Oscar's grandson recalls a century of pain

Wilde has won a place in Poets' Corner but memories of family shame linger on
Click to follow
The Independent Online
OSCAR WILDE officially rejoins the literary establishment this week. One hundred years ago he was jailed for homosexuality, his possessions sold off by bailiffs, his work condemned. This Tuesday his name will be etched into Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, over Tennyson's grave.

His rise to fame as author of society comedies An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest and his vicious rejection by society after his conviction has become the stuff of legend: the devastation the disgrace caused his family is almost forgotten.

Merlin Holland, 49, is Wilde's grandson. A writer who is married and lives in south London, he is the only child of the younger of Wilde's two boys. Vyvyan was eight when his father was jailed in 1895: neither he nor his brother, Cyril, saw him again.

Holland's copy of his father's 1954 autobiography records the trauma of his father's disgrace. The first consequence was that the family changed its name to Holland. The boys' clothes were stripped of name-tags and they were instructed to practise their signatures. Vyvyan wrote: "We were told to forget we had ever borne the name of Wilde, and never to mention it to anyone."

Vyvyan's mother, Constance, died in 1898 and Wilde followed her to the grave in poverty-stricken exile two years after. Vyvyan and Cyril were then brought up by a stern Scottish great-aunt. Vyvyan wrote: "It [was] constantly dinned into me that I was different from other boys; that I was a pariah who could not take his place within the framework of the world except, perhaps, in some remote corner of it."

Holland remains angry about the way his father was treated. He says: "The aunts tried to totally expunge any memory of Wilde. Cyril became a professional soldier and went to India. My father was being groomed for the Colonial Civil Service, so that as far as my prudish family were concerned both the bits of evidence of Wilde's existence had been pushed off abroad."

From that fate, however, Vyvyan was saved by a chance meeting with Helen Carew, an admirer of his father. She introduced him to the artistic and literary world. He became friendly with Henry James, Thomas Hardy and Arnold Bennett, and became a writer.

Vyvyan's autobiography depicts Wilde as a loving father who romped with his children and happily spent an entire afternoon mending his son's toy fort.

Cyril, in contrast, was embittered. He confided to Vyvyan in a letter: "All these years my great incentive has been to wipe that stain away; to retrieve, if may be, by some action of mine, a name no longer honoured in the land." He was shot by a German sniper in France in 1915, fighting for his country.

In some respects Holland has suffered similar setbacks to his father. Wilde went bankrupt and saw his possessions sold off at public auction, including his library of 2,000 books (they still turn up from time to time in private collections). Vyvyan, too, went bankrupt and Holland was educated at Eton and his grandfather's college - Magdalen, Oxford - with help from the writer Rebecca West, the one-time mistress of HG Wells.

Holland has spent the past 20 years researching his grandfather's life and one senses that he does not always welcome the responsibility. "It is very hard to live with all that greatness before you," he admits. "People either expect you to live up to it, which very seldom happens, or you feel some obligation to live up to it which can be - I was going to say destructive - an unnecessary burden."

One burden he does not have to cope with, unlike his father, is the shame. Wilde's literary star is now shining as brightly as it once did; Holland is constantly asked for permission to reproduce his letters and for advice on biographical details.

But the side-effect of Wilde's popularity has meant his life has become increasingly sensationalised. Richard Ellman's authoritative 1987 biography included a photograph of Wilde supposedly in drag playing Salome, sparking a series of theories about his transvestism. In fact, the photograph was of an opera singer named Alice Guszalewicz.

A recent biography by Melissa Knox claimed Wilde not only died of syphilis but deliberately tried to infect his wife. Holland strongly denies this, pointing out that there is no primary evidence to show he had syphilis.

The literary world may have accepted Wilde once more, but gay campaigners still want a posthumous pardon. Aside from the fact that his conviction was deserved under the laws of the day, Holland is not personally in favour: "I think Wilde would almost find it was a trivialising of all he'd gone through."

Perhaps the most interesting point about the present lionising of the man is the way it justifies, so much later, his bold self-assessment in De Profundis when he claimed: "I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram."

No doubt he will be watching the ceremony on Tuesday with an ironic smile.