When we came across this postcard of Dieppe in a bric-a-brac shop on the Sussex coast, we didn’t think a lot of it. But a bit of research revealed the view to be at the centre of an infamous story…
Englishman Sebastian Melmoth rewrote his own history daily. It made life so much more palatable and for some weeks he succeeded (he was a very good story teller).
Cheerful salutations met Sebastian as he sauntered along Le Grand Rue towards Café des Tribunaux in Dieppe. After months of incarceration, the late spring air of 1897 was particularly sweet.
Dieppe held happy memories of his honeymoon and he thought for a moment of his beloved children, far away.
Sebastian was ready for the first drink of the day and he was not alone; farmers who had set off in chilly darkness that morning to sell in Dieppe, customs men who had not yet seen their beds, all were ready to quench a thirst and share the mornings’ gossip.
Then, as Sebastian pushed open the doors of Café des Tribunaux conversations stopped, a strange hush descended the usually vibrant room. Sebastian closed his mouth and abandoned his usual greeting. The air tasted sour.
A talent for morbidity and evil
Unfortunately, such a catastrophic fall from grace as had befallen ‘Sebastian Melmoth’ that it was impossible to hide for any length of time. He was that new thing in late Victorian England, a celebrity.
His books, plays and children’s stories were loved for their reality and fantasy; he illustrated a morbid understanding of the human heart with exquisite language.
The café’s silence announced that the good folk of Dieppe and its ex-patriot British society were becoming aware of exactly who was living amongst them. And it was not ‘Sebastian Melmoth’.
Third, fourth hand news, and sometimes first … had declared him a ‘degenerate’ a walking disease. The law agreed and his once adoring public turned away from his genius.
His crimes had been to love often, to be proud and to be foolish. Hardly crimes that should lead to the inside of Reading jail. Unfortunately in the detail of that loving were some very young men and a flamboyant personality that did not do discretion well, at a time when it was essential. More than an unkind law was against him.
The last party
Still as ‘Sebastian Melmoth’ he moved away from Dieppe’s judgemental eyes up the coast to Berneval. It was as Oscar Wilde he was shunned, after a ill-judged party to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee on 22 June 1897.
All started blissfully. The sun shone, food ordered from Hotel de la Plage looked delicious. A cake embellished with dainty sugar flowers was agreed to be a masterpiece. Above vases of scented blossoms fluttered strings of pretty flags and in an old trunk from home housed an eclectic range of musical instruments, waiting ready to amuse.
Oscar had invited the local school of boys and their master but the conventional villagers of Berneval were surprised at the snub of their charming lady school mistress and her delightful charges.
A buzz of questions were asked that Dieppe was only to pleased to answer. That shining, foolish summer day was one of the last Oscar would know as a nearly happy man.
Oscar’s final humiliation
Shortly afterwards Oscar attempted a reunion in Rouen with Bosie, his ‘Darling Boy’ but it was a miserable disaster. When Bosie’s family threatened to cut off his income, Bosie left Oscar forever. Money meant more than caring for a lover who had gone to jail for him and had his life destroyed.
Humiliated, alone and bankrupt, Oscar died in Paris on 30 November 1900. A tragic end that he would recognise from his own, brilliant, stories.
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
With freedom had come intense creativity and while in Normandy Oscar wrote possibly one of his best poems, ‘The ballad of Reading Gaol’.
Long and insightful, the poem helped influence much need prison reform. It also gave us the famous lines:
“Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Oscar was a genius, he knew quite well what he was talking about.
- Experience a little of Dieppe as Oscar knew it at the ever popular Café des Tribunaux
- Daily Telegraph’s helpful article on the charms of Dieppe
And some sources:
- Letter from Oscar to Bosie about the party
- Padraig Rooney’s essay on Oscar in Berneval: ‘feasting with cubs’.