[ 2 ]
A FAIR SCHOLAR
Knowledge came to me through pleasure.
At the end of January 1864 Oscar and his brother were sent away to school, leaving the six-year-old Isola at home. It was an escape from the nursery and the rule of governesses. The Portora Royal School at Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, a hundred miles north of Dublin, was an ancient foundation, established in 1608 by James I for the education of the town’s recently transplanted Scotch Presbyterian population. During the course of the nineteenth century, however, it had transformed itself into a far more outward-looking institution. And under the enlightened stewardship of Rev. William Steele, beginning in 1857, it emerged as a small but flourishing and academically renowned public school. The position of Enniskillen at the heart of the expanding Irish railway network made it a convenient location. Boarding pupils arrived from across the country, the sons of colonial officials, Irish gentry, established clergy, and professional men.
The Wildes had connections with Portora (the art master, William “Bully” Wakeman, was a friend of the family’s and had provided some illustrations for Sir William’s book on the Boyne), but the reputation of the place, both academic and social—it was known to some as “the Eton of Ireland”—would have been quite enough to commend it. The school was handsomely housed in a fine Georgian mansion on the top of the hill outside the town, with beautiful views out over Lower Lough Erne. When the Wilde brothers arrived, they were among 175 pupils: 112 boarders and 63 day boys. The boys, ranging in age from ten (according to the prospectus) to seventeen, were divided into distinct lower and upper schools.
The headmaster, Dr. Steele, was a remarkable man: intellectually distinguished, liberal-minded, frank, even noble (he encouraged Catholics toattend the school, though few came). Aged forty-four in 1864, he still had a “lithe, vigorous frame,” a quick step, and an eye that “gleamed with energy and bright intelligence.” And he stood at the heart of the life of his school. He took morning prayers and roll call. He was “almost always present at the boys’ dinner, which he himself carved. ”He managed—as one of Oscar’s contemporaries recorded—to achieve “the happy mean” between being too distant and being too familiar “in his constant association with the boys, and the many unobtrusive ways by which he showed his interest and watchfulness in what was going on among them.” As he made his rounds, his approach was usually heralded “by the vigorous shaking of a large bunch of keys, which he held in outstretched hand,” so that all had timely warning of his proximity. He treated the boys (and the masters) “as if they were gentlemen”—and hoped that, as a result, they would behave as such. On the whole they did.
Steele considered that classics and mathematics provided the best basis for the education of the young. Other subjects should certainly be taught—English, French, history, and geography—but they were of lesser importance in the curriculum. To learn French properly, he believed, it was really necessary “to go to France,” while “at the age when boys are at school, they are not capable of receiving a philosophic knowledge of history or geography.” Steele himself was an excellent preceptor, with a real love of the classics. Anxious to have the boys “well grounded in first principles,” he mainly taught Latin and Greek in the lowerschool. He was a firm believer, too, in the virtues of examinations and prizes—and he instituted a popular annual midsummer prize-giving and sports day, a gala end to the first term of each year. There were only two terms—or “halves”—in each school year, one running from the end of January to the middle of June, the other from late August to late December.
Steele appreciated the school’s splendid setting, and devoted care to “the beautifying of the grounds.” The lough—a vast stretch of water running some twenty-five miles from Enniskillen to Belleek—was also a great asset. It provided a focus for recreation and sport, for swimming and rowing. Boys could take out boats to explore the islands. And rowing races became a feature of the school sports days. There were other organized games—football, athletics, racquet sports, cricket (on a newly laid-down cricket pitch)—as Steele embraced the new post-Arnoldian public school ethos.
The ethos, whatever its general benefits, was not one that the newly arrived Oscar Wilde found immediately congenial. At nine he was almost a full year younger than the designated entrance age. And there was little in his character that suited him to the rough-and-tumble of boarding-school life. Slight, imaginative, independent, and dreamy, he drifted to the edge of things. He made no firm friends. Games—the great motor of schoolboy existence—held no interest for him (“I never liked to kick or be kicked,” he claimed). Work, too, at first failed to engage his energies. He distinguished himself mainly by being hopeless at mathematics.
