Book Review: Oscar Wilde’s Elegant Republic: Transformation, Dislocation and Fantasy in fin-de-siècle Paris

Oscar Wilde is one of the most explored and discussed of modern writers – so much so that one wonders whether there can be any new insight or discovery to add to the vast literature. In recent years, gay studies have reinvented Wilde as an icon, and Irish studies have largely rehabilitated him in the country – and culture – of his birth.

To write on Wilde today, one should have a comprehensive, if not entirely exhaustive, knowledge of Wilde’s life and work. Fortunately, there are few modern scholars better qualified to discuss Wilde than David C Rose whose interest was ignited, I believe, by his occupation of Wilde’s own rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford. Rose has been at the forefront of Wilde studies in recent years, not least as the progenitor of the online resource, The Oscholars, and its, by now, many sub-sections. In fact, Rose probably knows more about Wilde than almost any other living person, and his interest is not limited to any particular aspect of the man or the work, but displays a generic passion for every aspect of the fin de siècle, Wilde’s Irishness (he conducted a Wilde school in Ireland when he lived there some years ago) and his homosexuality.

Now, in Oscar Wilde’s Elegant Republic, he marries that voluminous scholarship to what seems to be an encyclopaedic knowledge of Paris and the French cultural milieu to which Wilde was so strongly attracted during his rise to literary and social eminence and to which he fled after his disgrace and imprisonment. Rose’s aim is “an attempt, largely through contemporary sources, to reconstruct the Parisian social and cultural milieu in which Wilde was explorer, participant, hero, and ultimately victim”. Should he have added “lover”?

9781443883603Oscar Wilde’s Elegant Republic is subtitled “Transformation, Dislocation and Fantasy in fin de siècle Paris”. It is the first of what the author rather ominously announces as a trilogy, the second and third parts of which are conceived, respectively, as “City of Light, City of Darkness: Cultures of Paris in the Age of Oscar Wilde” and “Paris as a Work of Fiction”. Given that the present volume extends to 400-plus pages of text and 3100 endnotes, this is a daunting prospect. However, many years ago, at the inception of this work, the author told me that the concept of a superficial Paris and a subliminal Paris was the fons et origo of his entire work, so that one can readily see that the two projected companion volumes may well carry this first essai towards a fulfilment of that two-tier vision. When he writes that Paris is “the City of Light, but also of the crepuscular and the nocturnal” he does not satisfy (in this book) our appetite, but merely whets it.

The two Parises which Rose promises us are not fully realised in the present book: this is tantalising, for he offers us “the Paris of geography cohabit[ing] with Paris imagined, a metaParis” and, invaluably, observes that “spatial/temporal relationships are mutable”. That this does not emerge clearly enough in his pages is due partly to the thematic chapter arrangement and partly to the weight of detail that he brings to bear on what are, admittedly, the broad shoulders of the city.

The present book is in fifteen chapters, each with its own special focus: among them Anglomania, Duplicity, Masquerade, America, gender, drama, the ambience of the café society: each of which summons personalities, ideas, intellectual movements, gossip, backbiting, and the hugger-mugger of a great city conscious of its space-time significance as a post-war and pre-war cultural magnet.

This division of the chapters encourages repetition, which is probably inescapable. The same personalities reappear, and if the central feature of each chapter is, largely, restricted therein, the essence of Paris, its joie de vivre alongside its awareness of dark undercurrents, pervades every page. Rose, who now lives in France, has clearly researched Paris, and Parisian culture, as fastidiously and as thoroughly as he has come to know Wilde himself. The result is a vast canvas, pointilliste at times, at others delineated with a broad sweep of his critical brush.

The author’s method is “’thickened narrative’ where analysis, interrogation of sources and critical commentary are integrated with recovered histories”; this is an admirable, idiosyncratic and exciting method, one which probably only Rose himself is capable of attempting. It results in a text which is dense at every turn and in every paragraph with information, allusion, surmise and suggestion. It is in danger of deterring all but the most assiduous reader, since its density leads, at times, to impenetrability and overload. But one has to admire the challenge that Rose offers to those of us who have pursued Wilde in other ways: “When pursuing Wilde among the Parisians we enter a world different from that which has hitherto been composed by his biographers […] more tapestried, an intricate skein of propinquities, associations, affinities and referents”. That is a fine example of Rose’s own “elegance” as a writer, and it marks him as a bold adventurer in a landscape largely of his own making.

