Tragedies make the best stories, and Matthew Sturgis makes the most of Wilde's in his new biography ... Sturgis' clear-eyed understanding of Wilde is acute, his narrative assured. Drawing on new material, including the full transcript of the libel trial that set Wilde on the path to prison, he assembles an indelible portrait of a confounding and complex man ... Sturgis captures Wilde's contradictions: generous but erratically cruel, brilliant but careless. He doesn't fully analyze Wilde's wanton streak, but the evidence is abundant: Wilde opined that 'nothing is good in moderation'.
O tempora! O mores! A century later, and Wilde has risen to the rank of secular saint, a queer martyr ... as Matthew Sturgis demonstrates in his exhaustively researched, enlightening and lively new biography of Wilde—a 'definitive' biography if there ever was one—Wilde behaved with consistent recklessness and self-indulgence ... Mr. Sturgis, an expert on the fin de siècle who has penned engrossing biographies of Walter Sickert and of Wilde’s partner in decadence Aubrey Beardsley, cites deficiencies in Ellmann’s chronicle, including inaccuracies (a point that has long been made by Wilde’s grandson and keeper of the flame, Merlin Holland) and a tendency to take the mythology that has accrued around Wilde at face value ... a great deal of new material and research has appeared in recent decades, such as the complete transcript of the trial of Wilde’s libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry, and detailed witness statements ... Mr. Sturgis felt that by integrating all this material into the story, he could 'return Wilde to his times and to the facts. To view him with a historian’s eye, to give a sense of contingency, to chart his own experience of his life as he experienced it.' In this he has succeeded remarkably well ... Mr. Sturgis does not pretend to be a critic—one of his gripes against Ellmann is that he approached his biography as a literary critic rather than a historian—and he does not essay any overarching judgments.
With almost 900 pages at his disposal, including extensive references and notes, Sturgis has ample space to explore the importance of Wilde’s Irish childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. The significance of his mother, the towering Speranza, is handled particularly well ... A key strength of Sturgis’s account is his acknowledgement of the importance of women in Wilde’s life ... Sturgis is unflinching in his description of Wilde’s life of 'sybaritic abandon' in underworld London, teeming with rent boys, blackmailers and pimps at a time when paranoia concerning sexual relationships between men prevailed ... Meticulous.
The purpose of Sturgis’ exhaustive scholarship is that the prosaic may better inform the poetic ... Although Sturgis is able to annotate Wilde’s professional progress, his sexual self-understanding, both before and after his marriage to Constance Lloyd, remains obscure ... But for all Sturgis’ diligent researches, we still don’t know by what process and in what circumstances Wilde met his first male lover, Robbie Ross ... Sturgis is unwise in his introduction to criticize Richard Ellmann’s great 1987 biography for seeing the dramatist not just through artistic, but through overly modern eyes.
Matthew Sturgis hasn’t the style of a great storyteller—the tone of this new biography is stolidly impersonal—but he is a tremendous orchestrator of material, fastidious, unhurried, indefatigable ... Sturgis, armed with new discoveries such as a full transcript of the libel trial, an early notebook and previously unknown letters, aims to return the man 'to his times, and to the facts', to lend the life 'a sense of contingency'. At 720 pages in my edition, with a further 137 pages of endnotes, that may be rather more contingency than your average reader can handle ... But Oscar repays the effort, even for those who have read the Ellmann and the earlier biographies by Hesketh Pearson and Montgomery Hyde—and all the letters.
This is simply the best modern biography of Wilde ... You read this account with a sense of anticipation, wanting to find out what comes next, even though you know you know what comes next. That’s a terrific achievement ... This biographical method, of writing about Wilde’s life as it happened rather than as a series of precursors to the last act of an inevitable tragedy, means the crucial early part of his life isn’t rushed over in the haste to arrive at the Wilde of the immortal epigrams ... sympathetic and insightful.
