The Masks of Oscar Wilde

A few years ago I reviewed Joseph Pearce’s The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, one of the outstanding literary studies of our age. Pearce explains that Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) frequently made use of artistic dissimulation to achieve candor about his own “double life.” The Victorian poet and playwright was, says Pearce, a man of many masks through which he alternately concealed and revealed his real self to others. Ironically, it was through his artistic mask that Wilde most often spoke the truth, while his personal mask, the one that most people encountered, projected a false sense of sophisticated bravado that sheltered an insecure soul.

Wilde’s time at Oxford was especially formative, and encouraged a flamboyant dandyism that was apt to make enemies as well as friends. Most importantly, says Pearce, these qualities made him a living legend at the school. Yet his undergraduate days were not entirely given over to frivolities. Despite his father’s best efforts the young man dived into the religious controversies of the time and made the acquaintance of zealous Catholics at Oxford, at times appearing more ultramontane than they were. Despite such outspokenness, this early flirtation with “popery” was more an infatuation than true love. Yet Wilde’s attraction was not so much insincere as immature. In subsequent years it developed into a kind of love-hate relationship, no doubt because as much as he tried to shake it, the redemptive message of Catholicism continued to haunt him. While it is true that no man can be “reasoned” into the faith, early exposure to the apologetic works of Cardinal Newman effectively cleared the field of rival creeds. All that remained was a decisive moral crisis—the turning point in any man’s spiritual life, including Wilde’s.

The deathbed conversion story of England’s foremost wit and debauchee has made its way as a short entry into journal articles and literary surveys. But until now no one has offered a comprehensive Catholic account of this difficult genius. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde finally fills that void. Nor is it merely a “religious monograph,” since it covers all aspects of Wilde’s life and personality. The treatment is rich in anecdote and detail without ever losing itself in a wilderness of mere trivia, being held together by a clearly stated analysis of the poet’s lifelong struggle between the image that he projected of himself and the real soul beneath. Pearce fully conveys Wilde’s artistic accomplishments, and the intellectual milieu in which he moved, while his troubled relationships with friends and family are poignantly told. By the end of this remarkable book, the reader will have followed Wilde on his journey from the sordid halfway house of vice to the humbler but more joyous home of faith that he had always sought but hesitated to enter.

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