Page 5, 5th January 2001

5th January 2001
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Page 5, 5th January 2001 — Why did so many Victorian decadents become Catholics?

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Locations: Rome, Venice, Edinburgh, Paris, Oxford


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Why did so many Victorian decadents become Catholics?

Robert Whelan thinks the conversion of Wilde and many of his contemporaries may have lessons for today's Church 0 n the last

day of November last year some members of the Oscar Wilde Society gathered in a hotel bedroom in Paris to commemorate the death there, one hundred years before, of Oscar Wilde.

The hotel, originally known as the Hotel d' Alsace, now renamed simply L'Hotel, is currently being fashioned into the last word in grande luxe, but, in Wilde's day, was a seedy establishment run by a kindly proprietor who neglected to press Oscar for payment.

In his last few days Wilde was attended by two friends, Reggie Turner and Robert Ross, and Ross, a convert to Catholicism, took it upon himself to send for a priest. A Passionist, Fr Cuthbert Dunne, arrived and asked the already comatose Oscar if he wished to be received into the church. Wilde made a movement with his hand which was taken as assent, whereupon Fr Dunne baptised, absolved and anointed him.

There has always been doubt about the genuineness of Oscar's conversion. Those of a cynical disposition have suggested that the crucial hand movement was no more than the reaching for a cigarette by a lifelong chain-smoker. Furthermore, when conscious, Oscar had always resisted attempts by his Catholic friends to persuade him to bend the knee to the Church of Rome. On the other hand, his flirtation with Rome had been going on for so long that it contained all of the elements of a lifelong romance.

It seems that he had already been baptised, at his mother's instigation, as a sort of holiday treat, at the age of four, but no one attached any significance to that. As a student at Trinity College, Dublin, Oscar expressed such a fascination with Roman Catholicism that his father became alarmed, and agreed to Oscar's admission to Oxford University on the grounds that it might keep him a Protestant. This was a strange attitude, given that Oxford was in the full flood of ritualism and high-profile Catholic conversions like those of Newman. Manning and Gerard Manley Hopkins. One of Oscar's closest friends, David Hunter Blair, went to Rome for Manning's creation as a cardinal and decided to be received himself.

When he returned to Oxford he got to work on his friends, concentrating especially on Oscar. Oscar made his father's opposition, and his own possible disinheritance, the reason for not coming over, but it seems probable that this was just an excuse. Like his character Dorian Gray, Oscar was attracted by the ritual and the other-worldly doctrines of Catholicism, but could not bring himself to arrest his intellectual development by signing up to an exclusive creed.

His indecision still cost him: when his half-brother died in 1877 Oscar inherited only £100, compared with £2,000 for his brother Willie, because of family suspicions that he was about to convert. "I have suffered very much for my Roman fever", he wrote.

He came closest to conversion in April 1878 when he met with Fr Sebastien Bowden at the Brompton Oratory. He appears to have made an apointrnent for his own reception into the church, but, according to Fr Bowden, he failed to turn up and sent a bunch of lilies instead.

The fascination never left him, however. and only three weeks before he died he told a journalist that his moral failings were due to his father's refusal to allow him to become a Catholic — still blaming his father a quarter of a century after the man's death! "Catholicism is the only religion to die in", he said. "I intend to be received before long."

So, was the deathbed conversion sincere or not? We will never know the exact spiritual state at the moment of death of Oscar Wilde but, if he did embrace the Catholic Church in his last moments, he was certainly going down a well-trodden path. Amongst the coterie of artists and intellectuals who were described as decadent, and who put their yellow or green or mauve stamp upon the 1890s, an extraordinary number became Catholics.

Fellow converts included Lord Alfred Douglas (Boste), Wilde's amour fatal, who became a convert of the most bigoted type, waging a moral crusade against the filthy vices of his youth and taking a high moral tone when he would have been better advised to keep quiet. Bosie's wife (improbably, there was such a person) the poetess Olive Custance also converted. Robert Ross, Wilde's friend and eventual literary executor who brought the priest to his hotel bedroom, was a convert.

Ross claimed to have introduced Wilde to the love that dare not speak its name, and he later because the target of Bosie's obsessive campaign against moral degeneracy. John Gray, an early boyfriend of Oscar's who was supposedly the model for Dorian Gray, and who came close to a nervous breakdown when Oscar dropped him in favour of Bosie, found a new protector in Andre Raffalovich, a wealthy Russian Jew who hated Wilde and was only too glad to set the handsome young man up in a house in Park Lane. Gray, already a convert, entered the Scots College in Rome and was ordained.

