A lively biography chronicles Oscar Wilde’s unconventional Victorian family.
O’Sullivan makes her literary debut with a family history of the Wildes: father William, a physician and Irish historian; outspoken poet and essayist Jane, “dubbed Ireland’s Madame Roland” for her revolutionary views; Willie, their dissolute firstborn son; and, of course, Oscar (1854-1900), whose work, coterie of friends and lovers, and notorious trial for indecency comprise O’Sullivan’s main focus. Family members’ relationships with one another were often strained and, in the sons’ adulthood, centered on money woes, a recurring theme in the biography. Jane was a rebel, but O’Sullivan does not support the assertion that she was a “soulmate” to both her sons, nor that she was, like Oscar, “a paradox—an intellectual coquette, unmarked by the stamp of her time and indifferent to public approval.” On the contrary, Oscar emerges very much stamped by his artistic milieu and desperate for public approval. His trial echoed that of his father, who also incited a scandal when a lover sued him for libel; her “protracted smear campaign” provided delicious gossip for Dublin society. William died in 1876, leaving his family deep in debt. Financial troubles beset Jane for the rest of her life, forcing her to beg for money from Oscar, also dogged by debt. As a young man, the gregarious Willie seemed as brilliant as his younger brother, only kinder and more convivial. He studied law and then became a journalist, but he occupied himself with drink, courtesans, and prostitutes. Jane indulged him, all the while complaining to Oscar. O’Sullivan exuberantly recounts Willie’s marriage to the redoubtable American newspaper titan Mrs. Frank Leslie, who thought the dapper Englishman (more than 15 years younger than she) would satisfy her sexually. He did not, and she divorced him. Drawing largely on published sources (biographies, letters, and the protagonists’ own writings), the author weaves a brisk narrative of the family’s, and Ireland’s, troubles.
A familiar portrait of Oscar with a fresh look at his eccentric relatives.