by Richard Ellmann
2013, originally published 1987 • 736 pages • Vintage
How do you evaluate a biography?
Different books do different things, but few have so specific a goal as the biography. A biography seeks to illuminate one human’s life; any adaptive readings… well, that’s what historical fiction is for. Group biographies do require a thesis (why do these stories need to be told plurally instead of singularly?) but the singular biography, especially the singular biography about an Important Literary Figure, needs no such explanation for its existence. And if the biographer doesn’t make themselves known or makes themselves intrusive (which are both two sides of the same coin), then I never really feel like a biography is a product of a specific biographer—it seems like just the facts, ma’am.
When I read nonfiction, I feel like I turn into my friend Science Princess, who is so enchanted and fascinated by our world that fiction holds little allure for her. Whatever literary flaws they possess usually get a pass, because I’m learning! After all, I’m a fan—I’m well-used to stripping narratives down for spare parts and scant representation. At least reality has a marrow for me to strip down to.
Or seems to. Even the most determinedly neutral treatment of a subject is still, well, subjective, due to the human biographer functioning as the vector between “reality” and reader. Richard Ellmann’s magisterial 1987 biography of Oscar Wilde (a description stolen from Jenny, because it’s absolutely the perfect adjective for this book) feels authoritative and neutral. I could feel how thick the book was even reading it digitally, bouncing between my phone and my laptop. Chapters start with quotes, which always feel a little ominous and dated to me, like oak furniture. And the sweep is, simply, epic, beginning in the careers of his parents
The great disappearing act of Ellman in the text comes from what actually makes his Oscar Wilde so authoritative as to earn a Pulitzer. Namely, his casual evocation of Aesthetic atmosphere and frank depiction of Wilde’s sexuality, which were either lacking or conspicuously overlooked in previous depictions, contemporary and posthumous, of Wilde’s life. (Must all depictions of queer sexuality be “frank” to make them palatable to heterosexuals?) I began reevaluating my bedroom in the context of his lavish descriptions of Wilde’s even more lavish interior design. While Ellmann occasionally falls into the trap of trying to explain what made Wilde gay, he nonetheless treats Wilde’s love life with something like tenderness. It’s the only Wildean thing that really survives into the 1997 biopic based on the biography, which is otherwise a marvel of cliches. His obvious affection for his subject makes even Ellmann’s errors believable. Ellman attributes Wilde’s death to syphilis (oh, how decadent), when it’s more likely that an ear infection and meningitis is what did him in.
The legacy of the Ellmann biography (or just the Ellmann, as Cass and I have been calling it during our correspondence concerning our current Queering Wilde series over at Queerly Seen) is a fond and contested one. The OSCHOLARS website hosted a retrospective of the biography in 2007, asking academics to discuss the book, its impact, and what it could have done better. So much for neutral, I suppose.
And, despite knowing all of that, I’m still left with biography as teachable moment rather than biography as specific literary act, far more enamored by the content of the stories I have been told rather than their determinedly neutral vehicle. There’s Jane Wilde, Oscar’s astonishing and ferociously Irish mother, who was bemused and painfully astonished at her translation into mother after the literary and political success of her youth; there’s Wilde and Bosie breaking up on a hotel lawn for the umpteenth time; there’s the touching, quiet devotion of Robbie Ross, Wilde’s first male lover and one of his staunchest friends. I kept barking out passages not for their stylistic glamour but to tell stories about Sarah Bernhardt.
So—I revise my initial question. Can a biography make a sharper point?
Oh, of course it can. I think this is incredibly possible, especially in the wake of having read Joan Schenkar’s Truly Wilde, a biography of Oscar’s niece Dolly that, among other things, grapples with a lack of documentation, but that’s a review for another week, kittens.
I rented this digital book from the public library.