Willie, by contrast, thrived. Good at lessons, fond of games, sociable, boisterous, kindhearted, he began at once to establish a position and a reputation among both his peers and his masters. He secured a lower-school prize at the end of his first half—although that year the prize day, at which he would have received his award, had to be canceled at short notice following the tragic drowning of two pupils in a boating accident on the lough. The incident was the first of a succession of painful dramas that would punctuate Oscar and Willie’s school days.
The closing weeks of the Christmas half brought the second such blow: the lurid pantomime of the Mary Travers case. Even at Portora the brothers would have felt the reverberations. The Dublin press was readily available in Enniskillen, and the town’s three local papers also carried full details of the court proceedings together with much disparaging comment. The case offered a rich subject for discussion to both pupils and staff. For all that, the relative youth of the Wilde boys (Oscar just ten, Willie barely twelve), as well as the almost immediate arrival of the Christmas holidays, probably preserved them from too much prurient ribbing from their schoolfellows.
At home that Christmas they would have been bolstered by the parental line on the debacle—that it was a “disagreeable” incident now mercifully passed. Lady Wilde wrote to her Swedish friend Rosalie Olivecrona:
The simple solution of the affair is this—that Miss Travers is half mad—all her family are mad too . . . It was very annoying but of course no one believed her story—all Dublin now calls on us to offer their sympathy and all the medical profession here and in London have sent letters expressing their entire disbelief of the, in fact, impossible charge. Sir Wm. will not be injured by it and the best proof is that his professional hours never were so occupied as now. We were more anxious about our dear foreign friends who could only hear through the English papers which are generally very sneering on Irish matters—but happily all is over now and our enemy has been signally defeated in her efforts to injure us.
Both the popular and medical papers, while lamenting the whole “melancholy transaction,” had indeed been broadly supportive. They condemned the “demoniacal” Miss Travers for her “scandalous, unwomanly, vulgar and degrading” conduct, while saluting Sir William’s professional eminence and his wife’s injured dignity. The few public voices of dissent (led by the ophthalmologist Arthur Jacob in the Dublin Medical Press) could be put down to professional rivalry. Private reactions were more varied. Not quite “all Dublin” did side with the Wildes. There were a good many who enjoyed the discomfort of so conspicuous a pair. Tall poppies were there to be cut down. To unsympathetic viewers the case confirmed that “Sir William Wilde was a pithecoid [ape-like] person of extraordinary sensuality and cowardice [for avoiding the witness box] and that his wife was a highfalutin’ pretentious creature whose pride was as extravagant as her reputation founded on second-rate verse-making.” For others the debacle simply provided an opportunity for humor and chaff. The students of Trinity College Dublin delighted in the details of the case; one undergraduate ditty began:
An eminent oculist lives in the Square,
His skill is unrivalled, his talent is rare,
And if you will listen I’ll certainly try
To tell how he opened Miss Travers’s eye.
But any sense of embarrassment was to be outfaced. Dublin society was not large enough to allow for escape (the Wildes continued to meet Isaac Butt on what appear to have been terms of friendship, or at least civility). The family still had many friends and admirers. There was much sympathy for Speranza. And as for Sir William, whatever the exact truth of the matter, there were many men in his circle who were reluctant to condemn him for such peccadillos. Dublin retained something of its permissive eighteenth-century air and was little inclined to moral censure. Sir William’s practice continued to prosper, which was just as well since he was faced with the vexing business of raising the legalcosts.
It had been a bruising episode for the whole family, but Oscar and Willie were able to return to school at the beginning of 1865 with at least some feeling of reassurance—and some sense that their privileged place in the world remained secure.* Portora provided distraction from the cares of home. The boys enjoyed it in different ways. Willie’s enthusiastic engagement with the details of school life seemed to license his younger brother’s more detached stance. Little interested in lessons, Oscar escaped into his own books and his own thoughts. It was said of him that he got “quicker into a book than any boy that ever lived.” Literature gave him a realm over which he could hold sway: from his earliest childhood, he recalled, “I used to identify myself with every distinguished character I read about.” Oscar’s intelligence, nevertheless, did make itself known. In the summer of 1866 he was awarded a lower-school classics prize (Willie, as in the two previous years, also gained one—together, on this occasion, with Mr. Robinson’s special “prize in classics” and a drawing prize).
