Unconventional, scandalous, witty, generous, brilliant, these are just a few adjectives that may suit a man of such genius and personality like Oscar Wilde, a man who knew both the triumph and adoration of people and the brutal disaster at the end of his life. Whenever I think about the swirl of events that characterized his life of man and artist, I can’t help but think about his children. What kind of father was Oscar Wilde? What did it mean growing under the shadow of such a giant of his times?
Oscar Wilde had two sons: Cyril (1885-1915) and Vyvyan (1886-1967). Many of my curiosities were satisfied by Vyvyan, who wrote : “Son of Oscar Wilde”. As far as we know, the boys had a marvelous early childhood. They grew up at the Wildes’ fashionable home in Tite Street, Chelsea. As their father was a popular playwright and their mother an attractive and cultured hostess, the litterati of London were often present in their home. People like John Singer Sargent, John Ruskin, Mark Twain, Robert Browning, Algernon Swinburne, and Ellen Terry were often seen at their house. Wilde by all accounts was a wonderful father and he delighted in playing with the boys. The boys in turn absolutely adored him, “… he was a hero to us both. He was so tall and distinguished and, to our uncritical eyes, so handsome …. He was a real companion to us, and we always looked forward eagerly to his frequent visits to our nursery…. He would go down on all fours on the nursery floor, being in turn a lion, a wolf, a horse, caring nothing for his usually immaculate appearance.”
The sense of style was not only their father’s issue. They seem to have been dressed very fashionably, apparently in matching outfits.We are not sure to what extent their father was involved in choosing their clothing, however, they wore Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, sailor suits and other outfits. The boys also wore berets and blouses with large collars and despite their father love for velvet suits, it seems that the boys were much less enamored of them. They much preferred their sailor suits.
Wilde’s legal problems shattered the boys’ pampered life. When Constance, their mother decided that the boys could no longer stay at their school, they had not a clue of what had happened. She decided to send them to Switzerland with a French governess, where they stayed for 3 years. Once in Switzerland they were instructed that they had to forget their name Wilde and that they would now be called Holland. This was the name of their mother’s relations. Vyvyan was told that his name was now Vivian and the Oscar Beresford dropped. The boys were not told what had happened, but they were told in no uncertain terms that there would be serious repercussions if their old identity slipped out. Vivian recalls that even 2 years after their father’s disgrace that he still did not know just what his father had done. Somehow Cyril found out, but he did not tell it to his little brother. Constance Wilde’s family wanted to eradicate all memory of his father and insisted that he was dead and that his literary work was not important. Vivian recalls that he was so miserable that he once lay down in the snow wanting to die. Constance did not hate her disgraced husband, but she needed to defend her children from the consequences of the public scandal. She wrote to Vivian shortly before her death, “Try not to feel harshly about your father; remember that he is your father and that he loves you. All his troubles arose from the hatred of a son for his father, and whatever he has done he has suffered bitterly for“.
The boys were sent off to an English-language boarding school in Heidelberg, Germany–Neuenheim Collage (1896). One day, the boys found some cricket flannels packed in their trunks still had the Wilde name tags. They remember being horrified to find evidence of their former names on their clothes. Even if they had no idea of what had occurred, they, actually, felt like little criminals. Vivian later wrote: “The thought that at any moment an indiscreet remark or a chance encounter … might betray us was a sword of Damocles constantly hanging over our heads.” It was subsequently decided to separate the boys as an added security measure. Cyril stayed at the school in Germany, while Vivian was sent to a Catholic (Jesuit) school in Monaco. Therefore the boys had been permanently separated from their father and lived far away from their mother in a foreign country. The situation worsened when their mother died in 1898. They were left in the charge of their mother’s family, who sought legal counsel to prevent Oscar Wilde from seeing his sons again.The family did not even tell them, when their father died.
The boys eventually returned to England after their mother’s death. Vivian was brought back from Monaco by a priest and he was taken in by his mother’s aunt. Cyril who was nearly 2 years older, 13 at the time, was allowed to leave his school at Heidelberg and come home on his own. The family decided to keep the boys split apart and chose two different schools for them. Vivian was sent to Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, a Jesuit public school, while Cyril attended Radley School. With this separation they no longer spent much time together, but they kept in touch by writing.
Vivian was 12-years old when he entered the school and it seems it was a gifted scholar. Oscar Wilde died when he was only 14 and when the Rector of Stonyhurst summoned the boy and to inform him of the tragic occurrence, Vivian remembers saying: “But I thought he died long ago” and began crying. Only a few years later, at age 16 he read Robert Sherard‘s Oscar Wilde: The Story of an Unhappy Friendship (1902) and finally learned what had happened. He remembers being so “depressed” that he determined to read no further books about his father. He decided then to go into mourning. When his schoolmates asked why, he came up with a cover story. He told them that his father’s body was found on a South Sea island after he had long been lost at sea. The colorful narration made him “something of a hero” for a time. He left Stonyhurst in 1904.
Vivian Holland studied law at Trinity Hall in the University of Cambridge from 1905, but tired of his studies, he left Cambridge in 1907. However, he resumed his study of law at the age of 22, and was called to the Bar of England and Wales by the Inner Temple in 1912. He then began to write poems and short stories and in 1913 married Violet Craigie. Unlike his brother, Cyril did not attend university and decided to make a career in the Army. After leaving Radley, he enrolled as a Gentleman Cadet at the Royal Military College. When World War I broke out , Vivian, who had no military background, entered service as a second lieutenant.With his linguistic talents he was assigned to the Interpreters Corps, but unfortunately no more interpreters were needed. Therefore, he was transferred to the Royal Field Artillery, where his brother was serving. Looking back, Vivian wrote, “He was not popular with his brother officers, who considered him pompous and intolerant. He would not join the small talk of the mess, mostly scandal or about sport. And they could not understand anyone who spent his ordinary leave in travelling about Europe and visiting art galleries instead of hunting, shooting, yachting, or fishing”. Cyril was killed during the second battle for Neuve Chapelle (1915). A sniper shot and killed Cyril. Vivian who was only a few miles away was shattered. He wrote: “The last link with Tite Street and the spacious days had snapped“. While still in France, Vivian learned that his wife, Violet, had been terribly burned in a fire. She died before he could get home (1918). Vivian had been wounded and mentioned in several dispatches for his bravery under fire. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire and discharged (1919).
After returning to England, Vivian began a career as a translator, author, and editor. He worked on a wide variety of books in several languages and translated and edited several of his father’s works into other languages.Vivian’s son Merlin is also a writer, but the family has kept the name Holland, never reverting to Wilde.