Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Top Ten Reasons Oscar Wilde Hated His Brother

Oh, brothers! I don't care for brothers. My elder brother won't die, and my younger brothers seem never to do anything else. - The Picture of Dorian Gray

If you think your brother is a jerk, you should meet Oscar Wilde’s brother. After spending some time with William “Willie” Wilde, Herbert Beerbohm Tree wrote:
"...did I tell you that I saw a good deal of [Oscar's] brother Willie at Broadstairs? Quel monstre! Dark, oily, suspect yet awfully like Oscar: he has Oscar's coy, carnal smile & fatuous giggle & not a little of Oscar's esprit. But he is awful - a veritable tragedy of family-likeness"
If you have ever quarreled with a sibling, you probably appreciate the phrase “a veritable tragedy of family-likeness.” You might even be trying to commit it to memory for future use.

Oscar would have appreciated it as well because his relationship with Willie was turbulent, to say the least. He actually based Algernon, in The Importance of Being Earnest, on his brother Willie, during a time when the two were trying to reconcile their differences. Sadly, the time when things appeared to be easiest between the two of them was the time Willie inflicted the most damage on Oscar’s life, the time when Oscar needed his family most. The two would never speak again.

There’s so much I could say about what made Willie a “monstre” of a brother, as Willie provides the subject of a novel that I’m currently writing, but, because this is the internet, I’m going to try to limit it to the ten reasons Oscar Wilde’s brother was worse than yours, after which you should go give your brother a hug!

1. Willie publicly mocked Oscar’s life and work.

While married to the wealthy widow and publishing giant, Mrs. Frank Leslie, Willie frequented the public drinking places of New York’s rich and famous, where he would mock and parody Oscar’s writing, as well as criticize him for drug use.

Oscar would read about Willie’s behaviour in a paper that reported on one of Willie’s nights at the Lotos Club, where he had...
...hilariously entertained the club members by impersonating Oscar’s voice, parodying his poetry and immitating his aesthetic mannerisms. - Ashley Robins 
Willie’s opinions were unpopular and probably reflected insecurities about himself, for, after six months of marriage, his rich wife returned him to London and filed for divorce. She was unhappy in the marriage because Willie drank so much he could not satisfy her sexually and he didn’t do any work or writing.

To be fair, Willie didn’t keep his intentions for his time in New York a secret from Leslie, his motto at the time was:
What America needs is a leisure class and I am determined to introduce one.
2. His drinking made Willie a public spectacle.

Willie embarrassed Oscar, even when he wasn’t trying to. Beerbohm Tree later wrote of Willie:
My sister Constance came home one day and summoned my mother and me; she was quivering to tell us what had happened. She knew in advance it was the sort of thing my mother would adore. Well, Constance had been walking along the street and met Willie Wilde – Oscar’s brother. In one hand, he was carrying a huge leg of mutton by the narrow part; with his free hand he swept off his hat and bent over double in a grand, ceremonial bow. There was something so grotesquely funny in the way he did it, conveying both the mutton and the bow. We decided it was a first class thing.
3. Willie took money from old people and babies. 

Drink would eventually kill Willie Wilde, but first it would render him unable to support himself, so that he sponged money off of his mother and angrily stamped his foot at her, when she refused to give it to her. Even when Oscar was bankrupt and going to jail, his family, including Willie’s pregnant wife, depended on him for the financial support that Willie was unable to provide.

This had been going on for years, as before Willie married that woman, he was reported to have stolen the piggy bank from the children of another woman he was hoping to marry.

Much of the surviving correspondence between Willie and Oscar has to do with Oscar giving Willie money - see my post on American Cigarettes
4. Willie’s friend stole Oscar’s girlfriend.

Willie became friends with Bram Stoker, while at Trinity College, and introduced him to the Wilde family. When Oscar was at school, his parents would later hire Stoker as Oscar’s tutor. Somehow, Stoker used that position to steal Oscar’s first love, Florence “Florrie” Balcombe, later Mrs. Stoker.

Oscar wouldn’t hold a grudge and became friends with Stoker, but he always had a place in his heart for Florrie and she would always refer to Oscar as “Poor O.”