Away from school, the long summer holidays were spent largely at Moytura. The house offered the family a retreat from Dublin life—and Dublin gossip. The place became Sir William’s great passion. It was there that Oscar, under his father’s instruction, learned to be not merely an Irishman but a countryman and a Celt.† He became imbued with the “wild magnificent beauty” of the western landscape, its bare hills and changing skies. The “intensity of nature” on such a scale impressed him. There was boating on Lough Corrib. Oscar learned to fish for the “great melancholy carp” that never moved from the bottom of the lake unless lured from the depths by the magic of Gaelic song. Oscar—though he does not seem to have progressed far in the old Irish language—always retained a memory of one of these airs, with its mournful opening: “Athá mé in mu codladh, agus ná dúishe mé” (I am asleep, and do not wake me). He learned to shoot.And he came to know some of the neighboring landowning families who had children his own age: the Martins at Ross House and the Moores of Moore Hall. As they grew into their teens, Oscar and Willie would sometimes row up the lough to Carra to spend the day at Moore Hall. Old Mr. Moore was greatly impressed by them, thinking his own four sons “dunces” in comparison.
Oscar’s developing imagination was stimulated, too, by exploring the ancient Celtic remains in the locality. He and Willie assisted their father with the book he was preparing on the area’s history and antiquities—“taking rubbings and measurements” of archaeological sites—as well as listening to mythic tales about the days of yore. Sir William’s “passion for the past” was supported by that rare gift “which converts a piece of stone into a text for a glowing romance.” Rambling across the countryside with Oscar and Willie, he would linger happily over some “piece of antiquity, filled with the actual delight of building up pictures of the past and its departed glories.” All around were scenes of ancient heroism, where Nuada, king of the Dananns, had led his victorious forces against the Firbolgs. This was a world—both historical and ethnological—that the young Oscar readily adopted as part of his own identity. From his father he learned to see himself as an heir to the “bold, honourable, daring,” and “intellectually superior” Danann Celts. It was a rich inheritance, given William Wilde’s belief (shared by many of his antiquarian fellows) that these Celts came of the same stock as the ancient Greeks and shared many of their exalted characteristics. Lady Wilde was delighted to suppose that the Celts held in common with the Greeks a love of “glory, beauty and distinction” and that, like the Greeks, they hated “toil” and despised “trade”: for both peoples the “highest honours were given to learning and poetry.”
Ireland’s medieval past was also much in evidence at Moytura, and offered its own stimulus to the imagination. When, during the summer of 1866, Oscar and his father came across a curious stone-built ruin at Inishmain near Lough Mask, Sir William persuaded himself that it must have been the “penitentiary” for the nearby abbey. An image of it—drawn by Mr. Wakeman—was duly published in his book, together with a gratifying caption explaining that the structure had been discovered “by the author and his son Oscar.”
But, whatever the excitements of the past, the cares of the present always threatened to break in. The year 1866 ended with the sad death by drowning of Dr. Steele’s eldest son, Frederick, another victim of the cold waters of Lough Erne. A highly promising classicist, he had just won a scholarship from Portora to Trinity College Dublin. His death cast a pall over the school. For Oscar, though, this tragedy was soon eclipsed by an even greater one. On February 23, 1867, his sister, Isola, died suddenly. Recovering from a brief bout of fever, she had been sent to recuperate at Edgeworthstown, some sixty-five miles west of Dublin, where her uncle, Rev. William Noble (married to Sir William’s sister), was rector. Her condition worsened, however, and she died following “a sudden effusion on the brain.” She was just nine years old.
It was a devastating blow. Isola had been a remarkable little girl. The doctor who attended her at Edgeworthstown Rectory thought her “the most gifted and loveable child” that hehad ever seen. Sir William was “crushed by sorrow” at her death. She had been his idol. “Isola was the radiant angel of our home,” Lady Wilde lamented to Lotten von Kraemer, “and so bright and strong and joyous. We never dreamed the word death was meant for her.” During her brief life she had become the happy pivot around which so many familial relationships turned. That dynamic was destroyed.
