Why we need fairytales: Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde

Love transfigured by imagination … 'The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde. Photograph: Grahame Baker-Smith
Love transfigured by imagination … ‘The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde. Photograph: Grahame Baker-Smith

“Far off, like a perfect pearl, one can see the city of God. It is so wonderful that it seems as if a child could reach it in a summer’s day. And so a child could. But with me and such as I am it is different. One can realise a thing in a single moment, but one loses it in the long hours that follow … ”

– Oscar Wilde, “De Profundis”

Oscar Wilde wrote “De Profundis” in Reading gaol where he was serving two years hard labour for being himself; he was homosexual. He was sent to prison in 1895 after one of the most notorious trials in English history. Wilde’s fatal amour, Lord Alfred Douglas, was son of the Marquess of Queensberry, who was a bully, womaniser, gambling addict, cycling bore and amateur boxer (to him we owe the Queensberry rules). In his personal life there was no such thing as fair play. Queensberry was a vicious pugilist detested by his family. A caricature of masculinity, he loathed the cult of art and beauty that Wilde championed, and under the guise of saving his son from sodomy, he set about bringing down Wilde at the height of his fame.

The tragedy is that he succeeded. Wilde became the most infamous man in Britain. Queensberry bankrupted him. Even his copyrights and his library were sold. On release in 1897 he was forced to live abroad, separated permanently from his wife and children, who changed their name. Three years later he was dead.

Wilde loved his sons and had been a devoted father. He loved his wife, Constance Holland, too; in his domestic affairs, and perhaps only there, Wilde was unexpectedly conventional. He liked women, but in common with Victorian men of his class, heterosexual and homosexual alike, his interests and his excitements happened outside of the home – with other men.

Unlike other men, Wilde was flamboyant, outspoken and provocative. The all-male environments of school, university, the army, gentlemen’s clubs and public life operated on a tacit code of concealment – whether of mistresses or misdemeanours. The “love that dare not speak its name” was a crime, yet in the eyes of society, Wilde’s real crime was being found out. The Victorians didn’t invent hypocrisy, but in an era of industrious taxonomy, they were the first to reclassify that sin as a virtue.

Disgraced and imprisoned, sleeping on a plank bed, his health broken, Wilde wrote a long letter to Alfred Douglas, later published as “De Profundis”. It is a meditation on faith and fate, suffering and forgiveness, love and art. The strange thing is that in this, his last real piece of work, Wilde takes us back in tone and spirit to his first authentic work – the fairy stories or children’s stories he wrote immediately after the birth of his two boys, Cyril and Vyvyan.

The work Wilde is remembered for was written over a period of less than 10 years. The Happy Prince and Other Tales was published in 1888. That volume marks the beginning of Wilde’s true creativity. He had lectured extensively in the US – but that would not have won him any lasting legacy, any more than his journalism or his poems. He had published a great many poems, but Wilde was a bad poet – he rarely found the right words and he was old-fashioned. Read him next to Emily DickinsonWalt Whitman or WB Yeats, and you will see for yourself. We don’t read his poetry now – it is dated and dead; too much Arcady and Hellenic Hours. The early plays suffer from the same verbal excess. Wilde at his worst wrote in purple. At his best he is dazzling.

The birth of his children seems to have regenerated Wilde as a writer. The tedious Hellenism vanished. The purple-isms faded. There are still overwritten images – Dawn’s grey fingers clutching at the stars – and he never gives up his fondness for a biblical moment, usually appearing as precious stones or pronouns (thee and thy), but his style did change. The writing became freer and sharper, and also more self-reflective, without being self-absorbed.

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Author: Josh Withrow

I want to help people creatively tell their stories by giving them the tools to engage other people with captivating ideas. My 14 years of classroom teaching and my master's degree in English Literature give me the experience to make my classes both creative and informative. People don't need a degree to enjoy learning -- but sometimes a little guidance goes a long way.

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