Oscar Wilde’s final hours: Joseph Bristow to correct the record in lecture at Clark Library

Published: January 30, 2024
Oscar Wilde pictured two hours after his deathOscar Wilde, two hours after his death, in a photo likely taken by Wilde’s close friend Maurice Gilbert. (Photo courtesy of the UCLA William Andrews Clark Memorial Library)

Sean Brenner | January 30, 2024

Oscar Wilde’s life has been examined in minute detail in numerous biographies and countless articles. But the details of his death have been widely misunderstood, according to UCLA’s Joseph Bristow.

Bristow, a distinguished professor of English and leading scholar on Wilde, will help set the record straight in a free lecture at UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at 4 p.m. on Feb. 21.

The Clark is a fitting venue for the talk: The library is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of Wildeiana.

After Wilde died in 1900 at the age of 46, in a hotel room in Paris, details of his passing were misreported. In his talk, Bristow will draw credible information from two people who were by Wilde’s side in his final hours: Father Cuthbert Dunne, a Passionist priest from Ireland who brought about Wilde’s conversion to Catholicism, and Reggie Turner, a close friend of Wilde’s.

“There were tall tales circulating that he was dying of syphilis, and after he died, another priest made remarks that Wilde, who he said had been ‘guilty of unbridled lust,’ had died a miserable death of sexual disease,” Bristow said. “Father Cuthbert said that nothing like that was going on.”

Cuthbert’s recollections about the events weren’t publicized at the time, Bristow said. But the priest’s papers, including notes about Wilde’s death, were passed on from the Passionists to a Wilde collector who later sold the papers to the Clark Library.

The Clark is also home to a cache of letters, mostly unseen by scholars, that were written by Turner. In them, Turner supports Cuthbert’s account of the day. “He writes that Wilde died quite peacefully,” Bristow said. “And he died with good friends around him. And that’s really, really important.”

If it wasn’t syphilis that led to Wilde’s death, what was the cause? According to Bristow, Wilde’s decline was tied to a series of related maladies, all stemming from his 1895–97 incarceration on charges related to his homosexuality.

“He lost a lot of weight in jail, and his health was affected very badly,” Bristow said. “At one point, he collapsed and hurt his head, and his ear, which had already suffered damage, began causing him a lot of problems. His friends got him a surgeon affiliated with the British embassy in Paris, and the surgeon screwed up very badly.”

That, Bristow said, led to another surgery, which in turn led to a severe infection, which led to meningitis.

Wilde spent 1897 to 1900 living in exile in northern France, then Italy and finally Paris. Bristow said that when word spread about his illness, there was tremendous public interest, with some fans even attempting to visit his hotel. And after his death, the manager of the hotel where he had been staying turned Wilde’s room into a shrine for a period of time.

Bristow’s latest book, “Oscar Wilde on Trial,” was published in 2022 by Yale University Press.

The lecture is free to attend, but seating is limited and advance registration is strongly recommended. Walk-in registrants will be welcome if space permits. The talk will also be livestreamed on YouTube. To register, and for more information, visit the event page.