There seems to have existed a special bond between the twelve-year-old Oscar and his young sister. She had offered him, perhaps, a more sympathetic companionship than the prosaic Willie did. He spoke of her as “embodied sunshine,” a “wonderful creature, so gay and high spirited.” Certainly he was “inconsolable” at her loss. When he was taken to Edgeworthstown (maybe for the funeral), his lonely grief sought vent “in long and frequent visits” to her grave in the village cemetery. He carefully preserved a lock of “my Isola’s hair,” decorating the envelope in which it was held with elaborate images of love, hope, and redemption: linked initials, radiant crosses, lettered scrolls, laurel wreaths, a jeweled crown. Nor was pictorial art the only way in which he strove to express his emotion. He found solace, too, in verse, producing several “touching, albeit boyish, poetic effusions.” They were a first hint that Oscar might be a “votary of the Muses.”
The Edgeworthstown doctor was struck by the intensity of Oscar’s feeling. He was impressed, too, by the boy’s intelligence. As he later recalled, he instituted “in conversation with his uncle, a comparison between [Oscar] and his elder brother, Willie, a very clever lad, and our assigning the meed of superiority in mental depth to ‘Ossie.’ ” It was a shrewd observation, for in the conventional sphere of school life Willie continued to dominate. He was again a serial award winner at the 1867 prize day, while Oscar received only a single “highly commended.” Dr. Steele would frequently hold Willie up as an example to his younger brother. Oscar, however, was becoming increasingly sure of his own developing mental powers. His mother, too, always on the alert for excellence, seems to have recognized their special force. When quizzed by a friend about her two schoolboy sons, she is reported to have said, “Oh, Willie is all right, but as for Oscar, he will turn out something wonderful.”
She had a chance to assess the boys at close quarters during the summer holidays of 1867, when she took them over to France for three weeks (Sir William remained at Moytura). It was a release from the sadness of life at home, and for Oscar a thrilling introduction to a new country and a new culture. From that first encounter, so he later claimed, he became “passionately fond of the French character”—a character, he liked to believe, “having some kinship with that peculiar to the Irish nation.” The little party visited Paris, then the most exciting city in the world. The Exposition Universelle was in full swing, housed in a vast temporary palais on the Champ de Mars, surrounded by amusement parks and pleasure gardens. Among the displays of scientific invention, mechanical innovation, and cultural diversity there was a Swedish peasant village, some Chinese violin players, a promotion for Steinway pianos, and a revelatory exhibition of Japanese art. The family returned home lit up by the experience, and with a distinct sense that, beside the brilliance of Paris, Dublin might be only “a little provincial town.”
Almost from the moment of their return, the pace of Oscar’s progress seemed to quicken. Although there is no evidence that the visit had a beneficial effect on his French, his thorough mastery of the rudiments of Latin and Greek was confirmed when his career in the lower school closed with him winning three classics prizes at the 1868 prize day. He also gained an award for drawing.
Oscar arrived in the upper school as a very young-looking thirteen-year-old. To one contemporary who entered Portora at that time, “he was then, as he remained for some years after, extremely boyish in nature, very mobile, almost restless when out of the school-room.” Almost everything, though, about the teenage Oscar carried some suggestion of his growing sense of self, of style, and of humor. All three qualities are discernible beneath the schoolboy concerns and erratic punctuation in the illustrated letter he sent his mother on September 5, 1868 (the first of his letters to survive, and the only one from his school days):
The hamper came today, I never got such a jolly surprise, many thanks for it, it was more than kind of you to think of it. The grapes and pears are delicious and so cooling, but the blancmange got a little sour, I suppose by the knocking about, but the rest came all safe.
Don’t forget please to send me the National Review, is it not issued today?
The flannel shirts you sent in the hamper are both Willie’s, mine are one quite scarlet and the other lilac, but it is too early to wear them yet, the weather is so hot.
We went down to the horrid regatta on Thursday last. It was very jolly. There was a yacht race.
You never told me anything about the publisher in Glasgow. What does he say and have you written to Aunt Warren on the green note paper?
We played the officers of the 27th Regiment now stationed in Enniskillen a few days ago and beat them hollow by about seventy runs.
You may imagine my delight this morning when I got Papa’s letter saying he had sent a hamper.
Now dear Mamma, I must bid you goodbye as the post goes very soon.
Many thanks for letting me paint.
