The extraordinary story of Oscar Wilde’s holiday in Worthing in 1894

James Connaughton interviews Antony Edmonds about his new book, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer: The 1894 Worthing Holiday and the Aftermath’.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, by Gillman & Co, 1893

• Why was Oscar Wilde’s Worthing holiday so important?

It was a microcosm of Wilde’s life during the four years between his meeting Lord Alfred Douglas (always known as “Bosie”) – the handsome but demanding young man with whom he was besotted – and his going to prison in 1895.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

Everything was happening in Worthing that summer.

Book cover for 'Oscar Wilde's Scandalous Summer'

Bosie came to stay three times, and intermittently made a nuisance of himself, as he usually did.

Oscar’s wife, Constance, lonely and unhappy, fell in love with another man.

Wilde himself became sexually involved with a local teenage boy.

And, in the midst of all this, one of the best-loved plays in the English language was being written.

The Lifeboat Demonstration held at Worthing on August 22, 1894, at which Mr Oscar Wilde was one of the occupants of a small rowing boat busily flitting about

• What inspired you to write the book?

I’ve had an interest in Oscar Wilde all my life. He’s such a remarkable figure, and the Wilde life-story is one of the most compelling in English literature.

Most great writers lead rather dull lives. I suppose the only literary story that can compare with Wilde’s is that of Lord Byron – also, albeit very briefly, a visitor to Worthing, as I explained in my book ‘Jane Austen’s Worthing: The Real Sanditon’.

However, it was when I began to take an interest in Worthing’s history half a dozen years ago that all this really started.

The full story of the final summer before Wilde’s life fell apart had never been told before.

There had been four excellent short articles by John Wagstaff in ‘The Wildean’ in 1994–6, and three or four pages here and there in various books, but nothing more.

Indeed, Richard Ellmann’s magisterial 1987 biography of Wilde devotes just five sentences to the Worthing holiday.

Rightly or wrongly, I decided that 224 pages might be nearer the mark!

• Did anything in particular set you off on your researches?

Well yes, I suppose there was one particular discovery that set everything in motion.

I was intrigued by Alphonse Conway, the boy with whom Wilde became scandalously involved that summer, and I wondered if I could find out more about him.

One day, I was browsing on the internet, and on Barrie Keech’s historical website I found Alphonse’s date of birth in the baptismal records for St Andrew’s, Worthing.

This was quite important information, since it has sometimes been suggested that Alphonse was as young as 14, while in court Wilde disingenuously said he was about 18.

In fact, Alphonse was six weeks past his 16th birthday when he met Wilde.

• Was Alphonse born and bred in Worthing?

Born no, bred yes. John Wagstaff had identified two of the locations where he had lived with his mother, but I was able – thanks to an entry Geoffrey Godden found in an old directory and kindly passed on to me – to trace his and his mother’s presence in Worthing back to 1883.

They were not Worthing people. Alphonse’s mother was born in Petworth and her son in Bognor.

However, Alphonse was only about five when they arrived in Worthing, and it was here that he grew up and went to school.

After the Wilde scandal broke in the spring of 1895, they had to leave Worthing in a hurry.

• Why did the Wildes come to Worthing in the summer of 1894?

One reason was to give their sons a seaside holiday.

Another was that Wilde’s finances were in an appalling state, and he desperately needed the income from a new play, and somewhere reasonably quiet to write it.

A third reason was that Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, was subjecting Wilde to a campaign of harassment in London.

“It is intolerable,” Wilde wrote to Bosie the day before he set off for Worthing, “to be dogged by a maniac.”

Although the sexual side of Wilde’s relationship with Bosie had been brief – it had lasted for just a few months in the summer of 1892 – Queensberry did not know this, and Wilde’s and Bosie’s overtly gay behaviour in public appalled him.

His distaste for their friendship developed into an obsession, and in due course this led to Wilde’s downfall.

Less than four months after Wilde’s Worthing holiday ended, Queensberry left a visiting card at Wilde’s club on which he had written, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]”.

Wilde foolishly sued Queensberry for libel. The trial broke down, and Wilde was arrested, tried and imprisoned.

• But why did the Wildes choose Worthing in particular?

Worthing was a choice that made a lot of sense. It wasn’t too far from London, so it was easy enough to go up by train to attend to business, and Wilde and Constance each paid a couple of visits to the capital during the Worthing holiday.

It was a less expensive location than nearby Brighton, which Wilde knew well, and Constance was able to rent a house from a friend who suffered from gout and had gone to Matlock for the summer.

And Worthing was quieter than Brighton, and more suitable for young children – the Wildes’ elder son, Cyril, was nine, and Vyvyan was seven.

• Where did you do your main research?

There’s much fascinating material about the Worthing holiday in Wilde’s letters and in the complete transcript of the Queensberry libel trial, which came to light only in 2000.

Oscar Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, kindly allowed me to reproduce these verbatim among the appendices, and they make for compelling reading in themselves.

Constance Wilde’s letters from Worthing to her friend Georgina Mount Temple were another invaluable source.

And there were the issues of the Worthing Gazette from the summer of 1894, which provided a wealth of information about what was going on in the town that summer.

• So the book’s not just about the scandalous relationship with Alphonse Conway?

No, that occupies one chapter. Another is devoted to Bosie’s visits to the town during Wilde’s stay. A third is about Constance.

Wilde had long ago ceased to love her, and when he wasn’t writing his play or building sandcastles for his sons on the beach he was spending all his time with Bosie, Alphonse, and two other teenage boys.

