By Secret We Mean Sex

It's my own fault. I wanted to read a biography next, I scanned the biography offerings on Kindle, saw one about Oscar Wilde and clicked "Buy Now" instead of "free sample". So let me make something quite clear: the "secret life" in question is Oscar Wilde's sex life.

Neil McKenna makes the case that no single biography can do justice to the whole life of any subject and proceeds from here. He set out to tell the story of Oscar Wilde as a homosexual man in Victorian England and most else in Oscar's life takes a back seat to that. This isn't the book I set out to read but I'm not disappointed to have read it. Somewhere along the way I received the wisdom that Oscar Wilde was just another metrosexual Victorian man until Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) rolled onto the scene. McKenna makes it clear that was not the case.

There is a whiff about this book of "reclaiming" Oscar. Yes, I'm convinced Oscar was a gay man and I'm certainly interested in rereading some of his work in light of McKenna's interpretations of Dorian Gray and Willie Hughes. On the other hand: Who knew reading about another person's sex life in such detail could be a chore? When Bosie and Oscar aren't bedding rent boys or other fetching creatures, they're racking up charges at five star restaurants and hotels. Unfortunately, that's all they seem to do a lot of the time and it gets a little dull. Maybe it's the mindless promiscuity involved, maybe it's that I'm not a gay man or maybe my Puritan root go stronger than I realize but by the time the bailiffs came for Oscar I admit I was relieved.

McKenna is a tad myopic. Anything and everything is examined for tell tale signs that Oscar was gay and writing for a gay audience. Not surprisingly, he always finds signs. From Dorian Grey - ok, that's an easy one - to the Happy Prince, McKenna will have you seeing hidden messages everywhere. Bless his heart there isn't an inanimate object in your house that isn't a "code word for" for "Uranian love" when McKenna's on the case. This can lead to some giggle-worthy interpretations, my favorite being the "persistent rumor" that Saint Sebastian wasn't shot through with a hundred arrows by gang-raped by the entire Praetorian Guard and bled to death. Where do you even start on a theory like that? I'll start with the fact that I've never, ever heard that before nor does it make a lot of sense especially since the fact that the "arrows" didn't kill Sebastian is one of the reasons he was made a saint. He was actually beaten to death. (Unless I'm once again behind on the rumors.)

Still, I can't write this book off as all agenda and no substance. McKenna does a create a compelling portrait of Oscar Wilde as a man who acceptance his sexuality and genuinely loved Bosie. Now why he loved that mess of a human being is anyone's guess. Bosie may have been the cat's meow in his day but that's no excuse to letting him in the house. Selfish, bratty, vindictive, nasty, and way too interested in young boys, Bosie nearly single-handedly creates the scandal that destroys Oscar and then tops all this by going straight in later life. You'll be hard pressed not to side with Oscar friends who want to keep him away from this human wrecking ball.

This is an interesting book. Not the definitive biography of Oscar Wilde but an interesting exploration into a relatively unknown aspect of Victorian life. Just bear in mind that sometimes a cigar is a cigar even when the smoker in question is Oscar Wilde.

No comments: