Oscar Wilde by Richard CanningRichard Canning
Published by Hesperus Press
Reviewed by Karl Barry
If some people aren’t familiar with Oscar Wilde’s literary works, they will be more likely to know about the man himself. Tried and convicted for “gross indecency” in 1895, the scandal this fantastic personality caused over a hundred years ago still has the ability to shock today. Eminent scholar Richard Canning has provided an intentionally short account of Wilde’s life in Hesperus Press’ new ‘Brief Lives’ series. The book covers details of the dandy’s upbringing, education, relationships, sexual awakening and professional life as well as a contextualization of his major literary works. Canning is quick to point out where there are gaps in historical records about his life or conflicting accounts about Wilde. However, he provides reasonable assumptions and picks up on important clues which can lead you to fill in the missing pieces. Eloquently told, reading the details of Wilde’s life becomes a thrilling experience where you are hurtling towards an inevitably tragic conclusion.
It’s impressive that a personality so vibrant and witty can still burn brightly after so much time. Canning notes how the entertaining and/or infuriating presence of the man himself is marked by the large body of literary work which was inspired by Wilde’s notoriously sharp tongue. Of course, what’s most striking about the man is his stalwart belief in the validity of gay love despite the intense pressure from the society around him to hide his passion or simply flee from persecution. The book is an admirable testament to Wilde’s refusal to feel ashamed. Although I was familiar with the most pertinent facts about Wilde’s life before reading this short biography, I now have a more essential understanding of one of the most important gay figures in history. Moreover, Canning’s wonderfully succinct and intelligent telling of Wilde’s life makes me hungry to go back to the literary writing itself.