Oscar Wilde in Naples

Many words can be used to describe Oscar Wilde’s genius and personality, but wise is not one of them, to be sure. Having spent two years in jail after having been charged for “gross indecency”, the echoes of the scandal were not over yet, so he decided that Paris would have been a better place to try and start over again. In those months in Paris he could work on his famous “Ballad of Reading Jail”, but the signs of hard labour on his body and the awareness of the terrible humiliation his family had suffered were not enough to make him ignore the reasons of his heart. Against his better judgement, if he had any, Wilde yielded to his desire to see again Lord Alfred Douglas, Bosie, the man who had brought him to a tremendous downfall, so the two decided to spent the winter in Naples as Bosie ‘s relations were already there. Of course, his friends and family were furious for his going back the man who had ruined not only his but the life of those who had been close to him.

Towards the end of September 1897 the two lovers arrived in Naples and settled at Villa del Giudice on the charming Posillipo hill. Even though he used the name of Sebastian Melmoth, his coming to Naples become soon the tittle-tattle of the moment and only a couple of weeks after their arrival Matilde Serao wrote an article about the presence in town of such a famous, irreverent artist on the most popular newspaper: Il Mattino. “The secret of Pulcinella” we would call it  here in Italy and this expression particularly fits, as Pulcinella is a character who belongs to the Neapolitan Comedy of Art. By the way, how Wilde meant to keep the secret, having started soon to attend the Neapolitan literary circles, I cannot make it out, but as I told you before, wisdom has never touched him. Of course, being in reduced circumstances he was trying to have his works translated, but the tittle-tattle could not be stopped when the couple started to be seen in the company of other men, who were not part of any artistic society. A waiter of a hotel said he had seen Wilde with five soldiers and that he had spent the entire night with them.

So very soon rumors became scandals. It was only October when the couple decided to visit Capri and lodged at Hotel Quisisana. When the Swedish doctor and writer Alex Munthe met them the following day, they looked particularly depressed as they were waiting for a boat to go back to Naples. “They denied us even bread” said Wilde laconically and Bosie explained that some Uk customers had recognized them at the hotel and as they could not tolerate their presence there and the two lovers were politely sent away by the property owner. They had tried to find shelter in another hotel but they had received the same treatment. Axel Munthe invited them to dinner and offered them to be his guests at Villa Lysis, for some days. Afterwards, Wilde went back to Naples the 18th of October 1897, while Bosie decided to remain few more days at Munthe’s “Villa San Michele”.

The fact that Wilde and Bosie were a continuous source of scandal, brought both Douglas’s and Wilde’s families first to ask, then to intimate and eventually to force the two to separate. Which was their weakest point? Money. Wilde was deprived of the small income guaranteed to him by his separated wife, while  Bosie’s funds were cut by his mother. Even an emissary of the Embassy of England in Rome came to Naples expressly to see Douglas and make him understand that he would have to separate from Wilde immediately and such a conduct was considered like misbehaving towards the embassy itself.

 

It might be regarded a little harsh, but the cut of the funds worked well, and shortly after, at the end of November 1897, Douglas returned home after having written a warm letter of apology to his mother, who, by the way, had paid the (many) bills left pending by the couple. Wilde even received some money from her, which he used to take a trip to Taormina. Ah, the pangs of love!

 

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My lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.

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Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie, was a young aristocrat and poet, the youngest son of the Marquess of Queensberry. He looked like an angel: fragile, with a very pale complexion, blonde hair and blue eyes, but often appearances can be deceptive and this case was no exception. The story of his relationship with Wilde began in 1892. Bosies’s  cousin, Lionel Johnson, had lent him a  copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray“, and after reading it  fourteen times in a row” he wished to be introduced to the author and so at the end of June 1891 Lionel Johnson accompanied his cousin in Tite Street and introduced him to Oscar Wilde. At the end of June 1892 Douglas needed Oscar’s help, because he was being blackmailed. Oscar, thanks to his lawyer George Lewis, solved all and since then they started to date and by the end of December 1893 they had become inseparable. The rumors about their lives ran all over London. The writer had little desire to hide that relationship and Bosie was even more eager to show it, as he wanted everyone to know that he was Oscar Wilde’ s “favorite”. In a letter to his friend Robert Ross Oscar writes:”My dearest Bobbie, Bosie has insisted on stopping here for sandwiches. He is quite like a narcissus – so white and gold (……..)Bosie is so tired: he lies like a hyacinth on the sofa, and I worship him”. Oscar was even introduced to Bosie’s mother, Lady Bracknell, and he made her one of the characters of his most popular comedy: “The Importance of Being Earnest“.

