I went along to Dr Michèle Mendelssohn’s Making Oscar Wilde unsure of what to expect. Having studied Wilde in some depth for my A-Level English coursework seven years ago, and being aware of the fame and reverence the author has posthumously enjoyed in recent decades, I naively thought that all that could be discovered and said about the archetypal wit already had been. How wrong I was.
Mendelssohn started by reiterating a point she holds dear and is keen to emphasise to her students; that a significant amount of modern insight into history exists thanks to a ‘golden age of archiving’. Traditionally-accepted stories are able to be examined in new lights, due to previously inaccessible evidence. This had the effect of making the audience feel very privileged to be able to consider such perspectives, but in a way that was presented with an admirable academic humility. For me, it wasn’t the only reason to feel very lucky to be shown such new insights - the sense of fortune was heightened by Wilde’s connection to Oxford, and the Norrington Room of Blackwell’s makes a perfect setting for such reflection.
The period of Wilde’s life that Mendelssohn focuses on, and indeed posits as the most formative in terms of the legendary figure we recognise today, was his lecture tour to America in 1882, which was only very briefly touched upon in my exam-board-dictated syllabus. The author uncovers swathes of fascinating, interconnected details from history, demonstrating how the opposition Wilde faced, particularly in the earlier part of his career, was rooted in the deeply problematic cultural mores of the day. Without resorting to sensationalism or oversimplification, this talk threw into astonishingly stark focus some troubling truths about Wilde’s milieu.
Given that Wilde is one of the Western world’s most famous queer writers, living and working in the time of stringent Victorian morality, one would be forgiven for anticipating that the main resistance to his work and persona would be based on homophobia. The surprise came from the racially-motivated nature of much of the opposition to the Irish Wilde, as a person and as an artist, with his eventual persecution for his sexuality an additional excuse. The ramifications of this were explored in an eye-opening way which I hesitate to give away because they will be found in Mendelssohn’s book of the same title, which I recommend buying on the basis of the talk!
An irony Mendelssohn noted in her talk was that Wilde’s initial lectures were (two hours) long, boring and drearily overcomplicated, a far cry from the aphorism-laden scripts of his later career. The talk I attended, in contrast, was engaging throughout, yet managed to pack in an enjoyable breadth and depth of cultural concepts and historical narrative, condensing some of Mendelssohn’s book into an enjoyable and illuminating hour. Although we concluded with a brief plug for the book, and signed copies were available, the marketing element did not invade on the talk itself, and the audience would have got their money’s-worth of thought-provoking exploration independent of the promotional element.
This talk was the first I have attended at Blackwell’s of this nature, and based on the high quality of both style and substance (especially as Wilde himself was considered lacking in one of these!), I hope to return very soon, and would urge anyone looking to discover new ideas or stories to do so too.