A Serenity of Tolerance: Lunch at Magdalen College

Saturday 12 August 2023

Approaching the chattering Wildeans in the Chaplain’s Quad of Magdalen College, I was aware of my usual social anxiety. I had travelled from Wexford, Ireland, with a genuine interest. As an obscure novelist working on nineteenth-century historical fiction, I have spent the last year studying Oscar and Speranza. But this was the thirtieth anniversary lunch of the Oscar Wilde Society, and there have been so many books and scholarly works written on Oscar Wilde that I was certain that my relative ignorance would be swiftly exposed.

I need not have feared. I was immediately made welcome. Robert Whelan, editor of The Wildean, went out of his way to greet me, pressed a glass of Pimms into my hand and introduced me to a lovely lady called Cressida Battersby (Ian’s wife), a fan of Oscar Wilde’s comedies, a Wildean since the society’s inception, and an Oxford resident. Oxford, Oscar’s alma mater, beautiful and culturally vibrant, was naturally the perfect setting. I had earlier explored the College, though sadly Oscar’s former room was out of bounds. Magdalen combines Gothic and Palladian architecture in golden stone. It’s very quiet. Once inside the archway the modern world has gone. Statues stare down at a lawned and cloistered quad; a medieval chapel has the aroma of antique oak. The college lies beside the River Cherwell; punts glide past, while beyond a wrought iron gate a footbridge leads to a deer park fringed with tangled trees.

Across the road is the Oxford Botanic Garden; as I strolled amongst roses, lilies, and sunflowers (pondering Frank Miles), I was caught in a shower, and dashed into the glasshouses to admire the ‘nénuphars’ and carnivorous plants. But the sun shone again in the Chaplain’s Quad as Ian Battersby opened proceedings with a reading. Oscar’s poem, ‘Magdalen Walks’, revels in the exquisite setting. ‘Little white clouds are racing across the sky’ – and so they were! Later versions of the poem break off before the end, but Ian gave us the original, which descends on a mournful note. ‘And even the light of the sun will fade at the last’, he declaimed, and as he did so the sun duly went behind a cloud. The lunch, in a panelled dining room, was delicious: a leisurely three courses accompanied by wine. I enjoyed some fascinating conversations. It seemed that everyone had become a ‘Wildean’ in their own way: reading the fairy stories in their youth or thrilling to the gothic tragedy of Dorian Gray; through delight in Oscar’s epigrams and comedies; admiring his flamboyant self-expression and his courage in flouting the conventions or sympathising with his suffering in prison and the stark sadness of De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

As a doctor in my ‘day job’, I was delighted to meet Fergus O’Connor, an ENT surgeon and expert on the polymathic career of Sir William Wilde. I had my little brag about discovering the great man’s signature on an 1847 hospital report that I had bought in Dublin. Few people outside the OWS would have considered this a bragging matter! Fergus and I shared our enthusiasm for the golden age of medicine and surgery in mid- nineteenth-century Dublin. I learned that the disease that killed Oscar (cholesteatoma, a chronic infection of the ear, complicated by meningitis) had originally been detailed in William Wilde’s seminal textbook of aural surgery, and must have been present for many years before Oscar’s imprisonment. The account of it originating from a fall whilst in prison must be false. We shared an appreciation of the Royal Irish Academy where Fergus had studied a collection of William Wilde’s correspondence. He had also obtained some copies of prescriptions written by William Wilde and his son, Henry Wilson. Sadly, the Dublin pharmacy where they were dispensed, though still trading, has been taken over by a modern chain.

Robert also introduced me to our Honorary Patron Eleanor Fitzsimons. I was so excited to meet her: the author of Wilde’s Women and an authority on Speranza! I even chatted to a gentleman sporting a green carnation who had spent his early childhood in Wexford: he had originally lived a mere mile from where I live now. He had been told by his grandmother that he was related to Oscar Wilde’s family. It might have been on the Elgee side; Forth Mountain is in the parish of Rathaspeck where Richard Waddy Elgee, Speranza’s uncle, was once the rector.

I also enjoyed chatting across the table with Vanessa Heron, Secretary of the OWS [now its chair] and editor of Intentions, who kindly invited me to write this article. There were many others whom I did not get to speak to, but who would have all been fascinating in their own way: the lady who lives in an apartment in The House Beautiful in Tite Street; the gentleman who has a collection of the papers of Robert Ross; the writer and dandy Darcy Sullivan in a gorgeous blazer of cream brocade; a lady from Wisconsin and a gentleman from India.

The keynote speaker Aaron Eames had written a PhD thesis on Oscar Wilde’s biographies of the early twentieth century. Quoting Oscar’s epigram ‒ ‘Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is invariably Judas who writes the biography’ ‒ and discussing the works of R. H. Sherard, Lord Alfred Douglas, Frank Harris, Boris Brasol, St John Ervine and Hesketh Pearson, he provided ample evidence that, whether Judas or not, the biographers were fated to reveal as much about themselves as about their subject. [Note: You can see his talk in the video below.]

What was clear is that time has not lessened anyone’s interest; Oscar draws us together as we share an affectionate fascination, each of us viewing his enigma in our own way. If R. H. Sherard, for all his biases and inaccuracies, described something about Oscar well, it was the sense of bonhomie which he could create: the ‘most wonderful talker that the world had ever seen… the radiant youth… gave me, by the things he said, my first lesson in the acquirement of that serenity of tolerance towards one’s fellows without which the life of a man of letters is one of constant fretfulness. To delight in the successes of others as a gain to the commonwealth, to love art for art’s sake and not for the valuations of the bourgeois, to console oneself in obscurity with the radiance of brother-artists ‒ to these things he pointed as the true viaticum on the literary way.’ A literary society that preserves this ‘serenity of tolerance’ is something to be treasured in these philistine days. For those who tremble faun-like on the threshold, unsure whether to enter in: DO! I certainly look forward to future events.