Indeed, the author’s enthusiasm and encyclopaedic knowledge threaten at times to overwhelm the less-erudite and more cautious reader as he gushes through the Elysian fields of the city, its environs and its nodal points. Rose seems at times to exhibit what Salman Rushdie calls “the Indian disease” – the determination, and indeed the need, to swallow the whole world. If James Joyce reckoned that, from reading Ulysses, one could reconstruct the city of Dublin, from Rose’s readings one could, perhaps, build many Parises. That is, of course, his intention, but he on occasions falls victim to his passion, as he thrusts more and more information at us in an inexhaustible litany that proves the reader to be anything but inexhaustible. We are given every mot, both bon and not-so bon, that was ever uttered in, by or about Paris and the Parisians. As an arbiter of taste, Rose is certainly eclectic and authoritative, so we have to assume that the plethora of information he presents is necessary to the narrative thrust.

And one can quibble, both with Rose’s judgements and his inclusions. He mentions “three of the props from which Wilde was formed” as Dublin, London and Paris; where is Oxford in all this? – the city which Wilde specifically mentioned as providing one of the turning points in his life. This can be especially annoying when he himself criticises the omissions of others – for example, taking Richard Ellmann and Rupert Hart-Davis to task for what is, in effect, a minor point to them and only a footnote to him.

The writing is always elegant, always à point, always provocative; Rose is simultaneously a flâneur and an archiviste, a voyeur and a photographer, a documentary-maker with the spirit of an enfant méchant. He is also a humourist. On page 1 he puns delightfully, referring to “the Prismatic” view on the meaning of fiction. Are we at fault if we do not appreciate his joke? I think we are, for this is a book for the aficionado, not the neophyte.

There are points where Rose displays his knowledge unnecessarily: it’s quite de trops to tell us, in parenthesis, that André Maurois was married to the daughter of Gaston Arman de Caillavet, whoever she and he may have been. Although Catulle Mendès features often, I would have liked – since Rose peppers his narrative with such facts – to be told that one of Mendès’ mistresses, by whom he had several children, was the Irish composer Augusta Holmès, among whose compositions is the tone-poem L’Irlande. The information might have been gratuitous, but in the light of Holmès’ ethnicity and cultural inclinations, I would have thought she ranked higher in the stakes of the ephemera than Madame André Maurois.

The title does, indeed, bring us back to Ireland, for it was Wilde’s father who, on one nodal occasion, referred to Ireland’s political future as a “regal republic”. The volition towards a democratic polity which might also reflect noblesse was carried forward by Oscar Wilde into many of his essays, and one which he encountered in the Paris which Rose has painted for us. Paris, in Rose’s words, was “a place of illusion, deception and concealment” which “lends itself peculiarly to the study of Wilde’s shifting identities”. Rose titillates, appropriately and forgivably, when he describes Paris as “a site where the master narratives of modernism – sex, time, space, identity – are on the loose”. Rose’s finest chapter is his eighth, “Pervading Paris”, which fulfils more successfully than others his promise of combining Wilde, his Parisian associations, and the city itself.

Regrettably, the index does not include those mentioned in the endnotes, thus condemning many to the obscurity from which the author has rescued them. Pierre MacOrlan is one character whose later prominence as poet and raconteur should have been signalled more effectively.

Rose relentlessly serves us, on every page, ortolans marinated in fine champagne accompanied by foie gras and beluga caviare, when there are times when we are crying out for nothing more subtle than a cheese sandwich. But this is a worthwhile complaint. If Rose had not supplied this banquet, we would be much the poorer, even if our dossiers would be less obese.

Despite the danger of obesity, however, I can only applaud and admire – jealously no doubt – David Rose’s achievement in assembling this feast of information and insight. I look forward with eagerness and trepidation to its successors.


Oscar Wilde’s Elegant Republic: Transformation, Dislocation and Fantasy in fin-de-siècle Paris is Cambridge Scholars’ February Book of the Month: to purchase a copy at a 60% discount, enter the code BOMFEB17 at checkout.


Richard Pine is the author of, among other titles, The Thief of Reason: Oscar Wilde and Modern Ireland (1995) and The Disappointed Bridge: Ireland and the Post-Colonial World (2015). He is the director of the Durrell Library (www.durrelllibrarycorfu.org) in Corfu, where he lives and is guest lecturer at the Ionian University.

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