Magazine article The Spectator

Degrees of Martyrdom

Magazine article The Spectator

Degrees of Martyrdom

Article excerpt


The Pentland Press, L18.50, pp. 204

The case of Oscar Wilde and the Dreyfus case are both familiar stories. Millions of words have been written about both and one could hardly believe that anything new could be said about either. But Mark Hichens's new book achieves the apparently impossible. His narrative is fresh even when going over old ground, and breaks new ground in describing Wilde's connection with the Dreyfus case.

Hichens, a retired schoolmaster, writes with clarity, pace, wisdom and wry humour. In barely 200 pages he tells two separate, but converging, stories. In his view, the `last chance' for Wilde, after his release from prison, was to espouse the cause of Alfred Dreyfus, still in captivity on Devil's Island. Unfortunately he failed the test. When his old friend Carlos Blacker, a passionate Dreyfusard, tried to enlist his support, he showed little interest. Instead he hobnobbed with the dreadful Esterhazy, true author of the bordereau on the evidence of which Dreyfus was accused and convicted. He made to Esterhazy the characteristic but chilling remark:

The innocent always suffer. It is their metier. Besides we are all innocent until we are found out . . .The interesting thing is surely to be guilty and to wear as a halo the seduction of sin.

Blacker brought Wilde information given him in the strictest confidence by the Italian military attache in Paris, Colonel Panizzardi, who had good reason to know that Dreyfus was innocent. Wilde did not respond when Blacker urged him to write about Dreyfus, but he did talk recklessly about what he had heard from Blacker, with the result that premature articles appeared which caused Blacker to be vilified in the anti-Dreyfusard press and to go, for a time, in fear of his life. Wilde's indifference to the fate of Dreyfus, combined with his betrayal of confidence, ended Blacker's long friendship with him. (Hichens has had access to Blacker's diary and letters, and to a memorandum he wrote about his role in the affair.)

When Wilde refused to take up Dreyfus's cause, the poor man had already been more than two years on his remote island, longer than the term of imprisonment Wilde himself had served, and in conditions far more terrible. He had still as long again to languish in the most cruel solitary confinement before the campaign on his behalf, nobly sustained by his wife and brother - with vital assistance from Zola and a few others -- succeeded to the extent of securing his release with a presidential 'pardon'. …

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