Oscar Wilde: A Centennial Wreath of Memories

Article excerpt

TIME, the laughing policeman, grows daily younger looking as we grow older, and marches unseemly fast. That on this November 30th, Oscar Wilde has been one hundred years dead strikes as incredible.

'Somehow I don't think I shall live to see the new century', said Wilde, voicing a sul serio premonition. 'If another century began, and I was still alive, it would really be more than the English could stand'. A quip tinctured surely with a breath of wistful regret. In truth, Wilde had begun to die a full quinquennium before the fact.

The year of the eclipse was 1895. The month: April. The day: Friday 5th. The precise moment of declension is neatly encapsulated by John Betjeman in a poem, published in the Oxford and Cambridge magazine in June 1933, 'The Arrest of Oscar Wilde in the Cadogan Hotel'.

It was at about half past six in the evening that Inspector Richards of Scotland Yard knocked at the door of Room 53 of the discreet hotel in Sloane Street. Within sat Wilde, resigned, fatalistic, sipping a hock and seltzer. They drove him in a four-wheeler, via Scotland Yard to Bow Street, and locked him in a cell, wherein, sleepless, he paced the night, up and down, back and forth, away. It was to prove the anteroom to Holloway, Pentonville, and Wandsworth prisons and to Reading Gaol. But first there were the trials, three of them, at the grim Old Bailey, Oscar at the last exchanging places of peril with the scarlet, screaming Marquis of Queensberry.

Between trials two and three, on [pound]5,000 bail, Wilde, dogged by the Marquis' bullies, could find nowhere to lay his head. At each hotel he entered the bully boys entered behind him, shouted his identity and made him a rejected guest. No room at the inn. Exhausted, the roughs finally shaken off, at 1 a.m. the sweat-soaked, frightened, and bedraggled ci-devant dandy hammered at the door of his last-hope refuge. A small house in Oakley Street.

I made a pilgrimage to that neglected shrine in Chelsea. The house, formerly No. 146, now No. 87, had become a rooming shelter for birds of passage from Australia, New Zealand, America, South Africa. They greeted with surprise my intimation that this, their temporary roosting place, had been the house of Oscar Wilde's mother, 'Speranza', where, with all windows covered and candles burning day and night so that the cruel daylight should not reveal time's ravages, that formidable poetic dame had held her salons. That it had been here, on the night of 7 May 1895, that her son came begging of his elder brother who answered his knock, 'Give me shelter, Willie. Let me lie on the floor or I shall die in the streets'.

Robert Sherrard, arrived from Paris to cosset Oscar, described the out-at-elbows haven in which he found him: 'A poorly furnished room in great disorder. He was lying on a small camp-bedstead in a corner between the fireplace and the wall, and in a glass on a mantelpiece was an arum lily, sere and yellow, which drooped lamentably down over his head. His face was flushed, and swollen, his voice was broken, he was a man altogether collapsed'.

Visitors came to that dismal house -- Ernest Dowson, a veiled lady, rumoured to have been Ellen Terry, bringing a horseshoe and a bouquet of violets, the Leversons, Ernest and Ada -- 'wonderful Spinx' -- who bore Wilde off to their home, No. 2 Courtfield Gardens, near Gloucester Road station.

His friends urgently besought him while there was yet time to flee the country. 'I have just been abroad ... one can't keep on going abroad unless one is a missionary, or, what comes to the same thing, a commercial traveller', was his response. Too late now. The last boat-train for the Continent had gone.

Other friends were less given to displays of solidarity. That season when the love of boys was spoken of in the austere purlieus of the law courts, the billboards came down, or were strategically pasted over, outside the theatres -- the Haymarket, where An Ideal Husband was playing, and the St. …