INTERVIEW QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS FOR THE LAST DAYS OF OSCSAR WILDE BY JOHN VANDERSLICE (Burlesque Press, 2018)
Why did you decide to spotlight the works and life of Oscar Wilde?
My interest in Oscar Wilde began in graduate school when I was reading a lot of his better-known works in order to catch up on this author who increasingly was lionized and seen as a gay lifestyle hero before his time. But what I found when I read the basic biographical sketches of his life was that those sketches pretty much stopped when he got out of prison in 1897. All that was said, more or less, was that he moved to Europe and died in Paris in 1900. I was instantly curious about what those last three years were like, especially for a man who had seen his life so violently overturned by the trials of 1895 and then the two years in prison. It took me several years, by finally I got around to satisfying my curiosity by researching and writing my novel The Last Days of Oscar Wilde.
What are some interesting facts that you wanted to highlight that most people would not even be aware of?
Yes, there were several. One, of course, is exactly how impoverished he was in the last couple of years. He really was living in squalid conditions and getting by on handouts from friends and even strangers. That represented quite the come down for a man as stylish and well-off as Wilde had been. Yet at the same time, Wilde still had the capacity for love and laughter. Even with his degraded personal circumstances, and the cruel treatment he received from most people, he maintained his sense of humor. He also maintained his fondness for intelligent banter, especially about artistic matters. In fact, given how “cut” he was by society and by so many who once called him a friend, I think he hungered for that kind of conversation even more than food and drink. That it was he needed and missed most of all. Finally, another aspect of Wilde that I felt I had to highlight was that his relationship with his wife–while clearly one that he, for all intents and purposes, abandoned–was not without affection on both sides. In many ways, she admired and loved and cared about him even after his secret illegal life was revealed in court. She visited him in prison and even sent him money after he was out of prison. And Wilde, even if he had no sexual interest in her at all, admired her as a person. Their marriage was not simply a matter of Wilde looking for a “beard” or a rich purse. He wanted to marry a woman he felt a personal connection with, and he did feel that for Constance Lloyd. At least at the time they married. At a certain point in their marriage, Wilde simply was not around much, and he was also being conspicuously unfaithful, but their marriage was not without mutual affection, and I tried to show that in one flashback scene.
Tell us about the time period that he lived in and how it is different from today and yet there are similarities in many ways.
It was very different, and yet in many ways not so different at all. Being an active homosexual was simply illegal in England then. Although, truth be told, the major danger in being revealed as homosexual was the destruction of your reputation, not prison. To avoid such exposure many gay men then, as now, tried to live lives that seemed extremely conventional on the surface. Many, like Wilde, married, even though they knew their sexual and romantic interests were directed toward men. Many were active in churches and the government. While in the 1890s laws were on the books stipulating that a person proven to be an active homosexual could receive a two-year prison sentence and that an active homosexual proven to have committed sodomy could receive life imprisonment, for the most part those laws were not enforced. It was simply understood that an underground homosexual culture existed, especially in London, and especially centered around the arts. This is not to say that this underground culture was accepted or condoned. No, instead, it was just barely tolerated, with a grimace, if you will–or fingers to the nose–provided that those involved in it did not publically flaunt their sexuality.
Therefore, Wilde’s case—being tried and convicted—was somewhat of an anomaly. And arguably he brought it on himself when he decided to take the father of his lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, John Douglas, to court on the charge of libel. This was because John Douglas publically accused Wilde of being a sodomite. In order to prove that John Douglas had not committed libel, his lawyers essentially put Wilde on trial by bringing in many different men who could attest to Wilde’s proclivities. Wilde became the defendant although technically he was the one prosecuting. John Douglas was acquitted, and the British government, given the evidence presented in court, almost immediately arrested Wilde and put him on trial for being an active homosexual.
However, there were still other factors involved in Wilde’s case. The first is that there were some in government eager to give teeth to the anti-homosexuality law (it was relatively new, being passed in 1885) by actually trying and convicting someone. Wilde, as flamboyant and well-known as he was, made an easy target, especially after all the revelations about him that came out in the libel case. Second, it is widely suspected now that John Douglas himself insisted that the government put Wilde on trial. In fact, he apparently told government prosecutors that if they did not try Wilde he was going to out the Prime Minister at the time, Archibald Primrose, as being gay. Primrose, the Earl of Rosebery, was rumored to be an active, if secret, homosexual, especially after the death of his wife in 1890.
Talk about his relationship with Lord Alfred Bosie Douglas and how this relationship played a vital part in his life and his successes.
Bosie Douglas was part of a circle of young gay men, mostly but not entirely university educated, with whom Wilde associated in the mid-1880s to mid-1890s. Apparently, they felt an instant attraction for each other, though there was a sixteen-year age difference. They shared a common interest in literature and in writing—Bosie fancied himself a brilliant young poet—and of course a common interest in men. Bosie Douglas became the most important, if fatal, romantic relationship in Wilde’s life. Their relationship could be, and several times was, very tempestuous, but it was also passionate. For each, they each satisfied some deep-seated need. In fact, it is safe to say that although finally they were not good for each other—they really and truly were not—they were also addicted to each other, addicted to being in a close relationship. Nowadays, I think we would call it a co-dependent relationship, with Wilde being the enabler for a quite a lot of demands by, and insufferable behavior from, Douglas. But Wilde could be trying himself at times too. What Douglas represented for Wilde was the culmination of his homosexual romantic aspirations, and I think he felt enlarged and empowered in a way by the relationship; but, finally, the relationship brought about his downfall, once the conflict with Bosie’s father got out of hand.
