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The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde: An Intimate Biography Hardcover – May 10, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-0465044382 ISBN-10: 0465044387 Edition: export ed

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; export ed edition (May 10, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465044387
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465044382
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,137,347 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Oscar Wilde, though married to a woman, preferred sex with men; he was convicted of "gross indecency" and sentenced to two years of hard labor in 1895 in what has become a landmark case in queer history. Yet most biographies of the famous playwright and essayist touch only fleetingly on the writer's sexual history. McKenna's masterful, eminently readable new work takes a sharp, very productive turn in Wilde scholarship. While British journalist McKenna (On the Margins) comprehensively covers Wilde's literary and public career, his biography is organized around Wilde's sexuality as expressed in the sexual acts he performed, and on the centrality of his homosexuality to his identity and politics. Rather than limiting the account to trysts and encounters, McKenna opens new venues for understanding Wilde's life and work. McKenna has unearthed a wealth of new primary and secondary sources—the letters, journals, fiction and poetry of such 19th-century homosexual writers as J.A. Symonds and Ronald Gower—that he uses to paint a vivid and engrossing portrait of Uranian (as 19th-century homosexuals called themselves) life and culture in late Victorian England. McKenna's fundamental argument is that Wilde's sexual identity moved him to the center of a nascent movement to destigmatize and even promote homosexuality as an identity. McKenna writes that Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, "were passionately, fiercely committed to the Cause... [and needed] to proclaim their sexual orientation to the world." Not even a great biography can explain everything about its subject's life—and certainly, despite the groundbreaking research here, this book will raise eyebrows as well as controversy. But it's also the most exciting and important Wilde scholarship to be published in decades. 16 pages of b&w photos. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

No one who has read anything about Wilde written in the past 20 years will be surprised by most of McKenna's revelations, especially the degree to which Wilde lived a barely disguised double life. If he was closeted at all, it was as if in a glass-walled shower stall. He is now Saint Oscar, pilloried by the philistines and martyr to the cause of sexual liberation. His tale--rising to literary eminence only to suddenly fall as low as Reading Gaol--remains astonishing and moving, and McKenna's passion, wit, and good research make it compelling reading. McKenna excels at revealing how and why his behavior so shocked heterosexual Victorians, and why the half-mad marquis of Queensberry, a devotee of physical culture and heterosexist male roles, would work so hard to bring Wilde down. McKenna also describes Wilde's complex emotional life with particular grace and pathos--it is hard not to tear up while McKenna recounts Wilde's miscalculated libel suit against Queensberry--and sympathetically maps Constance Wilde's dysfunctional, heartbreakingly empty marriage to Wilde. Jack Helbig
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

I cannot recommend this book too highly - it is a beautiful and magical read.
Mr. R. Jones
Every fact that the author mentions serves to advance the story, so it's easy to follow the narrative without getting distracted from the story-line.
Amazon Customer
To me one of the saddest tragedies of a literary figure was the downfall of Oscar Wilde.
R. Hardy

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By C. David Claudon on November 27, 2004
Format: Hardcover
For many years Richard Ellmann's biography of Oscar Wilde was considered the definitive work on Wilde. Having recently finished Ellmann's book and just now having read McKenna's book, McKenna offers many new insights. He is not afraid to delve into many of Wilde's "uranian" <read "gay"> views. Ellmann has a sense of the straight outsider trying to understand a gay man's motives. McKenna offers a sympathetic view of Wilde's passion for "rent boys" and his loves for Bosie Douglas and Robbie Ross. McKenna is often sympathetic toward Bosie, but suspect toward Ross. By the end of McKenna's book Wilde is seen as a greatly flawed genius whose passions led to his destruction. "When the gods want to punish you, they give you what you want."
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By MJS on February 8, 2009
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
It's my own fault. I wanted to read a biography next, I scanned the biography offerings on Kindle, saw one about Oscar Wilde and clicked "Buy Now" instead of "free sample". So let me make something quite clear: the "secret life" in question is Oscar Wilde's sex life.

