Society, Self-Invention and Scandal: Terry Eagleton gives an insight into ‘The Doubleness of Oscar Wilde’

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On Monday 26th January, students and lecturers filled the Faraday Lecture Theatre to hear one of the world’s leading literary critics give a public lecture on ‘The Doubleness of Oscar Wilde’.

Terry Eagleton has been Chair in the English and Creative Writing department since October 2008. He is best known for his critical work and has been described in the press as the “punk” of literary criticism.

His position as Chair involves giving public lectures and seminars that are mainly for post-graduate study. Speaking after the lecture, he said: “I’m very grateful to Lancaster for being imaginative enough to allow me to do various things” within this role.

Famous for his Marxist view of literary theory, it is fitting that the subject of Eagleton’s lecture was an author who desired the abolition of private property. The focus of this lecture was Oscar Wilde’s heritage and its effect on his life and work.

This aspect of Wilde’s life is sometimes overlooked. Eagleton noted that upon viewing his play, Saint Oscar, one woman asked “Was Wilde really Irish or is he making that up?” In fact he came from Dublin, a city which was, like the rest of Ireland in the 19th century, a “parody” of metropolitan Britain.

Eagleton observed that most things about Wilde were “doubled, hybrid, ambivalent”. He felt “both Irish and English”, was “a socialist but only ate in the best restaurants”, “socialite and sodomite”, “upper class and underdog”.

Descended from what Eagleton called a “flamboyant bunch”, Wilde inherited an Anglo-Irish consciousness from his father, but a non-conformism from his fiercely nationalist mother.

Eagleton spoke of Wilde’s class background, describing his Anglo-Irish protestant status as “schizoid” because it rendered him “ruler and victim, central and marginal” all at once.

This contributed to Wilde’s infamous wit, evident in so many of his works. He came to England with the aim of being “more English than the English”. He mastered the customs of Victorian England in what Eagleton described as a “look no hands way”. Was this flattery, mockery or conformity? Either way, it was because of his position as an outsider that he mastered English conventions while “recognising their absurdity”.

Wilde used humour in many of his well-known plays like The Importance of Being Earnest, full of high spirits and characters without a care in the world. But Eagleton reminded us that Wilde’s fiction contained darker subject matter of “shady origins, split personalities and oppressive patriarchal powers”.

It was on the play’s opening night that Wilde was arrested for “gross indecency” with other men and when the scandal broke the play was taken off the stage.

Wilde saw the norm as something to be immediately violated. Eagleton connected this cavalier attitude with his colonial inheritance. It was Wilde’s instinct to experiment. He was the original self-inventor, so much so that even when he was sent to prison, he treated it as his “latest pose”.

Eagleton closed with his view of Wilde as a “gentle and compassionate man” who once gave his coat to a shivering beggar on London Bridge. He identified his real crime as being too funny about that which Victorian society took seriously. The evening provided an intriguing insight into a fascinating literary figure.

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