This Victorian Was a Secret Fan of Oscar Wilde. His Name? Winston Churchill.


Jonathan Rose, professor of history at Drew University, is the author of the just-published book, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor (Yale), from which this article is excerpted.

According to Vyvyan Holland, “Winston Churchill was once asked whom he would like to meet and talk with in the afterlife, and he replied, without hesitation: ‘Oscar Wilde’.”  We might write off this remark as apocryphal, but there is more evidence, neither conclusive nor dismissable, of Oscar’s influence on Winston. Churchill never produced an extended and explicit discussion of Wilde, as he did for Shaw and many other writers, but he may have written homages to Wilde without actually mentioning his name.

Wilde and Jennie Churchill were friends and mutual admirers. She liked to quote The Importance of Being Earnest. He considered her “both beautiful and brilliant,” and she returned the compliment: “A more brilliant talker did not exist.” Winston clearly endorsed Oscar’s enlightened hedonism: his bodyguard, Walter Thompson, once “heard him say he wished he might at one time have had the opportunity to see whether he could carry as much as Oscar Wilde who could drink three bottles of brandy in a day, so it was said.” And Winston occasionally quoted Wilde’s epigrams: He compared Lord Curzon’s proposal to hang Kaiser Wilhelm to “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox—the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable” (A Woman of No Importance, 1893). Of course it is possible that he picked up these quips from the newspapers or dinner conversations, without actually reading or seeing the plays. But in a retrospective on Bernard Shaw, Churchill wrote this sentence: “Into the void left by the annihilation of Wilde he stepped armed with a keener wit, a tenser dialogue, a more challenging theme, a stronger construction, a deeper and more natural comprehension.” If Churchill was not familiar with Wilde’s work, how could he have known that it was less clever than Shaw’s?

If Churchill was a fan of Wilde, he had a motive for concealing the fact. In 1895 a group of young officers in the 4th Hussars, including Churchill, allegedly tried to prevent another new officer, Allan Bruce, from joining the regiment. In February 1896 Bruce’s father, A. C. Bruce-Pryce, claimed that his son knew that Churchill had committed “acts of gross immorality of the Oscar Wilde type” at Sandhurst. Like Wilde, Churchill sued for libel. Unlike Wilde, he won, securing an apology and £500 in an out-of-court settlement. However, that was not the end of the controversy. Henry Labouchere’s Truth – a weekly devoted to denouncing Army scandals, miscarriages of justice, and Jews – pursued a vendetta against Winston, labeling him the ringleader of a conspiracy against Bruce. The 25 June 1896 issue vaguely alluded to Bruce- Pryce’s charges but professed to disbelieve them, slyly publicizing the accusation while avoiding the risk of another defamation suit. (Labouchere had authored Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which outlawed all male homosexual acts and had been used to prosecute Wilde in 1895.) In the following months, Truth continued to pursue the Bruce case, attacking and insinuating (“A Subaltern in a Cavalry regiment does anything that he pleases. Penalty: nil”), all the while protesting that the journal would not be intimidated by threats of libel action. In 1899 Truth reported Churchill’s capture by the Boers with ill-concealed schadenfreude, reminding its readers once again of the three-year-old scandal.

There is evidence that Churchill identified with Wilde, given that they had both faced the same accusation. By the standards of his times Winston was remarkably broadminded about homosexuality, which he occasionally had to deal with as a policy issue. His long and warm working relationship with his secretary Edward Marsh suggests that he enjoyed the company of homosexual aesthetes. But given his political ambitions, he had to tread very carefully. On 11 September 1912 he gave a speech in Dundee defending the achievements of the Liberal government, and at one point he offered this quip:

“Sir George Reid, a brilliant writer, whose life ended in tragedy, once said, ‘I can resist everything except temptation.’ (Laughter.)”

