Magazine article The Spectator

The Wilder Shores of Wilde

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wilder Shores of Wilde

Article excerpt

Ceremonies of Bravery: Oscar Wilde, Carlos Blacker and the Dreyfus Affair by J. Robert Maguire OUP, £25, pp. 213, ISBN 9780199660827

Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America by Roy Morris, Jr Harvard University Press, £19.95, pp. 212, ISBN 9780674066960

In 1946, as a Princeton graduate, J. Robert Maguire was attached to the American delegation at the Paris Peace Conference.

He befriended an elderly survivor of the Dreyfus Affair, from whom he acquired important unpublished documents, and ever since has been a quiet, discriminating buyer of archival material relating to sensational trials and miscarriages of justice - particularly the Wilde and Dreyfus cases.

After nearly 70 years he has published the sum of his researches into Carlos Blacker, Wilde's friend and Dreyfus's champion, and the ways in which those sensational cases interlocked and rebounded on Blacker.

Ceremonies of Bravery is a recondite book, written with lawyerly precision and patrician understatement, but it also has rare charm. The loving care with which Maguire has assembled his odd, out-of-the-way story is palpable.

Carlos Blacker was born in Peru in 1857 to an English father and Peruvian mother.

As a young man he was handsome, spruce, a fine linguist and shared chambers on the corner of St James's Street and Piccadilly with a duke's son. Wilde's wife averred that Blacker had 'the greatest distinction of manner' of any man she ever met. He was compassionate, with an almost religious belief in kindness, particularly to the vulnerable.

Investments freed him from the need to work: he gave his energies to attentive friendships rather than writing the renowned books that were expected of him. He kept voluminous diaries in Pitman shorthand, which remained unread until 1989, when two experts began the seven-year task of their translation into English. These transcripts, which were presumably funded by Maguire (although he is too modest to say), provide the scaffolding for Ceremonies of Bravery.

Blacker was an early friend of Wilde, and trustee of his marriage settlement, but it is his intimacy with 'Linny' Newcastle that comes as a fascinating revelation. Linny (the nickname comes from the earldom of Lincoln, his courtesy title as a boy) was the seventh Duke of Newcastle, who is usually portrayed as an inbred dud. Maguire's sensitive and original portrayal of this disabled, diminutive, miserably married Anglo-Catholic, reveals him as a figure of subtle sympathy, who was the likely inspiration for 'Sainty', the crippled little marquess in Howard Sturgis's cult novel Belchamber. Newcastle and Blacker were beloved friends, who died within weeks of one another in 1928.

Linny's brother, Lord Francis Hope, who succeeded him as eighth duke, was also devoted to Blacker. An unexpected boon of this book is Maguire's investigations of ducal finances, his account of Linny's affectionate but petulant character, with its strain of melancholy intelligence, and of Francis's profligacy, bankruptcy and mesalliance - he married 'Madcap May' Yohe, originally a Philadelphia chorus girl, who ended up scrubbing floors on the nightshift in a Seattle shipyard.

There is much bankruptcy in this book, and perhaps an excess of legalese on the subject. …

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