One of the saddest things I have ever seen occurred in a recent presentation on Oscar Wilde by a fellow student. One of the visual aids was a copy of the auction sheet following Oscar´s trial. Amongst the list of various goods and chattels; ´Valuable Books´ etc, with no prominent position or status were the words; ´Old Blue and White China´.
They sent a ghostly shiver down my spine. The collection so adored and treasured was reduced to five words with no trace of the love, pride and adulation felt by its owner, who famously said ´I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china´. Those cruel five words erase years of affection and emotional attachment. I think that what makes me feel so much tragedy about it is that it is merely one item on a long list, no importance or value, just a small part of a miscellany. One just happens across it as they meander down the list of unimportant and various objects, and this was his most prized and beloved possession, something which symbolized and reflected him, who he was. This entry on a commonplace list of household items represents one of the greatest literary and human influences in history. Like or loathe him, he made a difference, he was important. To many he created things of beauty, works of art. He was a man. A man who in the best days of his life was tried and convicted and thus ruined. A valuable and artistic life was cut short because he could not conform to the restrictions society imposed. He was tried for gross indecency. His life was curtailed because he was homosexual. All of this is reduced to five words; ´Old Blue and White China´.
Saying that his life was curtailed is not unjust. He was tried and imprisoned because he was homosexual. The strain both emotional and physical left him broken and the auction left him bankrupt. His manuscripts and everything he owned and loved were gone. When he was released he lived only three years. He was forty-six.
Any life is beautiful and the loss of a short-lived and valuable life is tragic. Wilde created beauty and truth, he changed how we think, what we think and what we are allowed to think. He was born too early, in a time that could not and did not want to understand him. He was not allowed to be the person he was and was ultimately condemned for it. Those five words appear so unremarkable and insignificant but they represent the man and everything that happened to him, everything he created.
A life and a life´s work is boiled down to so little, remembered as such triviality. In his lifetime that collection of china, and indeed all the objects on the list, were part of his home and his everyday life, they were part of him. He cherished and cared for them. He identified himself with them and signified that he and they were part of the same entity. They sat on his shelf or perhaps in a cabinet, in his living room or maybe his study. They were dusted, protected and admired. They were home.
Those five pathetic words have spoken more to me, moved me more and represented more to me than anything I´ve ever read about Wilde. Though they seem trivial they are in fact a symbol of Oscar himself; lost in the midst of a miscellaneous list, unnoticed. Shining like a beacon out of the murky list, they represent a remarkable and beautiful human being whose memory is tainted by and obscured by the searing brand left on his name when he was convicted. His work is overshadowed by the criminality and purported depravity. Words and metaphors and beautiful sentences, ingenious characters and hilarious lines are all faded beneath the imprint of his homosexuality and imprisonment. Poetry and humour are lost. We do not remember the writer, the man, we remember Oscar Wilde the incarcerated poof and pervert. All that is left of the real man is ´Old Blue and White China´ and a few scattered words.
‘And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.’
From ´The Ballad of Reading Gaol´.