Twenty years ago he was a radical activist, a skinhead,
and the editor of two hate-filled, extremist magazines. Today, Joseph
Pearce is the author of several critically acclaimed, best-selling biographies
of great nineteenth- and twentieth-century Christian authors. He talks
to IgnatiusInsight.com about his most recent book for Ignatius Press,
The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, the challenge of writing biographies,
and his dramatic converstion in an English prison.
Unmasking of Oscar Wilde | Joseph
Pearce's author page
IgnatiusInsight.com: In the Preface to The Unmasking of Oscar
Wilde, you write that he "died a pariah" and "was scorned
by the world." But today is "the adored and idolized icon of
a growing cult." How has that transformation come about?
Joseph Pearce: Basically it goes to show the summersaults that
modern culture has made in the last century. Victorian society tended
to be prudish and so Wilde, after his fall from favor, was looked upon
as a pariah and his works stopped being read. He ended up being looked
upon in such a bad way by his contemporaries.
the same mistake is being made: Wildes work is being judged by the
man, not the man by his work. All the things he was detested for in Victorian
societyhomosexuality, debauchery, and hedonismhave become
the things that he is idolized for in our day. He has become a "gay
It is unfair because Wilde had a lifelong love affair with the Catholic
Church. His art is always overtly moral and the morality is overtly Catholic
in nature. He is a timeless Christian writer. As a man he never came out
of the closet and throughout his life he experienced much guilt about
his homosexuality; he always felt that was his bad side. This was the
case in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which shows that when you kill
your conscience, you kill your soul. Wilde was such a religious man that
when he enters the Church on his deathbed, it really is the logical end
and culmination of his life.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Although The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde
is a biography, you make it clear that one of your intentions is to set
the record straight about Wildes life and to respond to some recent
biographies, including Richard Ellmanns 1987 biography. What errors
do you address and how influenced by ideology and contemporary fads are
the errors that you encountered?
Pearce: One influence was the gross ignorance displayed in many
of the works written on Wildes life. People today think that Wilde
was persecuted for his homosexuality. No, he was not! It was almost unheard
of for people to be charged with sodomy in Victorian England.
Wilde was having a homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, whose
father, the Marquess of Queensberry become enraged, left a card for Wilde:
"To Oscar Wilde, posing as a Somdomite [sic]." Infuriated, Wilde
had Queensberry arrested and charged with criminal libel. It was a huge
mistake. Wilde failed in his libel case and the evidence brought forward
by Queensberry about Wildes homosexual activities essentially forced
the government to prosecute Wilde.
So Wilde was brought down by his own stupidity, not because he was unjustly
persecuted. Theres the moral of The Picture of Dorian Gray:
Kill your conscience, kill your soul. Wilde, in fact, called his homosexuality
his "pathology," his sickness.
So Im very much influenced, or motivated, by the provocations of
errors in recent biographies of Wilde. Ellmanns biography, Oscar
Wilde [Penguin, 1988] was considered, blithely, the definite biography
of Wilde. Part of that is Ellmanns academic reputation; also Oscar
Wilde is large and substantial. Lots of research has gone into it. But
Ellmann gets all the facts and then mixes them up in such a way as to
not clarity, but to muddy the waters. His is a postmodern biography. Wilde
is presented as a relativist with no sense of good and evil. On the contrary,
Wildes art shows a consistency of objective morality, specifically
The only thing Ellman writes that substantiates his case relies on Wildes
works of criticism. But as I show in my chapter titled "Critic or
Artist" Wildes art was far more important to him than his critical
work. Its clear to me that Wildes criticism was a pose. He
wanted to provoke and raise eyebrows and shock Victorian sensibilities.
But he was first and foremost an artist and his criticism is secondary.
Its clear from Wildes fiction, plays, and poetry that his
art is the main thing for him.
There are three kinds of biography. There is hagiography, which covers
up all the subjects warts. Then there is what I call "hackography,"
which hacks to pieces the subject and is written by hacks. But the true
biographer approaches the subject with humility and is at the service
of objective truthnot his personal agenda. He lets the facts speak
for themselves so people can see for themselves and check his facts.
The other key thing about Ellmann is that he bases his whole approach
to Wilde on the supposition that Wilde contracted syphilis while at Oxford.
