In the 1890s Oscar Wilde enjoyed one of the most high-profile reputations in Britain; yet, virtually overnight, he was plunged into disgrace and ruin. What were the reasons for this extraordinary reversal of fortune?
Ashley Robins explores Wilde’s motivation in prosecuting the Marquess of Queensberry, and elaborates on the precarious legal situation that effectively quashed any prospect of a withdrawal from the lawsuit without dire consequences. He examines the medical and psychiatric aspects of Wilde’s two-year imprisonment and reveals — for the first time and based on the original Home Office records — the machinations among prison officials and doctors to cover up Wilde’s state of health.
Wilde’s medical history is presented with an expert evaluation of his terminal illness, including a resolution of the syphilis controversy. Robins details Wilde’s tangled matrimonial affairs during his imprisonment and goes on to disclose the manoeuvres adopted by friends to secure his early release, citing hitherto unpublished letters to show that bribery of prison personnel was seriously contemplated. The issue of homosexuality is discussed not only in relation to Oscar Wilde but from the broader historical, legal and biological perspective. The author portrays Wilde’s character and behaviour through the images he projected onto society, by the strong but mixed public reaction to him, and by the quality of his interpersonal relationships with his wife, family and close friends.
Finally, Wilde’s personality is assessed using internationally accepted diagnostic criteria; and, in an unusual and innovative experiment, a group of Wildean scholars completed a psychological questionnaire as if they were doing so for Oscar Wilde himself. Drawing on these findings and on his own extensive psychiatric experience, Ashley Robins concludes that Wilde had a disorder of personality that culminated in the final and tragic phase of his life.
After qualifying in medicine, Ashley Robins specialised in psychiatry in London, Oxford and Johannesburg. For 30 years he was senior lecturer in psychiatry and pharmacology at Cape Town University, and in 1984 was elected a Distinguished Teacher. Now retired, he continues to teach in an honorary capacity.