Revisiting the lives and times of a Wilde bunch
Edmund White’s Our Young Man is a modern take on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, moving the story to New York in the 1980s-90s, with the backdrop of HIV and AIDS an admonitory counterpoint to the sex, drugs and shameless decadence of that time.
Dorian is recast as French-born Guy, and naturally enough for a man who allegedly never grows old, he’s now a model whose face and figure appear on countless runways and in glossy editorials.
In Wilde’s 1890 novel, Dorian’s hidden portrait ages hideously, with all his sins further adding to his disfigurement, while he remains eternally young. But though the original has a supernatural element to it, White does not venture down that alley (although references to Wilde’s novel are sprinkled throughout.)
There’s no good reason offered as to how Guy has cheated time’s winged chariot, still appearing fresh faced when he’s pushing 40. Could it be that “he must be armoured against the assaults of the average with wealth and beauty and connections”?
Certainly Guy’s not averse to exploiting sugar daddies who give him expensive trinkets, cars and even apartments in return for sexual favours. But unlike the original incarnation, he’s not malicious, just self-obsessed and narcissistic. And after all, he’s just selling his body, not his soul.
His admirers appear gratified with the bargain: access to a good-looking “young man” in exchange for monetary largesse. The relationship of predator and prey goes both ways.
Guy fully leverages his beauty for pleasure and commercial gain but he’s also vulnerable in a way Wilde denied the amoral Dorian: the demands of his career and his lovers take their toll, not so much on his conscience but on his time. The constant beautification and keeping ahead of trends, and the juggling of the many sidekicks, patrons and hangers-on, keep him busy and weary. “He thought he was an expensive racehorse whom all the people around him kept inspecting ... not for his wellbeing but to protect their investment.”
In the 1890s Wilde could only hint at the homosexual stirrings of his beautiful man-child but White has no such hesitation. Our Young Man is explicit in its depictions of gay couplings, with the passion Guy arouses in his paramours played out in various scenarios from S& M set pieces to longstanding devotion.
Through his many works (fiction, nonfiction and memoir) White has explored same-sex love; modernising Wilde’s book is another canny variation on the theme. Newcomers to his work may be shocked at his brazenness.
White has never shied from revealing his own promiscuity; there’s no coyness in his book either. With writing that’s arch, salacious and provocative, he keeps the action moving briskly. Though never quite losing sight of Guy, he is supported by a large cast that includes longterm lover Andres, an enthusiastic but poor Colombian art student who faces jail due to a misguided desire to keep up with his moneyed partner; a replacement toy boy named Kevin; agent Pierre-Georges, who is a bit like Dorian’s mentor, the droll and hedonistic Lord Henry Wotton; and various venal and sad older men.
This novel is fuelled by a restless energy. Guy swings free fall in a protracted state of youth. Because he never seems to age physically he doesn’t need to accept the responsibility that comes with growing up. And yet towards the end there’s a splinter of hope.
Wilde’s latest biographer, Emer O’Sullivan, sounds as though she is thinking of Guy when she writes, in her character assessment of Dorian Gray, “Depth is what Dorian lacks. He is a character for the new age of cinema, of celebrity, of glamour.” It’s a comment that nestles deep within her book The Fall of the House of Wilde: Oscar Wilde and His Family.
O’Sullivan positions Wilde within the bosom of an influential and highly respected Anglo-Irish family in the Victorian era. His house at 1 Merrion Square is one of Dublin’s best addresses.
That there have been quite a number of Wilde biographies doesn’t faze O’Sullivan. She writes in a preface: “Biographies of Oscar
Wilde typically treat him in isolation. He is seen as an out-size personality and everything tends to be reduced to personal terms. Oscar was the son of two immense personalities who were at the centre of Irish society.”
As Oscar himself would say “an artist is not an isolated fact, he is the resultant of a certain milieu and a certain entourage”.
Wilde’s parents, Jane and William Wilde, were intellectual powerhouses, socially and politically active and exemplary role models to their children (Oscar and his brother Willie were home educated until age 10 or so). Their marriage was not propped up by the patriarchal structures of its time but existed on equitable terms; their parenting style was more free and engaged than authoritative.
O’Sullivan describes the atmosphere in the Wildean house as convivial, “liberal, lively and unbuttoned in a way many Victorian English homes were not”.
The ancestral trees of Jane and William are lightly sketched before a more exhaustive portrait of their lives is laid out. The reader may be forgiven for thinking the book is a biography of the parents, so thorough is O’Sullivan’s research. We learn about William’s travel romps before settling down to a medical career, his advancements in ophthalmology, his success as a man of science and of letters, as well as numerous other facts. O’Sullivan details how Jane first came to public attention by writing poetry and articles for a literary journal and later developed a reputation as a writer, bluestocking and political firebrand.
Despite O’Sullivan’s eloquence, these chapters can sometimes be a bit dry and feel like the groundwork before Oscar enters the scene — like a support act before the lead singer makes an appearance.
But thanks to the author’s extensive research it’s easy to imagine how the young Wilde would soak up this love of learning by listening at this mother’s salons and his father’s suppers, by being exposed to and encouraged in the art of poetry and conversation. His witticisms and rejoinders seem to have been a direct result of growing up in such a hothouse of ideas.
The book then trails Wilde to his career, including his visits to the US and Canada, and touches on his important works. But an indepth analysis of Wilde’s art is not within the ambit of this biography. O’Sullivan’s interest lies more with the man himself. The two pivotal court cases are revisited in detail: Wilde’s father being acquitted of the charge of rape of a former student (though his reputation was forever stained) and Wilde himself being found guilty of “indecent acts” and sentenced to jail. O’Sullivan notes the echoes between the cases.
From Victorian Dublin to fin-de-siecle London, the tragedy of this family is comprehensively covered. In the end, for a man fashioned by his parents’ idiosyncratic personalities and teachings, Oscar, like his mother, couldn’t help being a risk-taker who craved public attention. His unmitigated impulse was to “seek the high seas rather than the safe harbour”.
Thuy On is the books editor of The Big Issue.
Emer O’Sullivan’s biography of the Wilde family suggests Oscar, above, couldn’t help being a risk-taker who craved public attention