Oscar Wilde’s talk inspired his rise and led to his downfall
Writer was a compelling conversationalist but it sometimes got him in trouble
Oscar Wilde: His talk informed and directed his development as a writer. Photograph: Roger Viollet Collection/Getty
“Oscar Wilde was without exception the most brilliant talker I have ever come across.” Such was the verdict of the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. And it was, of course, a verdict echoed by many, many others. Indeed Wilde’s brilliance as a talker is a recurring commonplace in the memoirs of men and women who lived in the late 19th century.
His voice was compelling: a “light baritone”, as his sister-in-law described it, “sometimes hurrying, bright, animated and gay, but more usually measured and deliberate, and even languid (unlike his brother Willie, who spoke very rapidly)”; its tones were “rounded and velvety”; there was no trace of an Irish “brogue”; and he gave a distinctively “full value” to the double letter in such words as “adding,” “yellow” etc, while lingering “caressingly on the vowels.”
While the critics might complain that all the characters spoke like Oscar Wilde, that was exactly what audiences enjoyed – and continue to enjoy
His range was wide. He was a spontaneous wit, a happy conversationalist (with that gift for making his interlocutor feel almost equally brilliant) and a compelling story-teller. In every social encounter Wilde’s delight in talk was apparent. But although it became another late-Victorian commonplace to insist that the quality Wilde’s talk far outstripped the quality of his writings, the point is perhaps overstrained.
What is not in doubt is the connection between the two. It was talk that informed and directed Wilde’s development as a writer. Talk was how he honed his ideas. It was how he tried out his effects. He told and re-told his stories, experimenting with alternative endings and different moods.
And it is true also that his work gained in strength the more closely he was able to ally it to the rhythms of his own conversation. The stilted artificiality of his youthful poetry, of his now-forgotten tragedies (Vera and The Duchess of Padua), even of his charming Fairy Stories was, at the end of the 1880s, replaced with something fresher, freer and more direct. Wilde’s own voice can be heard in his inspired philosophical duologues, “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist”. It is there in the daringly subversive eloquence of Lord Henry Wotton. (Wilde’s friend Frank Harris considered that the “first hundred pages’ of The Picture of Dorian Gray” - recording the bantering chat of Lord Henry, Basil Hallward and Dorian - “held the results of months and months of Oscar’s talk.)
And it was the brilliance of that chatter that encouraged the actor-manager, George Alexander, to commission Wilde to write his first society comedy – and his first theatrical hit – Lady Windermere’s Fan.
The success of that play – and of the three others that followed it – was founded on its distinctive wit. And while the critics might complain that all the characters spoke like Oscar Wilde, that was exactly what audiences enjoyed – and continue to enjoy. When some reviewers ungraciously suggested that his paradoxes were formulaic, Bernard Shaw wryly remarked, “As far as I can ascertain, I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. The fact that his plays, though apparently lucrative, remain unique under these circumstances, says much for the self-denial of our scribes.”
Talk brought Wilde success but it also proved his downfall, at the time of his libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde’s inability, during his cross-examination by Edward Carson, to curb his facetious eloquence led to him incriminating himself – when he flippantly declared that he had certainly not kissed a particular young man because he was “peculiarly plain”. The slip marked the first inexorable step on the road to his conviction for acts of gross indecency – and his two-year prison sentence.
Among the many hardships of prison life, perhaps the greatest for Wilde, was the absence of talk. The “silent” system then in operation, condemned men to a solitary existence in their cells; and even during the short interludes of exercise and divine worship all talking was forbidden. Without talk Wilde lost part of his own identity.
But if Wilde’s talk was something unique, it had distinct and traceable origins. And those origins were in Ireland.
It is important to keep always in mind that Wilde had been born into a world of talk. The sound of human voices – vital, informed, humorous, provocative – flowed around him from the moment of his birth – at Westland Row, Dublin in 1854. It filled the high-ceilinged rooms at 1 Merrion Square, the house to which the family moved two years later. It enlivened afternoons in the old Stone Hall at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, where Wilde was sent at the age of 9. It dominated the quadrangles of Trinity College Dublin where Wilde began his undergraduate studies.
Talk was the great currency of Wilde’s early Irish life. And he received a rich inheritance. His father, Sir William Wilde – doctor, antiquarian, statistician, polymath – was a fount of anecdotal information and ideas, a raconteur and a polemicist. One foreign guest to Merrion Square considered that, sitting beside him at dinner, she had received her first understanding of what “table talk” really must be - so very striking was his easy and humorous way of entertainment.’ Oscar’s mother was no less brilliant than her husband. Her mode of talk, though, was more extravagant, romantic and challenging. It was she who proposed to her son the foundation of a “Society for the Suppression of Virtue” - as a counterbalance to the evangelical “Society for the Suppression of Vice.”
Around their sociable table the Wildes gathered Dublin’s professional elite – doctors, lawyers, clergymen, academics. They were all people who understood the art – and artifice – of conversation. PJ Mahaffy, who would be Oscar’s tutor at Trinity, was a regular guest. Amongst his memorable aphorisms were “in Ireland the inevitable never happens, and the unexpected constantly occurs”, and “never tell a story because it is true: tell it because it is a good story.” Even for the men of science, mere facts were never allowed to dominate diversion. Dr William Stokes (a near neighbour at 5 Merrion Square) considered that “the golden rule of conversation” was “to know nothing accurately.”
From a very young age Oscar and his brother were allowed up to listen to such notions. Nothing, they soon discovered, was sacred. At the parental dining table they heard “every creed” both “defended and demolished”.
Although Oscar would later write – in An Ideal Husband – that “if one could only teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen, society here would be quite civilised”, he himself did listen, and learn, too. Even after his stints at TCD and Magdalen College, Oxford, he considered that his “best education” had been obtained from his association with his father and mother “and their remarkable friends” around the board at Merrion Square. It was, above everything else, an education in talk, and Wilde put it to extraordinary use.
Matthew Sturgis is shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize for Oscar: A Life. The winner is announced today