A tedious slog through the English author’s sexual romps at the expense of his literary achievements.
Wilde’s “secret life” isn’t exactly secret anymore, but British journalist McKenna aims to chronicle, in salacious detail, his relations with every boy from the time he arrived at Oxford’s Magdalen College in 1874 through his imprisonment for “gross indecency” in 1895 and beyond. While reading classics at Oxford, the talented Irish poet was conflicted about his sexuality. His biographer charts Wilde’s growing enchantment with “Greek love” in the form of flirtations with choirboys, artist Frank Miles and his “sodomite” circle, and many others. His reading of and friendship with Walter Pater, who urged followers to “grasp at any exquisite passion,” helped convert Wilde to the Aesthetic Movement and the more “cultivated taste” of loving men. He also, however, attracted women, and his marriage seems to have been instigated by genuine feelings of love and protectiveness toward young Constance Lloyd, as well as the desire for some kind of stability to offset his erratic and dangerous cruising, blackmail by “rent boys,” and police raids of pick-up places. Becoming a father did not dissuade Wilde from “playing with fire”; he proclaimed in his letters a “daring manifesto of amorality” and wrote to one young lover, “I myself would sacrifice everything for a new experience.” The dizzying parade of transient bedfellows ended only when he met the love of his life, young Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”), whose outraged father, the Marquis of Queensberry, eventually goaded Wilde into a libel suit and brought on his ruin. McKenna treats Wilde’s work secondhand and only as “autobiographical prefigurations” of his homoerotic double life. In this author’s hands, reading Wilde is reduced to a hunt for clues to his homosexuality; it’s as titillating but trivial as finding “indiscreetly inscribed cigarette cases given to young men.”
Exhaustively documented, but ultimately reductive and incomplete.