Terry Eagleton, ‘The Doubleness of Oscar Wilde’, in The Wildean, 19 (July 2001), pp.2-9.

‘Like many an Irish emigré washed up on the shores of England, Wilde set about the business of becoming more English than the English, a project he shared with Joseph Conrad, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, V. S. Naipaul and a good many other luminaries of modern English literature. Most of which, of course, was written by Americans, Irishmen, Indians and the like. The Irish didn’t only have to supply Britain with its cattle and grain; they also had to write much of its literature for it. From Goldsmith and Sheridan to Wilde and Shaw, the London stage is dominated by these literary blow-ins and carpet-baggers, who landed on their uppers in the English metropolis with little to hawk but their wits. All of these men practised that most native of all Irish customs, getting out of the place. At once in and out of English soceity, they could msater is conventions while at the same time turning a subversive satirical eye upon them. They could appreciate at once how farcically arbitrary such conventions were to those within them - and this tension between anture and artifice is the very stuff of comedy. Wilde whouls ho w the natives that he could handle their conventions even more dexterous than they could themselves, like the circus clown who cheekily nips off with the suitcase the s trong man has been struggling to lift. But wehterh this was flattery or mockery, parody or conformity, was never easy to say, least of all perrhaps for Oscar himself. Or perhaps, as he himself would say, imitation is the sincerest form of mockery. Even so, there’s always the danger that one’s imitations will be too perfect - that one will be too meticulously, too fastidiously the real thing, and so betray the fact that one actually isn’t. So though the Irish wit in England is allowed to play the clown, from Oliver Goldsmith to Brendan Behan, this licensed jester must ultimately know his place. He mustn’t get his hands, however well-manicured, on sons of the aristocracy, whose destiny is to marry and reproduce their line, and, if he does, as Bernard Shaw knew very well, the English have long experience in how to take care of such rotters, cads and bounders.

Wilde’s ambivalences weren’t just his own. He was born into that most schizoid of social classes, the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, and like Yeats, tended to feel English in Ireland and Irish in Engliash. The Anglo-Irish endured a kind of internal exile, at once natives and aliens, rules and victims, both central and marginal to Irish life. If they were formidably self-assured, they could also feel fearfully defensvie and besieged, and Wilde, the patrician who himself [3] became persecuted, reflects something of this ambiguity.


A similar duality haunts the career of Wilde’s great compatriot and contemporary, Charles Stewart Parnell, another Anglo-Irishman brought low by a combination of sexual misdemeanours and a spiteful British Establishment.’

Eagleton quotes Wilde on “The Happy Prince”: ‘I like to fancy that there may be many meanings in the Tale - for in writing it [...] I did not start with the idea and clothe it in form, but began with a form and strove to make it beautiful enough to have many secrets and many answers.’ (Letter to Thos. Hutchinson, 7 May 1888; Hart-Davis, Letters, p.218; quoted in Angela Kingston, ‘Homeroticism and the Child in Wilde’s Fairy Tales’, in The Wildean, July 2001, p.44.)

OW: ‘[The stories] are studies in prose, put for Romance’s sake into a fanciful form: meant partly for children, and partly for those who have ept the child-like faculty of wonder and joy, and who find in simplicity a subtle strangeness.’ (Letter to G. H. Kersely, 15 June, 1888; Hart-Davies, op. cit., p.219; quoted in Kingston as epigraph, p.43.)

Note that Eagleton contradicts the suggestion that there was any hint of pedophilia in Wilde’s sexuality.

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