Thedore Wratislaw: Fragments of a Life

English poet Theodore Wratislaw was born on this day in 1871. His life has previously come down to us as a series of intriguing details never quite coalescing into a personality. He was a count of the Holy Roman Empire, for example, and one of the inspirations for Max Beerbohm when he wrote “Enoch Soames”, the great meta-fable of the 1890s. The quintessential journals of that storied decade, The Yellow Book and The Savoy, both ran his work, and he had personal contact with numerous leading lights of the era, including Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde.

The man whose own memoirs were barely begun when he died in 1933 has now received the most distinguished biographical memorial he could have wished for. The recently published Theodore Wratislaw: Fragments of a Life by D.J. Sheppard takes a persona dwarfed by the greater charisma of more famous contemporaries and reveals a far more complex and troubled character than the bullet points of his CV have previously indicated. The writer reverses, for instance, the tidy narrative by which Wratislaw was said to have dabbled in the modish motifs of the Yellow Decade and then anxiously retreated to the civil service as the 1890s came to a premature halt half-way through in the wake of Oscar Wilde’s trial.

The especially assiduous student of the 1890s may already have read Wratislaw’s telling of his encounter with Wilde in 1893, which was posthumously published in 1979. Rediscovering the episode in this context reveals a movie waiting to happen, full of social anxiety and telling details, beginning with Wilde at the station expectantly scanning the first class carriages for his guest, only for Wratislaw to emerge, bedraggled, from a less exalted compartment.

It was an important connection, certainly, but even more meaningful to Wratislaw was his brief encounter with Algernon Swinburne. The older poet was his lodestar, his “David Bowie” as Sheppard states. It is not a frivolous comparison; Swinburne evidently had the same effect that Bowie had on many of his followers – not just in his own singular selfhood but in opening their eyes to an entire world of new influences. Conversely, Wratislaw could be withering about contemporaries, especially those who lingered with him at a remove from glory.

While never overstating his subject’s significance, the author is both sympathetic and insightful in his treatment of Wratislaw’s work, missteps and master strokes alike. His meticulous research draws on Wratislaw’s papers now in the possession of his descendants, including the unpublished autobiographical draft Salad Days, as well as the famed collection of Barry Humphries (who also supplied a foreword). The result is a thorough yet never pedantic portrait that teases the poet out of foot-notoriety, drawing him blinking into the unaccustomed light of earnest, erudite appreciation. Along the way there are tantalising glances into the yellow pantheon of wayward 1890s personalities, including M. P. Shiel, John Gawsworth and eroticist Leonard Smithers (“it is difficult,” claims the author, “to imagine Smithers stepping out of any Victorian novel that would not have immediately been seized by the police”). Sheppard makes, and proves, the point that it is the lesser-known figures – “foot soldiers” as he terms them – that provide greater insight into the era than its grandees. So while this is a vivid, compelling, fully fleshed portrait of a hitherto obscure writer, it is also a captivating portrait of literary life in the 1890s.

D.J. Sheppard kindly agreed to mark Theodore Wratislaw’s birthday today by sharing his thoughts on the man, his work and his era, ending with some promising news for anyone interested in exploring Wratislaw’s verse further.

Could you tell us a little about your background, your day job?

I am in my twelfth year as a schoolmaster at Oakham School, Rutland. More specifically, I am ‘Senior Academic Mentor’ – which means that I am responsible for overseeing (with the intention of contributing to) the progress of the academic scholars. I also teach philosophy. I previously taught in Higher Education, following a PhD in philosophy at the University of Warwick. My first degree was in philosophy and literature. I am married with a son.

When and how did you first encounter the work and/or persona of Theodore Wratislaw? What was your first response?

My interest in the 1890s has its origins in a typical adolescent interest in Oscar Wilde – I suppose I must have first read Theodore’s name in Richard Ellmann’s biography, though did not pay it much heed. It was not until I happened upon Penguin’s Poetry of the 1890s about twenty years ago that I paid Theodore any serious attention. Relative to the attention he normally receives in anthologies, Theodore is over-represented in the Penguin volume, and it seemed to me that its editors, Kelsey Thornton and Marion Thain, had righted a historical wrong – on the evidence presented I couldn’t see why Theodore had slipped so completely into the shadow of, say, Arthur Symons. I also noted that disproportionately little was known of Theodore’s life. Some years later, and having completed a book on Plato, I made efforts to determine what more might be discovered  – quite a lot, it turned out…

At what point in your initial contact with Wratislaw did you become aware that there was a tale worth telling there?

