A new film examines the playwright's famous deathbed conversion
Think of the “Second Spring” of English Catholicism and you will probably picture converts such as Cardinal Newman, Ronald Knox and GK Chesterton. Oscar Wilde – who converted on his deathbed in 1900 – is not usually associated with them. But The Happy Prince, a new film about the final years of Wilde’s life directed by Rupert Everett, may help to change that.
The sincerity of Wilde’s conversion is often questioned. Some point out that Wilde was semi-comatose on his deathbed. Others, like Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellmann, question whether his conversion was about faith or fashion, comparing the “application of sacred oils to [Wilde’s] hands and feet” to the playwright’s habit of “putting a green carnation in his buttonhole”.
Fr Cuthbert Dunne, the young priest who attended Wilde on his deathbed, kept silent about the controversy for most of his life. But before he died in 1950, mindful of the historical importance of the event, he set down his recollection of it:
[Wilde] made brave efforts to speak, and would even continue for a time trying to talk, though he could not utter articulate words. Indeed, I was fully satisfied that he understood me when told that I was about to receive him into the Catholic Church and give him the Last Sacraments. From the signs he gave, as well as from his attempted words, I was satisfied as to his full consent. And when I repeated close to his ear the Holy Names, the Acts of Contrition, Faith, Hope and Charity, with acts of humble resignation to the Will of God, he tried all through to say the words after me.
Fr Dunne visited Wilde several times to comfort him. “At these subsequent visits,” Fr Dunne states, “he repeated the prayers with me again and each time received Absolution.”
The deathbed scene is movingly depicted in Everett’s biopic. If the emotional climax of Brian Gilbert’s 1997 film Wilde is the defiant speech the author gave at his trial on the “love that dare not speak its name”, the dramatic high point of The Happy Prince is Wilde’s conversion. It was one long in the making. An entry in the diary of Liberal MP Ronald Gower in 1876 notes that he met an Oxford undergraduate named “Oscar Wilde … a pleasant cheery fellow, but with his long-haired head full of nonsense regarding the Church of Rome. His room filled with photographs of the Pope and of Cardinal Manning.”
On the day he was due to be received into the Church in 1878, Wilde changed his mind and sent a box of lilies in his place. After his death, his undergraduate friend William Ward wrote that “his final decision to find refuge in the Roman Church was not the sudden clutch of the drowning man at the plank in the shipwreck, but a return to a first love … one that had haunted him from early days with a persistent spell.” The tension between the young Wilde’s attraction to the Catholic Church, and his reluctance to enter it, must also be understood in light of his father’s threat to disinherit him if he converted.
As Wilde’s stock rose in the 1880s, he appeared to forget about religion, although Joseph Pearce’s seminal study The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde (2000) convincingly argued that veiled religious themes continually resurface in the writer’s work.
After he was sentenced to hard labour for “gross indecency” in 1895, Wilde asked for Augustine’s Confessions and works by Cardinal Newman. Later he was allowed the New Testament in Greek, which he read every morning. Reading Christ’s words in Greek, Wilde said, was “like going into a garden of lilies out of some narrow and dark house”.
Upon his release in 1897 he wrote to the Jesuits at Farm Street asking to make a six-month retreat. He wept when they turned him away. In early 1900, in Rome, Wilde asked his lifelong friend (and former lover) Robbie Ross to find a priest to receive him into the Church. Ross, a Catholic, delayed, fearing that Wilde would lapse after converting and cause a scandal, and despairing of finding a priest intelligent enough to answer Wilde’s questions about the faith. Wilde did manage to extract from Ross a promise that he would call a priest if Wilde fell ill – a promise Ross fulfilled when he arrived in Paris later that year to find Wilde dying.
Wilde’s Romeward turn was part of a wave of conversions among fin-de-siècle artists that included literary figures such as Paul Verlaine (who had been baptised a Catholic), Arthur Rimbaud (who received the last rites on his deathbed), Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.
Many did not lead edifying lives, and it is understandable that fin-de-siècle converts are often overlooked in favour of wholesome, clean-living types like Knox and Chesterton. Understandable but mistaken, if the Catholic Church is, as Wilde once said, a Church “for saints and sinners” (“for respectable people,” he famously added, “the Anglican Church will do”).
Catholic themes are not restricted to The Happy Prince’s few explicitly religious scenes. “There is no mystery so great as suffering,” Wilde tells his children in the opening scene, and the rest of the film is in part a meditation on the meaning of pain. Everett – a lapsed Catholic – has said that for gay people Wilde is a “Christ figure in some sense”, and there is a Passion-like quality to the film’s depiction of Wilde’s anguish in his final years. In another early scene, a British expatriate in Paris recognises Wilde and threatens to kill him. The viewer then sees a flashback of the same man applauding one of Wilde’s plays. As Christ was cheered into Jerusalem by those who demanded his death days later, Wilde was pilloried by high society Victorians who had hailed him as a literary master.
The difference between Wilde’s suffering and Christ’s, of course, is that much of Wilde’s distress was self-inflicted. The Happy Prince (not inaccurately) depicts Wilde’s lover Bosie as strikingly attractive but cruel and selfish. Yet, like a moth to a flame, Wilde returned to Bosie even when doing so involved alienating the few remaining people in the world who genuinely loved him, such as his wife, Constance, and Robbie Ross.
Wilde’s sexual behaviour, although not graphically portrayed, is dealt with in a less sanitised manner than Gilbert’s 1997 biopic. The orgies at the villa he shared with Bosie in Naples, his cocaine-fuelled romps with Parisian prostitutes: such conduct seems to have had less to do with Wilde’s sexuality per se than with his fascination with hedonistic, taboo-breaking experiences. Although probably not medically accurate, the movie suggests that Wilde’s final illness was caused by syphilis (a view put forward by one of his biographers). This perhaps indicates, symbolically, that his suffering was due as much to his own poor choices as to the hypocrisy of Victorian society.
Wilde’s deathbed scene is ultimately a reminder that grace can transform and redeem even apparently pointless, self-inflicted suffering. In his testimony, Fr Dunne defended Wilde against the moralising critics who carped at his 11th-hour conversion, noting that, “whatever his sins may have been, [he] expiated them by suffering severe penalties: imprisonment, ostracism from the great world in which he had been an idol, loss of all that the cultivation of his brilliant talents had brought him.”
After suffering all this, Fr Dunne concluded, “he turned to God for pardon and for the healing grace of the Sacraments in the end, and died a child of the Catholic Church.”
Aaron Taylor is a doctoral student in theology at Oxford University
This article first appeared in the April 27th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here