Pioneer magazine

Oscar Wilde’s Deathbed Conversion: how it came about

That his two best plays are now on in London’s West End shows how perennial is the work of Oscar Wilde. His interest in the Catholic Church also goes back a long way. At Oxford he became friendly with another student, Sir David Hunter Blair, who became a Catholic too and, after joining the Benedictines, was made Abbot at Dunfermline Abbey. In his book, Victorian Days, he wrote of a very different Wilde from the caricature portrait of the playboy of the West End. What he remembered most vividly about him was his attractive personality, enhanced by his extraordinary conversational abilities and his appreciation of the classics. He asked Blair many questions which revealed “how genuine were his own sympathies with Catholicism.”

His relationship to the Church went back to his earlier days in his native Dublin, where his anti-Catholic father bitterly opposed his interest in the Church. “I am sure,” he told Hunter Blair, “that if I had become a Catholic at that time he would have cast me off altogether. Seeing me ‘on the brink’, he struck me out of his will. It was a terrible disappointment to me. I suffer a great deal from my Romish leanings, in pocket and mind. And now my best friend turns out to be a Papist!”

To another friend, he admitted, “My moral obliquity was largely due to the fact that my father would never allow me to become a Catholic.” At Oxford he also joined the Freemasons’ Apollo Lodge, whose initiation clothes – silk stockings, knee breeches and purple coat with lavender silk lining - he wore on his American lecture tour. A century before the pop star age, he saw that the quickest way to celebrity fame was to wear silly clothes.

One of his first homosexual friends was Robert Ross, a Catholic, whose self-written epitaph was, “Here lies one whose name was writ in hot water.” Wilde’s Dorian Gray was based on him. Another was Reginald Turner, who urged him to leave England before his court trial. Wilde told him, “I would like to retire to some monastery – to some grey-stoned cell where I could have my books, write verses and reverently smoke my cigarettes.”

Before this Oscar described the scene at Clapham Junction, where on his way from the London court to Reading Gaol, he stood on the railway platform in convict dress and handcuffed between two policemen: “Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. Each train as it came along swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. For half-an-hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob.” A far cry from the Wilde who earlier charmed many posh London dinner parties with his scintillating conversation!

Ross said that when he saw him in Reading Gaol, “His eyes were totally vacant and he cried the whole time. But his main fear was of going mad.” While there he also wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), “Even if I get out of this loathsome place, I know that there is nothing before me but the life of a pariah – of disgrace and penury and contempt.” He admitted to Ross that it was Bosie who had “ruined my life”. And he said to Turner, “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners. But for respectable people the Anglican Church will do.” After his release he went to live in Paris – in the small Hotel d’ Alsace on the Rue des Beaux Arts – where he told Clair de Pratz, the Daily News correspondent there, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has to go.” An unforgettable image of him from this time is of Wilde sitting outside a Paris café, forlorn and soaked to the skin in a downpour, yet unable to go back to the hotel because he couldn’t afford to pay for his couple of drinks.

Ross was with him at the end and later told how “he rushed to the Passionist church in Paris and brought back Father Cuthbert Dunne to attend spiritually” to Wilde. After he died and was laid out, Fr Dunne “placed a rosary in his hand and put palm branches over him.” He also said the requiem Mass at St Germain-des-Prés. Oscar was buried in a cheap coffin at Bagneux, where a simple stone bore the inscription from the Book of Job, To my words they durst add nothing, and my speech dropped upon them. His remains were moved to Père Lachaise when the celebrated funerary monument by Epstein was placed there in 1909. This bears an inscription from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn

There, with a rosary beads round his neck and on his breast a picture of St Francis of Assisi – who had also been somewhat of a dandy in his day – Oscar Wilde awaits another trial, the last judgement, before which all of us, judges and judged alike, must one day appear.

Paul Hurley, SVD