BOOK REVIEW / The siren of misspent youths: 'Wonderful Sphinx: The Biography of Ada Leverson' - Julie Speedie: Virago, 17.99

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THE NOVELIST Ada Leverson is now remembered as Oscar Wilde's 'Sphinx of pleasure' - one of the small band of loyal friends who waited at dawn in a London drawing-room to greet him on his release from prison in 1897. According to Leverson's own

account of this highly charged occasion, Wilde's first words were characteristically frivolous: 'Sphinx, how marvellous of you to know exactly the right hat to wear at seven o'clock in

the morning to meet a friend who has

been away]'

Wilde then dispatched a letter by cab to a Roman Catholic retreat, asking to be admitted for six months. While the assembled company waited for an answer, he talked archly about the governor of Reading Gaol: 'The dear Governor, such a delightful man, and his wife is charming.'

The grim reality behind this performance is known from Wilde's prison writings, such as 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'. It also intrudes into Leverson's recollection of that May morning, when she records that Wilde 'broke down and sobbed bitterly' on receiving a reply refusing him entry to the retreat for at least a year. But

she concludes her account on a lighter note: 'Oscar had a wonderful power

of recuperation, and soon recovered

his spirits.'

This positive fiction could not be maintained for long. Wilde's last surviving letter to Leverson, written from France six months later, combines

an affectionate acknowledgement of Ada's 'many sweet and brilliant letters' with a bitter complaint about her husband's involvement in his complex financial affairs. It ends: 'I have no good news to tell you. I am in such distress and misery, but it is pleasant to tell you that I am always your affectionate and devoted admirer.' They met only once more, when Leverson travelled to Paris and was hugely distressed by the rapid deterioration in her friend's health and appearance.

Wilde's admiration of Leverson was in part a conventional homage to her beauty, which was renowned in the 1890s even though her fin de siecle style does not immediately speak to modern notions of attractiveness. Two undated photographs in Julie Speedie's book show Leverson's curly hair brushed into an over-elaborate chignon while she cultivates the 'upward look' which, she believed, was evidence of a soul fixed on higher things; the effect on the modern eye of this very conscious posing is to render her expression somewhat vacuous. The other important element in her friendship with Wilde was his admiration of her talent for parody; it is unclear when they first met, but Wilde was flattered by the inclusion of his character Dorian Gray in a skit written by Leverson for Punch at the end of 1893.

Leverson did not write her first novel until after Wilde's death, when their mutual friend Robbie Ross wrote to congratulate her with the observation that 'it is charming to realise that Oscar's tremendous admiration of your powers and your wit (apart from all question of friendship) are now realised'. Of all conversational gifts wit is perhaps the most ephemeral, and the examples quoted in Speedie's biography suggest little more than a quick, schoolboyish humour on Leverson's part. To a guest who announced he was leaving a party early to keep his youth, she is said to have replied: 'I didn't know that you were keeping a youth.'

Leverson's gift for parody is at its best in the light, amusing stories she contributed to the Yellow Book in the 1890s. But her satire lacked bite, a

failing which led to frequent rejections from Punch, whose editor seems to have been on his guard against the in-jokes and promotion of her friends barely concealed below the surface of Leverson's brittle, whimsical prose. Wilde, who sent adoring telegrams each time Leverson mocked his work, understood that her pen was dipped in sugar not vitriol. 'One's disciples can parody one - nobody else,' he had remarked presciently in 1889.

It is hard to resist the conclusion, as Speedie records Leverson's gushing response to authors and artists over half a century, that she regarded herself as a literary talent spotter, unashamedly furthering the careers of her favourites. Having styled herself official parodist to Decadence (there was a moment when a novel or article was not considered a success until the Sphinx had parodied it) she later took up Modernism with equal enthusiasm. Wilde, Bosie Douglas, Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, Robert Hichens, Robbie Ross, Reggie Turner, Grant Richards, Frank Richardson, Somerset Maugham and Arthur Machen flutter through these pages; as the 1920s approach, the reader knows it cannot be long before Leverson takes up Firbank, Harold Acton and the Sitwells. Sure enough, by 1922 she is attacking Georgian poetry and fuming at the English Review for its refusal to print her sketch promoting Osbert Sitwell.

Leverson had very few female friends, and showed a lifelong preference for the company of homosexual men. Yet there is virtually no discussion of her sexuality in Speedie's book, other than a record of the bare facts of her unhappy marriage and eventual separation from Ernest Leverson, a businessman and compulsive gambler. She seems to have had crushes on famous men, most of them of ambiguous sexuality; Speedie mentions a rumour that she was repulsed by Aubrey Beardsley. These doomed passions, and her acceptance of the role of follower of literary fashions, suggest a habitual tendency to avoidance which Speedie leaves unanalysed.

Instead, she attempts to rehabilitate Leverson's reputation as a novelist, a project which is undermined by lengthy quotations that reveal more of her limitations as a writer than her strengths. Her chief virtue and remaining claim to fame is her loyalty to her friends, and she emerges from this first full-length biography as a shadowy figure: enigmatic enough, but ultimately too melancholic to embody the playful soubriquet imposed on her by Wilde.