The Importance of Being Squeaky Clean

Famously Wilde, the gay writer best known for witty plays like The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, as well as the fittingly age-defying novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray died in 1900. While Oscar Wilde’s life and work, then, falls outside the purview of the 20th Century Unlimited, his influence and considerable appeal carry over into the current century, most imminently with the upcoming release of Al Pacino’s unusual documentary Wilde Salomé, not to mention any number of theater productions ongoing around the world.

Wilde’s shadow may have loomed large in Henry James’s life – or, at least, both Colm Tóibín and David Lodge imagine it so in their respective novels. The two fictional James pay close attention as Wilde tempts fate by countering the Marquess of Queensberry’s accusation of “sodomy” with a libel suit in 1895.

The real James, according to biographer Leon Edel, found Wilde lazy and irritating, all the more so because, before Wilde’s brilliant luck ran out, the two competed for the attention of English theatergoers; they were rivals, that is, but not exactly equals. As Edel puts it, unkind in pun if not intent, “James was not only too subtle, but also too earnest; and when he tried to be less subtle, he became banal.”

Despite the efforts he made to cloak his life from the independent historical record, James left clues as to his own sexual preferences, and there’s nothing like an enduring mystery to fuel speculation. An excerpt from Edel’s index offers an amusing snapshot of this kind of biographical detective work:

Fantasies: women as statues, 73…Homoeriticism: in relation to elder brother, 82-83, 244-46, 722; Wilde and Symonds, 273, 437-39…Sexual diffidence: J. will not marry, 229, 233-36; bachelor life, 229-34; passivity, 59-60, 77, 85, 110; apparent lack of sexual experience, 58, 166-67; older women, 230-32; no interest in bedroom sex, 379; danger of “total” sex in fiction, 511-12… “possibilities I don’t embrace” and…Hemingway and Fitzgerald on J.’s “impotence,” 720-21

Both Tóibín and Lodge take James’s homosexuality as a given; while Tóibín plumbs the psychological depths of intense longing unfulfilled, Lodge prefers to tap the comic potential in James’s fastidious disgust for the physical.

In a memorable scene in The Master, James is forced to share a bed with the then-future renowned jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a scene that finds its own unintended parody in a certain 1987 film:

When Holmes turned away from him, as he did now as suddenly as he had turned before, Henry realized that it would be his fate to lie here through the night, his mind racing, with this figure beside him, who was perhaps unaware of him, used to the company of men at close quarters. Holmes had, he now believed, fallen asleep. Henry did not know whether he was disappointed or relieved, but he wished he, too, could fall unconscious so that he would not have to think again until morning.”

In a contrasting scene from Author, Author, James goes to lunch with his contemporary, the French author Guy de Maupassant, author of The Necklace, and Maupassant wants to order more than food and drink:

‘Go and ask her if she would like to join us, Henri,’ Maupassant said. (Mercifully they were both speaking French.)
‘I couldn’t possibly, Guy,’ said Henry. ‘I don’t know who she is.’
‘Well, send her a note by the waiter. Tell her we would like to make her acquaintance.’
‘Certainly not…You simply cannot do such things here, Guy,’ Henry protested. ‘It’s impossible.’
‘Why not?’ Maupassant demanded… ‘She is available, without doubt. Why else is she dining alone in a public restaurant?’
‘There is a new species of respectable but emancipated ladies in this country who are laying claim to some of the traditional prerogatives of men. I daresay she is one such.’
Maupassant snorted derisively. ‘I want a woman,’ he grumbled. ‘Not an emancipated one, just an ordinary woman, as long as she has a pretty face and a nice arse. I haven’t had one since I got to London.’
Henry was relieved to get him out of the restaurant without creating a scene. It confirmed all his prejudices about the morals of French writers. How right he had been to flee Paris!

James would likely have found Wilde’s tomb impossibly garish but approved of his being interred in Paris. I myself visited Wilde’s grave at the Père Lachaise Cemetery a while back and found the tributes imprinted on its surfaces by his admirers charmingly appropriate, so long as I didn’t think too hard about what each required. Perhaps I have a bit of James’s puritanical streak in me.

As far as the tomb is concerned, and only the tomb, one might say that James has had the last laugh.


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