Wilde, it seems, is our contemporary. He died in Paris 108 years ago, a near-friendless exile, impoverished, shunned, disgraced. Today, he is world-famous and universally admired. There are 1,000 lipstick impressions on his tomb. He would not have quarrelled with the attention: he was a pioneer of celebrity culture. “If you wish for reputation and fame in the world,” he advised, “take every opportunity of advertising yourself. Remember the Latin saying, ‘Fame springs from one’s own house.’ ” At theatrical first nights, as a matter of policy, during the 10 minutes before the curtain was due to rise, he would make a series of brief appearances around the auditorium - in the dress circle, in the stalls, in the boxes on either side of the stage. He wore outlandish clothes; he said outrageous things. He set out to get himself noticed. He was. . . . How come? In his day, Wilde - iconoclastic, bisexual, Irish - found fame and, briefly, fortune by dint of genius, charm and application. In his own time, he was an outsider and an exotic. Now he’s one of us. We understand his craving for celebrity. We share his obsession with youth. (“Youth is the one thing worth having,” he wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray.) Gay or straight, we are easy with his sexuality. Indeed, so prejudiced are we in his favour, we tend to overlook the fact that most of the young men in whom he took an interest were little more than boys. At the time of his arrest and imprisonment for homosexual offences in 1895, all but a handful of his contemporaries abandoned him. To us, his downfall adds to his allure. Ours is the age of the misery memoir. The greater your trauma - the more disturbing your childhood - the faster you climb the bestseller list. In 2008, Oscar would have made a packet. Alongside the public humiliation, he knew private heartache. He had a philandering father, a drunken brother and a favourite younger sister, Isola, who died when she was 10. He carried a lock of her hair for the rest of his life. (He also had two half-sisters who burnt to death in a domestic fire.) At a familial level, the real tragedy of his life was that, from the moment of his disgrace, he was prevented from seeing either of his young sons. (Wilde had many faults, but he was a devoted father.) . . .
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