When Oscar Wilde stepped out of prison and into the cold early morning of 19 May 1897, he was not exactly short of possibilities for refuge. While London - the home of his bewhiskered nemesis, the Marquis of Queensberry - might have been intolerable, Paris and its poets would have welcomed him. With his growing tendency towards Catholicism, Wilde would surely have found Italy an attractive prospect.
Instead, however, he chose to take the first boat to Dieppe, a small, often fog-bound fishing port on the coast of Normandy, arriving there two days later. It might seem a strange choice to modern-day tourists, who tend to see Dieppe as little more than a ferry terminal. But in the 1890s the town housed a considerable British community and, more importantly for Wilde, a significant colony of friends and artists, including James McNeill Whistler and Walter Sickert. Thus begun what has become known as "Oscar Wilde's Dieppe summer".
This Friday Sotheby's of London is auctioning off the largest remaining collection of Oscar Wilde memorabilia in private hands. The sale, which marks the 150th anniversary of Wilde's birth, is expected to fetch £600,000 - of which £40,000-£50,000 is expected to be paid for an edition of an unpublished book by Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde devotees who don't have that kind of money might instead consider a cheaper option - a day trip to Dieppe.
Those visiting the port in Wilde's footsteps will find that the cross-channel ferry from Newhaven no longer docks right in the centre of town, as it did, rather charmingly, until 1995. But if one were to seat oneself on the terrace of the Café Suisse (now a rather unremarkable brasserie), as Wilde often did in the summer of 1897, one would have a clear view of the landing jetty were Wilde's unmistakable bulk proceeded down the gang-plank of the French steamer, Tamise. This little packet boat, incidentally, used to take at at least an hour less to cross the Channel than the current car ferry.
Wilde's first act on foreign soil was to meet up with his waiting friend, the Canadian art critic Robert Ross. To Ross he passed the completed manuscript of De Profundis, Wilde's attack on his erstwhile lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, which he had written while in prison in Reading (the composition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol had yet to happen).
Wilde was travelling under a pseudonym, Sebastian Melmoth - Sebastian after his favourite martyred saint, Melmoth after the satanic hero of his great-uncle's novel Melmoth the Wanderer. The hotel in Dieppe that Wilde stayed in he referred to as "Hotel Sandwich", but that may too have been a pseudonym, a jocular title adopted by the English homosexual demi-monde. The local historian of the English in Dieppe, Simona Pakenham, reckoned the establishment's real name was Hotel Pension Richmond, and this building - a rather ugly affair faced in a sort of belle époque stone cladding - still stands behind the casino (1, rue du Commandant Fayolle). It houses a drop-in centre for the elderly.
Dieppe's municipal brothel is, however, long gone - abolished like the rest of France's licensed whore-houses after the Second World War. It was here that Wilde had his last taste of heterosexual coition, having been taken there by Ernest Dowson, the English poet who coined the expression "days of wine and roses". "It was like chewing mutton," Wilde wrote of the experience, before adding, "but tell it in England, where it will entirely restore my reputation."
The English community in Dieppe was, on the whole, scandalised to find the notorious sodomite in their midst. Simona Pakenham says in her book 60 Miles from England that while the women of the colony would have had to pretend not to comprehend the nature of his "crime", privately they would have understood it all too well. Wilde was often cut in the street, and once they realised that the exiled writer was bad for custom, the shopkeepers and restaurateurs also began to make him feel unwelcome. There is a story of Wilde sitting down to eat in a party of four, and the owner - spotting Wilde - rushing over to say that he had only enough food for three.
More hurtful was the way that former friends ignored Wilde, or just pretended not to see him. Sickert, who had received many acts of kindness from Wilde in the past, shunned his old friend. Aubrey Beardsley, the fellow Decadent who had illustrated the famous poster for Wilde's play Salomé, was so embarrassed at having to cross paths that he moved up the coast to Boulogne.