Neil McKenna makes the case that no single biography can do justice to the whole life of any subject and proceeds from here. He set out to tell the story of Oscar Wilde as a homosexual man in Victorian England and most else in Oscar's life takes a back seat to that. This isn't the book I set out to read but I'm not disappointed to have read it. Somewhere along the way I received the wisdom that Oscar Wilde was just another metrosexual Victorian man until Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) rolled onto the scene. McKenna makes it clear that was not the case.

There is a whiff about this book of "reclaiming" Oscar. Yes, I'm convinced Oscar was a gay man and I'm certainly interested in rereading some of his work in light of McKenna's interpretations of Dorian Gray and Willie Hughes. On the other hand: Who knew reading about another person's sex life in such detail could be a chore? When Bosie and Oscar aren't bedding rent boys or other fetching creatures, they're racking up charges at five star restaurants and hotels. Unfortunately, that's all they seem to do a lot of the time and it gets a little dull. Maybe it's the mindless promiscuity involved, maybe it's that I'm not a gay man or maybe my Puritan roots go stronger than I realize but by the time the bailiffs came for Oscar I admit I was relieved.

McKenna is a tad myopic. Anything and everything is examined for tell tale signs that Oscar was gay and writing for a gay audience. Not surprisingly, he always finds signs.
Read more ›
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
To me one of the saddest tragedies of a literary figure was the downfall of Oscar Wilde. At a time when his play _The Importance of Being Earnest_ was delivering its initial laughter on the London stage, Oscar was arrested for his homosexuality, imprisoned, and ruined. In his last years, he never stopped making people laugh, but he never wrote for humor again, and he died at forty-six. As an outstanding literary figure of his age and a real celebrity, he deserves and has gotten fine biographies, especially that of Richard Ellmann in 1988. But Oscar was more than an author and celebrity. Neil McKenna's new book, _The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde: An Intimate Biography_ (Basic Books) looks not only at Oscar's homosexuality, but at his commitment to the cause of the rights of homosexuals. "Gay Rights" in our time may still be controversial, but no one is shocked to learn that there is such a movement. In Oscar's time, homosexuality was criminal, a crime some thought worse than murder, and to have insisted on legal and social rights for homosexuals would have instantly brought on all the ostracism the Victorians could muster. Nonetheless, along with being unable to repress his own homosexuality, Oscar was unable to refrain from flaunting it, making it at least a subtext within his works, and campaigning in his fictional prose and poems for acceptance of homosexuality as a way of life. Oscar was a sexual revolutionary, a leader of others in the cause, and this large and well-researched biography concentrates on this aspect of an astonishingly complex, flawed, and lovable figure.Read more ›
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Miriam Z on February 12, 2006
Format: Hardcover
McKenna's book offers an interesting and thought provoking alternative to the view of Oscar Wilde presented in Ellman's biography - i.e., that Wilde did not come relatively late in life to homosexuality, that his early life and marriage was an intent at repudiation of a gay life that he had already begun to lead. This is a very intriguing view. However, I would respect McKenna and his work a lot more if he'd offered his theory as such instead of presenting it in flat-out statements of fact without references to back it up. If you're going to contradict a biography as well-researched as Richard Ellman's, then you'd better be at least as well-documented with your claims as Ellman was. Ellman presented careful bibliographic refences to every claim about Wilde's life that he made. McKenna makes claims about Wilde's life and the players in it (Frank Miles was homosexual...Ronald Gower was the model for Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray, just to name a few) without citing any source for his allegations, which caused me to wonder if he was just making them up. Also, one of the sources that he DOES cite is Hiram Backhouse's memoirs, which even he admits have credibility problems. Yet despite this admission he cites them again and again in support of his theories, so that a great deal of his book is relying on the word of a man who claimed in the same memoirs that he was once fellated by the Empress of China.

My conclusion? The book is well worth reading fo Wilde buffs, but take the factual claims with a grain - no, a shaker full of salt.
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