With love to Papa,ever your affectionate son,
He gives signs of a dandified assurance in his discrimination over his own “quite scarlet” and lilac shirts, and reveals an artistic concern at being allowed to continue his painting lessons. There is a neat paradoxical turn in the “horrid” regatta having been so “very jolly,” a subversive mischief in his hope that “Aunt Warren” (his mother’s ultra-conventional sister, Emily Thomasine Warren, wife of an officer in the British army) might have received a letter on nationalist-tinged green notepaper, and a playful cod melodrama in his vision of “ye hamperless boy.”
Oscar allied himself with his “darling” mama’s interests, both literary and patriotic. The National Review, which he hoped to receive, was a new Dublin-based periodical that had published her verse “To Ireland” in the previous number; the poem would be used as the dedication in a new edition of her collected poetry produced by Cameron and Ferguson, the Glasgow publishers he mentions. More than this, though, he accepted his mother’s whole vision of the world: grand, extravagant, and bright with possibility. He accepted (and always retained) her vision of herself as “one of the great figures of the world” and her vision of himself as “something wonderful.” All his letters to her from school, it seems, reflected elements of this shared understanding. Certainly Lady Wilde loved the promise that they showed, recalling them as “wonderful and often real literature.” They were, however, a private performance.
Willie remained always the larger public presence. Two years above Oscar, he had grown into “something of a character”—“clever, erratic and full of vitality.” He was steeped in the life of the school. Although he took only a modest part in games, he knew all about football and cricket. He may not have been a systematic scholar, but he was still a good one. He was approved of by the masters and liked by his schoolfellows. He made a point of being “kind and friendly with the younger boys.” He played the piano, with real feeling—and tolerable accuracy—and would entertain the juniors with impromptu recitals. He told a good story. There was a pleasant air of Falstaffian absurdity about him: he was apt to be boastful and prone to be teased about it. His nickname was “Blue Blood.” He had inherited his father’s swarthy, open-pored complexion, as had Oscar, and on account of it was, like his father, often considered to look “dirty.” On one occasion, defending himself from this charge, he had claimed that he only looked grubby because—as an O’Flahertie and thus a descendant of the kings of Connaught—his blood was blue rather than red.
The two brothers maintained a cordial distance. School life did not bring them together. Willie treated Oscar “always . . . as a younger brother.” But Oscar, quietly confident of his own powers, refused to be patronized. Although the headmaster might frequently hold Willie up to him as an example, Oscar was unimpressed, and merely smiled. As he recalled, “I never for a moment regarded [Willie] as my equal in any intellectual field . . . and in my own opinion always went about ‘crowned.’ ”
Oscar began to cultivate a certain sense of refined singularity. “I always wanted everything about me to be distinctive,” he claimed. His look, having been distinctly scruffy, became distinctly smart. He grew “more careful in his dress than any other boy.” The lilac shirt was only one element in the campaign. He took to wearing his Sunday hat throughout the week. His hair—“long, straight, fair,” and swept back from his forehead—proclaimed a determined otherness. Indeed, the length of his hair, perhaps more than anything else, marked him out in the memory of his peers: “He had a good wisp of hair” was still said of him in Enniskillen some thirty years after he left the school. Every aspect of school life, though, offered scope for the same sort of calculated individualism. Rather than using the conventional school textbooks, he began to affect “handsome editions of the classics.” He worked at his handwriting, in an effort to achieve a script that was “clear and beautiful and peculiar to me.”
When not dreaming away the hours, Oscar still spent much of his time in reading for his own pleasure. He devoured, as he put it, “too many English novels, and too much poetry.” He read with phenomenal speed, developing a rare ability to absorb (and retain) information almost as quickly as he turned the pages.
He took in the English classics, coming to know Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Thackeray, and Stevenson. He read both Dickens, the great sentimental comic moralist of the age, and Disraeli, the less-regarded “silver fork” literary and political dandy. And, in line with his desire to be distinctive in all things, he declared a preference for the latter. In this heresy, as in so much else, he drew encouragement from his mother. She lent him copies of Disraeli’s books and shared his delight in their “epigrammatic style” and aristocratic settings. Oscar also indulged a taste for the “romantic” Gothic tales of Wilhelm Meinhold, reading his mother’s translation of Sidonia the Sorceress and Lady Duff Gordon’s version of The Amber Witch. He developed, too, an enthusiasm for the tales of that “lord of romance,” Edgar Allan Poe, along with a reverence for “uncle” Maturin’s stupendously bizarre Melmoth the Wanderer.