Why does Oscar ask Boise to translate Salome into English?
Oscar knew, of course, about Douglas’s literary aspirations, and he wanted to encourage Bosie in any way he could. I think Wilde saw the offer of acting as translator for Salome—from French into English—as the biggest favor he could possibly bestow upon the younger man, who at that time had few publications to his credit and no books. Bosie, at that time, was very much an up-and-coming poet, not an arrived one. He did not even have a university degree. He also had no experience as a translator. So this was a major honor Wilde sought to bestow, an honor that his fondness, his love, for Bosie drove him to give. I think Wilde’s intentions were honorable. But it didn’t actually work out that well. By all accounts, Bosie’s translation was not a good one. Wilde was disappointed, and his natural pride in his work and his literary sensibility told him that he could not accept the translation. He was perfectly capable of translating his own French-language play into English, and that is what he proceeded to do. Bosie was livid that Wilde had discarded his translation, and for a time it ruined things between them. But, as always, they got over it and got along. As I said, they were addicted to being in relationship with each other.
Coming out he meets Maurice Gilbert who pleased him for a while but how do we know that Gilbert might have been using Oscar for what he could give him and explain about the bike?
Yes, this happens in Paris a couple years after Wilde gets out of prison, which is the period I focus on in my book. According to the biographers, Wilde first encountered Maurice Gilbert when he saw the younger man pass by him on the street. Wilde was so taken by Gilbert’s looks that he followed him and engaged him in conversation. Eventually their relationship became a romantic one. And this was important for Wilde, I think, because it was his first meaningful romantic relationship since splitting for good from Bosie Douglas. But Wilde was devastated when Gilbert, who was a solider, had to leave Paris because of a military assignment. Gilbert associated with some of the other homosexual men in Wilde’s group of friends, but Wilde felt a particularly strong attachment. At one point, according to the biographers, Wilde asked Gilbert if he could receive any present in the world what would he want it to be. Gilbert replied that he would like a bicycle he just saw in a Paris shop. He loved its handlebars. Wilde bought it for Gilbert. I thought that would make a nice scene to dramatize for my book, so I did. I didn’t really see Gilbert as using Wilde so much as Gilbert being extremely naïve. A kind of man-child, which is exactly the type of person who would have inflamed Wilde’s romantic and sexual interest.
How did you create the flashback scenes and dialogue between Oscar and Constance? Why did she withdraw her petition for divorce and how did this at first benefit him and in what way?
Well, my book is a novel, so like all novels it is driven by scenes and by characters. Which means, of course, that there must be dialogue. Some of the dialogue in the book comes directly from exchanges and conversations I read about in the research I conducted for the book. But most of the dialogue was invented by me, based on what I knew about the people involved, the state of their relationship, their feelings toward each other. This is true of that flashback scene involving Oscar, Constance, and their son Cyril. I was trying to demonstrate that while an obvious distance had opened up between Oscar and Constance, they were not entirely without feeling toward one another, and they, in different ways, tried to do right by their children. Constance is very tired in that scene, and that struck me as inevitable, given that the brunt of raising their children had fallen to her. On the other hand, Oscar comes across as a caring, devoted father in the scene, and that too I intentionally emphasized, because, according to the sources I read, he was in fact quite an affectionate father.
How do we know that Oscar cared for his sons?
Many who knew Wilde referred to an obvious “sweetness” in his personality; this is especially true of the writer Frank Harris in his book Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, in which Harris recounts his friendship with Wilde. So it was not surprising for me to learn that Wilde, while absent for long stretches, was, when present, a playful, affectionate, and caring father. This is the picture drawn by Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland in a memoir Holland published in 1954 called The Son of Oscar Wilde. In that book, Holland asserts that he had a very happy childhood and that Wilde was an extremely affectionate, doting father.
Tell us about the play that Frank Harris produced and what tension or rift it created between him and Oscar and why?
One curious, and I think humorous, fact about the last months of Wilde’s life was that one way he raised a little bit of extra money was to sell the rights to an idea he once had for a play. This idea came to him back before he went into prison and he never actually realized the idea in an actual play. But the idea remained, so he sold it off to raise some money. Problem was, he sold it to more than one person; in fact, he sold it to many people, one of whom was Frank Harris. Wilde did not expect any of these people would actually go ahead and produce a play from his idea, but Harris did. Before Harris’s play could be staged, however, he had to pay off several people who claimed to have the rights to the idea before he did. Naturally, Harris was angry, and this put a real rent in his relationship with Wilde. But Harris, who is an important character in my novel, retained his essential fondness for Wilde and published his very affectionate book about Wilde in 1916. I mentioned it earlier.
How did you create the final scenes where we hear him with both Robbie Ross and Reggie Turner feeling the presence of someone yet imagining things? He appeared to be out of it and not focusing on reality: How did you create this dialogue and the scene?
My editor felt strongly that since Wilde is the point of view character for the whole novel, he needed to remain the point of view character even on his death bed, even as he was fading in and out of consciousness. I had a lot of fun with those scenes, trying to suggest that Wilde has lost track of time, lost track of his surroundings, even lost track of who is in the room with him, but at the same time trying to convey what was going on around him in those final days. What I like best about those scenes is that he remains, even as he is fading in and out, Oscar Wilde: that man, that mind. As with any time you enter a character’s mind, even a historical character’s mind, there is a lot of invention required. But I hope what I invented feels right to Wilde and to what he was going through then.
Where can we learn more about you and your work?
Thanks for asking. I have a website: johnvanderslicebooks.com. On the website, there is information about me, about my books, and about my other publications. There’s also information about upcoming events in which I will be participating.