wi.3However, Bosie was not that “angel” he apparently seemed to be,  but rather,  he was usually described by his closest friends as spoiled, reckless, insolent and extravagant. He used to spend money on boys and gambling and expected Wilde to contribute to his expenses. It was Bosie who introduced Oscar to the circles of young  male prostitutes, rent boys who were readily available in spite of (or perhaps because of) the moral climate of the straight-laced Victorian Period. Wilde did nothing but follow him dispensing money, gold or silver cigarette cases and other gifts. He once said that attending these young guys was like feasting with panthers. Alfred Taylor (son of a manufacturer), Sidney Mavor (future priest), Maurice Schwabe and Freddy Atkins, Edward Shelley for a short time and Alfred Wood, a boy of seventeen, who blackmailed him obtaining 30 pounds, were some of those “panthers” who crowded Wilde’s chamber.

wi.5Since 1893 Wilde preferred to stay in a hotel to avoid scandals in order to meet freely and secretly his young lovers, but Douglas, instead, was not interested in hiding at all: he always entered from the main entrance. His friends were concerned and disappointed mainly because Bosie’s imprudent behavior exposed Oscar to very serious risks: it openly violated the “Criminal Law amendment Actof 1885 , an amendment which made “gross indecency” a crime in the United Kingdom. His friend Pierre Louys visited Wilde in the hotel with his wife Constance, who tearfully pleaded her husband to come home, but it was a failure.

wi.2Wilde’s first serious risk was the case of Philip Danney, a sixteen year old son of a colonel who on Saturday went to bed with Douglas, with Wilde on Sunday  and on Monday with a girl at Douglas’s expense. When the young man then returned to school, he was not able to produced a justification for the school days he had missed, the whole thing was discovered. His father went immediately to the police, but on the advice of his lawyer, as the guy seemed unwilling to make the name of Wilde, he realized that it was better not to act, even because his son risked to be imprisoned. After a furious fight with Oscar, Alfred Douglas left for Cairo, while Wilde hid in Paris and somehow he regained a certain serenity and he also went to applaud  the poet Paul Verlaine, who had recently been released from prison after his troubled vicissitudes with Rimbaud. At that time he also found his creativity back, as he wrote among other things The Canterville Ghost“, but the sudden return of Douglas ended his desire to write. Once again everything was as it used to be.

wi.12Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had tried in vain to convince his son to end the relationship, furthermore he was disappointed as Bosie had left Oxford without achieving a degree and he could not see any prospect of his taking up a proper career. He threatened to “disown [Alfred] and stop all money supplies” and to “make a public scandal ” if he continued his relationship with Wilde. Alfred ‘s answer was  “I detest you” on a postcard. It was clear that he would take Wilde’s side in a fight between him and his father. Queensberry also planned to throw rotten vegetables at Wilde during the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest, but, forewarned of this, the playwright was able to deny him access to the theatre.Queensberry, now exacerbated, publicly insulted Wilde by leaving, at the latter’s club, a visiting card on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite“–a misspelling of “sodomite.”

wi.11Against the advice of his closest friends, Wilde was convinced by Bosie to sue the Marquess for libel in a private prosecution. It was the wrong choice.  Queensberry was arrested, but he not only avoided conviction demonstrating in court that the charge was not true, but Wilde found himself involved in a new trial with the accusation of “gross indecency”. Witnesses, private letters, it had not been difficult to find evidence. Three days after the beginning of the trial, on April 29, Wilde wrote from prison a moving letter to Bosie, who had gone to Paris in the meanwhile. On 25 May 1895  Wilde was sentenced to two years and three months of hard labour, first at Pentonville, then Wandsworth, then in the famous Reading Gaol

