OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF
LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
WILDE IN SOCIETY
In view of the curious anxiety of those who support and uphold the Wilde legend, to paint him for us as a man of fashion and social position, it may be interesting if I try to recall Oscar Wilde in his figure as a buck or, as we nowadays say, man about town. There can be no doubt whatever that he did really consider himself a person of fashion and social standing, outside of his claims to literary notoriety.
In his writings he is very fond of using such phrases as ''men of our rank," ''people of our social class," and so forth. “Rank" is a good word, and Wilde knew perfectly well how to use it in a manner which would lead people really to believe that he was nobly born. He was able to talk of his mother as Lady Wilde, and I have heard him refer to her in certain company as "her ladyship" with great effect. You would imagine from his manner that she was a grande dame of the first water, with two or three large places to her name, and retinues of servants.
Of Papa Wilde we did not hear quite so frequently, probably for the reason that he was not ''his lordship." At the same time, Wilde could not have put on greater airs than he was sometimes wont to don if his father had been a duke.
Now, with this feeling of ''family" about him, it is not extraordinary that he should have tried to live up to it to the best of his lights. He opined that if "a gentleman of rank" is to be taken for a gentleman of rank, he must not only keep his rank duly prominent in his conversation, but he must also look, dress and, as far as possible, live the part. In the matter of looks, Wilde believed in his heart that he had the "bulge" of all the literary people of his time. Tennyson might wear prophetic robes and wideawake hats, Swinburne might look the decent little ginger gentleman he was. Pater might pass for the profound and beetle-browed thinker on the high arts, Bernard Shaw might pass for the bewhiskered fire-eater, Arthur Symons for the blonde angel, Beardsley for the delicate spider-legged artist; but when it came to nobility and beauty of features, Wilde was convinced that he had them all "beaten to a frazzle."
He was very fond of likening himself to the Roman Emperors. He had a big face, which was, as he himself put it, "delicately chiselled" ; and if anybody had asked him to sit for a bust of Nero, he would have considered that person most discerning. I remember him saying to me that, while it was considered among ''the dull English'' to be almost criminal for a man to speak of good looks, either in himself or in another man, good looks were half the battle in society. Of course, I laughed and told him not to be a fool; but he meant it, all the same; and nothing would make him angrier than the hint that his mouth was too large or that his face was spoiled by too great an expanse of jowl. He took great care of his complexion, and I never knew a man who brushed his hair more frequently in the day than he did.
He had a defect which was the sorrow of his life —the arts of the dentist not being so well understood then as they are to-day—but on this I do not propose to dwell.
I have been astonished that the published part of ''De Profundis'' contains no touching and beautiful passages relating to clothes; and this is all the more surprising because, in point of fact, Wilde was, to a large extent, a tailor's man. I sometimes think that if he had lived in the present era of Homburg hats and tweed suits he would never have been famous at all. He began his notoriety by fantastic dressing, but as he ascended on the rungs of art to the heaven of rank, his great aim was for what he termed ''elegant correctness." Hence, the Wilde of my time consisted, to a great extent, of silk hat, frock coat, striped trousers and patent leather boots.
Add to these a very tall clouded cane with a heavy gold knob and a pair of grey suede gloves, and you have the outward man. On the whole, I believe that he loathed the get-up, especially in the hot weather, but he stuck to it like a Trojan, and nobody ever saw Oscar Wilde in London outside of the regulation harness from eleven o'clock till seven, or outside of the hard white shirt and swallow-tails from seven-thirty till any time you like in the morning.
Being a Roman, he must do as persons of rank did in Rome, and he always struck me as being garbed in perpetual readiness to walk out or dine out with the duke or prince of the blood who would one day surely be calling round for him. He had a large turquoise set in diamonds, which I had purchased for him in an expansive moment when we happened to be together in a jeweller's shop. The occasion was his birthday and I took him to choose his own present. His eye fell on this sea-blue bauble in its ring of brilliants, and all question of trouble to the shop-man was sunk. He wore this ornament in his shirt-front of evenings with a truly regal dignity. For myself, I used to call it "the blue light" or the ''Hope-Not"—the Hope diamond being at that time very much to the fore in polite conversation.
