Oscar’s Books by Thomas Wright

23/08/08, The Times

Thomas Wright’s unusual biography of Oscar Wilde, Oscar’s Books, opens with a heartbreaking scene of licensed barbarism. In April 1895, while Wilde was awaiting trial, the entire contents of his house on Tite Street in Chelsea was put up for sale to pay the £600 in legal costs that had been awarded to his opponent, the Marquess of Queensbury, whom Wilde had unsuccessfully sued for libel. Of all the possessions to be dispersed, even ransacked, as a result of this, the most painful loss was that of Wilde’s enormous library, which had taken over thirty years to put together. Book dealers, bargain hunters, ‘curiosity hunters who had come in search of mementoes of the “monster” ’, all reduced, in the course of a single afternoon, half a lifetime’s passion to so many cheap job lots.

Wright’s biographical project necessarily comes to Wilde, an iconic figure and endlessly written about, from a new angle. Following in the footsteps of works such as the exhaustive two-volume Wordsworth’s Reading by Duncan Wu, or the more belles-lettrestic, personal and hugely enjoyable The Child that Books Built by Francis Spufford, Wright tries to construct a comprehensive picture of his subject’s intellect and mental passions and proclivities through a recovery of what he read rather than treading the trajectory more conventional biographies tend to follow, the usual parents-birth-childhood-youth scheme, ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’, as Salinger so memorably put it. Although chronologically it does exactly that, the picture Wright is trying to draw is of a more interior nature; not so much of external events as of an intellectual landscape that gradually takes shape over an entire life.

And it is this faithful and relentless following of the chronological arc that ultimately prevents the book from achieving lift-off. We begin with the Celtic myths and Irish folk tales that the child Wilde heard at his cradle, note his consuming passion for poetry (Tennyson was his favourite), follow him to Portora Royal boarding-school in Enniskillen, where we see him excel in Greek and Latin. Wright remarks on his love of the novel, especially three French ones that made a great impression on him, Balzac’s Lost Illusions and A Harlot High and Low, and Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black. Then we dutifully follow him to Trinity College, Dublin, where he read Classics, look at his annotated copies of Euripides’s The Bacchae, Livy’s Roman History, Books XIII-XIV of Homer’s Iliad. Wright’s interest in marginalia is illuminating but these are often banal scribblings.

Then we arrive at the watershed of Wilde’s coming up to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1874 and his life-changing engagement with Plato’s Dialogues and Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance. And so it trots, with damaging predictability, right down to the books that kept him company during his tragic final years in Naples and Paris. What ultimately saves it is not only the sensationally aesthetic role-playing that has made Wilde’s life legendary but also Wright’s adroit intertwining of the books and the lifestyle encouraged and inspired by the reading.