Meanwhile, after a boisterous evening at the Café des Tribuneaux entertaining a group of young Parisian poets who had travelled to Dieppe to meet the great aesthete, the town's sub-prefect wrote to Wilde threatening his expulsion from France should further such raucousness take place. The café, which is the former town hall and looks as if it has been transported from deepest Bavaria, is still a fine place to take a drink and watch the passing crowds, as they saunter up the Grand Rue - scene of Dieppe's wonderful Saturday-morning food market - to the Rue de la Barre and Rue de la Faubourg, former hubs of the English colony.
On the latter street, now hidden by a dense barrier of trees and shrubs, is the Villa des Orchides, home of the Norwegian landscape painter Fritz von Thaulow, one of the few artists to make a point of being hospitable to Wilde. For, just as his presence in Dieppe brought out the worst in some people, it brought out the best in others. The popular novelist Mrs Arthur Stannard, who wrote under the name of John Strange Winter, observed some English people snubbing Wilde. Crossing the street, she exclaimed: "Oscar, take me to tea!"
Dieppe, however, was not going to be able to provide Wilde with the genial atmosphere necessary to begin work on his prison poem - The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The story goes that he set off on a random journey along the coast, and the horse pulling his cart, being a native of the cliff-top village of Berneval-sur-Mer, took him there, and he stayed.
Today Berneval is a 10-minute drive from Dieppe, although in 1897 the carriage from Dieppe took over two hours, longer than the railway journey from Dieppe to Paris. Quite whether Berneval is today worth the short detour is open to question. The charming thatched houses have been replaced by post-war red-brick and concrete villas, and a memorial to the Canadian commando raid of 19 August 1942 suggests why.
The RAF did the rest of the damage. It destroyed the Hotel de la Plage, where Wilde held court to Andre Gide and other illustrious visitors - as well as Wilde's subsequent home at the Chalet Bourgeat, where he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The beach at Berneval, where Wilde took his daily swim and would sit and chat with the douaniers - villagers paid to keep look out for smugglers - is now overshadowed by a nuclear power station. The ghost of Wilde would recoil at its ugliness, especially on the sort of bleak, early-autumn day that I visited. Indeed it was the gloomy weather that drove Wilde out of the region, and back into the arms of Lord Alfred Douglas. The couple decamped to Naples, and three years later Wilde died in Paris. Dieppe had provided Wilde with his last best hope of salvation, but alas it did not last.
How to get there
Transmanche 0800 917 1201; www.transmancheferries.com) operates ferries from Newhaven to Dieppe with return fares for a car and two passengers starting from around £139, although special offers are sometimes available.
Where to stay
The Hotel La Presidence (00 33 2 35 84 3131; www.hotel-la-presidence.com), 30 Boulevard de Verdun, has nice views of town and offers double rooms from €60 (£43) per night with breakfast costing an extra €10 (£7.15) per person.
Hotel de la Plage (00 33 2 35 84 18 28; ), 20 boulevard de Verdun, offers double rooms from €50 (£36) per night with breakfast.
Au Grand Duquesne (00 33 2 32 14 61 10; www.logis-de-france.fr), 15 place St Jacques, is an inn with 12 rooms and a good restaurant. Double rooms start from €50 (£36) per night with breakfast or €84 (£60) half board.
Where to eat
La Melie (0033 2 35 84 21 19), 2 Grande Rue du Pollet, is a seafood restaurant supplied with fish from a family-owned trawler on the quay.
La Marmite Dieppoise (00 33 2 35 84 24 26), 8 rue St Jean, takes its name from the local fish stew that is the restaurant's signature dish.
Wilde's old haunt, the Brasserie "Le Café Suisse" (00 33 2 35 841 069) is at 19 Arcade la Bourse.
Maison de la France (09068 244123, calls cost 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).
Dieppe Tourisme (00 33 2 3214 4060; www.dieppetourisme.com).
The Oscar Wilde artefacts are on display at Sotheby's (020-7293 5000; www.sothebys.com), 34-35 New Bond Street, London, from today until Thursday 28 October.Reuse content