Early on in his recollections, Oscar Wilde recalls George Bernard Shaw saying that, “An Englishman will do whatever in the name of principle.” Wilde’s qualification was that the principle was inevitably self-interest. It is a beautiful metaphor, because as a talented – even gifted – young Irish writer, Wilde was promoted and enjoyed success while ever he bolstered others’ positions. The moment he sought an assertion of his own right, however, he was disowned. Celebrity can thus rub shoulders with the rich and powerful, but only on their terms.
And it was their terms that eventually killed him. The sybaritic Bosie encountered, the desire for things Greek aroused, Wilde found himself drawn into a society he could not resist. But he remained a self-confessed voyeur, and never became a participant. He thus remained forever the outsider, on the periphery of even his own vices. But he was eventually pilloried for what he became in the public eye to stand for. It remained only a state to which he aspired, if, that is, we believe him.
The Last Testament Of Oscar Wilde thus hops repeatedly across the boundary that separates a public and a private life. Eventually the two distinct existences become blurred. Because one is always trying to be the other, with neither predominating. Peter Ackroyd’s book is a masterpiece with much to say about thoroughly modern concepts such as populism, celebrity, fame and identity.