Modern biographers who lack religious faith themselves are likely to misunderstand their subject if he is searching for faith in his own life. This is very apparent in a biography I have just read: The Fall of the House of Wilde by Emer O’Sullivan.
O’Sullivan has tackled as her theme a family both blessed and cursed; in particular Oscar Wilde, who was more complex and more brilliant than most other men of his time. Inevitably, our own age views him differently from his contemporaries who were charmed, then scandalised, by his personality, his exploits, his notoriety and his downfall. A contemporary celebrity, Stephen Fry, calls this biography “an indispensable contribution to Wildean literature.” I wonder.
O’Sullivan is right to suggest that Wilde was drawn “to Roman ritual and the sensuous mysticism it fostered” but wrong to state that, following the influence of Nietzsche, and “having got over the search for consolation he had sought during his Oxford years, Oscar saw the death of God as a new beginning.”
A man who understood depravity so clearly in his art (The Picture of Dorian Gray in particular) and who had quipped, with more than a grain of seriousness, “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people the Anglican Church will do”, was well acquainted with the spiritual shame that can follow moral transgression.
Writing of Dorian Gray, O’Sullivan sees it as a satiric work in which sin and conscience are depicted as “entirely imaginary and psychologically pernicious”. I read it as a dramatic parable of the fate awaiting a man who deliberately stifles his inner self, his conscience, and makes vice his idol.
Wilde’s tragic wife, Constance, wrote to a friend in 1893, that Oscar “goes to Benediction at the Oratory sometimes…He would like me to go and burn candles at the Virgin’s altar and offer up prayers for him”.
O’Sullivan, entirely misinterpreting both the pathos and the sincerity of Wilde’s request, comments: “Hedonism, it seems, had not freed Oscar from the influence of Catholic demonology”. A yearning for forgiveness from the hands of Our Lady is, I think, hardly demonic.
Still conscious on his deathbed, 30th November 1900, Wilde was received by Fr Cuthbert Dunne into the Church that “enthrals me by its fascination”, as he had written many years before and which, during his prodigal career, he had long resisted.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund