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  You are in: Home > Biography >Oscar Wilde – The Great Drama of His Life  
 

Oscar Wilde — The Great Drama of His Life
How His Tragedy Reflected His Personality

Ashley Robins

After qualifying in medicine, Ashley Robins specialized in psychiatry in London, Oxford and Johannesburg. For 30 years he was senior lecturer in psychiatry and pharmacology at Cape Town University, and in 1984 was elected a Distinguished Teacher. He is author of Biological Perspectives on Human Pigmentation (1991). Now retired, he continues to teach in an honorary capacity.

 

In the 1890s Oscar Wilde enjoyed one of the most high-profile reputations in Britain; yet, virtually overnight, he was plunged into disgrace and ruin. What were the reasons for this extraordinary reversal of fortune?

Ashley Robins explores Wilde’s motivation in prosecuting the Marquess of Queensberry, and elaborates on the precarious legal situation that effectively quashed any prospect of a withdrawal from the lawsuit without dire consequences. He examines the medical and psychiatric aspects of Wilde’s two-year imprisonment and reveals – for the first time and based on the original Home Office records – the machinations among prison officials and doctors to cover up Wilde’s state of health. Wilde’s medical history is presented with an expert evaluation of his terminal illness, including a resolution of the syphilis controversy.

Robins details Wilde’s tangled matrimonial affairs during his imprisonment and goes on to disclose the manoeuvres adopted by friends to secure his early release, citing hitherto unpublished letters to show that bribery of prison personnel was seriously contemplated. The issue of homosexuality is discussed not only in relation to Oscar Wilde but from the broader historical, legal and biological perspective.

The author portrays Wilde’s character and behaviour through the images he projected onto society, by the strong but mixed public reaction to him, and by the quality of his interpersonal relationships with his wife, family and close friends. Finally, Wilde’s personality is assessed using internationally accepted diagnostic criteria; and, in an unusual and innovative experiment, a group of Wildean scholars completed a psychological questionnaire as if they were doing so for Oscar Wilde himself. Drawing on these findings and on his own extensive psychiatric experience, Ashley Robins concludes that Wilde had a disorder of personality that culminated in the final and tragic phase of his life.



Acknowledgements

Introduction

Chapter One
“Pursued by a Pugilist of Unsound Mind”

Chapter Two
In Durance Vile: Pentonville

Chapter Three
Haldane and Morrison vs. The Home Secretary

Chapter Four
The Battle of Reading Gaol

Chapter Five
“Passing From One Prison Into Another”

Chapter Six
The Vexatious Domestic Saga

Chapter 7
The Great Syphilis Debate

Chapter Eight
The Precipitous Road to Homosexual Law Reform

Chapter Nine
Gay Superstar But Not Martyr

Chapter Ten
Oscar As Others Saw Him

Chapter Eleven
Relationships With Family and Friends

Chapter Twelve
Histrionic Personality Disorder

Chapter Thirteen
The Last Words

Appendix

Bibliography

Index

“Ashley Robins, from his background in medicine and psychiatry, has reviewed the life history of Oscar Wilde, providing new insights into the effects of his imprisonment, his matrimonial situation and medical problems. The Great Drama of His Life is a welcome and original clinical analysis of Wilde’s personality and behaviour, detailing how these contributed to his downfall.” Michael Seeney, Deputy Chairman, The Oscar Wilde Society

Reviewed in the Journal of Mental Health, 2013; 22 (1), © informa healthcare

The following review was published in Issue Number 39 (July 2011) of The Wildean: A Journal of Oscar Wilde Studies published by The Oscar Wilde Society.

“Ashley Robins recounts the adversities and misfortunes of Oscar Wilde’s life, with a closely argued analysis of his personality. Oscar told André Gide that he had put his genius into his life but only his talent into his work; Robins remarks that he might well have added that he put his personality into his downfall.

He assesses Wilde’s decision to prosecute Queensberry for criminal libel, the decision which Wilde in De Profundis described as ‘a combination of absolute idiocy and vulgar bravado’. The infamous, scrawled defamatory card reads: ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite’. The hall porter at the Albemarle Club read this as ‘For Oscar Wilde, ponce and somdomite’ but Queensberry interposed to say it was ‘posing as sodomite.’ Queensberry’s own statement to the Magistrate at Marlborough Street Police Court in answer to the charge was: ‘I wrote the card simply with the intention of bringing matters to a head, having been unable to meet Mr Wilde otherwise, and to save my son, and I abide by what I wrote.’ Robins says that Wilde fell headlong into Queensberry’s craftily laid trap, and was astounded when he saw the Plea of Justification which detailed his encounters with various rent-boys. But the advice given by his friends that he should abandon the case was not sound; if he had withdrawn the case the evidence would have been handed to the Public Prosecutor.

Next, Robins examines Wilde’s health and mental condition at Pentonville Prison where he was sent after his conviction. Confined in a bare and repellent cell with a plank bed and a small tin chamber pot, Wilde lost a great deal of weight and according to an article in the Daily Chronicle had become insane. The Home Secretary, Asquith, demanded a report and the medical officer, Dr Innes, replied that Wilde ‘was in good health and perfectly sane’. Then in a sudden change of policy, the Prison Commissioners ordered Wilde’s transfer to Wandsworth Prison with a note that Asquith suspected that ‘the Officers of Pentonville were being tampered with by O. Wilde’s friends’.

Wilde found Wandsworth Prison harder to bear than Pentonville. R.B. Haldane, one of the Prison Commissioners asked the assistant chaplain, the Rev W.D. Morrison, to report. Morrison’s letter saying that Wilde was ‘quite crushed and broken’ and that ‘perverse sexual practices [masturbation] were getting the mastery over him’ sent ‘perturbations throughout the Prison Commission’. Contradictory assessments were then made, and eventually two of the foremost ‘mental specialists’ of the day (Dr David Nicolson and Dr Richard Brayn) visited Wilde. In their interesting report, which Robins reproduces in full, they concluded that his mental condition was not indicative of disease or derangement and a display of emotional depression was ‘accentuated by the sympathetic nature of our enquiries, and by the knowledge that friends were agitating on his behalf, a fact he is quite capable of taking advantage of.’ They recommended that he should be moved to a prison in the country, in a larger cell, allowed more (supervised) association with other prisoners, given more interesting work – bookbinding and gardening – and allowed ‘a freer range of books and a larger supply.’ Reading Prison was chosen.

Robins discusses in full detail the machinations among prison officials and doctors to cover up Wilde's state of health in his chapter ‘The Battle or Reading Gaol’ and quotes extensively from Home Office records. The Governor, Lt-Col Isaacson, a ‘mulberry-faced Dictator’ was hostile to Wilde. The prison medical officer, Dr Oliver Maurice, neglected to treat Wilde’s painful ear infection adequately. Wilde was deeply affected by the news of his mother’s death. He was in a very low and desperate state, and Robins suggests that it was on advice from Frank Harris (who visited him at the request of Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise the Chairman of the Prison Commission) that Wilde petitioned the Home Secretary for his release ‘before insanity has claimed soul as well as body as its prey’. Ruggles-Brise commissioned a report from the prison Visiting Committee which concluded that an expert medical enquiry was called for; in the event no new evaluation of Wilde’s clinical state was made but a turning point came when he appointed Major Nelson as Governor. Under his benign administration Wilde could write De Profundis and was virtually restored in body and mind.

Robins discusses why after his release from prison Oscar produced no significant literary work apart from The Ballad of Reading Gaol and his two influential letters to the Daily Chronicle about prison conditions. He dismisses the idea that the stresses of imprisonment impaired his creativity, and concludes that in exile he was removed from an admiring public and this alienation damaged his confidence and destroyed his inspiration to create new work. He had an idle disposition, was inherently unable to curb his wilful expenditure, and towards the end of his life drank heavily.

Robins rejects the idea that Wilde was essentially heterosexual until he was seduced by Robbie Ross. His true orientation was homosexual and although he admired Constance and felt himself to be in love with her, his marriage was motivated by the need for financial security and to project himself to the public as a happy married family man. (A separate chapter is devoted to the protracted wrangling over the Wildes’ marriage settlement.) Robins discusses the ‘precipitous road’ to general acceptance by society of a homosexual lifestyle as positive and constructive, and remarks that in exile Wilde made no attempt to take up the cause of homosexual law reform.

In considering Wilde’s personality, Robins first discusses ‘Oscar as others saw him’. He was charming and generous. His astounding talent as talker, raconteur and conversationalist meant he was always in need of an audience, and posing and posturing were essential ingredients of his behaviour. As Ross noted, Oscar in prison ‘would hastily assume one of his hundred artificial manners, which he has for every person and every occasion’. The list goes on: recklessly extravagant, arrogant, affected, pretentious, haughty, conceited, vain, flamboyant, ostentatious, bombastic, self-aggrandising, insensitive, hurtful, self-centred, idle, impatient, intolerant, unforgiving, uncompassionate, untruthful, predisposed to boredom and failing to pay his bills.

As for his relationships with family, friends and lovers, Robins believes that Shaw was right to say that ‘Wilde, though he could inspire friendships of the most devoted kind, was incapable of such friendships himself though not on occasion of noble and generous gestures.’ Oscar became bored with married life, neglectful of Constance and uncaring, letting her be short of funds whilst he pursued his homosexual affairs. When she died his grief was superficial and what sadness there was quickly passed. Oscar was very fond of his two sons, but after his imprisonment his craving to see them was primarily to appease his own emotional needs for approval and acceptance. Wilde’s love for Bosie was deep-seated and their affair was sustained and intense; but in other affairs, begun with passion, boredom set in as the excitement waned. Robins concludes that fresh and new acquaintances were precious and irresistible but old tried and tested friendships were dispensable, exploitable and reproachable.

Robins sets out his description of Oscar’s personality with forensic clarity. What can usefully be added? Robins as a senior clinical psychiatrist seeks to assess, indeed to diagnose Wilde’s personality using modern classifications of mental and behavioural disorders, He finds that Wilde meets the American Psychiatric Association’s [APA] criteria for an histrionic personality (pervasive attention-seeking behaviour, sexually seductive behaviour, shallow and exaggerated emotions, self-dramatisation, etc.) and would classify him as having an histrionic personality disorder because flaws in his behaviour e.g. his total indiscretion in his liaisons with rent-boys and in his love affair with Bosie, caused harm to himself and others. In an appendix he gives the results of having a 180 item questionnaire about personality traits completed ‘as they thought Wilde would have done’ by twenty Wilde specialists. He finds the results compatible with this diagnosis.

One may add that other disorders on the APA list include narcissistic personality disorder (pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy) which some feel fits Wilde quite well (or, even better, Bosie), and paranoid personality disorder (irrational suspicions and mistrust) for which sounds just right for Queensberry. There are of course other, or overlapping interpretations of Wilde’s self-destructiveness: Clifton Snider (in The Wildean No. 23) argues that Wilde had an addictive personality being both a romance addict and the alcoholic son of alcoholic parents.

It is pleasing, and helps to put his findings in perspective, that Robins concludes his analysis by quoting a study of creativity and psychopathology by Felix Post which found that ninety per cent of some fifty writers studied (Balzac, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Ibsen, Joyce and Kafka to name but a few) all suffered from personality disorders, rather than just having various personality characteristics. It is also well-known that the list of alcoholic writers is a long one. Whether or not one accepts that to use the term ‘disorder’ in a clinical sense is entirely appropriate, Oscar was in good company.

With its narrow focus on Oscar’s personality, behaviour and adversities, this is a sombre book which inevitably has few glimpses of his wit and his greatness as a writer. That said, it is notably lucid and well-reasoned, carefully and thoroughly researched with valuable extended quotations from unfamiliar original sources, and adds significantly to our understanding of Wilde the man and of important events in his life.” Donald Mead, Editor of The Wildean, and Chairman of The Oscar Wilde Society

 

 

Publication Details

 
Hardback ISBN:
978-1-84519-434-5
 
Paperback ISBN:
978-1-84519-541-0
 
Page Extent / Format:
272 pp. / 234 x 156 mm
 
Release Date:
Hardback, January 2011; paperback, June 2012
  Illustrated:   Yes
 
Hardback Price:
£39.50 / $55.00
 
Paperback Price:
£19.95 / $34.95
 

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