He states that this conviction "is central to my conception of Wildes
character and my interpretation of many things in his later life."
But I show pretty conclusively, through the evidence of Wildes doctors,
that Wilde never had the disease. That means, by Ellmanns admission,
that his biographical house of cards collapses.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In researching and writing
this book, what surprised you the most about Wilde?
Pearce: The first thing is exactly how true my instincts were;
they far exceeded my expectations. Before beginning my research I knew
only one or two of Wildes works well. While reading his work, my
eyebrows raised because of the obvious morality in his work compared to
his reputation for hedonism and homosexuality. And then there is that
fact that he entered the Catholic Church on his deathbed. I was surprised
that his love affair with the Catholic Church was a lifelong one. He had
to be more than just a "gay icon."
Wilde nearly converted as a nineteen-year old, and then in his early twenties.
But he would have been disinherited if he had, so he didnt risk
becoming Catholic. Years later he told a reporter that if his father hadnt
kept him from becoming Catholic, he would have entered the Church earlier
and spared himself his descent into homosexuality.
Wildes wife, Constance described Wilde as "My poor misguided
husband, who is weak rather than wicked . . ." and its an apt
description. Some of his poetry is profoundly Catholic. The surprise to
be found in Oscar Wilde is someone who loved the Catholic Church, but
for various reasons was unable to sacrifice himself to his beliefs. As
a result he had a disastrous downfall in 1895. He had an inner war with
his moral battles and often lost. He later gained an inner peace, but
could never deal with being very poor and being in exile. He learned a
very hard lesson. As he wrote in his 1898 poem The Ballad of Reading
Gaol, "How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter
IgnatiusInsight.com: You had a dramatic conversion to Catholicism
from agnosticism as a young man. How has that experience of conversion
influenced and shaped your writing, especially when writing about converts
such as Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Wilde?
Pearce: Very, very greatly. I became enthralled and enamored with
other stories of conversion. I read Cardinal Newmans Apologia
Pro Vita Sua, Ronald Knoxs A Spiritual Aeneid and a series
called The Road to Damascus, published in the 1950s. Ive
always remained enthralled by how people come to Christ, come to the Church.
Chesterton was a saint, so writing about him was easy. But because of
my background, having been to prison twice as a young skinhead in East
London, Ive found it moving and edifying to get inside the head
of Oscar Wilde, a more enigmatic character. Its more satisfying
in some ways. Its the Mary Magdalene path to Christ, and Im
attracted to it; its the path I came on.
As Malcolm Muggeridge once explained, of course Im sorry for the
hurt Ive caused and the sins Ive committed, but the important
thing is that every mans life is a Passion play and how it ends
is what matters. Wildes story has a happy ending. He is received
into the Church on his deathbed. Its that challenge of Mary Magdalene
and the story of the prodigal son that attracts me.
The fact that Wilde finally came to conversion in prison is something
that is very
powerful to me, because that is what happened to me. It was while I was
in prison that I finally converted. Its where I first began to pray,
to say the Rosary, to go to Mass, and to think of myself as Catholic.
So there is a connection.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Many of the biographies you have written are
about men whose works are being read today, many decades after their deaths:
Wilde, Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis. What qualities do the works of
those men possess that make them so enduring?
Pearce: What we see in these people are great writers who are writing
about great truths. If that is the case with an author, his work will
speak across the generations. Their work is part of tradition, what Chesterton
calls a "living history." And tradition is the one thing that
keeps a man from being a slave to his time. Their message is just as relevant
as it was then. The perennial is permanent, by definition; the permanent
things are just that: permanent.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Which author, of those you have written about,
do you wish people would read more of today? Why?
Pearce: I think that person is the poet Roy Campbell. Ive
written a book, Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies
of Roy Campbell (ISI, 2004) about Roy Campbell and he is a bit like
Wilde. He had a dark and complex personality. During the 1920s Campbell
was considered a major force and the most important poet after T.S. Eliot.
What went wrong is that he became "politically incorrect". He
came out against the famous Bloomsbury Group and attacked their decadent,
depraved lifestyle, describing them as "intellectuals without intellect"
and "sexless folk whose sexes intersect."