His love of poetry developed through reading Shakespeare and the English Romantics, together with his mother’s great favorites, Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Not long after leaving school he would solemnly declare Hamlet, In Memoriam, and Barrett Browning’s verse novel Aurora Leigh to be “much the greatest work[s] in our literature.” And it was probably his mother’s influence, too, that gave him a precocious interest in the impassioned free verse of Walt Whitman.
Oscar’s immersion in literature did not shut him off from his contemporaries. Even if he was considered “somewhat reserved and distant in his manners,” he was neither unsociable nor unpopular. He might have had no “very special chums,” but he was well liked and sometimes admired. To those who knew him best he appeared “generous, kindly [and, for the most part,] good tempered.” He would take an occasional outing on Lough Erne, though he was a poor hand at an oar. He could sometimes be induced to join in schoolboy larks—even breaking his arm while playing “chargers” mounted on the back of a senior boy. The incident marked what he called his “first introduction to the horrors of pain, the lurking tragedies of life.” And he hated it. Physical pain, he would always assert, was “a thousand times worse than mental suffering.”
Sex seems to have played little part in Oscar’s school days. Awareness of it came to him late: he later gave “16 as the age at which sex begins.” “Of course,” as he explained, “I was sensual and curious, as boys are, and had the usual boy imaginings; but I did not indulge in them excessively.” In contrast to many of England’s larger public schools, sex between pupils was all but unknown at Portora: “Nine out of ten boys only thought of football or cricket or rowing. Nearly every one went in for athletics—running and jumping and so forth; no one appeared to care for sex. We were healthy young barbarians and that was all.” In later life Oscar would recall the touching devotion of one junior boy—“a couple of years younger than I”—who clearly had a schoolboy crush on him; Oscar, wrapped up in the drama of his own thoughts and plans, was entirely oblivious to it. Oscar enjoyed the boy’s company because he provided an audience.“My friend,” he explained, “had a wonderful gift for listening.” Audiences were becoming important to Oscar.
As his school career advanced, Oscar developed into, if not quite the class clown, an accomplished performer. He had more scope after Willie left for Trinity College Dublin in the autumn of 1869. At the informal gatherings around the stove in the Stone Hall on winter afternoons, Oscar was “at his best.” He might amuse the other boys by striking “stained-glass attitudes”—twisting his limbs into “weird contortions” in imitation of saints and other “holy people” (this,apparently, was also a party trick of his father’s). His speed-reading offered scope for entertainment, too. Often “for a wager” he would “read a three-volume novel in half an hour so closely as to be able to give an accurate résumé of the plot”; if allowed a whole hour, he could recount, in addition, the incidental scenes andt he most pertinent dialogue.
But, above all, he talked—fluently, amusingly, interestingly, and well. He entertained the gatherings in the Stone Hall. He amused his friends. He diverted the masters. His “descriptive power” was “far above the average,” but his real gift was for comedy. He had a way with exaggeration that could transform even the most mundane occurrence into a vision of romance guyed by humor. One of his contemporaries liked to recall an incident when he and Oscar, along with two other boys, had been in Enniskillen and had played a prank on a street orator, knocking off his hat with a stick. This jape provoked a minor outcry, and the boys had to flee the scene, back up the hill to Portora. Oscar, in the scramble to escape, had collided with an old man and knocked him over. Yet in his vivid—and solemnly humorous—retelling of the incident, the aged cripple was transformed into “an angry giant” barring the path, with whom Oscar had to fight “through many rounds, and whom he eventually left for dead in the road after accomplishing prodigies of valour on his redoubtable opponent.”
He developed, too, a relish for the recondite, and a penchant for the extravagant. In 1869, when reports of the prosecution for heresy of Rev. W. J. E. Bennettwere filling the newspapers and being eagerly discussed at Portora, Oscar was “full of the mysterious nature of the Court of Arches”—the ancient ecclesiastical court at St. Mary-le-Bowin London, where the case was being heard. Bennett, an extreme Anglo-Catholic ritualist, had outraged Protestant theology in a pamphlet claiming that the actual and perfect body of Christ was both present and visible in the Eucharist, and Oscar delighted in the drama of the proceedings. The reverberations of the Travers case had done nothing to put him off the law. He announced to his schoolfellows, gathered around the Stone Hall stove, that “there was nothing he would like better in after life than to be the hero of such a cause célèbre and to go down to posterity as the defendant in such a case as ‘Regina versus Wilde’!”
