This latest contribution to the spate of centenary Wilde studies discusses the importance of religion, specifically Catholicism, in the author’s life and work—from Jane Francesca Wilde’s impulsive baptism of her two sons to Wilde’s own deathbed conversion.
Literary biographer Pearce (Solzhenitsyn, not reviewed, etc.) offers as his less than revelatory “unmasking” the notion that Wilde was a moralist, or rather a soul caught in agonizing conflict between his amoral leanings—religious doubt, lust, aestheticist principles—and the longing for purity and redemption expressed in his art. Moving chronologically, he rehashes many of the by-now well-known facts of Wilde’s life, adding along the way some fresh information about his religious leanings at Trinity College and Oxford, and about his relationship with John Gray, the physical model for Dorian Gray, whose spiritual struggles Pearce argues cast some light on Wilde’s. These discussions of Wilde’s youthful engagements with the Church and the religious predilections of his associates in the aesthetic and decadent schools offer a genuinely fresh and useful perspective on some of his work. However, most of the purported revelations, such as those about his early romance with Florence Balcome, seem to serve little purpose other than to claim attention for a neglected bit of scholarly turf. Thus, Pearce is quite pointlessly obsessed with debunking Richard Ellmann’s conjecture that Wilde died of syphilis, though the question is virtually irrelevant to the subject of his religious faith. Much of the book is taken up with uninspired and often clumsy textual exegeses that do more to expose the biographer’s moral preoccupations than to illuminate his subject’s.
A very good essay could have been written on Catholic imagery and morality in Wilde’s writings, a topic that has certainly been neglected by his critics and champions alike. Unfortunately, the tone-deaf criticism and clubfooted moralizing in this study makes pursuing that angle look less worthwhile than it actually is.