Sunday, 13 January 2013

Penguin no. 1193: Son of Oscar Wilde
by Vyvyan Holland

I remember him as a smiling giant, always exquisitely dressed, who crawled about the nursery floor with us and lived in an aura of cigarette smoke and eau-de-Cologne. During his last years we were constantly in his thoughts; he was always asking Robert Ross to try and find out something about us, how we were and how we were getting on at school. And Ross told us that he wept bitter tears when he pondered on how he had failed us and himself and his ancestors. Towards the end he realized that he would probably never see us again and he tried to get messages through to us. He even approached our guardian...but my guardian's reply was that if any such letters were sent they would immediately be destroyed.

As the title makes plain, Vyvyan Holland was the son of Oscar Wilde. He was born in 1886 at the family home in Tite St, Chelsea, and his earliest memories were of their elaborately decorated house, the slums of nearby Paradise Walk, and of a father who delighted in spending time with his sons in the nursery, actively joining in with their games.

Vyvyan was sent overseas after his father was arrested in 1895, together with his older brother Cyril, and the two boys never saw him again; within a few years both of their parents had died. They returned to England after their mother's death to the care of an uninterested guardian and a family intent on effacing every link to their father. With their names changed, they were educated separately, and their whereabouts were kept secret from their father's enquiring friends.

Vyvyan Holland published this memoir of his childhood during the centenary year of Oscar Wilde's birth, and even though he was an old man by this time, you can still read in his words a continuing bitterness for what he and his brother had to endure, and a regret for the relationships of which they were deprived during those years. He recalls a lonely and disrupted childhood which was spent in ignorance of the nature of his father's transgression, but in full awareness that it had been considered shameful, and that some residue of this shame attached to himself.

He never questioned the impression he was given by his mother's family that to be the child of Oscar Wilde was to be an object of pity and scorn, and he was therefore willing to join with them in concealing his origins. It was relief that he initially felt when he learnt the true facts of his father's conviction at the age of 18: such was the level of opprobrium directed at his father during those years that he imagined it to have been something truly serious which had caused suffering to others. He doesn't defend his father, but simply notes that he was 'singled out by fate to suffer for all the countless artists who, both before and since his day, have shared his weakness'.

According to Holland, theatre owners were obscuring Oscar Wilde's name from placards and programmes in London and New York even before the second trial commenced. His father's books were removed from the shelves of book stores, and they were difficult to source for many years afterwards. The two plays he had running in London soon closed. He was bankrupted by the two trials, and all his possessions (including the children's toys) were seized by bailiffs. He spent his final few years after prison living in France, on the charity of his friends and wife, under the name Sebastian Melmoth.

There are hints that Oscar Wilde may have been the type of man who naturally inspired enmities, even though his son believes him to have been kind-hearted, and to have never consciously acted to hurt another person. He may have been disliked because of his desire for attention, but it was also because he could excel without apparent effort, both as a student and as a playwright, and inevitably others were jealous of his successes. And it may also have been due to his refusal to abide by conventional codes of dress and behaviour. Vyvyan Holland suggests that Victorian society was presided over by unworldly and disapproving matrons who were easily shocked. In the case of his mother's family, a man was judged entirely by how closely he conformed with a set of arbitrary but rigidly applied rules, and to behave differently was to induce loathing. Constance Lloyd's family had never considered Oscar Wilde to be a worthy match, despite his ability and his success; his unsuitable occupation, his unconventionality, and his Irish heritage all told against him.

The two boys responded very differently to the disruption of their family life. Cyril had known the facts behind his father's conviction from the age of nine, and he set out on a determined course of restoring his father's reputation, although this was largely achieved through the efforts of Robert Ross. He was determined to excel in masculine pursuits to forestall any suggestions of degeneracy, and he sought athletic achievement and adventure. In a letter to his brother he revealed his desire for an honourable death in battle, and this he achieved when shot by a German sniper at the age of 30. In contrast, Vyvyan was oppressed by the burden of his secret, the deceptions it required, and the constant anxiety of being found out. He grew up reserved and lacking in confidence.

Oscar Wilde's friends eventually managed to contact the boys, and Vyvyan found himself welcomed into their world, discovering that he was envied rather than disdained. He describes this book as a, 'story [which] has no plot and very few highlights, but it may show the bitter cruelty of self-righteous human beings who forget that Christ said 'Suffer the little children to come unto me', and base their religion on the Old Testament pronouncement that 'the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children, even unto the third and fourth generation'.' It is likely that today such a weighting of adults' interests over those of the children would be condemned, but Victorian concerns were focused elsewhere, and they could act this way and yet feel certain of their virtue and moral superiority. I suspect this book can be read as a warning against self-righteousness, of which there is still plenty about, although it is now directed at different targets.


  1. As Harriet says, it is a sad story. We forget the effect of Wilde's trial and imprisonment on his children. I would love to read this.

    1. Harriet and Christine,

      The story is sad because there were so many victims, and because it was all so unnecessary. To look back from over 100 years later is to really struggle to understand why Oscar Wilde initiated his downfall by suing the Marquess of Queensberry, and why the public cared so much about his eventual conviction anyway. Vyvyan Holland suggests reasons, but he was really too young to fully comprehend why it happened. It is good to know that he lived long enough to see his father's reputation restored.

  2. How poignant. I never realised Oscar Wilde had two sons and am glad that Vyvyan managed to find his father's friends in the end.

  3. I had no idea that Oscar Wilde had children, and now I am intrigued. Thank you!

    1. Sakura and Jane,

      I'm sure I only knew of his children because I owned a book with this title. The book is worth reading not just for its insights on the consequences of the trial, but also because Vyvyan Holland describes in detail the changes he has witnessed during his lifetime. It provides a picture of life in the Victorian era.

  4. I knew he had children but I never really considered what happened to them during and after the trial, I'm sad but not altogether surprised to see they didn't have a happy childhood to buffer them from reaction to their father's 'crimes'. It seems cruel to have sent them to separate school and deprived them of comforting each other though, even by Victorian standards.

  5. This made me sad. It's a long time since I read about Oscar Wilde. I did know some of this, but not the extent of the sadness of his children.




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