I recently visited Paris with my wife. One day, as we strolled along the Left Bank, a tremendous rain-storm sent us scurrying into an alley for cover. It was quite dark in the alley and I banged my shin against something hard and sharp. I bent down to examine it and was astonished to find a battered old suitcase with rusty lock.
It is not something I would normally do but I decided there and then to take the suitcase. I brought it home to Menton and tried to get into it. No luck. In the end I had to buy a hack-saw and cut the lock completely.
I looked inside and my jaw dropped open. (This is the second time in my life that I have had such a comic book reaction but I promise you, drop open it did.)
Inside the suitcase were a mass of papers which proved to be interviews which Oscar Wilde had conducted with prominent people of his time.
I aim to post these periodically on my blog, starting with the first interview when the fifteen year old Wilde interviewed Charles Dickens only two weeks before his death. (In fact I begin to wonder whether the two events were in any way connected.)
However, I start not with any of Wilde’s own interviews but by one from his friend, Lord Alfred Douglas, known affectionally to his friends as Bosie.
For lovers of history there is an added piquancy. This interview took place the day after Valentine’s Day 1895 which was the opening night of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’
The Bosie Papers
15 February 1895
Following the triumphant first night of Oscar’s latest play we were visited at our hotel by a hysterical old woman by the name of Lady Flashman. Apparently she had seen ‘Earnest’ the night before and, being as empty-headed as she was wealthy, took it into her head that Oscar, the darling of the London stage, would like nothing better than to write a play about her decrepit old husband. She must have imagined that he would swoon at the very idea.
Strangely enough, Oscar decided to see the woman. He was clearly in an exultant mood after the astonishing success of the first night.
As always he was courtesy itself although I could see through the façade that he was utterly disgusted by the aging harpy. He pretended that he was beguiled and besotted by her and she flirted with him in a manner more suited to the madam of a bordello.
To my astonishment Oscar agreed to undertake an interview with her husband and asked me to pass him his day-book so that he could find a suitable time. The old baggage fluttered her eyes at him and said that there was no need to make an appointment.
‘I’ve brought my Hector with me,’ she said. ‘He is waiting in the lounge.’
Oscar was so delighted with her that he agreed to meet with the old man there and then. I tried to dissuade him from this but he brushed aside my objections which I must say I found very wounding. Then, to rub salt into my wounds, he asked me to be the amanuensis of the interview.
Naturally I determined to refuse and make a wounding departure. However, Oscar had made his request in front of the fawning Lady Flashman so I had to swallow my chagrin and agree.
A servant was summoned and sent to bring her old fool of a husband to meet us.
Picture if you will, the refined Oscar sitting at his ease in his Norfolk jacket with the gorgeous silk handkerchief I had bought him drooping from his pocket. Then picture the nature of his visitor.
Sir Harry Flashman was a hulking great creature, six feet tall, as broad as a navvy with moustache and whiskers from a previous century. He looked to be aged about fifty-five or so although he was actually in his early seventies. There was a toe-curling revoltingness about him, something which made my nostrils contract. At the same time, I must admit he had something about him, some charisma or animal force. It made me want to run to the toilet.
Sir Harry – G’day to you Mr Wilde.
Oscar – (rising and taking the brute by the hand). Good day to you, Sir Harry. Your wife tells me that you would like me to write your memoirs.
Sir Harry – (staring venomously at his wife) That’s what she said, is it?
Oscar – It most certainly is. She tells me that you’ve had a fascinating life. She even went as far as to call you ‘Her Hector.’
Sir Harry – (to his wife) That’s so flattering of you, Elsbeth. Now, why don’t you get yourself off to Oxford Street and buy yourself something for the weekend.
At this point, with much false cooing and curtseying, Lady Flashman made her departure.
Oscar – Charming woman, your wife.
Sir Harry – Aye, she’s a charmer right enough. You’re welcome to view her charms (sitting forward in his chair suspiciously) but only from a distance. Now then, Mr Wilde, my idiot of a wife has got it into her head that you’d be the perfect person to write my memoirs. I can’t see for the life of me why anybody would want to read them and even less so if you were to write ’em.
Me – How dare you, sir. Oscar is the darling of Literary London.
Sir Harry – (turning to me with a belligerent look) When I want to be cheeked by some office boy, I’ll let him know, thank you kindly.
Oscar – Sir Harry, this is no office boy. This is Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensbury.
Sir Harry – (with a repulsive leer) Oh, so you’re the one. Not much like your old man, are you? I can’t see you watching at a Boxing Ring. Or riding a horse. (Turning to Oscar.) Or perhaps I’m mistaken. Perhaps you like to go riding with this young man, Mr Wilde?
Oscar – Lord Alfred’s father is a great hunter of the fox but Bosie, dear child, is more a poet by inclination.
Sir Harry – I didn’t come here to talk about inclinations if you take my meaning, Mr Wilde. Nor about hunting. I’m here because my wife wants you to memorialise me.
At this point I made to rise, thinking that the time to end the interview had arrived. But Sir Harry Flashman gave me a glance like a viper which made me feel quite giddy.
To my astonishment, Oscar said that he concurred with the notion of conducting the interview. Imagine my horror.
The brute staggered to his feet, gave me the filthiest leer I have ever received and stuck his card in my waistcoat pocket.
Sir Harry – There are Office Boy. Get in touch when your friend has a free moment.
Then he stalked out of the room but not, alas, out of our lives.
Oscar – (with a grin) Oh do lighten up, Bosie.