That day Oscar Wilde went shopping (and bought a hat)

and yet what purple hours can one snatch from that grey slow-moving thing we call Time.

Oscar Wilde.

It's not very far from continental Europe from the south coast of Britain. Just twenty miles of grey sea separates England from France. For the British, that distance has always been both too near and too far. This year, with Brexit looming and the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality, it might be appropriate to remind ourselves what escape to Europe meant for generations of gay artists; and in particular, that exemplar of 'gay martyrdom', Oscar Wilde.

Wilde was a leading force in that cultural sea-change which – very gradually – led towards the equal rights enjoyed by LGBTQ people in the U.K. today. He is remembered for his sparkling plays and stories as well as his witty epigrams and conversation, and as a leader in the cult of Aestheticism or Decadence.

Many have drawn a line connecting the zeitgeist of the 1880s and 90s to that of the 1960s and 70s – from Oscar Wilde straight to David Bowie – and the comparison is apt, from the febrile creativity to the sexual experimentation and gender fluidity.

So who were the Decadents? Well, they dared to separate Art from Morality. They mined the exotic, the perverse and the shocking for their subjects, combined with exquisite sensibility and luscious delicacy. As Rohase Piercy explains in her GoodReads blog, Sherlock Holmes - a Decadent Detective?, 'the cult of Decadence was unraveling the frayed edges of society with its pursuit of social, spiritual and sexual ambiguity.'

France still welcomes British visitors today, of course, but at that time its liberal laws made it a beacon of freedom for gay men. Dieppe itself housed a virtual colony of expatriate artists. Many of these had fled abroad after the Wilde scandal in 1895.

So in the summer season, you might have observed a multitude of such ‘refugees’ strolling by the absinthe-colored sea or sipping their drinks in the cafés – probably being regarded askance by more conventional British tourists and the French bourgeoisie.

In 1897, Wilde was released from prison after two years hard labor. His social standing in England had been shattered beyond repair: there was no possible way he could remain in the country. He arrived in Dieppe on the steamer Tamise and stayed first at the ‘Hotel Sandwich’ in Dieppe.

panama hats images

Cuttingly avoided by polite society and discouraged even from sitting down to dine by the restaurant owners, he found this ostracism unendurable and moved further down the coast. From Berneval-sur-Mer he would make frequent visits to Dieppe. He had adopted the (not-camp-at-all) alias of Sebastian Melmoth. It was at Berneval that he finished his famous Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Relaxing in the Dieppe sunshine at precisely the same moment in history was the artist Aubrey Beardsley. Turning a mere twenty-five that summer, he was trying desperately to shore up his fragile health in order to be physically capable of working. Beardsley had first contracted tuberculosis at the age of seven, suffering repeated bouts of the debilitating illness from the age of seventeen and often hemorrhaging dangerously after the slightest exertion.

Despite this, his genius shone through in his highly influential line drawings. Beardsley and Wilde had collaborated in the past, with Aubrey providing the striking but risqué artwork for Oscar's play Salome.

After Wilde's highly-publicised downfall, this association had affected Beardsley's reputation, leading to his dismissal from his post as Art Editor of The Yellow Book literary magazine. By 1897, his health made it difficult for him even to complete outstanding commissions, let alone take on new projects, and he was in increasingly severe financial difficulties.

Wilde hoped Beardsley would design a frontispiece for the Ballad – a request to which Aubrey agreed in a manner which implied 'he will never do it'. The fact was the artist had to dissociate himself from his former partner. Beardsley’s poverty was forcing him these days to depend on a quarterly allowance from an enemy of Wilde’s, Marc Raffalovich. And so further collaboration between these two ultimate definers and influencers of Decadent style was not to be.

However, we do know that Wilde met Beardsley in Dieppe in August and went shopping: 'I have made Aubrey buy a hat more silver than silver: he is quite wonderful in it'. Just pause for a moment and imagine that long-ago summer day when Oscar Wilde, strolling beside the thin figure of Aubrey Beardsley who leaned on a cane as he walked, found a shop in Dieppe to buy a hat 'more silver than silver'. But apart from that, the ailing artist was forced to keep his distance.

He was even observed ducking down an alley to avoid a chance meeting in the street. Oscar sighed later, 'The worst thing you can do for a person of genius is to help him: that way lies destruction.'

Beardsley’s health continued to deteriorate and he removed to Menton on the Riviera in the hope that the warm, dry climate would help his condition. A mere six months after that summer in Dieppe, he was beyond recovery. A final attempt at drawing, against doctor’s orders, demonstrated his weakness.

His mother found him lying with his face to the wall, the pen he had cast aside in frustration standing up from the floorboards like an arrow, the nib stuck in the wood. He died a few weeks later on 16th March 1898. Oscar deplored his premature death and said of him, 'There is something macabre and tragic that one who had added another terror to life should have died at the age of a flower.'

Later that Autumn, Wilde made his way to Naples to reunite with his lover – and nemesis - Lord Alfred Douglas or 'Bosie'. He spent his remaining two years in Italy and France, drinking and smoking, 'feasting with panthers', spending any money he had on Bosie and, sadly, not completing any new literary work. He died of meningitis in Paris in 1900. His last words? 'My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.'

This post has been contributed by Charlie Raven

Read 'A Case of Domestic Pilfering' by Rohase Piercy and Charlie Raven to get a feel of 1890s London, a decadent society and the twists and turns of a hilarious LGBTQ Sherlock Holmes mystery.
Kalyan Panja