SIR PETER BOTTOMLEY: Oscar Wilde – in his time and ours

W33200H12 - W33203H12  Oscar Wilde  150812  LP

Oscar Wilde plaque, Esplanade House, The Esplanade, Worthing.
W33200H12 - W33203H12 Oscar Wilde 150812 LP Oscar Wilde plaque, Esplanade House, The Esplanade, Worthing.
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During the memorial service for Sir Terry Wogan, I was looking across the choir stalls into Poets’ Corner where for years my place was by the pillar – now graced by the Epstein bust of William Blake.

Behind that is the Oscar Wilde window, unveiled 21 years ago, a hundred years after the opening of his Worthing play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, his greatest social comedy.

When jailed, the play carried on though the writer’s name was erased.

This month my former colleague Gyles Brandreth will host a gathering before Oscar’s 162 birthday. It is interesting to combine different feelings about his life. Gyles is the expert.

Introducing ’Beautiful And Impossible Things’, his selection of essays, sayings and quips of Oscar Wilde, he observed that he has over a hundred of the thousands of books on the Irish writer, dandy, talker and playwright.

The two he returns to are ‘The Wilde Album’ by his only grandson Merlin Holland, and Richard Ellmann’s 1987 major biography.

The first includes Oscar saying his aim in life is “Success: fame or even notoriety.”

The biography concludes: “He belongs more to our world than to Victoria’s. Now beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, so right.”

Gyles would add that he was occasionally so wrong, absurd though always fascinating.

That great biography gave just five sentences to the time in Worthing.

The publication of Antony Edmonds’s book ‘Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer: The 1894 Worthing Holiday and the Aftermath’ was marked two years ago by a remarkable interview in the Herald and Gazette by James Connaughton.

Instead of a few sentences there are 224 pages in the book.

The greatest example of Oscar’s writing ‘The Case of Warder Martin: Some Cruelties of Prison Life’ would justify a memorial for him as a reformer and a campaigner for justice.

It was a letter to a national newspaper regretting the dismissal of a Warder who had given sweet biscuits to a child crying with hunger in Wandsworth Prison.

The piece contains much sense and could be used as a template for reform today.

The archives of Worthing papers tell of the local events during his 1894 time in Worthing.

Available online, more recently we can see the moralist’s objection to a blue plaque going up in his honour and the later discussion about whether it should be moved, better to indicate the position of the residence he had shared with his wife Constance and their sons.

My provisional view is that we should not ignore people’s faults or crimes and we should not overlook their masterpieces.

‘Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer: The 1894 Worthing Holiday and the Aftermath’ by Antony Edmonds, is also available at a reduced price from the Herald and Gazette office in Chatsworth Road, Worthing.

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