Sturgis offers a new and at times revelatory perspective on the life ... Through it all, the sheer precariousness of Wilde’s career is brought to life as never before ... The result – to use my students’ mot du jour – is a very 'relatable' Oscar. This is welcome, up to a point ... The way that this perspective influences the organization of Sturgis’s account, though, gives rise to a problem ... uncoupling Wilde’s engaging epigrams wholly from the story of his life makes proceedings rather dry and at times strains the relationship between life and work. With the discussion of Wilde’s greatest literary works sequestered between lengthy accounts of his fecklessness, it’s almost a surprise to be reminded that he occasionally wrote things too ... the sources Sturgis chooses to use come predominantly from the first half of the last century, giving us a surprisingly strait-laced and buttoned-up Oscar. Not infrequent assertions that, until he was seduced by Robbie Ross, his life featured 'no trace of sexual deviancy, and little enough of sexual interest', protest too much and betray an awkwardness around the whole subject ... As this indicates, Sturgis’s return to an earlier generation of research comes at the expense of sure-footedness among the burgeoning and vibrant recent scholarship on Wilde. Those 'new avenues' that provide one of the biography’s main raisons d’être go largely unexplored, while the few that are explored yield some odd conclusions. The endnotes give the misleading impression that little of interest has been published on Wilde for quite some time...Perhaps Sturgis is attempting another rebalancing of the Wilde story, or at least trying to move beyond the image of Wilde as a gay icon. It isn’t convincing and it doesn’t work ... Unfortunately there are many more bibliographical omissions, familiarity with which could have corrected minor factual errors and supplemented the author’s understanding of Wilde’s personal relations...These critical repositionings of Wilde have revealed and contextualized his iconoclasm, and engaging with this research – subtly, selectively, to shape the insights here – could have made this good biography an outstanding one.
... should be commended for resisting its subject’s self-mythologizing; it’s exactly the kind of account that Wilde would have been least likely to compose. But by minimizing discussion of Wilde’s work, and the patterns of thought the work reveals, Sturgis underplays one of the most important means that Wilde possessed for organizing the contradictions of his personality. The refracted versions of self that appear in his writing allowed him to test out real-life modes of being; in turn, the acts of duplicity he practiced in his life generated daring new forms of artistic self-expression.
Sturgis takes full advantage of his subject’s outsize personality and employs to superb effect previously unknown letters and a full transcript of Wilde’s libel case. Sturgis’ voluminous research and erudition are evident on every page. Quotes are abundant, and anecdotes abound, all serving to bring Wilde even more fully to life. Readers of nineteenth-century history and literature will relish this richly detailed, authoritative, and compelling work about an artist whose life touched many aspects of society, including literature, fashion, and home design. This work replaces Ellmann’s literary biography of Wilde (which has been shown to contain inaccuracies) as the definitive life of an irrepressible genius.
... a perfectly diligent book, and tells new readers all they possibly need to know about Wilde and his world ... lacks the style, fizz, vim, zest and all the other ingredients of a literary critic’s cocktail cabinet ... By the end, after receiving 700 pages of the historian’s scrupulous detachment, Wilde comes across as a sleazy, cadging, mendacious figure, a vulgar slob who was addicted to a succession of rent boys ... There is little of the rich humanity, even gallantry, of Ellmann’s portrait ... Sturgis’s Wilde, stripped of his romance and gaiety, reduced to a historian’s hard facts, becomes a modish victim, where Ellmann’s Oscar, a literary figure, was a hero and an example.
... provides an excellent opportunity to revisit and re-enjoy the fabulous genius of Wilde ... While Sturgis doesn’t approach his subject with Ellmann’s critical intensity, he includes much new material, especially recovered testimonies from Wilde’s reputation-ending trials in 1895. The first two-thirds is as bright and entertaining as an evening with its subject; the final third describes one of the saddest stories ever told.
The challenge in writing a review of a 700-page book on Wilde is to avoid making it sound like a book report. Any worthwhile book report on this tome would be dozens of pages long ... All of this tremendous detail is deftly put together by Matthew Sturgis, who goes far deeper than I am highlighting here. I am proud to say that Oscar Wilde’s wit and incredible body of work are still quite relevant today ... Thankfully, we have this splendid work from Sturgis that hopefully will lure more readers to Wilde’s classic output.
Sturgis delivers a comprehensive portrait of playwright and poet Oscar Wilde in this extraordinary account ... Sturgis meticulously tracks his subject’s turbulent life ... With meticulous attention to detail, Sturgis recounts the destruction the Victorian penal system inflicted on the playwright ... Sturgis offers plenty of history behind Wilde’s best-known works...and creates a rich and complex characterization of the author, who could be both exceedingly generous and profoundly callous. This splendid biography is not to be missed.