6 May 2007
Gyles Brandreth on the mystery of Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes
by Gyles Brandreth
Eighteen months ago, just as I had finished writing
a joint biography of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall,
I was taken to lunch by a publisher who generously offered me £500,000
to write a biography of Diana, Princess of Wales. Momentarily tempted
(wouldn't you have been?), I declined before coffee was served.
If you are going to write a book about someone, you must be ready
to live with them for months on end. You must be a little in love
with them. I had met Diana and liked her, but I could not have spent
a year of my short life living inside hers. Instead (for less money
but greater reward), I have written a novel about Oscar Wilde.
have been fascinated by Wilde for as long as I can remember. I was
born in 1948 in Germany, where my father was serving as a legal
officer with the Allied Control Commission. He counted among his
colleagues H. Montgomery Hyde, who, in 1948, published the first
full account of the notorious 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde. It was
the first non-fiction book I ever read. ('Yes, doctor, from the
adventures of Billy Bunter I graduated immediately to the champion
of aestheticism. I agree, it does explain a lot.')
In 1960, when other boys at my prep school were leafing
through Lady Chatterley's Lover beneath the bedclothes by torchlight,
I was getting my illicit kicks from the Complete Works of Oscar
Wilde. According to my 1961 diary, I read the book from cover to
cover - 1,118 pages in all. I can't have understood much, but I
relished the language and learnt by heart his 'Phrases and Philosophies
for the Use of the Young' - eg 'Wickedness is a myth invented by
good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.'
As a child I felt close to Wilde for another reason.
From prep school I went on to Bedales (Britain's first coeducational
boarding school), where Cyril, the elder of his two sons, had been
a pupil. The school's founder, John Badley, had been a friend of
Wilde's, and was still alive and living in the school grounds. When
I was in my early teens and he was in his late nineties, I used
to play Scrabble with him every Wednesday afternoon.
He talked to me a lot about Oscar Wilde. He told me
(in 1965, at about the time of his 100th birthday) that he believed
much of Wilde's wit was 'studied'. He remembers travelling back
from a house party with him. Fellow guests came to the station to
see them on their way. At the moment the train was due to pull out,
Wilde delivered a valedictory quip, then the guard blew his whistle,
the admirers on the platform cheered, Wilde sank back into his seat
and the train moved off. Unfortunately, it moved only a yard or
two before juddering to a halt. The group on the platform gathered
again outside the compartment occupied by Wilde and Badley. Wilde
hid behind his newspaper and hissed, 'They've had my parting shot.
I only prepared one.'
Badley told me that, while Wilde was the most remarkable
raconteur (George Bernard Shaw said, 'He was incomparably the greatest
talker of his time - perhaps of all time'), he was also a wonderful
listener. 'Wilde and his brother, Willie, learnt the art of listening
when they were boys,' he said.Their father, a distinguished Irish
surgeon and a noted wit, allowed his sons to sit in the corner of
the family dining-room in Merrion Square on the nights when Dublin
society came to dine. According to Badley, Sir William Wilde told
the boys not to speak, only to 'listen and observe'.
My novel about Oscar Wilde is a Victorian murder mystery
in which he is the detective. Wilde was also an acute observer.
And he had a poet's eye. He observed, he listened, he reflected
and then - with his extraordinary gifts of imagination and intellect
- he saw the truth. Sherlock Holmes he isn't - but Mycroft Holmes,
his brother, he might be... Seriously.
Amazingly, Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle were friends.
They met in 1889, at the newly built Langham Hotel, in Portland
Place. They were brought together by an American publisher, J. M.
Stoddart. Evidently, Wilde, then 35, was on song that night and
Conan Doyle, 30, was impressed - and charmed. 'It was a golden evening
for me,' he said. The upshot of it was that Stoddart got to publish
both Arthur Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign
of Four, and Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Could Wilde (brilliant, overweight and indolent) really
be the model for Mycroft Holmes (brilliant, overweight and indolent)?
Badley told me that he and Wilde had both been members of an occasional
dining society, the Socrates Club. When Conan Doyle, four years
after his first meeting with Wilde, introduced his readers to Holmes's
elder bother (in The Greek Interpreter), he set him in an armchair
in a gentlemen's club named after another Greek philosopher, Diogenes.
'Oscar was a delightful person: charming and brilliant,
with the most perfect manners of any man I ever met,' Badley told
me. 'Because of his imprisonment and disgrace, he is seen nowadays
as a tragic figure. That should not be his lasting memorial. I knew
him quite well. He was such fun.'
I am still having fun with Oscar Wilde, 107 years
after his death, jolting with him in a four-wheeler through the
fog-filled thoroughfares of what Conan Doyle called 'the murderous
metropolis'. I find murder and Wilde go nicely together. As Oscar
once said, 'There is nothing quite like an unexpected death for
lifting the spirits.'
- 'Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders', by Gyles
Brandreth ( John Murray, £12.99), is published on Thursday
- Illustration by James Carey
Article Link: From the Telegraph.co.uk
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