Literary escapade: Born to be Wilde

December 10, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. (Oscar Wilde)

It totally agree with that. In Paris, there’s currently an exhibition about Oscar Wilde’s life and work. It is at the Petit Palais, a beautiful building near the Champs Elysées. The Petit Palais was built for the 1900 World Fair and incidentally, 1900 is also the year Wilde died in Paris. The title of this exhibition is Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu. (Oscar Wilde, the ultimate impertinent). It is the first time such an exhibition is organized in Paris and it is well worth visiting.


It explains very well Wilde’s education and role models, his taste for art, his admiration for Ruskin and his work as an art critic. A room is dedicated to the conferences he did in America. It is on the occasion of this tour that he said his famous phrase:

We have really everything in common in America nowadays, except, of course, language.

He was like a rock star and had his picture taken like a supermodel by the famous photographer Napoleon Sarony. You needed someone named Napoleon Sarony to immortalize the emperor of irony. For the anecdote: these pictures were so famous that they were used without Sarony’s authorization by various publicists. Sarony went to court and his case reached the Supreme Court who judged that photographs should be included in the scope of the copyright law. (1884)

The exhibition describes Wilde as an intellectual well introduced in London’s high society.


This is A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith. (1881) The painter is on the painting with Trollope, Gladstone, Browning, Millais and Wilde. Can you see him on the centre-right, near the lady with the pink dress? Wilde was also well introduced into the Parisian beau monde. But the exhibition does not focus to much on his life as a dandy. His affairs with men are mentioned but so is his marriage to Constance Llyod. Wilde as a husband and a father are displayed. Unfortunately, after Constance’s death, her family destroyed all the letters Oscar Wilde had written to her, so we’re missing out information on their relationship.

His personal life takes a good place in the exhibition but his work is celebrated as well, especially The Happy Prince and Other Tales, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salomé. It was interesting to read about the reception of these works when they were published, see excerpts of their film version or discover the illustrations of the first editions. (*)

Of course, his trial and subsequent conviction to two years’ hard labour took a significant place. I was surprised to read that Wilde was condemned in 1895 for gross indecency and that it was based on a law that was only voted in 1885. I always assumed it was a very old law that had been unearthed for the occasion. I’m shocked to read such a law was passed so late in the 19thC. That’s the Victorian Era for you, I suppose. No wonder that French prostitutes saw so many British customers that some had calling cards in English.

His detention was very hard, at least at the beginning at the Newgate Prison in London. He did hard labour, was not allowed to read anything but the Bible and it was forbidden to talk to fellow prisoners. Eventually, he was transferred to the Reading Gaol, near London. Isn’t that ironic to put a writer in a prison named Reading Gaol? The absolute silence imposed in the Victorian prisons must have been a personal form of torture to the brilliant conversationalist that Wilde was.

This section of the exhibition ends with a videoed interview of Robert Badinter. He’s a famous French attorney and he was the minister of Justice in 1981. He fought for the abolition of death penalty in France in 1981 and he remains well-known for that. 1981 is also the year the French Parliament voted that homosexuality was no longer a crime.

In this interview, Badinter explains that he studied closely the Wilde trial for a series of conference about law and Justice. He used this example and the one of all the women burnt for sorcery to demonstrate that Justice is relative. It depends on the time and place. Wilde was condemned to two years’ hard work for something that is no longer a crime. According to Badinter, since Justice is relative, it mustn’t pronounce death sentences. The State doesn’t have the right to take the life of people for crimes that might not be crimes in the future or somewhere else. Thought provoking, isn’t it?

This fantastic exhibition ended with a video of Wilde’s grand-son. He speaks French very well and had kind words to say about his grand-father and his work, even if he never knew him. Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu gave a moving portrait of Wilde. It went beyond the funny aphorisms and the dandy costumes to show an intelligent and multifaceted man. I liked that his family life was shown as well, a part of him often ignored. (The French Wikipedia page about him doesn’t even mention that he was married) I thought that the different angles helped discovering this fascinating artist.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

You were definitely pointing at the stars, Mr Wilde. Some imbeciles might have stared at your finger pointing the stars instead of stargazing with you.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan


(*) I read The Picture of Dorian Gray when I when a teenager and read The Happy Prince and Other Tales and The Importance of Being Earnest before attending this exhibition, so more about this in the coming week.

  1. December 10, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    I saw a film about the trail and it was so well done it made me understand the whole conviction (not that I agreed). And what a horrible way for Wilde to die in poverty like that.


    • December 10, 2016 at 8:55 pm

      It’s a shame that he died like this. What’s even worse is that hus wife had to change her name after his trial, she couldn’t be Mrs Wilde anymore.


      • December 10, 2016 at 10:36 pm

        Yes because there was so much more he could have achieved.


        • December 11, 2016 at 11:19 pm

          Exactly. Like Lermontov.


  2. December 10, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    The whole thing was a tragedy and a travesty of justice, but fortunately it has never overwhelmed his literary legacy. I used to read his fairy tales to the children at school and they loved them.


    • December 10, 2016 at 10:15 pm

      True. His best revenge is his literary immortality.
      These are great tales. Which one did they prefer?


      • December 10, 2016 at 10:21 pm

        The Happy Prince. I used to teach ‘traditional tales’ to all my classes in first term, so that by the time they left primary school they were familiar with everything from Aesop to Beowulf and Aboriginal tales in between, and I included Wilde and Hans Christian Andersen in the author study I did with the 8-9 year olds.


