2000 • 400 pages • Basic Books
Previously on the Literary Omnivore, I finished my review of Richard Ellman’s (widely considered) authoritative and eponymous biography of Oscar Wilde with a question—“can a biography make a sharper point”?
Joan Schenkar’s Truly Wilde is the biography that proves that they can. In illuminating the life of Oscar’s niece, Dorothy “Dolly” Wilde, the playwright and biographer asks what qualifies a subject for biography. By most mainstream standards, Dolly is not a conventional subject—she never published, she never edited, and she only occasionally deigned to translate. She’s difficult to track throughout history, vanishing from the historical record for years at a time and, when she did surface, always refusing to talk about her childhood. (She did have one story when pressed: a memory of dipping sugar cubes into her mother’s perfume and then eating them. Factual nor not, it usually got the mildly repulsed response Dolly seemed to want.) For all her comparisons (both hers and others) to her uncle and her sparkling, attention-seeking behavior (she once injected herself with a drug in the middle of an otherwise respectable dinner party quite on purpose), Dolly Wilde was a woman who avoided, by chance or by choice, the spotlight.
Or, as Schenkar puts it: “Dolly Wilde’s life offers a rare opportunity to look at what it means to live with the endowments but not the achievements of biography’s usual subjects: those obliterating ‘winners’—like Dolly’s uncle Oscar—whose notorious stories have almost erased interesting histories like Dolly’s own” (7).
Dolly Wilde is only a “loser” of history if one assumes a “winner” of history must make their mark as indelibly, assertively, boldly, and, let’s face it, tragically as Oscar himself. In other words, a historical winner must write things or win wars or lead nations, because productivity morality is so soul-crushingly prevalent that we sometimes ignore the smaller and, frankly, more interesting lives. Dolly make have never published, but she wrote voluminous amounts of correspondence, often from the various beds where she felt so safe. (And I am actually referring to literal beds and not specific bedmates, although Dolly was never at a loss for lovers.) And her voice was divine:
“Where Dolly catches Virginia Woolf yawning during a Shakespeare play ‘as if I had caught God in a domestic moment of relaxation’—and turns her head quickly away so as not to observe such a natural act from such a divine being. (345)”
She made parties a delight and offered good, if sometimes too literary, advice to anyone who asked. She suffered. She was addicted to drugs, attempted suicide several times, and spent much of the last years of her life frantically seeking alternative treatment for her breast cancer. (It ended up working, but not for her undiagnosed lung cancer. Something else killed her in the end, but science cannot determine what it was.) And she loved.
I don’t just mean Dolly’s frankly astonishing dance card for a privileged if eternally debt-ridden lesbian in the first half of the twentieth century, from Joe Carstairs (I almost screamed on the subway when I read that passage) to Alla Nazimova to the greatest love of her life, the American ex-patriate poet Natalie Clifford Barney, a woman who could give La Maupin a run for her money. I mean, La Maupin burned down a nunnery for a girl once, but Barney invented the Say Anything move—with an actual singer instead of a boombox, obviously. (I could go on for years about Natalie Barney, but that will have to wait for the blog until I read The Amazon of Letters, which is even more obscure than Truly Wilde.) After storming into Barney’s mostly queer and mostly female Parisian salon, Dolly found the closest thing to a home she ever had. She may have strayed from it, but she always came back. After spending so much time immersed in Oscar’s life and a general feeling of how tragic it was to be someone like me at most points in history, it’s almost infuriatingly heartening to find a historical space where my sexuality would not just be tolerated, but celebrated.
Schenkar rises to the challenging task of stringing together the scant evidence of Dolly’s life into a narrative by never, for a moment, pretending that she can write a traditional biography about Dolly. She groups things topically, even examines Dolly astrologically (hey, it makes as much sense as any other method), and often talks about her own research and friendship with Barney’s former and very devoted maid, Berthe Cleyrergue. There’s even an amazing coda where Schenkar brings up Dolly to an aging Eyre de Lanux, who gives her level glare and tells her “I don’t remember Dolly Wilde and I don’t want to remember Dolly Wilde” (399). (She, of course, does.) It’s very unorthodox—the contemporary New York Times review is dismissive and scathing—but I find it very honest. if humans construct the world around them through stories, then telling the stories of others is a way of constructing both them and us. There’s no reason to pretend otherwise.
(However, fair warning: Schenkar makes the baffling choice to use the word “Negro” to describe the few black personages that wander across Dolly’s historical frame. It’s maddening.)
I bought a used copy of this book from Amazon.