During my initial research I received great encouragement from a number of hitherto strangers, besides which I was also very lucky. There is the further point that biographical research of this kind is greatly aided by the Internet. Most importantly, however, I visited Theodore’s house and met its current owner, Barry Taylor-Grigson, who happened recently to have been visited by Theodore’s grandchildren and with whom he put me in touch. The grandchildren gave me access to the material in their possession. I also made contact with Timothy d’Arch Smith, whose good word opens all sorts of doors – not least the door that eventually led to Barry Humphries’ collection of ‘Wratislaviana.’ Together with the assistance offered by the likes of Stephen Halliwell, Kelsey Thornton and Mark Samuels Lasner, I found myself with sufficient material on which to base an extended biographical essay, at the very least – perhaps as an extended introduction to a selected works. In time, a book-length study took shape.

The largest and most consistent influence on Wratislaw appears to have been Algernon Swinburne – not only a figure of identification, but one who expanded his field of interests. How would you characterise the influence of Swinburne on Wratislaw?

Discovering Swinburne seems to have completely transformed Theodore’s conception of life and literature – the sort of transformation others in his evangelically inclined family might have associated with religious conversion. Swinburne, of course, had the same effect on many young Victorian minds – he was the David Bowie of his day. Theodore’s identification with Swinburne waned as he left his twenties, but returned in early middle age as Theodore became increasingly nostalgic about his younger nineties self. Appropriately, the identification culminated in Theodore’s final poetic statement.

Wratislaw’s encounter with Oscar Wilde at Goring-on-Thames is so poignant, and funny, with such telling small details. It appeared in a slim volume in 1979, but what were the circumstances around Wratislaw setting down this recollection?

Theodore considered setting down his recollections during the first wave of 90s nostalgia occasioned by the publication of George Holbrook Jackson’s book in 1913. Theodore wrote Charles Elkin Mathews proposing a new edition of his nineties poetry prefaced by an essay of reminiscences. Elkin Mathews passed up the offer, but Theodore’s intention to add to the memoirs periodically published by his surviving contemporaries remained. He finally got down to work in the early 1930s, following his retirement from the Civil Service – the Wilde (and Beardsley) sections were the first he wrote. But it was also the time when his health rapidly declined, and so progress was forever being interrupted on that account. Whilst he wrote/dictated draft sections on Wilde, Beardsley, Swinburne, Beerbohm, Dowson and a few other bits and pieces, he intended a good deal more.

One of Wratislaw’s best known verses is the homoerotic ‘To a Sicilian Boy’, which you reveal is based on a photograph rather than any personal experience, and was later suppressed. Was it just an affectation? How are we to judge this uncharacteristically Uranian side-step in one who appears to have been largely heterosexual?

Such questions are, of course, very difficult to answer with much surety. In the broadest terms, however, I think we can say with some confidence – and very possibly some understatement – that Theodore enjoyed a developed range of erotic interests throughout his adult life. As a young man these may well have extended to more than an affected interest in homosexuality (i.e. a bit of experimentation). And maybe he remained bisexual. That said, if not his exclusive then certainly his predominant interests seemed to have been heterosexual – as reflected most obviously in three marriages (for all of which there is evidence of them having been ‘love-matches’, at least initially), and the poetry. Aside from ‘To a Sicilian Boy’ and ‘To a Boy’, which I believe he wrote to order, Theodore loved writing about the erotic allure of women – indeed, he struggles to view them in any other regard. So I think the ‘side-step’ is most straightforwardly explained by a desire to ingratiate himself with patrons such as Charles Kains-Jackson and Gleeson White – a desire very possibly supplemented by his own his own erotic curiosity and a ‘shall I? Shan’t I?’ wish to get himself noticed.

One of the constants throughout Wratislaw’s life is what professionals would call suicidal ideation, perhaps starting as a fashionably morbid pose, later appearing to be invested with more sincerity. Was he clinically depressed? What is your impression of his state of mind?

The story passed to Theodore’s grandchildren via their mother (Theodore’s daughter, Patricia) was that he did indeed suffer from depression, at least in later life. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that it may have been a long-term condition and shared with members of his family – possibly his mother (though that is rather speculative) and certainly his younger brother, Wenzel, who committed suicide at the age of forty in 1919. So perhaps a morbid fashion complemented a genuine psychological condition.

With no disrespect meant to Wratislaw or your good self, the most widely known name on the cover of your book is that of Barry Humphries. He’s renowned as a connoisseur of the Nineties, particularly its more obscure figures. What was your experience of approaching him and getting to know his collection?

I think you’ll find that the publication of the Wratislaw book has already brought me a degree of fame far in excess of anything Barry Humphries might enjoy. Frankly, I’m becoming rather tired of the attention (if my agent puts me up for one more supermarket opening I’ll scream…).  But to try and answer your question on its own terms: having determined that Barry was most likely the owner of a good deal of Wratislaw material, I initially contacted him through his agent – as do many pushy and expectant researchers, I believe. Understandably, however, Barry has many better things to do than open his collection to every researching waif and stray. But I got lucky and in due course he invited me to view his extraordinary collection. He was extremely generous throughout the process, and offered a great deal of moral as well as material support. Most generously, he promised to write me a foreword – and then fulfilled that promise at a time when he had all manner of other commitments that might easily have prevented him from doing so.

How were your dealings with Wratislaw’s descendants?

Once satisfied that my intentions were true – a very sensible precaution, of course – Theodore’s grandchildren were very helpful indeed, and gave me access to all the material in their possession. They do not possess a huge amount of material, but in time turned up Theodore’s unfinished memoir – hitherto ‘lost’ save for the section on Wilde. Its discovery was a wonderful surprise and a great boon.

You reveal Wratislaw as highly combative in his opinions on others. Did this contribute to his failure to make more of a literary career? Or what was it, do you think, that kept or keeps Wratislaw from greater fame?

It is difficult to measure the impact of his combativeness when so many other factors need to be taken into account as well. But Theodore does appear to have been unusually intemperate – my guess is that the problem was not his combativeness per se, rather his inability to judge when and when not to deploy it. Alas, he seems to have been very prone to faux pas. As to the broader question of what kept and continues to keeps him in the shadows, it would have helped if he’d died around the turn of the century along with Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and so on, and thereby become a member of Yeats’s ‘Tragic Generation’. As regards the poetry, there is the lingering – and unfair – view that Theodore is little more than a Symons copyist. There is also the view that Theodore was something of a poseur – an ‘inauthentic’ decadent. In academic circles, in recent years attention has been directed away from the straight(ish) white males and towards figures belonging to more traditionally marginalised groups – and understandably so. Theodore falls between the cracks…

How long did you spend on the book in total, and what was the hardest part?

Researching and writing the book took about six years or so. The research became a mildly obsessive joy – the hardest part was conceiving the whole and being satisfied with the opening chapters. The later chapters came relatively easily.

What was the biggest surprise that you uncovered in your research into Wratislaw and his times?

As I’ve already mentioned, the accepted view of Theodore is of a decadent poseur who escaped into the Civil Service and a life of middle class respectability following Wilde’s disgrace in 1895. I was expecting the truth of the matter to prove more complicated, but I wasn’t expecting to unearth quite the catalogue of disasters that befell Theodore during the first decades of the twentieth century:  the death of his first wife, subsequent remarriage, domestic violence, adultery and divorce, a former lover threatening to take him to court, bankruptcy, disinheritance, and the suggestion that he narrowly escaped prosecution following an episode with a married woman in Richmond Park. It is enough to make Paul Verlaine’s eyes water, let alone those of an unworldly provincial schoolmaster such as myself.

Are the Nineties purely the domain of specialist collectors? Where do you think the period sits in middlebrow consciousness now?

I’m not sure it is confined to ‘specialist collectors’ – there seems to be a lot of more general academic interest as well. As to ‘middlebrow consciousness,’ most obviously the nineties live on as the age of Wilde – his iconic status grows of its own accord as middlebrow awareness of possible competition for attention – Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, and so on – further diminishes.

What would you suggest as a starting point for someone wishing to explore Wratislaw’s writing?

The aforementioned Penguin Poetry of the 1890s, and then John Gawsworth’s Selected Poems published in the 1930s, though the latter is relatively scarce. If the ‘someone’ in question can bear the wait, I hope to edit a collected works in the not too distant future.

Theodore Wratislaw: Fragments of a Life by D.J. Sheppard is published by Rivendale Press

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2 comments

  1. Anna Victoria Karras

    Thanks James. I need to read “Enoch Soames” again.

  2. ‘…reveals a far more complex and troubled character than the bullet points of his CV have previously indicated.’ So witty, I had to smile as I read it. I have never heard of Theodore Wraitslaw. Your book review and author interview remind me that after grad school, in search of more literature to read, more interesting literary lives to discover, I went on a few years long Smithery binge in the 1990s of 1890s literature. At mid-age it is enjoyable, enlightening, tempting to re-read once enjoyed but long put aside works. Your book review reminds me to take another look at those 1890s writers again. Thanks James.

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