Culture | The perils of being earnest

Acclaimed Irish writer explores the frictions that fueled Oscar Wilde

Much of Colm Tóibín’s lecture on Oscar Wilde last Thursday focused on the concept of “doubleness” – the doubleness of being an Irish writer among English gentry, and of being gay in Victorian England. For Wilde, this latter tension was made painfully real: in 1895, the public revelation of Wilde’s sexuality resulted in a prison sentence of two years of hard labour. Though Wilde created great art out of this constant duality, it would ultimately break him, as Tóibín argued.

Speaking to a full house in Leacock 232, with a live feed for overflow in a separate room, Tóibín dressed in what could only be described as an Irishly weathered, wrinkled blazer and charmed the audience with his candour and humour. Tóibín clearly owes a debt to the writer with whom he is so fascinated.

The lecture, hosted by the McGill Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (IGSF), was devoted to Oscar Wilde’s time in prison and examined the ramifications of this doubleness on a man so thoroughly entrenched in the modern literary canon. “Everywhere he went, he left behind some attic of the mind,” Tóibín said of Wilde’s time in London. “The writer was either two people, or no one.”

Marguerite Deslauriers, director of the IGSF, spoke of the continuing relevance of Wilde’s struggles. “[Wilde] negotiated a social hypocrisy until he couldn’t any longer bear it. Finally, we want to be known as we are, and to be known as we are openly,” she said.

For Tóibín, the disconnect between Wilde’s private and public life is central to critical understanding of the writer. It was this very friction, Tóibín argued, that afforded Wilde his famous wit and, in some cases, freed him from the social constraints of his era. “His homosexuality, like his Irishness, would assist in undermining his loyalty to any set of values held by those who made the laws and those who obeyed them.”

In 1895, Wilde’s libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury – his lover’s father, who accused him of perverting his son – made the writer’s sexuality a very public and legal affair. Most of the literary and historical study of the matter has argued that Wilde set himself up to be exposed, simply because he failed to foresee the consequences of doing so. Tóibín, however, offered a different explanation: that if one lived like Wilde did in Victorian England, with a publicaly endorsed heterosexual lifestyle beside a privately homosexual one, “you somehow develop a desperate need to be known. And that makes its way into…the idea that the secret hidden self must appear or it will boil over and cause only damage to the psyche.”

The lengthy question and answer session which followed the talk covered topics ranging from contemporary Irish politics to Tóibín’s own writing. He spoke of his own experience grappling with homophobia and nativism in Irish society, citing the Irish public’s overwhelming denial of citizenship to the children of immigrants in a 2004 referendum. “Considering all the places we had gone since the famine, and yet ourselves at home…to do this the first time we ever had any economic power was a disgrace. I felt humiliated by it,” he said.

While coming out no longer entails a prison sentence for those in the West, the criminalization of homosexuality is still a devastating reality. In the face of such oppression, Tóibín’s’s inquiry into Wilde’s time in prison amounts to more than idle intellectualization and yields a fresh understanding of the psychological corrosion many still have to endure.


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