Down and out in Paris: Sebastian Melmoth

MyFrenchLife™ – – Sebastian Melmoth – down and out in Paris - Oscar WildeMost of Sebastian Melmoth’s sentence of two years with hard labour was spent on a treadmill.

As soon as he was released he fled to Paris, where he arrived penniless and in poor health. He survived on the largesse of old friends and his wife—and by moving from hotel to hotel to evade paying his debts.

A reflection: Sebastian Melmoth on the cruelty of prison

Just before he died while staying at the tel dAlsace on the Rue des Beaux Arts, he wrote to the editor of a London newspaper:

“The present prison system seems almost to have for its aim the wrecking and the destruction of the mental faculties…. Deprived of books, of all human intercourse, isolated from every humane and humanising influence, condemned to eternal silence, robbed of all intercourse with the external world, treated like an unintelligent animal, brutalised below the level of any of the brute-creation, the wretched man who is confined in an English prison can hardly escape becoming insane.”

Sebastian Melmoth: a world-renowned author

MyFrenchLife™ – – Sebastian Melmoth – down and out in Paris - Oscar WildeThe writer’s real name was Oscar Wilde, and in his former life he’d achieved the pinnacle of fame and fortune as an acclaimed writer, playwright and philosopher. In his heyday as Oscar Wilde he was feted in England and America for his scintillating wit and brilliant conversation. As editor of ‘Women’s World’, he revitalised the magazine by expanding its coverage to “deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think and what they feel.”

When the curtain went up following the first staging of ‘The Importance of being Earnest’, the audience stood and cheered and cheered again.

‘Salome’ was first written in French. It could not be staged in Britain because of a prohibition against Biblical characters being depicted on the stage. But according to the Journal des débats when the curtain fell on the Parisian production, “the audience responded to the name of the playwright with rapturous applause.”

Both ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and ‘Lady Windemere’s Fan’ were worldwide successes—and remain immensely popular to this day.

‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’, however, was thoroughly castigated by the Victorians. But over 100 years after its first release, Faber & Faber’s editor in chief Robert McCrumb ranks it at number 27 on his ‘100 Best Novels Written in English’.

Bucking the system, however, can have dangerous consequences.

One day a rooster; the next a feather duster.

And his fall from grace was as sudden as it was catastrophic. Wilde was arrested, charged and convicted of “gross indecency” after falling in love with a young man.

Homophobia: Wilde was not the first

MyFrenchLife™ – – Sebastian Melmoth – down and out in Paris - Oscar Wilde

Alan Turing was the brains behind cracking the German Enigma code which certainly shortened World War 2 and saved. However, he too was convicted of “gross indecency,” and was chemically castrated in 1952. He committed suicide a few years later.

Following a long campaign by his supporters, Turing was eventually pardoned by the Queen in 2013. Recent publicity has pressured the Home Office into considering pardoning the injustices suffered by an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 men who were imprisoned under anti-gay laws between 1885 and 2003. Unfortunately, to date, no one will say if Oscar Wilde is amongst them.

Sebastian Melmoth: death and controversy

But back to Sebastian Melmoth. In he hobnobbed it with the likes of Andre Gide, Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine and Stephane Mallarme.

When he died on the Rive Gauche in 1900, his body was first buried in a leased pauper’s grave in Bagneux. It was only in 1909—when his bankruptcy was paid off by the posthumous sale of his works—that the body was moved to Père Lachaise

Alas, even in death, Wilde courted controversy. Sculptor Jacob Epstein designed an imposing winged figure with large testicles to stand guard over his grave. Years of controversy followed, and a screen was often placed around the offending genitalia to prevent affront. Finally, in the 1960s, the outsize genitals were smashed off by vandals. But the balls were put to good use. The cemetery director apparently used them as a paperweight.

But love comes in many guises.

MyFrenchLife™ – – Sebastian Melmoth – down and out in Paris - Oscar Wilde

Today Wilde’s grave is protected with a transparent screen to prevent it from being kissed by thousands of passionate admirers. The saliva and chemicals in the lipstick damages the headstone.

“A kiss may ruin a human life” Wilde once wrote — “and my tombstone,” he might have added.

Did you know about Oscar Wilde’s exile in France, where he became Sebastian Melmoth? Share your thoughts and reflections in the comment section below!

Image credits

  1. Rue de Belleville, via Wikipedia
  2. Women’s World US Issue, by Cassell & Co. via Wikipedia
  3. Alan Turing aged 16, via Wikipedia
  4. Tomb of Oscar Wilde, by Agateller via Wikipedia

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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