That group, led by Virginia Woolf, made certain that Campbell was ignored
or talked about in derogatory terms and in the 1930s he became mostly
despised. He moved to Spain in 1934 and he and his family were received
into the Catholic Church in 1935. He defended the Nationalists because
Franco defended Catholicism against Communism. However, in England the
left wing supported the Communists and so Campbell was considered a fascist.
Campbell responded by attacking the left wing poets as hypocrites. He
really is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Some critics have attacked your biographies
because you often share, without apology, many of the beliefs of your
subjects. How do you respond to those sorts of criticisms?
Pearce: This gets back to what I was saying earlier about writing
a biography. The key thing is that I believe in the existence of objective
truth, that it can be found and discovered. That makes me as a Christian
more able to objectively search for and find the truth that is out there.
Most modern writers are relativists and post-modernist deconstructionists.
For them truth is a fiction and their subject is a fiction. So you subject
your subject to your subjective agenda. As a Christian and a biographer,
I approach my subject with objectivity and ask, "Who was he?"
not, "Who do I think or feel he was?"
The good thing is I can understand what my subjects are trying to do in
their work and I can go with the flowtheir flow, not my flow. If
I chose a subject I disagreed with, Id have to go against the grain
and it would be much harder. The key thing is not hagiography, or hackography;
its true biography, which is aimed at the truth. The Christian biographer,
bound by moral obligation, is better able to achieve that objective perspective.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Do you currently have any books in the works
for Ignatius Press?
Pearce: Yes, a couple of books. One is an U.S. revised edition
of Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse. Another
is Literary Giants, Literary Catholics, a collection of essays
I have written on Dante, Chesterton, Shakespeare, Tolkien and many others.
Unmasking of Oscar Wilde
by Joseph Pearce
400 pages. Hardcover. $19.95.
Vilified by fellow Victorians for his sexuality and
his dandyism, Oscar Wilde, the great poet, satirist and playwright, is hailed
today, in some circles, as a "progressive" sexual liberator. But
this is not how Wilde saw himself. His actions and pretensions did not bring
him happiness and fulfillment. This study of Wilde's brilliant and tragic
life goes beyond the mistakes that brought him notoriety in order to explore
this emotional and spiritual search.
Unlike any other biography of Wilde, it strips away these pretensions to
show the real man, his aspirations and desires. It uncovers how he was broken
by his two-year prison sentence; it probes the deeper thinking behind masterpieces
such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, Salome, The Ballad of Reading
Gaol and De Profundis; and it traces his fascination with
Catholicism through to his eleventh-hour conversion.
Published on the 150th anniversary of his birth, this biography removes
the masks which have confused previous biographers and reveals the real
Wilde beneath the surface. Once again, Joseph Pearce has written a profound,
wide-ranging study with many original insights on a great literary figure.
The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde
is a brilliant interpretive biography of a wit, bon vivant, and literary
genius who still delights us a century after his death. In Joseph Pearces
sympathetic appraisal we never forget that Wilde was not just an entertainer
but a soul that found himself only after ignominy, loss, and desolation.
I have read many of the other books on Wilde, and this is my favorite.
NYT Bestselling Author of Mariette in Ecstasy
Joseph Pearce has done it again! Chesterton, Belloc, Tolkien, C.S.
Lewis, and now Oscar Wilde have all been coaxed out of their graves for
us by this grave-robber named Pearce. Oscar proves to be a very lively
Author, Love is Stronger Than Death
Pearce reveals a great deal more than a mere account of the facts.
Here is the journey of a soul, one who frequently teetered on the brink
of damnation, and at times courted it. Beautifully written, and in its
own right a work of wit and wisdom.
Author, Father Elijah
Oscar Wilde looms larger now than ever before, not merely for his
wit and rackety life, but, increasingly, for his work. Joseph Pearce has
taken on Wildes most eminent biographers and critics, and has, with
his bravura prose, turned our attention away from the prurient, and on
to Wildes achievement. This is a major work.
Author, On Being Catholic
Oscar Wilde has been used by the pagans and abused by the puritans,
but both have dealt dishonestly with him. Joseph Pearce not only reveals
Wilde as we have never seen him, but reveals himself as a master of biography.
Author, G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense