Today, I took a long lunch break and joined a friend for a literary talk and lunch at the RACV Club in Melbourne.
A little underdressed in my boots, jeans and woollen jumper, I was grateful for my “good” coat which may have secured entry, though the named item was kindly checked in at a cloakroom which only added to the old-world feel of the place!
Arriving at our table and probably the youngest in the packed room by perhaps twenty or thirty years, my friend and I looked around the room with joy. Ah, we had made it. Arrived, checked in – and secure in the relief you get when you “make” a plane or train or time. You can just unwind afterwards, as we did.
As literary lovers, we were there to hear Susannah Fullerton speak on one writer who wrote simply amazing works – superlatives needed. His name, Oscar Wilde. His game: wittiness, lightness, humour, profoundness, the deepest things of the human experience.
Born in Ireland but leaving his accent behind, Oscar was an art critic and trend setter in the Aesthetics movement though he famously remarked that fashion was something so hideous that it needed to be changed every six months.He was also a writer, poet, playwright, critic, once editor, children’s book author, scholar and bon vivant.
Upon hearing his life, his flaws were there to see but his gift with words and poignant understanding of the human experience also. Just read any of his children’s stories and you’ll know by the bittersweet knot of your heart: you might not cry but you’ll want to. In a good way. So touching, so honest and so emotionally intelligent are tales like The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant, just to name a couple.
Oscar rose and rose and rode the wave and heights of his fame until his downfall and tragic, untimely death. 19th century work camps, desertion by most of his friends and family, poverty and medical problems (much the worst from being in prison) saw a playwright who was once the toast of London’s social scene now begging on the streets of Paris. Sick. Poor. Alone.
Fullerton spoke with cool passion as she spent over an hour telling us about the life of this talented writer, generously answering all questions that came at the end of the session.
Afterwards, when my friend and I met her at her books table, I complimented her on her ability to speak so well, for so long. She smiled and we got talking a little. I found out why that was, as she confirmed herself: her passion for Wilde (and what she does, researching, writing and sharing on many great writers) just flows out of her so easily. That’s the secret. A secret which many people who are excellent at what they do have in common: joy and passion for their craft or trade.
After the talk ended, it didn’t feel all happy. No ‘let’s go dancing’ mood to be felt by anyone in the room if a quick glance around was of any worth.
No. Thinking about the demise of a talented artist whose much loved volumes of books were sold for “s song” at a firesale following his demise, as Fullerton told, and whose much loved garments were replaced with prison “cricket hats” and only one blanket to get through the night, is sad.
In his last couple of years, Wilde petitioned many of those who were with him in the “good times” to support him in the bad; those whom he had once loaned money to were now being called on for a favour.
He was rejected by most. Interestingly, Fullerton shared that one of his contemporaries who had met him when he was in the “good days” came across his path in Paris and did give him money. Her name was Nellie Melba.
Oscar Wilde was, like all of us, not perfect. What we can celebrate today though, is his wonderful body of writing that he left behind. And with that in mind, here’s my reading suggestion for you. It’s not very long. Read The Selfish Giant. It’s beautiful.