Oscar’s “pungent wit” found expression in other ways as well. He enjoyed subverting authority, making fun of those aspects of school life that had least appeal to him: he “never had a good word for a mathematical or science master,” and the musketry instructor and drill sergeant were held in contempt—though it was always admitted that “there was nothing spiteful or malignant in anything he said against them.” Only once did he overstep the mark, when he “cheeked” the headmaster and got into “an awful row.”
He also had “an uncanny gift for giving nicknames.” But although these “used to stick to his victims . . . they did not rankle, as there was always a gaiety and no malice about them.” This was an impressive and telling achievement. His own nickname was “Grey-crow,” though its origins and relevance remain obscure. It apparently related in some way to one of the islands on Lough Erne, and perhaps connects with the comment of a contemporary, who remembered Oscar—grown, after his sixteenth birthday, suddenly “tall for his age” and heavy—“flop[ping] about ponderously.” He, however, rather resented the name, and it was used only by those who wished to annoy him. For the most part he was called Oscar—another distinction among peers more used to addressing each other by their surnames. During the 1870 prize-giving, however, at which he won the prestigious Carpenter Prize for Greek Testament, his full name—Oscar Fingal O’Fflahertie Wills Wilde—became known when it was read out by the headmaster, leading to much “schoolboy chaff.” The glory of the prize was, however, surely worth the teasing.
In academic terms Oscar’s passage into the upper school marked a considerable advance. There had been, as was customary, a small intake of new pupils joining that year, attracted by Portora’s growing reputation for excellence, and also by the chance of gaining one of the school’s “royal scholarships” to Trinity College Dublin. Among the boys entering the school in 1868 were Edward Sullivan (son of Sir Edward, the Wildes’ counsel during the Travers trial) and the even more gifted Louis Claude Purser. Purser, arriving from Midleton College, Cork, was amazed by the quality of the teaching at Portora—principally of classics and mathematics, but of English, too, and French “in its higher branches.” More than this, though, he found “a far greater width of culture and diffusion of ideas” than at his previous schools. Indeed, he thought the tenor of the Portora upper school “more like a college of a university than a middle-class school.”
Oscar responded well to this atmosphere, albeit in his own fashion. He developed, as Purser recalled, “a real love for intellectual things, especially if there was a breath of poetry in them, and he often used to inveigle some of the masters (who were, I think, rather highly educated men) into spending the time usually devoted to ‘learning us our lessons’ in giving a disquisition on some subject he would artfully suggest—for he had engaging manners when he liked—by some apparently innocent question.” On one occasion he asked “What is a Realist?,” drawing forth “a disquisition on Realism and Nominalism and Conceptualism in which we all asked questions and which proved most illuminating.”
Although Oscar always remained “very exceptionally below the average in mathematics” (requiring frantic cramming before each set of school exams), in all the other school subjects—there being “next to no ‘science’ in those pre-historic days”—he did more than tolerably well. If, as Purser put it, he was “not of outstanding general excellence among his fellow schoolboys . . . there was no one who could have been said to have been markedly his superior.” He gained a thorough and enduring knowledge of the Bible (both the King James version and the Greek Testament), even winning a scripture prize in 1869. Writing, though, was not yet a particular forte: neither his “English Essays” nor his “Classical Composition” was “exceptionally distinguished.” His literary bent and love of poetic things seem to have found their expression away from the classroom, in humorous poems and poses.
Reading, though, absorbed him more. A new world of the imagination was opening up to him. As he later recalled, “I was nearly sixteen [i.e., in 1870] when the wonder and beauty of the old Greek life began to dawn upon me. Suddenly I seemed to see the white figures throwing purple shadows on the sun-baked palaestra; ‘bands of nude youths and maidens . . . moving across a background of deep blue as on the frieze of the Parthenon.’ I began to read Greek eagerly for love of it all, and the more I read the more I was enthralled.” As ever, he tended to identify with the subjects of his reading, and he noticed—“with some wonder”—that it was the men of creative intellect rather than the men of military action with whom he identified most readily: “Alcibiades or Sophocles” rather than “Alexander or Caesar.”