wi8The prison regime was tough: the poet had serious health problems and by the way, falling awkwardly because of a collapse, he got himself a wound in his right ear that probably would cost him his life five years later, because the infection degenerated and turned into meningitis. Meanwhile, Wilde had vainly hoped for solidarity and support from his beloved Bosie, who instead had turned away from him proving coldness and callousness; the boy  even told him, during his illness, that when (he) was not on (his) pedestal (he) was not interesting.”Hurt and disgusted by the attitude of his lover, Wilde wrote from jail a very long letter entitledDe Profundis, in which he expressed his sorrow and his contempt for the vanity and the inconsistency of Lord Alfred, repudiating him formally. Wilde was not authorized to send it, so when he was released, he gave the manuscript to his friend Robert Ross, with the  instructions to send a copy to Bosie, who however denied for life to have received it.The letter was published only in 1905, five years after the poet’s death.
wi.10The prison experience had affected him deeply, since then he cultivated the dream of escaping from the world that had sentenced him and refused his way of being. He moved to France and lived in Paris for four months trying to rebuild his life and trying to forget the man who had brought him to ruin. But love is stronger than reason. He got back in touch with Douglas and  they decided to spend the winter together in Naples.The two lovers lived on Posillipo hill, at Villa Giudice. Although Wilde was traveling as Sebastian Melmoth, his arrival in the city became public soon, the news was even reported by the newspaper Il Mattino” in an article by Matilde Serao.
wi.9When they were in Capri, at the Quisisana, as soon as they sat down to dine, the owner invited them to go somewhere else as some fellow countrymen, who had recognized the poet, did not  tolerate to be in his proximity. The incident did not remain confined in the island and the two were again on everyone’s lips and the scandal forced the relatives of both to find a remedy. The British Embassy was involved and the two were deprived of their income. Wilde was thus dispossessed of his small income granted by his ex-wife, while Bosie’s funds were cut by his mother. Bosie‘s mother paid the bills of the couple, and forced him to go back home, while Wilde went to Taormina with the little money received from the mother of his lover. In February 1898 he left for Paris.

wi.6The relationship with Lord Douglas was now finished. Bosie had finally abandoned Wilde, probably for fear of being disowned by the family. In 1902, Douglas married Olive Eleanor Custance, heiress and poet. They had a son, Raymond, who suffered from a severe form of schizophrenia and died in a nursing home in 1964. The marriage ended soon in a legal separation, but there was no divorce. In the last years of his life, Douglas lived mainly thanks to his maternal inheritance. His father, in fact, had squandered much of his fortune. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he left London and took refuge with a couple of friends in Lancing, West Sussex, where he died of heart failure in 1945.

 

My husband, Oscar Wilde.

con1Whenever I think about Constance Lloyd  Wilde, and what she had to endure, all alone in an age when  it was important to be “earnest”, respectable and have the sense of decorum, I cannot help but wonder: what was her marriage like? When did she understand about her husband’s sexual behaviour? How did she feel? Let’s start from the beginning.

con4As far as we know, Constance first met Wilde at a party given by Lady Wilde for her two sons at Merrion Square in Dublin on 6 June 1881. Constance was a passionate reader of poetry and discovered soon that Wilde shared with her a deep admiration for Keats. On the following day, she wrote to her brother Otho:
“O. W. came yesterday at about 5.30 (by which time I was shaking with fright!) and stayed for half an hour, begged me to come and see his mother again soon…. I can’t help liking him, because when he’s talking to me alone he’s never a bit affected, and speaks naturally, excepting that he uses better language than most people.

