After William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is the most quoted of writers. His epigrams turned conventions upside down and are part of our cultural inheritance. His personality defined an era. His popularity as a wit, a dramatist and an icon continues to grow.
One hundred years after Wilde's death, he remains entertaining and outlandish, talking about everything and nothing. Wilde's rise to prominence as an unparalleled playwright of high comedy, and his ego-driven fall from grace continue to fascinate. His life, famous trial and his deah were played out in the full glare of the public's gaze.
Barbara Belford's Wilde is for a new generation of readers: not the tragic figure, the martyr, the self destructive fop. Instead belford explores his sexuality in a more relaxed manner than previous biographers, she opens up the gap between the facts to portray Oscar Wilde in all his complexity, genius and humanity.
Belford is an American biographer who specializes in Victorian literary figures. In this book, published to mark the centenary of Wilde's death, she promises us a different Oscar, fully human and contradictory, as well as a new view of his sexuality set in the context of Victorian politics and culture. Unfortunately her promises are only partly fulfilled. Wilde is shown in unfamiliar roles - horseman, angler, loving father - and there is some detail about what we would now call the gay scene and Wilde as a gay martyr, however all this never adds up to a full picture of the man, his motivations and ideas or the cultural context. Sometimes the book descends into trivia while letting controversial terms such as 'genius', go unexplored. Belford's style in the first half of the book is hard work for the reader, jumping between a skilful enough account of the life, parallels between life and work, 'flashforwards' and rebuttals of other biographers. It is only when we get to Wilde's trial, imprisonment and exile that the book takes on coherence, unity and real commitment, reflecting on Wilde's sad downfall and what he managed to retrieve from it. If such strength of feeling had been allowed to shape the rest of the book and if the social context, including some interesting parallels with today's 'celebrity culture', had been developed, it would have been an unqualified success rather than simply a competent but fragmented account of a seminal figure who deserves better. (Kirkus UK)