        • December 10, 2016 at 10:24 pm

          That’s my favourite too. I’m not surprised the children like it. It goes well with their need of justice.


          • December 10, 2016 at 10:26 pm

            Yes. Ironic, isn’t it, considering what ‘justice’ did to him…


            • December 10, 2016 at 10:27 pm

              Yes his life is full of these little ironies that seem to come right out of one of his aphorisms.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. December 11, 2016 at 12:01 am

    What an interesting exhibition, and I very much enjoyed your discussion of it. I’ve had thoughts (relating to Wilde and others) about the notion that justice is relative, but never taken it that next step to apply to the death penalty. I love that painting at the Royal Academy, and have never seen it before. I wish I was somewhere near Paris to see this exhibition (and to be somewhere near Paris, always a good thing).


    • December 11, 2016 at 11:23 pm

      Hello Louise,

      It was a very interesting exhibition and I liked that they broadened the discussion about the legal aspects of his trial.
      In the museum, the painting was there only as a photography with annotations to show who was who. Very interesting. There are two simmilar ones for France, Le cercle de la rue royale by James Tissot and Hommage à Delacroix by Henri-Fantin Latour.


  4. December 11, 2016 at 9:31 am

    Sounds like a fascinating exhibition. Great venue too, the right setting can make all the difference to something like this. Like Louise, I’m very taken with that painting of Wilde at the Royal Academy, a gallery I have visited many times. I can just imagine him there.


    • December 11, 2016 at 11:24 pm

      It is a truly fascinating and kind exhibition. Le petit palais is a beautiful building, it has a great little garden inside.


  5. December 11, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    It’s worth visiting his grave in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. When I visited the monument was smothered in red lipstick kisses which I found very touching. Someone had even left their trainers there! The sculpture is by Jacob Epstein.


    • December 11, 2016 at 11:27 pm

      I didn’t have time to go to the Père Lachaise during daylight.
      I’m glad Wilde’s monument is well visited. That’s the best revenge he could have over the ones who wanted him out of the public eyes.

      I’ll have to do a literary escapade at the Père Lachaise, one of these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. December 12, 2016 at 6:43 am

    What a good idea for an exhibit. I wish I could have seen it. As you know, or might know, or do not know, I read a lot of Wilde last year, a hugely worthwhile experience. If there is a sensible edition of his letters – I read the complete letters, not sensible – I think you would enjoy them. They are, at their best, wonderfully funny, and in Wilde’s later life, heartbreaking, as interesting as if they were a novel. The big gap in the letters when Wilde goes to prison is six months long – the rules were relaxed and things were a little easier for Wilde after six months – but that six months nearly killed him, and nearly drove him insane. “Torture” is the right word. It did kill him, just a little more slowly.

    Thanks for writing about the exhibit.


    • December 12, 2016 at 11:04 pm

      There were several books that were very tempting at the museum’s bookshop. The letters were among them. I didn’t want to read Wilde in French, so I didn’t get anything.

      Are the letters difficult to read if you don’t know much about the period? I mean, are they populated with people that were well-known at the time and now only known by literate readers or historians?

      I visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, I imagine Wilde was in similar conditions at Newgate and then at Reading Gaol. It must have been horrible.

      I really enjoyed this exhibit and now I’d love to see The Importance of Being Earnest on stage. It was programmed in a theatre in Paris to go along with the exhibit but I couldn’t go.


      • December 12, 2016 at 11:30 pm

        An edition with some notes – not hundreds of pages – would see you through the personages. The most important people, in Wilde’s circle, recur constantly, so you get to know them.

        A Cast of Characters, like in a play, would be helpful. I am just imagining an edition. I don’t know if such a thing exists.


        • December 13, 2016 at 9:45 pm

          I can see the appeal of such an edition. It’s exactly what I would have liked for Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Bernanos


        • December 14, 2016 at 2:01 pm

          Tom, I’ve got a question for you.
          I’ve seen at the museum bookstore that there’s a new French translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. They say it’s a new edition based on the unedited version of Wilde’s novel. If I buy, let’s say, the Penguin Edition of Dorian Gray, will that be the full version or the edited one? In other words, is the old English-victorian version still published in English or all new editions include the full version?


          • December 14, 2016 at 5:19 pm

            The unedited version of the novel is only available in English in one 2011 edition, the first to ever publish the original manuscript. The French edition you saw is a translation of this text.

            The story was censored when it was published in a magazine. When it was published as a book, Wilde added a lot of material – good stuff – but he did not undo the censorship.

            Any Penguin or Oxford’s World Classics edition will contain the 1891 book – so longer, more “complete,” but still censored.

            This Brooke Allen review discusses the differences efficiently, except that on my screen something has gone wrong with the spacing.


            • December 14, 2016 at 10:18 pm

              Thanks for all these useful information. I’ll get this uncensored edition in English, I’m curious. Did you read it?


  7. December 13, 2016 at 11:17 am

    This sounds like an amazing exhibition. Too bad I don’t have the time to go and see it. I would have liked it too. Great post, Emma.


    • December 13, 2016 at 9:46 pm

      It was amazing and the building is nice too.


      • December 14, 2016 at 8:23 am

        I know, it’s a beautiful building.


  1. December 13, 2016 at 11:30 pm
  2. December 17, 2016 at 6:41 pm
  3. January 7, 2017 at 7:13 pm
  4. January 25, 2017 at 10:24 pm

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