In the country he naturally subsided into easier habiliments; but even here he must follow the fashion or be a little bit ahead of it. His suits and caps must be all of one piece, his boots as worn by ''the nobility and gentry" and his general accoutrements designed subtly to convey the impression that he owned at least ten thousand acres somewhere or other.
This bucolic perfection was entirely a social affair with him, for he was most coy of being photographed otherwise than en grande tenue. In all his official photographs, the frock coat, braided for preference, or the fur coat, with a suggestion of a silk hat on a side table, "bear the gree."
The very suggestion of "literalism" in the matter of appearance horrified him. He desired to pass for a gentleman, a "gentleman of rank," and nothing more. And this he undoubtedly succeeded in doing to his own satisfaction. In his intercourse with the "highest in the land"—which was, to put it plainly, of a very occasional nature—he always seemed to me to be a trifle strained and uneasy. He longed to smack certain personages on the back, but he never dared to do it.
With women he succeeded a great deal better than with men. Somehow, the men made him either very stiff or very limp. His bow was wasted upon them and his diffident attempts at epigram missed fire. I think that women loved him because he would insist that everything was ''charming" or ''exquisite” and because, although he was expected to talk brilliantly, he really did a great deal of listening.
Late in the proceedings, when the buffet had done its harmless, necessary work, he would open fire and talk amazingly, and fifteen to twenty women would hang on, his words, doubtless because their hostess had told them that Mr. Wilde was "so amusing." But the men hung aloof. When he came away Wilde was always as eager to know how he had "gone down," as a debutante is eager to be informed as to the figure she cut at her first ball. If one said: "You were great, Oscar," he would glow with honest pride; if one hummed a little, he would be in the depths for a week.
There were women who didn't admire him in the least, and some of them were at no pains to disguise the fact. Long before the tongue of scandal took definite hold of his name, there were whispers that there was something wrong about him; and when Lady Blank referred to him in his hearing as ''that fellow," he became white with passion and was with difficulty restrained from making a demonstration.
On the whole, however, his social evenings were a source of joy and delight to him, and he would talk of this or that party for months after it had taken place, with continual notes of gratification in his voice. And when, as sometimes happened, he went to the houses of persons who were not friends of mine, I could make sure of brilliantly jewelled accounts of the high jinks and proceedings, and of the honour which had been rendered to him by brave and fair alike.
''Dear Lady So-and-So," he would say; "Ah! a charming woman, if you like: came down the staircase to receive me, for all the world like Œnone coming down Ida. And the Prime Minister was there, and I don't mind telling you that he glowered at me. They hate genius, my boy. And poor old Lord 1 have never seen him before—looked to me like a waiter. Extraordinary that a man of his position should look so rusty. However, I need not tell you that he was very civil to me."
And when I asked him what he meant by "rusty," he said: "Well, he wore such extraordinary clothes." The real facts of the case doubtless were that his hostess was not beautiful at all, that the Prime Minister had not happened to look his way, and that, despite his rusty suit, old Lord had gone out of his way to meet rather profuse deference with graciousness.
I don't say that Wilde had no social success, but what he had was of that curious kind which is here to-day and forgotten to-morrow, and his reports of it were always slightly exaggerated. It was on such a slender basis that he built up the fabric of wonder and splendour with regard to "rank" which he afterwards spread out for us in Reading gaol. Throughout, he draws a great line between "the poor thieves and outcasts with whom I now associate'' and ''people of our rank''—never "people of our intellect," never "people of our culture." He tells us that in prison he became a great individualist, and apparently it was in prison that he became a great aristocrat.
In one passage in the published "De Profundis" he actually uses the words "I had inherited a noble name." One need not grudge him these tender illusions, and, in a way, there is something rather pathetic about them. But their encouragement was so entirely characteristic of the man that it is impossible to avoid a reference to them in a truthful portrait. That Wilde did not happen to be nobly born is certainly nothing to his discredit; that he should have persistently pretended to noble birth is, on the other hand, fairly contemptible, especially as in his efforts to live up to the part he had allotted to himself he invariably succeeded in behaving in an eminently unaristocratic manner. He lacked a kind heart just as surely as he lacked a coronet, and Norman blood was as alien to him as simple faith.
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