The Sunday Times
6 April, 2008
THE BRAND OF OSCAR WILDE
He pioneered the cult of youth and turned himself into a brand.
No wonder Oscar Wilde is still seen as 'one of us'
by Gyles Brandreth
Last Sunday I made a pilgrimage to the Père
Lachaise cemetery, in the northeast of Paris, to pay my respects
to the shade of Oscar Wilde. I found I was not alone.
The great man's grave was surrounded by quite a crowd,
including a party of Japanese students, a family of Germans (the
father was wearing lederhosen) and an assortment of young people
in their twenties: French, Italian, British and American.
As I arrived, one of the young women (an English student
from St Andrews) was planting a kiss on the huge Jacob Epstein effigy
that surmounts the poet's grave. She was kissing the marble deliberately,
to leave the lipstick impression of her mouth on the monument. "Why
did you do that?" I asked. "Because I love him,"
she replied. "We all do," added another of the girls.
"He's one of us."
Wilde, it seems, is our contemporary. He died in Paris
108 years ago, a near-friendless exile, impoverished, shunned, disgraced.
Today, he is world-famous and universally admired. There are 1,000
lipstick impressions on his tomb. He would not have quarrelled with
the attention: he was a pioneer of celebrity culture. "If you
wish for reputation and fame in the world," he advised, "take
every opportunity of advertising yourself. Remember the Latin saying,
'Fame springs from one's own house.' " At theatrical first
nights, as a matter of policy, during the 10 minutes before the
curtain was due to rise, he would make a series of brief appearances
around the auditorium - in the dress circle, in the stalls, in the
boxes on either side of the stage. He wore outlandish clothes; he
said outrageous things. He set out to get himself noticed. He was.
And he is. I am writing a series of Victorian murder
mysteries, traditional who-dunnits featuring Wilde as my detective,
and, as my publishers cart me about the world, I am discovering
that my hero's fan base extends way beyond Europe and North America.
He has a substantial following in South America, the Middle East,
India and - wait for it - Korea. Other Victorian writers may be
more widely read (Dickens and Conan Doyle, for example), but I reckon
that no other individual Victorian, however eminent (no, not Queen
Victoria herself), lives on as a personality in quite the way that
How come? In his day, Wilde - iconoclastic, bisexual,
Irish - found fame and, briefly, fortune by dint of genius, charm
and application. In his own time, he was an outsider and an exotic.
Now he's one of us. We understand his craving for celebrity. We
share his obsession with youth. ("Youth is the one thing worth
having," he wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray.)
Gay or straight, we are easy with his sexuality. Indeed, so prejudiced
are we in his favour, we tend to overlook the fact that most of
the young men in whom he took an interest were little more than
At the time of his arrest and imprisonment for homosexual
offences in 1895, all but a handful of his contemporaries abandoned
him. To us, his downfall adds to his allure. Ours is the age of
the misery memoir. The greater your trauma - the more disturbing
your childhood - the faster you climb the bestseller list. In 2008,
Oscar would have made a packet. Alongside the public humiliation,
he knew private heartache. He had a philandering father, a drunken
brother and a favourite younger sister, Isola, who died when she
was 10. He carried a lock of her hair for the rest of his life.
(He also had two half-sisters who burnt to death in a domestic fire.)
At a familial level, the real tragedy of his life was that, from
the moment of his disgrace, he was prevented from seeing either
of his young sons. (Wilde had many faults, but he was a devoted
When he was released from Reading Gaol in May 1897,
Wilde fled straight to France. Now, of course, as well as being
showered with potential publishing deals, he would have been rushed
towards the television studios - and he wouldn't have blown it.
He was no Heather Mills, our Oscar. He was the master (almost the
inventor) of the telling soundbite. (In olden days men had the rack;
now they have the press.") He'd have given Jeremy Paxman a
run for his money. He'd have had Jonathan Ross gagging with delight.
Wilde disconcerted his contemporaries because he challenged
the certainties of his age. We no longer have any certainties so
we find that, in his behaviour, his dress, his aphorisms, he speaks
to us directly. In a rigidly hierarchical world, in an age when
an Englishman's world-view was entirely Anglocentric, Wilde, an
intellectual Irishman, ignored the barriers of class (he was easy
with everyone, princes and prostitutes) and thought of himself as
a citizen of the world. He spoke several languages; he travelled
In London, Wilde lived among the myth-makers. He was
an acquaintance of Robert Louis Stevenson, who created Dr Jekyll
and Mr Hyde. He was a friend of Bram Stoker. (Dracula was
published on the day Wilde was released from prison.) In Dorian
Gray, with the portrait in the attic, Wilde created one myth, but
in himself, consciously, he also created another, even more potent.
As a character to play with in a novel, I love him.
He is fabulous and at the same time real; heroic yet flawed. As
a Victorian detective, he is ideal because he dared to live (and
think) outside the box and he was a friend of Conan Doyle and an
admirer of another mythic figure, Sherlock Holmes. As a phenomenon,
I am in his debt because it turns out that - like Shakespeare and
Coca-Cola - he is a brand, with brand values we respond to.
And, as with all the best brands, his name says it
all. He rather thought it might. "I began life," he said,
"as Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde - a name with two
Os, two Fs and two Ws . . . But a name which is destined to be in
everybody's mouth must not be too long. It comes so expensive in
the advertisements! When one is unknown, a number of names is useful,
perhaps needful, but as one becomes famous one sheds some of them,
just as a balloonist, when riding higher, sheds unnecessary ballast
. . . All but two of my five names have already been thrown overboard.
In time, I shall discard another. A century from now, my friends
will call me Oscar; my enemies will call me Wilde."
and the Ring of Death by Gyles Brandreth will
be published by John Murray on May 1
Article Link: From the Times
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