They went out every day on a sailing boat and swam and fished. So Constance read a lot of books and felt lonely and depressed – and fell head over heels in love with a friend of the Wildes called Arthur Humphreys, who came down to spend the day in Worthing at the start of their holiday.

Constance wrote him an extraordinary love-letter while he was still at their house, intending to slip it to him before he left.

• And of course it was during this holiday that Wilde wrote ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’?

Indeed! That’s the icing on the cake – and it’s a pretty rich coating of icing, since ‘Earnest’ is the best-loved and most performed comedy in the English language outside the works of Shakespeare.

Wilde’s previous three comedies were all good, but none is as good as ‘Earnest’. He stepped up another gear. It must have been something in the Worthing air! It’s such a wonderful, happy play. Hesketh Pearson called it “perfect of itself, and the quintessence of Oscar”.

• I see that you go into the writing of the play in some detail?

Yes, there’s a whole chapter devoted to ‘Earnest’.

Several of the names in the play have Worthing connections.

There’s Jack Worthing, of course, one of the two main male characters. And Wilde found the name Bunbury – the name he gave Algernon’s fictitious invalid friend – in the Worthing Gazette.

The name Lady Bracknell may have been partly inspired by an advertisement in the same paper.

And, when Wilde has Lady Bracknell describe Miss Prism as “a woman of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education”, he’s almost certainly making an unkind reference to the “horrid, ugly Swiss governess” – as he described her in a letter to Bosie – who was looking after his sons at the start of the Worthing holiday.

• But Bosie was a hindrance rather than a help when it came to Wilde’s writing?

Wilde’s and Bosie’s subsequent accounts are poles apart!

When he was in Reading Gaol, where he served the last 18 months of his sentence, Wilde turned against Bosie, who he (wrongly) believed had abandoned him; and he wrote him a long letter full of recriminations and hurtful comments.

These included the somewhat improbable claim that during the whole time they were together he “never wrote one single line”.

Bosie, on the other hand, was keen to position himself as closely as possible to the writing of Wilde’s greatest play, and claimed that he was sitting in the same room while most of the play was being written and that a number of the jokes were based on his own “repartee”.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Bosie was himself witty and amusing, and some of the lines in the play may indeed have originated in badinage between him and Wilde.

• And your sub-title refers to the “aftermath”?

I felt it important to set the Worthing holiday in the context of the few years of Wilde’s life immediately before and after it.

So there is not only an aftermath chapter, which among other things looks closely at some aspects of the trials that haven’t been examined before, but also a first chapter tracing the development of Wilde’s relationship with Bosie and the way homosexuality had all but taken over Wilde’s life by the time of the Worthing holiday.

Anyone wanting to know the complete Oscar Wilde story should read Ellmann’s biography, but the first and last chapters of my book help to make it a good introduction to the totality of Wilde’s life.

• So it’s more a Wilde book than a Worthing book?

Yes. ‘Jane Austen’s Worthing’ was two-thirds Worthing and one-third Jane Austen. This book is 90 per cent Wilde. But Worthing is never far away.

One long chapter is devoted to all the events that were going on in Worthing that summer.

We know that Wilde attended at least three of these – the Lifeboat Demonstration; the Annual Regatta; and the Venetian Fete, at the end of which he gave away the prizes and made an amusing speech.

I make much use of the original reports from the Worthing Gazette, which give a vivid picture of a late-Victorian English seaside town at its vibrant peak.

Worthing was full of life that summer – and indeed full of music! At some events as many as three bands played at different locations around the town.

It’s a great pity that seaside towns have so little music these days. It used to be the soundtrack to an English summer holiday.

• And most of the photographs are of Worthing?

Yes. Seventeen of the pictures are of the main protagonists in the Wilde story, but the other 40 or so are mainly contemporary photographs of Worthing.

They’re such attractive and atmospheric pictures that you could argue they’re worth the price of the book on their own!

And, as usual in my books, there are maps of the period, to allow both Worthingers and visitors to identify the locations mentioned.

• Is it your view that this is Worthing’s most important literary connection?

I think so, yes, by a short head from Jane Austen’s visit in 1805, which was the central theme of my previous book.

But ‘Sanditon’, Jane Austen’s Worthing-inspired book, is unfinished, whereas ‘Earnest’ is one of the masterpieces of English literature. Not enough is made in Worthing of this connection.

I was talking about this only the other day to Melody Bridges, who organised the wonderful Worthing World of Words festival in June.

Really, there should be a permanent Wilde exhibition in the town.

Sadly, however, all the buildings Wilde entered have been demolished, so there’s no “anchor” as there is for Jane Austen, with the house where she stayed – Stanford’s Cottage – still standing.

The house that Wilde and his family rented was demolished about 45 years ago.

• I see from the dust jacket of the book that you were at Magdalen, the same Oxford college as Wilde and Douglas. Is this one reason for your interest in them?

No, it’s pure coincidence – but rather a nice coincidence, all the same! I think I’m only the second former member of Magdalen to have written a full-length book about Wilde.

• Do you have any final comment?

I might as well end by quoting the last sentence of my book, when (after lamenting the loss of all the buildings associated with Wilde’s visit) I write: “However, Oscar Wilde’s stay in Worthing has a permanent memorial that no-one can destroy – for ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ will continue to give delight for as long as plays are performed in the English language.”

• ‘Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer: The 1894 Worthing Holiday and the Aftermath’ is out now in hardback, price £20.