Hesketh Pearson’s Life of Oscar Wilde

Book Reviews

It was all going so well and then it fell apart. 📖

The Life of Oscar Wilde by Hesketh Pearson (1946)
Copies available here: https://tinyurl.com/y7vkjcu4

In the prologue Pearson relays George Bernard Shaw’s advice when he first proposed this biography: ‘Don’t’. For #Wilde was ‘incomparably great as a raconteur, conversationalist and personality; and those points cannot be reproduced.’ Pearson did, but whilst doing so kept Shaw’s warning in mind, painstakingly recreating what Wilde said, how he said it and how it was received; producing an irrepressibly witty and vivid portrait of the man.

Modern readers might fear that this portrait could be a little old-fashioned. And in some ways Pearson can be a little coy. Wilde’s homosexuality is stated and tentatively explored but many of the specifics are avoided. A modern biographer would surely delve deeper into Wilde’s romantic life. But this is a trifling matter and in fact Pearson’s proximity to his subject is the book’s great strength.

Being just one generation removed, Pearson entered into circles still reverberating from Wilde’s presence. Indeed, one of his first jobs was with Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who staged the first production of A Woman of no Importance. This lends an urgency to questions of who Wilde was and what he did and makes this such a compelling book, unravelling his tragedy out of necessity.

Pearson’s account is both sufficiently critical and sympathetic without being affectionate. Wilde’s behaviour and personality is assiduously researched and feels authentic. Although his unshakeable belief in Wilde’s physical prowess can be amusing. Pearson is adamant that, despite Wilde’s indolent and amiable nature, he could have dispatched both the Marquis of Queensbury and one of his thugs with ease. Still, as this biography makes clear Wilde was a singularly extraordinary man, so who knows?

Highly recommended.