To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde disdained walking and travelled between his favourite London haunts exclusively, and at great expense, by handsome cab. The implication for those who sign up for The London of Oscar Wilde walk offered by London Walks every Saturday is that you don’t actually end up walking very far at all.
Not that it matters. Guide Alan Titchard, chief researcher and archivist for the Oscar Wilde Society, is so thoroughly entertaining, you could stand on a street corner for two hours listening to him and still get your money’s worth.
We joined the Oscar Wilde walk in August on what turned out to be London’s hottest day of the year. Our guide was easy to find, resplendent in a Panama and cream suit over a white shirt with green carnation in the buttonhole.
Alan has guided the Oscar Wilde’s London walk every Saturday, bar three, for nineteen years. ‘Women always outnumber men,’ he says on completing a head count. ‘Women like Oscar.’
Oscar liked women, too, though he preferred men, specifically younger men. As he put it,
I like men who have a future and women who have a past.
Alan provides us with a potted history of Wilde’s early life as he leads the group around the streets of Mayfair — his childhood in Ireland, his education at Oxford, his role as a spokesperson for aestheticism, his marriage to Constance Lloyd — dwelling on his rise as one of the most celebrated literary talents of his era, and the dramatic fall that followed with his conviction in 1895 for ‘gross indecency’.
While many sites no longer exist as they did in Oscar’s day, casualties of The Blitz or town planners — Alan says it’s debatable, which was the more destructive — Alan brings them back to life with his erudite commentary, punctuated with quotes from Wilde.
You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can you want?
— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Among the sites Wilde might recognise were he to return today is tobacco merchant James J Fox (formerly Robert Lewis) at 19 St James Street. Here Wilde bought over 4,000 cigarettes per month, custom made with Turkish tobacco and tipped in gold leaf with ‘Oscar’ embossed on every one. The Freddie Fox Museum in the basement, which Alan describes as ‘Britain’s smallest and least visited museum’, includes among its memorabilia a sample of Wilde’s cigarette tin and a ledger showing an outstanding debt of 37 pounds, 17 shillings and three pence.
Other stops include the arcade florist, now shoe shop, where Wilde sourced his signature dyed green carnations; St James’s Theatre, now an office building, where Wilde’s plays Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest premiered to great acclaim; and what was formerly the Albemarle Club, now a restaurant, where the Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, left his infamous calling card, accusing Wilde of ‘posing as Somdomite [sic.]’.
There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Wilde sued Queensberry for libel, lost the case and was subsequently prosecuted under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act for ‘gross indecency’. He was given the maximum prison sentence of two years with hard labour.
‘What needs to be understood is this: Oscar Wilde was entirely guilty of the charges laid against him under the law as the law stood at that time,’ Alan says of Wilde’s foolhardy decision to sue Queensberry. ‘It therefore follows that anyone who lives outside of the law should ever go running to the self same law for protection because quite clearly, you’re not going to get it.’
The ‘gross indecency’ law had never been tested before. The philosophy at the time was, as Alan puts it, ‘Do what you like but don’t get caught, and don’t do it on the street and frighten the horses.’ Wilde frightened the horses and he got caught. In doing so, Alan suggests Wilde ‘set gay rights back fifty years.’
The tour ends close to where Wilde’s cab from prison dropped him off in front of the Albany — coincidentally the residence ascribed to Jack Worthing’s character in The Importance of Being Earnest — and Alan tells us what happened to all the major characters in the drama that was Oscar Wilde’s life. Wilde’s premature death in exile in Paris at the age of 46 is attributed to the damage to his health caused by his imprisonment.
And all the woe that moved him so
That he gave that bitter cry
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats
None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
More deaths that one must die.
— Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
So as not to leave us on a sad note, Alan concludes his engrossing two-hour tour with a poem from Dorothy Parker:
If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.
The Oscar Wilde’s London walk departs every Saturday at 11 am; meet outside Green Park tube north exit on the corner. No need to book, just turn up. Cost is £9 for adults, £7 for ‘super adults’ (65+) and full-time students. Accompanied children under 15 free.