Two years hard labour in 1895 was a sentence designed to “break a man in body and spirit”.
The Governor of Reading Gaol told Robbie Ross that Oscar Wilde would be” dead within two years of his release”, on the grounds that those sentenced to this punishment, if not used to physical work, invariably died within that time.
In the event Oscar managed a few months longer…
In the final weeks of his term he was allowed more freedom. He struck up conversational relationships with the warders, many of whom were keen to pick his brain. One asked if he understood numbers. “No”, replied Oscar, “but I do know that two and two make five”. “Never”, replied the warder, “they add up to four”. “You see”, came the response, “I don’t even know that”.
Oscar died in November, 1900, aged 45, in L’Hotel d’Alsace in Paris, fifty yards south of the Seine. The hotel was and still is situated in Rue des Beaux Arts. The road is a series of tiny art galleries roughly the size of a front room. The manager, Dupoirier, allowed then then penniless (and still spendthrift) Oscar to rack up all manner of bills. Robbie, who was there with Reggie Turner to see him die , wrote later that he couldn’t speak more highly of the proprietor, who never mentioned the £190 owing (£21,000 in today's money) until several days after the death, and even then had to be asked.
L’Hotel d’Alsace did not exploit the fact that one of the great artists of the 19th century had lived and died there. Now, in its quiet way, things are different. L’Hotel, as it is now called, is a boutique five star with 16 rooms and a Michelin starred restaurant. There is a plaque of Oscar outside and small reminders elsewhere. On the whole the profile is low. Taxi drivers from the Gard du Nord tend not to know the hotel.
I like to walk out of the lobby and stand for a moment. To the left is a school with wrought iron gates. It is precisely what Oscar would have seen on his way to one of his many cheap meals (“nothing is so fattening as a dinner at five francs”). It is only necessary to look up a single storey and, again, see precisely what Oscar would have seen nearly 120 years ago. He was nervous about leaving the hotel. English tourists he met invariably spat at him. Left and right takes you to the Seine within 90 seconds. Turn right at the river and you are at Notre Dame in five minutes.
Oscar’s grave is in Pere Lachaise, a huge cemetery with many distinguished guests, Oscar’s being the most visited. Now Epstein’s massive sculpture is protected by plastic screens. On my first visit the grave and the stone were covered with red-lipped kisses, phone numbers and dirty jokes. It’s a pity that the otherwise excellent Paris municipality didn’t realise that this would have been exactly what Oscar would have wanted. They didn’t need to clean it up.
It isn’t just people like Dupoirier, Ross and Turner who found themselves in love with this deeply imperfect man. Frank Harris, a card-carrying heterosexual, one of those few who stood by him after his imprisonment, wrote in his infamous but compelling biography: “When to the sessions of sad memory I summon up the spirits of those whom I have met in the world and loved, men famous and of unfulfilled renown, I miss no-one so much as I miss Oscar Wilde. I would rather spend an evening him than with Renan or Carlyle, or Verlaine or Dick Burton or Davidson. I would rather have him back now than anyone I have ever met”.
There is a tiny corner of Paris that is forever Oscar.