CULTURE

Merlin Holland and the letters of his grandfather, Oscar Wilde

It is no easy matter being the grandson of Oscar Wilde. It seems hard to be yourself, to have a name and an identity separate from the burden of your forefather. Merlin Holland is known to the public as a first-rate scholar of his grandfather’s work, and he has emerged as an independent personality, an intellectual with a complex way of thinking. Holland is the son of Vyvyan Holland (1886-1967), one of Oscar Wilde’s two sons from his marriage to Constance Lloyd, whom he married in 1884. His latest book, «Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters» came out recently in Greek, translated and edited by Giorgos Blanas, from Electra publishers, with a superb sketch by Yiannis Ioannou on the jacket. A few years ago his book «Oscar Wilde: His Life and Work,» was published in Greek by Psychogios. We located Holland at his home in France and asked him a few questions about his new book and his famous grandfather. What is new about this selection of letters by Oscar Wilde? In 2000, «The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde» was published. It was not exactly complete, but as complete as the public could stand. When I had finished compiling the letters, the result was a massive book of 1,200 pages full of notes and references. It was exactly what scholars and students needed. Later I thought that I would like to do another book for the general public, without any footnotes, which could be read as a story. Has the approach to Wilde changed? Very much so. It would be hubris on my part to claim that I contributed to that change. But it was always my desire to show people another side to Wilde, beyond that of an eccentric. I wanted to show a very deep side of a thinking person with a broad education and interests. Oscar was interested in many social issues ranging from women’s rights to art. I tried to put that message across to the general public, to show that there were many sides to his personality and that he wasn’t what people think when they approach him by a rather superficial route connected with the climate of the 1890s. He was someone who was in advance of his time. How was the selection of letters made? The selection was mine. I chose the letters that represented every aspect of his life so the reader could get the full picture. How I see Oscar’s life is a very personal matter, of course. I have studied his texts thoroughly and I know him well. Might other, hitherto unknown, letters of his be discovered in the future? You never know, but I doubt that any very important and unknown document of his will be found. We are more at the stage of reassessing what we already know. But I’m always cautious; many people might have letters of Wilde’s in their possession, How was the book received? Very well, in England. The fact that the critical edition of his letters had just come out in 2000 prompted some derisive comments from the critical and literary establishment about this more «popular» edition. But that is natural, because in England there is a lot of literature about Wilde and some may feel it has reached saturation point. There is an impressive degree of interest in Wilde in Greece. In 2000, I asked at a bookshop in Athens which of his titles were available. Much to my amazement, there were more than in England – even old and less well-known titles. He had very close ties to Greece. He had studied the Ancient Greek language and literature, and the influence is apparent in many of his works. He had adopted the Greek notion of fate, and a pagan rather than a Christian perception of life is evident in them. He believed, as did the ancient Greeks, that fate chose some people. Is it an exaggeration to say Oscar Wilde was a phenomenon? He is indeed a literary phenomenon, in the sense that even today he is widely read and accessible. He wrote in a simple but powerful way. He expressed himself clearly and courageously. His prose is often poetic but without ornamentation, with an internal rhythm that makes it enjoyable to read. He addresses everyone. In comparison with other great writers, such as Joyce, Wilde does not only address intellectuals. How would you describe him, in a word? He was a rebel. Not only sexually but also socially. He didn’t do what was expected. He believed conformity was undignified. But he also had very deep patriotic sensibilities. He was interested in socialism and the independence of Ireland, whose national question he compared with that of America’s when it was under British rule. Did his homosexuality have a positive or a negative influence on the reception of his work? Initially it had a negative impact on the reception of his work. The general public felt embarrassed; don’t forget that homosexuality was banned by law in England until 1967. His sexuality affected the dissemination of his work until the 1960s. Some of his letters were published for the first time in 1962 and that marked a change. People started to see more to Oscar, that he was also an attractive personality that was overshadowed by Victorian morality. When he died, few people were interested in Wilde, but his fame began to spread after 1919. The postwar period was also a bad time for the dissemination of his work, however, as it was treated mainly as a literary oddity. Wilde became truly popular after 1970, and his biography by Richard Ellmann (1988) helped considerably (it is considered to be the best, though it contains many errors of fact). How was his work received outside England? There was a different attitude in other countries. Immediately after his death there was a large readership in Russia and Germany that was not influenced by the Victorian prejudices of the British. My father received a visit from a Japanese professor in the 1920s who had founded a Friends of Oscar Wilde Society in Japan. Can you predict what his future would have been had he not died young? He probably would have written plays in a new language. Toward the end he wrote works that belonged to the new theater and they were not just comedies of manners but, like «Salome,» were inspired by ancient and biblical themes. It is difficult to predict. Although George Bernard Shaw wrote into old age, he did not add to his own myth. By contrast, the comedies of Wilde are performed in England more than ever, most of all «Lady Windermere’s Fan.» So are «A Woman of No Importance» (for its feminism) and «The Ideal Husband» (which touches on political corruption). Perhaps he was not so popular in the past as he is now because – to use a cliche, but a true one – he was far ahead of his time. He had an inner truth that still appeals to readers. Why did you leave England to live in France? I live in Burgundy. The cost of living has gone up greatly in England and now, with electronic technology, it doesn’t matter much where one chooses to live. Many of the things I valued as child no longer exist in England. The French are just as aloof, but at least they do it in style. Do you collect books and objects connected with your grandfather? I collect anything to do with Wilde. My father had to sell off a lot of things, unfortunately. I’m particularly interested in first editions. I believe it’s good for my descendants in the future to know where they come from. I have several books from Greece in my collection, even an edition of «Salome» from 1907 or 1908. There’s a «Dorian Gray» in Latvian, which gives me great pleasure and indicates how widely read his work was. This interview, which has been translated from the Greek, first appeared in volume 109 of «K,» Kathimerini’s weekly supplement.