IT HAS BEEN almost three decades since the publication of my novel The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley, which is being re-issued as a digital edition. This event coincides with the first major exhibition of Beardsley’s work in fifty years, which is scheduled to open at the Tate Britain in London in June (as of press time, after a postponement due to Covid-19). Another Beardsley show is slated to open in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay in October.
While preparing my novel for this new edition, I couldn’t help but reflect on the many years I spent researching Beardsley’s life, his art, and the circumstances that led to his downfall. It’s a story worth recounting as a reminder of the corrosive homophobia that devastated the private life and destroyed the public career of this brilliant artist.
My research began in the 1980s. I had written three contemporary novels and a play and was trying to decide what to tackle next. I have always been interested in gay history and initially thought Oscar Wilde would be the lead character in whatever this new work was going to be. Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for “gross indecency” was one of the seminal events of the late 19th century, a stark example of the persecution and criminalization of gay men that lasted into the 1960s. Wilde’s life was well documented, but no one had written in any detail about everyday gay life in late-Victorian England.
As I dug deeper and began to connect the dots, a shadowy picture began to emerge of the subterranean gay world that had flourished in England before gay men even knew what to call themselves. The word “homosexual” did not exist. “Sodomite” and “pervert” were the most common epithets used to vilify gay men. But among Wilde’s circle of educated gay friends, newly minted words like “invert” and “Uranian” were being used to identify and de-stigmatize themselves. Essays and poems on the taboo topic of same-sex love appeared in a magazine called The Spirit Lamp. Alas, these first stirrings of what today we might call “gay consciousness” or “queer identity” all but disappeared after Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years of hard labor. The “love that dare not speak its name” once again lost its voice.
The effect Wilde’s trial and prison sentence had on gay life was devastating at the time and lasted for generations. It was said that on the day of his arrest in 1895, every boat train leaving for the Continent was packed solid with terrified gay men fleeing England to escape arrest and prosecution. What a fantastic play that would make, I thought at the time. (I still think so.) Instead of having Wilde as my protagonist, I decided to shift my focus to someone whose life was compromised or ruined as a result of the Wilde scandal.
Aubrey Beardsley was an artist whose name comes up frequently in many of the books written about Oscar Wilde. The 1890s were, after all, later dubbed the Beardsley Period. The facts of Beardsley’s life are not nearly as well-known as those of Wilde’s, but their fates were inextricably intertwined.
At age 23, after a meteoric rise to fame, Beardsley’s career came to a swift and catastrophic end because of his association with Wilde. With his professional life in tatters, the only work the once-sought-after artist could find was with Leonard Smithers, a publisher with a lucrative sideline in pornography. Two years after his humiliating fall from grace, Beardsley, aged twenty-five, died of tuberculosis in Menton, France. Like Wilde, he had become an exile from his country and a pariah among his countrymen. In his final, agonized letter, written on his deathbed, he implores Smithers to destroy “all obscene drawings” that he had produced.
Donald S. Olson is a novelist, playwright, and travel writer. His novel The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley is being re-issued as an e-book by Lume Books.