Wilde knew all too well the spiritual shame that can follow moral transgression

Modern biographers who lack religious faith themselves are likely to misunderstand their subject if he is searching for faith in his own life. This is very apparent in a biography I have just read: The Fall of the House of Wilde by Emer O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan has tackled as her theme a family both blessed and cursed; in particular Oscar Wilde, who was more complex and more brilliant than most other men of his time. Inevitably, our own age views him differently from his contemporaries who were charmed, then scandalised, by his personality, his exploits, his notoriety and his downfall. A contemporary celebrity, Stephen Fry, calls this biography “an indispensable contribution to Wildean literature.” I wonder.

O’Sullivan is right to suggest that Wilde was drawn “to Roman ritual and the sensuous mysticism it fostered” but wrong to state that, following the influence of Nietzsche, and “having got over the search for consolation he had sought during his Oxford years, Oscar saw the death of God as a new beginning.”

A man who understood depravity so clearly in his art (The Picture of Dorian Gray in particular) and who had quipped, with more than a grain of seriousness, “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people the Anglican Church will do”, was well acquainted with the spiritual shame that can follow moral transgression.

Writing of Dorian Gray, O’Sullivan sees it as a satiric work in which sin and conscience are depicted as “entirely imaginary and psychologically pernicious”. I read it as a dramatic parable of the fate awaiting a man who deliberately stifles his inner self, his conscience, and makes vice his idol.

Wilde’s tragic wife, Constance, wrote to a friend in 1893, that Oscar “goes to Benediction at the Oratory sometimes…He would like me to go and burn candles at the Virgin’s altar and offer up prayers for him”.

O’Sullivan, entirely misinterpreting both the pathos and the sincerity of Wilde’s request, comments: “Hedonism, it seems, had not freed Oscar from the influence of Catholic demonology”. A yearning for forgiveness from the hands of Our Lady is, I think, hardly demonic.

Still conscious on his deathbed, 30th November 1900, Wilde was received by Fr Cuthbert Dunne into the Church that “enthrals me by its fascination”, as he had written many years before and which, during his prodigal career, he had long resisted.