The wilder shores of Wilde

26 January 2013 9:00 AM

Oscar Wilde, photographed by Napoleon Sarony

In 1946, as a Princeton graduate, J. Robert Maguire was attached to the American delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. He befriended an elderly survivor of the Dreyfus Affair, from whom he acquired important unpublished documents, and ever since has been a quiet, discriminating buyer of archival material relating to sensational trials and miscarriages of justice — particularly the Wilde and Dreyfus cases.

After nearly 70 years he has published the sum of his researches into Carlos Blacker, Wilde’s friend and Dreyfus’s champion, and the ways in which those sensational cases interlocked and rebounded on Blacker. Ceremonies of Bravery is a recondite book, written with lawyerly precision and patrician understatement, but it also has rare charm. The loving care with which Maguire has assembled his odd, out-of-the-way story is palpable.

Carlos Blacker was born in Peru in 1857 to an English father and Peruvian mother.  As a young man he was handsome, spruce, a fine linguist and shared chambers on the corner of St James’s Street and Piccadilly with a duke’s son. Wilde’s wife averred that Blacker had ‘the greatest distinction of manner’ of any man she ever met. He was compassionate, with an almost religious belief in kindness, particularly to the vulnerable. Investments freed him from the need to work: he gave his energies to attentive friendships rather than writing the renowned books that were expected of him. He kept voluminous diaries in Pitman shorthand, which remained unread until 1989, when two experts began the seven-year task of their translation into English. These transcripts, which were presumably funded by Maguire (although he is too modest to say), provide the scaffolding for Ceremonies of Bravery.

Blacker was an early friend of Wilde, and trustee of his marriage settlement, but it is his intimacy with ‘Linny’ Newcastle that comes as a fascinating revelation. Linny (the nickname comes from the earldom of Lincoln, his courtesy title as a boy) was the seventh Duke of Newcastle, who is usually portrayed as an inbred dud. Maguire’s sensitive and original portrayal of this disabled, diminutive, miserably married Anglo-Catholic, reveals him as a figure of subtle sympathy, who was the likely inspiration for ‘Sainty’, the crippled little marquess in Howard Sturgis’s cult novel Belchamber. Newcastle and Blacker were beloved friends, who died within weeks of one another in 1928.


Linny’s brother, Lord Francis Hope, who succeeded him as eighth duke, was also devoted to Blacker. An unexpected boon of this book is Maguire’s investigations of ducal finances, his account of Linny’s affectionate but petulant character, with its strain of melancholy intelligence, and of Francis’s profligacy, bankruptcy and mésalliance — he married ‘Madcap May’ Yohe, originally a Philadelphia chorus girl, who ended up scrubbing floors on the nightshift in a Seattle shipyard.

There is much bankruptcy in this book, and perhaps an excess of legalese on the subject. Blacker became a director of the North Alabama Land Development Company in 1890, and took opium to relieve depressive anxiety when the speculation started failing. He was adjudicated bankrupt in 1895, a few days after his marriage. Newcastle, who was infuriated by losses into which he felt tricked in the Alabama gamble, accused Blacker of cheating at cards, which obliged him to resign from the Garrick. There was a muted repetition of the Tranby Croft baccarat scandal which had lately embroiled the Prince of Wales. It says much for the sweetness of Blacker and Newcastle that in 1900 they were reconciled after this bitter quarrel.

Blacker married in 1895 two months before Wilde’s arrest. Despite his wife’s frightened animosity towards Wilde, and insistence that he sever all contacts, he toiled on his friend’s behalf. There are fascinating documents in the Blacker papers, which Maguire apparently bought at Sotheby’s in 1986, on Wilde’s imprisonment, financial ruin and attempted rehabilitation. When Blacker, who evidently never shared Wilde’s sexual tastes, finally met him again in Paris, he was shocked to find him living with a ‘jeune homme blonde’.

Blacker had by then become a strenuous Dreyfusard, whose decisive interventions in the Affair have been ignored or minimised by French historians. Blacker’s final rupture with Wilde in 1898 occurred with accusations of bad faith and worse indiscretions over the Dreyfus Affair.

In contrast to Maguire’s crackling dry humour, the enthusiasm of Roy Morris, Jr gushes like a waterfall. He and his associates have devilled away at old newspapers to reconstruct the itinerary and events during Wilde’s American lecture tour of 1882, in which Wilde covered 15,000 miles and lectured in 140 localities.

The battery-fire of Wilde’s utterances to reporters, ticketed audiences, college boys, art-collectors, autograph-hunters, Gilded Age millionaires, cowboys, Indians, and toughs in mining camps turned him into someone who was famous for being famous. Morris recounts Wilde’s zigzagging across America accompanied by a cohort of publicists. The brouhaha surrounding him was intensified by shopkeepers who capitalised on his visits to their cities with brazen advertising campaigns: ‘Oscar Wilde says the Opera Puffs cigarettes are a luxurious luxury, and just too-too!’, for example, or ‘Oscar Wilde loves Nebraskan canned corn.’

However, Morris’s chatty travelogue palls in interest, even if one lives in Aurora, Racine, Decatur, Peoria, Biloxi or other Wilde stop-overs. Wilde’s ghost will wince at tautologies like ‘sinuously winding’, the reiterative misuse of ‘ironically’, and the clichés (Queen Victoria ‘got her nose out of joint’ at Irish insubordination, Americans wanted ‘Progress with a capital P’).

The difference between the two books is encapsulated by their mention of the British national anthem. Morris writes with unpardonable vulgarity that at one reception, ‘Wilde’s entrance was greeted by an orchestra playing, apparently without intentional irony, “God Save the Queen”.’.The admirable Macguire reveals that when the arch-villain of the Dreyfus Affair, Esterhazy, fled to England he knew only ten words of English: ‘Water Closet, Whisky and Soda, Steeplechase, God Save the Queen’.