Sir George Reid was neither a writer nor dead. He was an eminent Scottish painter who, as far as we know, never said anything about surrendering to the delectable. It may be that Churchill intended to give proper credit for the epigram, but at the last minute decided that mentioning Wilde was politically risky in Presbyterian Dundee, and substituted the name of a more respectable figure. (Or perhaps it was a scandalized reporter who made the switch. At any rate, in a 1948 Commons debate Churchill attributed the quotation correctly.)

Oscar Wilde

Like Wilde, young Winston wrote dissertations on aesthetics. In his 1897 unpublished essay “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric” he laid out the rules for public speaking that we have come to call “Churchillian.”…. Rhetoric, he insists, is more than an “artificial science.”

Although the arts of rhetoric must be acquired through training: The peculiar temperament and talents of the orator must be his by nature. Their development is encouraged by practice. The orator is real. The rhetoric is partly artificial. Partly, but not wholly; for the nature of the artist is the spirit of his art, and much that appears to be the result of study is due to instinct. If we examine this strange being by the light of history we shall discover that he is in character sympathetic, sentimental and earnest: that he is often as easily influenced by others as others are by him. Indeed the orator is the embodiment of the passions of the multitude. Before he can inspire them with any emotion he must be swayed by it himself. When he would rouse their indignation his heart is filled with anger. Before he can move their tears his own must flow. To convince them he must himself believe. His opinions may change as their impressions fade, but every orator means what he says at the moment he says it. He may often be inconsistent. He is never consciously insincere.

Rhetoric, then, is performative but not phony, at once aesthetic and authentic. To be an effective actor, the speaker must become the part he is playing. Being “earnest” is important, even if it is a matter of artifice. Churchill deconstructed and collapsed the distinction between theatre and reality, between melodramatic gesture and sincerity. In “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric” he was thinking along lines parallel to Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying.” Both essays presume that “acting naturally” is either impossible or a bore: the human personality must be consciously constructed as a work of dramatic art. Although there is no direct evidence that Churchill had read “The Decay of Lying,” in places his essay’s prose sounds very much like it.

Churchill insisted that “There is no more important element in the technique of rhetoric than the continual employment of the best possible word. Whatever part of speech it is it must in each case absolutely express the full meaning of the speaker.” It seems a banal truism, but then Churchill gave it a Wildean twist: “So powerful indeed is the fascination of correct expression that it not only influences the audience, but sometimes induces the orator, without prejudice to his sincerity, to adapt his principles to his phrases.” Or as Wilde put it, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” When Wilde wrote “Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose,” he anticipated Churchill’s political ideology. Life “is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained. . . . Think of what we owe to the imitation of Christ, of what we owe to the imitation of Caesar.” Churchill would imitate the latter more than the former, but substitute “Politics” for “Art” in that statement, and we have his philosophy of life and government.

In October 1897 Winston made plans to publish “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric.” He suggested to his mother that the “most appropriate” venue would be the Nineteenth Century, the intellectual monthly that had published Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” (January 1889) and “The Critic as Artist” (July and September 1890). “It will make me enemies,” he told Jennie, “but they are inevitable in any case.” It is difficult to see anything in this essay on aesthetics that would make enemies – unless readers associated the author with Oscar Wilde. In the end, Churchill never published it.

The downfall of Wilde had been universally applauded in the popular press, and scholars have assumed that no one spoke up in his defense after his conviction for homosexual offenses in May 1895. But Margaret Stetz, reading between the lines, has identified a number of fin-de-siecle writers who published “a set of covert and coded, yet easily decipherable, statements about Wilde that would serve to convey their anguish or outrage over his fate and their undiminished admiration for his artistic accomplishments.” They included Ella D’Arcy’s story “The Death Mask,” Richard Le Gallienne’s Yellow Book essays, George Egerton’s defense of Salome, as well as “The Happy Hypocrite,” Max Beerbohm’s gentle spoof of The Picture of Dorian Gray. As an aspiring politician, Churchill had more to lose than these late Victorian aesthetes, but it may be that “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric” was his coded homage to Oscar Wilde – and not necessarily the only one he wrote.

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