: The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis. Wilde's need to find meaning in the midst of suffering was acute. Perhaps it was from reading Augustine or Dante or Newman in his cell that he began to write in a new voice and on a new theme.
Was Wilde ready for conversion at this point? On his release from jail in May of 1897 his request to the Jesuits of Farm Street for a six-month retreat was refused. Wilde wept at the news. No doubt the Jesuit Fathers had reservations about accepting a man of Wilde's notoriety, but we can't help but wonder what effect six months of traditional Ignatian spirituality would have had on this sensitive man. Whatever might have happened at Farm Street did not happen, and Wilde's conversion was again postponed. He left for France, where for a time he was reunited with Lord Alfred, until lack of money and threats from both their families (the Marquess threatening Alfred with exclusion from his will, Constance Wilde threatening Oscar with exclusion from his two sons) separated them once and for all.
The year 1898 saw the publication of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Wilde's imprisonment and his alienation from friends and society are clearly at the root of this poem, but while the author's experiences were bitter, the poem is not. Gone are the arch aphorisms and mocking paradoxes of his earlier work; gone is the hopeless sense of sin that finds no redemption. The Ballad tells of the execution that Wilde witnessed at Reading Gaol, and conveys the inhuman isolation that the condemned man felt as he awaited his death. Here Wilde's latent Catholic sentiments reveal themselves unequivocally. The poem condemns the petty censoriousness and miserly justice of this world, but not from the pose of anti-bourgeois snobbery that might be expected of an artist, nor in a fit of vindictiveness over society's harsh treatment of the author. Rather, he returns to a tone that he used to good effect in his fairy tales for children, one of compassion:
Ah! Happy they whose hearts can break And peace of pardon win! How else may man make straight his plan And cleanse his soul from Sin? How else but through a broken heart May Lord Christ enter in?"
In 1899 Wilde traveled in Europe, an exile. In 1900 he was briefly in Rome with his companion Robbie Ross. They attended Masses and papal audiences, and Wilde received a blessing from Leo XIII that, he thought, even had a physically curative effect on him. As he joked to Ross, he was "a violent Papist," but he left Rome as he had come, still an admirer of sacred art and sacred ritual, of piety and the papacy, but not yet a Catholic. His health deteriorating and his drinking excessive, Wilde left Rome for Paris, where the final scene of his long conversion would be played.
On November 28,1900, as Wilde lay dying on his bed in Paris, Robbie Ross called in a priest, an English Passionist, Father Dunne. Wilde was given conditional Baptism and was anointed. For a short time he emerged from delirium into lucidity, and Father Dunne, examining him, was satisfied that Wilde freely desired reception into the Church. Wilde died a Catholic on November 30.
The poet's great antagonist, the Marquis of Queensberry, died in the same year. On his deathbed he too was received into the Catholic Church. And the object of the poet's self-destructive passion, Lord Alfred Douglas, became a Catholic in 1911 and remained firm in the Faith until his death, though his later writings betray a conservatism that is distasteful and uncharitable.
Does life, then, imitate art? There is a satisfying symmetry to the story of Wilde's celebrity, his arrogance, his fall, and his humble acceptance of redemption, but we should resist the temptation to turn his life into a moral allegory. There is but a little room here for Catholic triumphalism, just as there is but a little room for an interpretation of Wilde's life that canonizes him as a gay saint. Unfortunately, most recent treatments of Wilde's life reduce him to the latter category: Stephen Fry's recent movie makes but one mention of Catholicism (and that entirely unconnected to Wilde himself). But if we can't simplify Oscar Wilde for our own convenience we are left asking what was he then?
All of these: writer, wit, voluptuary, gay man, failed father and husband, sensitive soul, laughing stock, broken heart, eleventh hour Catholic convert.