This great enthusiasm for the world of ancient Greece—perhaps heightened by his sense of Celtic affinity with Greek culture—carried Oscar’s studies forward seemingly without effort. He must have worked hard, but as he later put it, “Knowledge came to me through pleasure, as it always comes, I imagine.” His rare natural abilities at last had a subject with which to engage. The progress he made was “astounding” to both peers and masters. Even Dr. Steele was impressed. And Oscar himself always considered that it was during this period, 1870–71, that he “laid the foundations” for “whatever classical scholarship” he possessed.
Oscar’s particular brilliance showed itself most clearly on “the literary side” of his studies, as distinguished from “the scholastic.” Purser recalled “his appreciation of the literary merits of any author that he took the trouble to study appealed strongly to him, and his remarks and criticisms thereon were always deserving of attention,” but he was less interested in such features as “grammar, textual criticism, history, ‘antiquities’ & co.” He also enjoyed the element of performance that the syllabus required. According to Edward Sullivan, “the flowing beauty of his oral translations in class” was “a thing not easily forgotten.”
Oscar’s studies came to command his full attention. The life of books interested him more than real life. On the summer holidays at Moytura he cut a self-absorbed figure. One visitor (the son of the local doctor) found Oscar “very dull company,” remote, unsmiling, and aloof, with his thoughts doubtless engaged on “Greek poetry”—a striking contrast to the gay, ebullient undergraduate Willie, who enjoyed a drink and sang to his own accompaniment at the piano.
Since his arrival in the upper school Oscar had been recognized as “a fair scholar,” but in his final year at Portora he emerged as one of the leading figures in a very able classical sixth form—along with Purser, the McDowells (J. and R.), and E. Galbraith. They seem to have been a tight-knit and supportive group, enjoying their proficiency and challenging one another to extend it. They were all signatories of a joint letter to the assistant master, Rev. Benjamin Moffett, complaining at the impossibility of some test he had set them. And, as Purser recalled, the group was both surprised and impressed by Oscar’s stellar performance in one part of the classical gold medal exam—“walking easily away from us all in the viva voce [oral] examination on the Greek play [The Agamemnon of Aeschylus].” He gained 25 percent higher marks than his nearest rival. The literary quality of the great work appealed to him, and he had “made it up thoroughly”—but “to the neglect perhaps of other (to him less interesting) portions of the long examination.”
In the event, when all the different parts of the long examination were tallied up, it was Purser who came out on top. At the 1871 prize-giving he also took the Frederick Steele Memorial Prize medal, as well as first prize in both mathematics and holy scripture. Oscar, along with everyone else, trailed in his wake. Not that he was so very far behind: he was one of three classical prizewinners from the head class (with Galbraith and J. McDowell); he shared the assistant master’s prize in ancient history (with Galbraith) and was also awarded a drawing prize for a sensitive watercolor of Lough Erne. In all, it marked a hugely impressive and very satisfying end to his school career. He would be going on to Trinity after the summer holidays.
Dr. Steele, in bidding Oscar farewell, added—perhaps from force of habit—that if he kept up his hard work, he might yet be “as big a credit to the school as Willie.” Oscar was quietly amused. Willie, though, was doing well at Trinity, getting honors in classics in his junior freshman year, and he cut a rather glamorous figure when he revisited Portora, possibly to see Oscar’s prize day triumph.
Oscar’s own mind was already turning toward Dublin and university life. There were exciting possibilities—scholarly, artistic, and social. He imagined that he would have his own room in the family house at Merrion Square. He hoped the Trinity dons would be friendly, and wished that they might all be poets. He could barely wait to begin. Swept up as he was in this new enthusiasm, Portora—despite all it had given him over the previous seven years—started to fade from his mind even before he had left it. He barely registered the junior boy who had a crush on him, who insisted on coming to see him off at the station. And he was startled when the boy planted a tearful farewell kiss on his lips as the train pulled out, heading for Dublin and the future.
Copyright © 2021 by Matthew Sturgis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.