Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde

by Thomas Wright

Henry Holt & Co. | 2009 | 370 pp. | $27.00

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

thomas wright

Biography is a difficult literary form to execute today because of our sensitivity to the myriad emotional, social, and cultural layers that compose each individual’s life. Difficult as it is to unpack the experiences of a contemporary, the challenges increase tenfold when the subject lived in an era that demanded the concealment of many of these layers. Such a subject is Oscar Wilde, and such a daunting task is undertaken by Thomas Wright in Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde.

The broad outlines of Wilde’s life are well known: Born to the Irish landed gentry, he received the best education of the day at Oxford, where he took a first-class degree in classics. Although he married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and fathered two children with her, his real desire seems to have lain with men, and his greatest passion was for Alfred Douglas, an English lord and author of “Two Loves,” the poem that includes the celebrated line, “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.”

After rising to a position of intellectual and social prominence, as the result of the critical and popular success of his plays (The Importance of Being Earnest being the best known today), Wilde’s star fell spectacularly after Douglas’ father brought charges against him for sodomy and “gross indecency.” His trial was perhaps the most notorious of the century, and Wilde was ultimately convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor, from which he never recovered. Broken in body and mind, he lived only three years following his release.

The story is so familiar among lovers of English literature, that Wright’s first necessity was to justify a fresh contribution to the already dense field of scholarship on Oscar Wilde. He clears this hurdle by adopting an entirely different approach to biography: he selects one layer that has long been seen as key to an understanding of Wilde—literature and, by extension, language—and reconstructs the author’s life by locating this layer as both its foundation and driving force.

It is an intriguing approach to full-scale biography that rests on the assumption that the internal world of the mind—both its perceptions and its desires—wields equal influence in directing an individual’s life as does the external world of other people, places, and events. As Wright explains in his concluding chapter, he intended to write “an entirely new kind of literary biography—an attempt to tell the story of an author’s life and to illuminate it, exclusively through the books that he had read.”

Built of Books is essentially an intellectual biography, but one that does more than examine an author’s artistic growth by tracking what he read and then uncovering its influence on the literature that he subsequently produced. Rather, this biography examines the effect of the author’s intellectual intake on the shape and direction of his life. In this vein, Wright explains his basic thesis as:

“Wilde did not so much discover as create himself through his reading: he was a man who built himself out of books. He poured scorn on the notion that each of us has a fixed ‘inner’ self that represents an essential ‘nature’—that self was, he believed, a fiction invented by the political, economic and cultural powers that be.”

Wright thus posits that Wilde’s life was a self-conscious endeavor, as much a creation as one of his literary works. This idea is provocative, particularly when applied to an individual living prior to the dissemination of Freudian theory, but the biography would have benefited from a more consistent attention to it. Wright’s work lacks direction: he cannot decide whether he wants to focus on textual parallels (between Wilde’s reading and his writing) or on the overlap between texts and the author’s lived experience. The first approach has been thoroughly mined by scholars over the years, and here, Wright’s main failing is that he falls too easily into a pattern of cataloguing the books that Wilde consumed (sometimes literally—not only was Wilde a speed reader, tearing through a book in less than an hour, but he often physically ate the corners of the pages as he turned them over).

Books, especially cheap novels, had become widely accessible by Wilde’s day, so the challenge of the biographer is not to figure out everything he read, but to determine what had the most influence on him. Wright focuses to a certain extent on the role that the classics played in shaping Wilde’s life, but he is unable to account for the author’s predilection for the popular three-volume novels of the day, which have largely been forgotten because of their lack of any literary merit. Wilde’s preference for this literature is out of line with Wright’s thesis that the author sought to pattern his life after his reading.

Where do the often physically ugly and always technically vulgar novels fit into Wilde’s meticulously constructed life and strict adherence to the Aesthetic movement? Wright’s only explanation is that the “heterogeneity” of Wilde’s reading is due to his “desire to fully explore his ancient Darwinian soul and to express all the myriad sides of his protean personality.” But little time is devoted to delving into the contradictions between this desire and his Aesthetic convictions. Nor does Wright explore Wilde’s attitude toward Darwin in any great depth—an oversight, given Wilde’s notoriously negative attitude toward science. Such contradictions are key to a literary biography of this kind, but Wright lays out so much ground to uncover that he is unable to dig deeply into any one plot.

It is Wright’s second approach to biography, that of blurring the lines between intellectual life and life in its broadest sense, that is the most interesting and revolutionary aspect of this work. Intriguing flashes of scholarship appear throughout Built of Books, particularly when addressing Wilde’s active role in the events leading to his arrest, in 1895.

“Did Wilde purposely fulfill his ‘destiny’?” Wright asks. “Replete with portents, hubris, a wailing chorus of devoted friends and the bloody intervention of destiny, Wilde’s biography might have been written by Aeschylus; or, rather, penned by Wilde himself, using the great dramatist as his model. In this way, he achieved his ambition of turning his life into a work of art.”

Inevitably, this raises important questions about the amount of control that any individual has in shaping his or her life, and is a significant approach to understanding Wilde. Certainly, if anyone were capable of achieving such a feat, it would be Wilde, given his advantages of intellect, education, wealth, and position. Most people spend their lives struggling to scrape together the resources needed to secure a degree of comfort. Wilde already possessed these resources and was free to study and arrange them to please both his brilliant mind and his conceptions of artistry. Furthermore, he had a developed and discerning eye for understanding the way in which an individual fit into his society.

It was this quality that made him so successful in constructing epigrams, and, as Wright points out, in writing such a prodigious number of book reviews. He was able to immediately cut to the heart of any work’s argument and evaluate it in that light. With these attributes, it seems possible that Wilde would have attempted to mold his life to resemble the lives of characters in his beloved books—particularly because his outsider status as a homosexual in a moralistic society forbade him from simply following his natural inclinations. But any in-depth investigation of this thesis would require the incorporation of psychological theory to understand how Wilde attempted this, and in what ways—and, of course, why. Investigating the overlap between texts and experience demands a certain delving into the psyche and attempting to uncover patterns and parallels therein.

Along the same lines, a final question that we are left with is: even for our brightest and best, is it possible to consciously shape a life, or will external, random events inevitably obstruct this goal? It is notable that despite Wilde’s best attempts, his imprisonment left a blot on his life that could not be written away. With the exception of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Wilde was unable to write after his release from prison. The horror of the experience and his lifelong disdain for realism and the ugliness of life left him wordless. The degree of control that he exerted over his life seems to have left him no room to adapt and re-grow in response to events—his only choice was to break. Wilde’s death was an unexpectedly tragic end to a life of sporadic brilliance, and it remains for the reader to decide whether, for once, he was dealt the wrong hand, or whether he himself built his own unsteady house of cards.

Sarah Vogelsong is an editor and freelance writer living in Washington, DC.

Return to home page