The following months, she slowly grew attached to him, but her parents were not that impressed by Wilde’s extravagance and furthermore, the eccentricities of his parents were notorious.  Somebody asserts that Wilde was more interested in her family ‘s wealth than Constance herself, but some others, like Ann Clark Amor, believe that he just fell in love with her because:
“... she shared with Oscar a love of beauty and simplicity of form. Her high intelligence and deep knowledge of art and literature made her an ideal companion at theatres, art galleries and social gatherings, yet she combined this with a clinging trust in Oscar which was very endearing.”
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Certainly, she had her firm points of view. For example she disagreed with Wilde’s aesthetic view on the relationship between art and morality, in fact, she clearly explained in a letter to him that “... that there is no perfect art without perfect morality, whilst you say that they are distinct and separate things...”. On 26 November, Constance wrote to her brother, Otho, that she was engaged to Wilde “and perfectly and insanely happy”, and Wilde wrote to Lillie Langtry in December: “…I am going to be married to a beautiful girl called Constance Lloyd, a grave, slight, violet-eyed little Artemis “. On 29 May 1884, at 2:30 p.m., Wilde and Constance were married in St. James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, the witnesses including Lady Wilde and Oscar’s brother, Willie. Shortly after their marriage Wilde will write to her : “I feel incomplete without you” .
In the years before 1895, their relationship was based on their admiration of each other’s unique qualities, as Amor writes:
“He adored his shy young bride with her radiant beauty and slim form; he was proud of her, took infinite interest in her clothes (a rare quality in a husband) and loved going with her to choose more. He was her ideal mentor in matters of culture and taste, her professor in the art of love. He was the center of her universe, till death and no doubt beyond.
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The dinner parties at their Tite Street home attracted all the most important figures of the time. As a hostess, Constance was a success, though inevitably she was overshadowed by Oscar, as, indeed, almost everyone else was in his company. Constance’s pregnancies and births of Cyril and Vyvyan had an adverse effect on Wilde, for Constance was often unwell during this time, so they slowly become sexually estranged. His social relationships now tended to exclude Constance, who turned to her writing and participated actively in the Liberal politics of the day. It was about this time that the Wildes welcomed young Robbie Ross into their home. Robbie, a loyal friend to both throughout the rest of their lives, became Oscar’s lover. The situation had changed, and it didn’t go unnoticed  Oscar started to drop hints to various young men that his sexual preferences had changed, while Constance, with seeming innocence, welcomed them all as family friends. After all, she was just following the Victorian motto :”public virtues and hidden vices” .
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By 1892, a new lover was about to come on stage. Spoilt, selfish and immensely in love with what he believed was his own genius, Lord Alfred Douglas, better known as Bosie (the name derived from Lady Queensberry’s pet-name of “Boysie” for her third son) upset the Wildes’ life. Astonishingly, following Wilde’s break with his expensive, untalented young lover (Bosie’s translation from the French of Wilde’s Salome was so poor that it had to be rewritten by the embarrassed author), it was Constance who succumbed to Lord Alfred’s pleas. In February 1894, she invited him to return. Douglas incredibly wrote about her:
I was always on the best of terms with Mrs. Wilde. I liked her and she liked me. She told me, about a year after I first met her, that she liked me better than any of Oscar’s other friends“.
Wilde seems to contradict these words as he wrote to Douglas that their friendship had always distressed Constance. Still, whatever confusion existed in Constance’s mind before the trials concerning Douglas and Wilde, she was “wonderfully loyal,” Wilde told Robert Ross, adding: “She could not understand me, and I was bored to death with the married life”.
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Bosie was the cause of Wilde’s vertiginous downfall, in 1895, at the top of his fame:
It was Bosie who urged Wilde to prosecute Lord Queensberry for the infamous “posing Sodomite” card left, without an envelope, at Wilde’s club. It was Bosie’s careless gifts of suits, their pockets still filled with incriminating letters, that linked Wilde to the world of rent-boys into which his young lover had led him. It was Bosie who hurt Constance’s reputation most, by declaring her responsible for the failure of Wilde’s marriage.”
Harsh new rulings on homosexuality were introduced to England and Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labours. After Wilde’s imprisonment, Constance changed her and her sons’ last name to Holland to estrange themselves from Wilde’s scandal and forced him to give up his parental rights. The couple never divorced. Constance visited Wilde in prison and paid his expenses when he left it. She planned, as he did, for a reunion, but when Bosie resurfaced, Constance accused Wilde only of being “weak as water” and refused to sent him money.

In the meantime Constance had started to feel unwell. In 1894, she wrote: ‘I am alright when I don’t walk.’ A year later, her walking had deteriorated. Constance sought help from two doctors. One of them was a “nerve doctor” from Heidelberg, Germany who believed in treating patients with baths and electricity. The second doctor was an Italian, Luigi Maria Bossi, who somehow thought that neurological and mental illness could be cured with gynecological operations. She was therefore operated for uterine fibroid in 1895 and 1898, the latter of which ultimately led to her death.It seems that Constance was wrongly diagnosed, as the symptoms nowadays would be associated to multiple sclerosis. A tragic end to a tragic life.