The unimportance of being earnest

<i>Truly Wilde</i> by Joan Schenkar (Virago, &pound;20, 442pp)
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The Independent Culture

Dolly Wilde had literary flair, was attractive, charismatic and witty, but her life was chaotic and unhappy, and her talent went unchannelled. She lived in the shadow of her uncle Oscar. Born in 1895, three months after his imprisonment, she looked extraordinarily like him. "I am more Oscar-like than he was like himself," she said, with the implicit admission of not being sure of who, in fact, she was. She was constantly compared to him, would sometimes dress as him, with fur coat and flowing scarf, and she carried on his tradition as doomed lover, wit and brilliant conversationalist.

Dolly Wilde had literary flair, was attractive, charismatic and witty, but her life was chaotic and unhappy, and her talent went unchannelled. She lived in the shadow of her uncle Oscar. Born in 1895, three months after his imprisonment, she looked extraordinarily like him. "I am more Oscar-like than he was like himself," she said, with the implicit admission of not being sure of who, in fact, she was. She was constantly compared to him, would sometimes dress as him, with fur coat and flowing scarf, and she carried on his tradition as doomed lover, wit and brilliant conversationalist.

Her life took three paths: the literary salons of Paris between the wars, lesbian liaisons, and drug addiction. Natalie Barney was the love of her life. They met in 1927 when Dolly was 32 and Natalie in her fifties. The relationship lasted until Dolly's death. At Natalie's Friday afternoon gatherings, in her "Temple of Love" in rue Jacob, lesbian assignation and literary and artistic discussion co-existed, with Janet Flanner, Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall et al.

Natalie divided her love affairs into three categories: "liaisons", "demi-liaisons" and "adventures". Dolly was classed as a liaison, along with Romaine Brooks, Lily de Gramont and poet Renée Vivien. Colette was a demi-liaison.

Natalie seemed drawn to emotionally vulnerable women for whom her multiple partners, extreme wealth and overbearing will were too much to take. Dolly made four suicide attempts during the time-span of her relationship. Renée Vivien died, alcoholic and anorexic,at the age of 30.

Drugs and alcohol destroyed Dolly. She used cocaine, heroin, gin and wine. She would inject herself openly at dinner parties. An alarmed letter to Natalie in 1939 from the manager of a Paris hotel complained of Dolly's drinking, "In addition to which she emits piercing screams all night long, alternating from time to time with groans which disturb her neighbours". He asked Natalie to shift her to a sanatorium.

Dolly tried, time and again, to detoxify and reach the kind of life led by her literary friends, but she lacked the strength of will to keep clear of drugs. The force of her addiction was too strong and her depression too acute. And there were always too many "Sloane Street physicians" willing to write out prescriptions, and too many rich, concerned friends from whom to scrounge money.

She died alone in a London service apartment. Beside her bed were a hypodermic syringe with traces of heroin, and an empty bottle of paraldehyde. She had untreated breast cancer, which had metastasised into lung cancer and a uterine tumour. An autopsy gave inconclusive evidence as to the cause of death

As for her life, the testimony to her passion and failure lies in the letters she wrote and in the recorded memoirs of lovers and friends: Honey Harris, a London friend, said she was like "a beautiful exuberant cuckoo". Janet Flanner praised her epigrammatic wit and compared her to "a character out of a book". Gertrude Stein said, "Well, she certainly didn't have a good run for her money."

She was generous, shocking and idle. She had lots of lovers and drove fast in borrowed cars. She would dress in mauve and gold lamé. She was cultured and said that her true addiction was reading. Her talent for writing was apparent only in her letters. She tried to write short stories, but gave up. A 27-page journal about a trip to Morocco was a pedestrian piece.

The justification for a biography of her is because of who she was, not what she produced. Joan Schenkar's research is wide. She uses interviews, photographs and archive. She switches comfortably from French to English sources. Her book is packed with information and analyses - some insightful, some potty. She claims she "developed a peculiar set of sensitivities which led me to information which would not have been found but for the intense telepathies produced by a communion with my subject."

Apart from that, her main scoops were 200 letters from Dolly found in an "obscure private Paris library", and access to a London archive held by Cara Lancaster, great-granddaughter of Radclyffe Hall's "first wife", Mabel Batten. This holds letters from Dolly to her best friend, Mabel's granddaughter, Honey Harris.

The book's drawbacks are of organisation and style, not content. Joan Schenkar resists chronology and arranges her material thematically. She offers chapters on Natalie Barney, Dolly's love letters, the Paris lesbian circle, Dolly in bed, her relationship with her doctors. The problem with this arrangement is that narrative flow goes out of the window. And there is a lot of reiteration and repetition.

Simpler presentation might have led to an easier book. The chapter on the facts surrounding Dolly's death is excellent. But in a chapter on hands, Joan Schenkar writes "Dolly uses hands in her writing as a kind of synecdoche for human connection and for her own intensely developed emotional vocabulary." For my money, such comment stands between Dolly Wilde and her readers. Schenkar includes a four-page appendix of a 1999 reading, by a Chelsea palmist, of a print of Dolly's left hand: "Those who knew her closely would tell you she suffered nightmares." Part of the art of biography is knowing what to leave out.

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