Oscar's Books by Thomas Wright

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Oscar's Books by Thomas Wright

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography with a difference, exploring the life of Oscar Wilde through his lifelong love of books, reading, reviewing and writing.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099502722

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Oscar Wilde, so the introduction tells us, devoured and luxuriated in books. He had a lifelong thirst for reading, and his house was (obviously) packed with them. It comes as no surprise to find out that he was an accomplished speed reader with a remarkable – and to some extent photographic – memory which helped him to absorb and recall instantly vast amounts of prose and verse. As a reviewer for Pall Mall Gazette, he could master a book's content, plot or argument in minutes. We think he would have been the ideal patron saint of Bookbag.

Maybe it is only fair to get the one major chink in his armour out of the way quickly. Once, when preparing a lecture on the poet Chatterton, most of his lecture notes were made up of entire pages and paragraphs from two biographies from his library. Literally made up, alas, alack – he took a pair of scissors to the relevant texts from his books and pasted them into his handwritten notes. One did not have a photocopier or scanner in 1886.

Thomas Wright's biography of Wilde is fascinating. It is in part a cradle-to-grave account, but the life story is fully integrated with his reading and writing, his likes and dislikes. When he was only three, his father asked him to fetch him a book from his personal library. Needless to say, it took him little time to retrieve the required volume from the book-lined room. He took not only after his father but also his mother, who was happiest with a good book and a good fire. When his little sister Isola died at 11, he sought sanctuary in his books.

Though he was not an out-and-out bibliomaniac he was a book dandy, regarding books as works of art with their delicious symphonies of text, illustration and binding, rather than mere repositories of the text.'

As for his reading tastes, poetry was always important. A man can live for three days without bread, but no man can live for one day without poetry. He owned several three-volume novels, though he often poured scorn upon them, declaring of one example that it could be read without any trouble and was probably written without any trouble also.

Much of the book is fun, and Wright's enthusiasm for his subject clearly matches his subject's own enthusiasm. It is however full of serious insights into some of the darker aspects of Wilde's life, such as the truth about his marriage to Constance and the death knell for their romance after three or four years together. The account of his life in prison, with its privations and restricted access to reading matter, comes in stark contrast to what was often a comparatively carefree, epigram-strewn life before his trial. While awaiting release, he anticipated the prospect of reading and owning books, on regaining his liberty; what joy could be greater?

Sadly his expectations of rediscovering his creative faculty would never be realised. Apart from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, he wrote no more in the three years between his release from prison and his death. His intellectual concentration had gone, and something is killed in me.

The only caveat is that this is to a certain extent for the specialist, not the ideal introduction to Wilde's life – but I'm sure it was never intended to be. Some prior knowledge of Wilde's career and works is essential to enjoyment of these pages; Hesketh Pearson's classic 1946 biography is still as good as any. However it succeeded in being serious, scrupulously-researched, and a joy to read at the same time. I think Wilde would have been flattered at having inspired such a volume. He would certainly have approved of the furnishing fabric image which is reproduced on the endpapers.

Our thanks to Chatto & Windus for sending a copy to Bookbag.

For another biography of a 19th century author, why not try Poe by Peter Ackroyd, or for another spotlight on the times, Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World by Jeffrey Richards.

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Buy Oscar's Books by Thomas Wright at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Oscar's Books by Thomas Wright at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Oscar's Books by Thomas Wright at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Oscar's Books by Thomas Wright at Amazon.com.


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