Raffalovitch was also converted and paid for the church in the new parish of Morningside in Edinburgh, where Gray spent the rest of his life as parish priest. Aubrey Beardsley, whose illustrations for The Ye/Ion' Book were the very epitome of decadence in the public perception, suffered a severe professional setback when his supposed association with Wilde led to his being fired from The Yellow Book in the turbulent period surrounding Oscar's trials on charges of gross indecency. Beardsley's health was failing at the same time as his income was falling, and he also sought patronage from the generous Raffalovitch, who prodded him Romewards. Shortly before his death from TB Beardsley was received into the Church and, on his deathbed, wrote a famous letter to his publisher Leonard Smithers, asking him to destroy "all obscene drawings", especially those for the Lysistrata. (Smithers, a notable publisher of erotica, ignored this pious request and, when he found out how much interest there was in the letter signed "Aubrey Beardsley. In my death agony". began sell ing forgeries of it.) Henry Harland, the editor of The Yellow Book; became a Catholic and wrote a series of novels on Catholic themes. The laureates of the 1890s, Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson, who drank themselves to death, were converts, as were Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley, the lesbian aunt-and-niece couple who wrote poetry under the pseudonym of Michael Field. The appalling Frederick Rolfe ("Baron Corvo") was another convert with aspirations to Holy Orders. Having been kicked out of two seminaries, he still insisted on signing himself Fr. Rolfe to create confusion about his sacerdotal status. His most famous work. Hadrian VII, was a fantasy based on his ideas of what he would do if he were Pope. At the time of his death he was procuring boys for English homosexual tourists in Venice.

One of the most famous converts was J.K. Husymans, the author of A Rebours (translated as Against the Grain), described by one critic as the "breviary of decadence", and which was the original of the strange book which makes such a devastating impact on Dorian Gray in Wilde's story. Huysmans was seriously weird — in a different league to the English decadents who. in typically English fashion, couldn't be serious for long enough to create an impression of real evil. After reading A Rehnurs Barbey d'Aurevilly wrote that nothing remained for the author "but to choose between the muzzle of a revolver and the foot of the Cross".

Huysmans chose the latter, became a Benedictine oblate and spent the rest of his life telling his fellow Catholics that they didn't understand the riches of their faith.

What was the attraction of the Catholic Church for decedents? One popular explanation has been that, as homosexuals living in a society in which their practices were illegal, they found in the Catholic Church's firm moral teachings a means of getting their lives undei control.

This is unconvincing for two reasons. First, not all of the Catholic decadents were homosexual. Second, not all of the converts arranged their private lives in strict conformity with the Church's teaching. While Canon Gray of Morningside became a crusty and pompous bore, going to great lengths to conceal his decadent youth, Robbie Ross went on cruising the happy gay hunting grounds of Piccadilly.

THE ATTRACTION of Catholicism must have been at a deeper level than the need to get a bit of discipline into chaotic love lives. The decadents attached great — indeed supreme — importance to sensual experiences. The famous conclusion to Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873).

described by Wilde as "the very flower of decadence", urged readers to grasp at every experience as it came within reach. To fail to do so was, "on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening". Sensuality became a sort of creed, an attempt, as Lord Henry Wooten put it in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul". But, as sensualists throughout the ages have discovered, these experiences have a habit of wearing off. You need a bigger dose each time to get the same thrill; harder drugs and harder porn, or, in Ernest Dowson's more elegant phrase, "madder music and stronger wine". The Catholic Church's expla

nation of this would be that the human person is a spiritual being and cannot be satisfied with any creed which is rooted only in materialism. There is another world to which our nature is reaching out.

The important thing about Catholic practice is that this reaching out is done through the sacraments, the channels through which we receive God's grace, and these sacraments involve the use of everyday things like bread, wine, water and oil. In other words, we use the experience of our senses to get from this world to the next.

Oscar Wilde liked to describe himself in Gautier's phrase as a man for whom the visible world exists. For Catholics, the visible world and the invisible world exist at the same time, and the sacraments deploy taste, touch and smell to bridge the divide.

WHICH RAISES the question of whether the Catholic Church of our own day might not be missing a trick. We seem to be living in a culture which is far more decadent than anything envisaged in The Yellow Book, in which sensual experience has descended to rank hedonism and a somewhat brutal insistence upon immediate personal gratification, no matter what the consequences.

If the Catholic Church were to mount an offensive against the spirit of the age, preferably from the Brompton Oratory, it might net some significant catches by emphasising the sensual nature of Catholic liturgy and practice. We need to get away from 1960s minimalism and bring back the statues and smoking censers. The more vestments the better, preferably with very rich embroidery.

Then — who knows? — we may soon be witnessing once again the conversion of some of the more familiar exponents of alternative lifestyles, and reading of the missionary journeys of Brother Elton and the wonderful work among the poor of Fr Tatchell. And if a patron saint is needed for this modern counter-cultural crusade, surely the canonisation of Oscar Wilde cannot be far away?

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