5. Willie was the Wilde family favourite.

Oscar standing on left, Willie sitting far right.

Why do so many people love a villain? No matter how he mistreated their mother, Speranza always favoured Willie over Oscar. She always made excuses for Willie and even, at times, seemed jealous of Oscar’s success. In her letters, Speranza always blames Oscar, when the two brother’s aren’t getting along: “Why didn’t you come to your brother’s wedding?” “Why won’t you accept your brother’s apology?” And so on.

As the first-born, Willie inherited more than Oscar, when their father died. When their half-brother, Henry Wilson died, he left £8,000 to charity, £2,000 to Willie and only £100 to Oscar.

6. Willie published a bad review of Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Granted the review in the Daily Telegraph, where Willie worked, is only presumed to by written by Willie, it is a negative one and typical of their relationship. Also typical, their mother continued to pester Oscar to offer Willie praise for his writing. 

7. Willie gave Oscar bad advice.

During his trials, everyone, including the judge, expected and encouraged Wilde to flee to Paris. Oscar’s friends were ready to escort him there.

Willie (and his mother) wouldn’t hear of it and threatened to disown him, if he left.

8. Willie found self-righteous joy in Oscar’s troubles.

You would think that this would be the worst part of having Willie Wilde as a brother. As Oscar put it: Willie makes such a merit of giving me shelter,” when it was really their mother’s house and Oscar had been helping them financially for many years.

Following Oscar's arrest and first trial in April 1895, Willie claimed that he gave his brother shelter when he was unable to find rooms in London. Willie told anyone that would listen that Oscar "fell down on my threshold like a wounded stag.” As if standing by his brother, Willie wrote to Stoker:
Bram, my friend, poor Oscar was not as bad as people thought him. He was led astray by his Vanity - & conceit, & he was so 'got at' that he was weak enough to be guilty – of indiscretions and follies - that is all.... I believe this thing will help to purify him body & soul.
Yet, self-righteous joy and gloating was nothing compared to what Willie still had up his sleeve.

9. Willie blackmailed his brother.

While Oscar was going to court and staying with Willie on Oakley Street, Willie got a hold of some incriminating letters and used them to control Oscar for a while.

You can’t, however, get blood from a stone. Oscar didn’t have much money left to pay. He may have borrowed some to pay Willie from his friends, since Beebohm Tree and others knew about this situation. Willie eventually sold the letters to Travers Humphreys.

10. Willie sold Oscar’s things.

Oscar, as we all know, went to prison. Before that he had been living at his mother’s house, where his brother pretended to host him. He left a trunk of clothing behind, which Willie proceeded to pawn or sell - though his wife, Lily, saved Oscar’s shirts.

Oscar was so upset by the loss of his beloved fur coat that he could no longer refer to Willie and Lily by name. He wrote to Robert Ross on the subject:
Also, I would take it as a great favour if More [Adey] would write to the people who pawned or sold my fur coat since my imprisonment, and ask from me whether they would be kind enough to state where it was sold or pawned as I am anxious to trace it, and if possible get it back. I have had it for twelve years, it was all over America with me, it was at all my first nights, it knows me perfectly, and I really want it. The letter should be quite courteous, addressed first to the man: if he doesn't answer, to the woman. As it was the wife who pressed me to leave it in her charge, it might be mentioned that I am surprised and distressed, particularly as 1 paid out of my own pocket since my imprisonment all the expenses of her confinement, to the extent of £50 conveyed through Leverson. This might be stated as a reason for my being distressed.
By this point, Willie and Lily were no longer Oscar’s brother and sister-in-law. He refers to them only as “the people,” “the man,” “the woman,” “the wife,” but never by name.

One might try to argue that Willie and Oscar didn’t get along because Willie was an alcoholic, but their personalities clashed, since childhood. Oscar once clapped his hands when Willie’s night gown caught fire in their nursery, then sulked because their governess managed to put the fire out.

After Oscar went to prison, the two would never see or speak to each other again - except of course through third parties, like those Oscar sent to track down his belongings. Willie never even bothered to write to Oscar in prison and said that “For many reasons [Oscar] would not want to see me.” We don’t have to wonder why.

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