Wilde, Oscar: 1854-1900

Transcript of the Interview

  • Monika Schärer    Welcome to SwissEduc. My name is Monika Schärer and my guest is Neil McKenna, a writer, a journalist, a producer, a researcher, and he's here because he wrote a wonderful, new biography on Oscar Wilde.
    Neil McKenna    Hello
    MS    How does one proceed to write a biography on a dead author?
    NM    Well, it's a fairly daunting task. I think you have to begin at the beginning. I started reading everything that had ever been written by Oscar Wilde, and I read that, and I thought about it, and I went one step further. And I went to the four major archives, where most of the Oscar Wilde material is kept and to a lot of minor archives. So I traveled from London to Oxford, to Austin in Texas, and to Los Angeles, and to many small and forgotten libraries in Cambridge and Worthing and other cities.
    My goal was to try and read every document written by or about Oscar Wilde, which would give me an insight into his life; and I think I succeeded in that.
    By the time I'd finished I had 10,000 cards with notes on them. Much of it was irrelevant, but I needed to know it. But about 30% was relevant, and I did use it. And I think that's the only way you can do it. You have to get down into the material, and you have to look at the original letters, at the memoirs, at the letters of his circle, of his wife, of his son, of his friends, of his enemies in order to fully understand it.
    MS    There are already many biographies about Oscar Wilde's life. Did you disapprove of them?
    NM    I don't think it's a question of disapproving or not disapproving, there had probably been about 15 major biographies of Oscar Wilde's life. And they started in 1913 with Arthur Ransome's biography, and the last really major one was in 1987 with Richard Ellman's biography.
    One of the problems with all the previous biographies was that they were constrained, constricted about what they could say about Oscar's sexuality. Remember in 1987 in Britain and in America, while there homosexuality was around, it was very hard to actually publish sexually explicit material about gay sex and about a revered author like Oscar Wilde.
    So if you read Richard Ellman's biography, and it's a very, very good book and I would certainly recommend every one to read it, it is very, very sparse when it comes to Oscar Wilde's gay sexual liaison. And I think that the book that I have written could not have been written until the early 21st century, because no mainstream publisher would have dared to publish it
    MS    Your focus is on the sex and love life of Oscar Wilde. How important is it to know about an author's sex life?
    NM    I think it varies from author to author. I mean Oscar Wilde went to prison for falling in love with another man and having sex with male prostitutes, with blackmailers, with boys, with young men. So his writing life is intimately bound up with his sexual life. He was a gay man, a Uranium they called him then, in an age where it was utterly illegal to be gay. Not just to be gay, but to even appear to be gay or to be thought to be gay.
    Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labor for having sex with men. That's something that might not sound particularly problematic now, but at the time two years with hard labor in an English prison was considered to be tantamount to a death sentence. He was very lucky that he only got two years. He had had anal sex with some of the boys. And the penalty for that was ten years imprisonment to life. So he was lucky that he got two years, and he was lucky that he survived.
    So I think it is important, given that his life is inextricably, intimately bound up with sex with men, that I focused on this important aspect of his life.
    MS    You call your biography "The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde." You show a different side, or you focus on a different side of his life. Does it sort of show ... is he an icon of something for you?
    NM    Well, I'm a gay man. And when I was growing up Oscar Wilde became a kind of icon for gay men of my generation growing up in Britain. Remember he was the most famous gay man; he was persecuted under very unjust laws. Those laws were not repealed in Britain until 1967. I was seven or eight when those laws were repealed. So I was aware that there had been a change, and I was aware still of the homophobia and hostility towards gay men when I was growing up and realized my own sexuality. I have been queer bashed, I have been spat at, I have been called puff, I have been called all sorts of things. So that homophobia is part of my experience. So the homophobia that Oscar Wilde experienced, that he was sent to prison for, that he was persecuted for, is on a continuum with my experience. And I felt that I wanted to explore that, and I think that's probably a good motive for writing a biography.
    MS    Thank you very much.
    NM    Thank you.
  • This interview took place in Zurich, Switzerland, on May 12, 2005