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Wilde wild Worthing

The 1895 production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax & George Alexander as Jack Worthing)

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ comes across as the most metropolitan and refined of plays and yet it was not written in Oscar Wilde’s Cheyne Walk home in Chelsea but in a holiday home in Worthing, West Sussex. That’s how come the protagonist is named Worthing and his family origins include reference to a first-class railway ticket to Worthing.

JACK. The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

LADY BRACKNELL. Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

JACK. [Gravely.] In a hand-bag.

LADY BRACKNELL. A hand-bag?

JACK. [Very seriously.] Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag – a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it – an ordinary hand-bag in fact.

LADY BRACKNELL. In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

JACK. In the cloak-room at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

It’s the most famous exchange in the play, largely due to Dame Edith Evans’ defining performance in which she made the very most of the word “hand-bag”. That’s why, in the performance last night at Brighton Open Air Theatre, the inventive players of Slapstick Picnic just mouthed the word. It was a superb distillation into a two-hander, reminiscent of Steven Berkoff’s mannered acting in his brilliant ‘Decadence’ (Berkoff being a big fan of Brighton with a bolt-hole in Kemptown), whose comic invention Wilde would have enjoyed.

2021 (6th August) production at Brighton Open Air Theatre

In the summer of 1894 Wilde went on holiday for two months to Worthing with his wife, Constance, and sons, Cyril (9) and Vyvyan (7). It was the last summer before his life disintegrated. Constance travelled down with their two young sons on 7th August, Wilde followed on the 10th.

Wilde was married to Constance (35) but in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as ‘Bosie’. He had met Bosie in 1891. They were both at Magdalen College, Oxford. Within 8 months of Worthing, Wilde was in jail as a direct result of his infatuation with the handsome young aristocrat. 

Although it was a family holiday, Bosie showed up and stayed three times. He was a demanding, immature character and his egotism caused Wilde no end of problems.  

Meanwhile, Constance, lonely and unhappy, fell in love (in a platonic way) with another man, Arthur Humphreys (30), bookseller, publisher and a family friend, who came down to spend the day in Worthing with the Wildes on 11th August. She wrote him a heart-felt love-letter while he was still at the house, slipping it to him before his departure.

And to complete the bedroom farce Wilde became sexually involved with a local teenage boy, Alphonse Conway. Born in Bognor but raised in Worthing, he was six weeks past his 16th birthday when they first met. Plus there were two other teenage boys on the scene.

Meanwhile he was writing what is broadly acknowledged as his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest – a landmark in English-language theatre. He had previously written three comedies but he peaked on this fourth.

Wilde was under pressure at that time financially so he really needed a hit play. He was also under pressure back in London from Bosie’s overbearing father, the Marquess of Queensberry, he of boxing fame, who was doing his utmost to harass his son’s lover. It was this crude man who finally landed a knock-out blow to the refined Wilde. The day before leaving for holiday Wilde wrote to Bosie of Queensbury: “It is intolerable to be dogged by a maniac.”

Wilde and Bosie had a sexual relationship for only a few months two summers before the Worthing trip. Queensberry, judging by Wilde and Bosie’s overtly gay behaviour in public, assumed it was on-going. Some four months after the Worthing holiday Queensberry left a visiting card at Wilde’s club on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde, Posing as a Somdomite [sic]”. Wilde inadvisedly sued Queensberry for libel. He lost the trial, got convicted himself for homosexuality and ended up doing hard labour in Reading Gaol (where he served the last 18 months of his sentence) which broke his health although yielded a brilliant long poem.

Worthing was chosen as a place where Wilde would have peace to write. It was quieter than Brighton (which Wilde knew well) and Constance was able to rent a house from a friend who had gone north for the summer.

Wilde and Bosie, Alphonse and other male teenagers, swam, fished and went out every day on a sailing boat. Constance, whom he no longer loved (sexual relations between them had ceased around 1886), was left back in the house, isolated and saddened. She wrote to a friend: “I have had no-one to talk to, and I have been rather depressed.”

Wilde attended several events in Worthing over the summer:  a lifeboat demonstration, the annual sailing regatta and the Venetian fête, a lamp-lit water carnival, where, as a celeb, he presented the prizes for the best-decorated boats and made a witty speech in praise of Worthing: “It has beautiful surroundings and lovely long walks, which I recommend to other people, but do not take myself.”

Worthing provided several of the names in the play. Beside the protagonist Jack Worthing, Wilde found the name Bunbury in the Worthing Gazette. Miss Prism, “a woman of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education” is probably based on the “horrid, ugly Swiss governess” (as described in a letter to Bosie) looking after Cyril and Vyvyan on the Worthing trip.

Bosie was largely a hindrance and distraction to Wilde but he liked to bask in the aura of ‘Earnest’. He claimed he was in the same room while most of the play was being written and that some of the jokes were drawn from his own “repartee”. He was considered fairly witty and amusing. This Wilde child’s claims were no doubt overblown and another facet of the toxicity he brought to Oscar’s life. 

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas by Gillman & Co. (1893)
The Haven , the rented house in Worthing
Constance Wilde – 30th July 1894, a week before the Worthing trip
The lifeboat demonstration 22nd August 1894 – according to the Worthing Gazette “Mr Oscar Wilde was one of the occupants of a small rowing boat busily flitting about”

Very little of the concrete aspects of Wilde’s time in Worthing survives. The Haven, the house that Constance rented for the family, was demolished in the 60s. It stood at the northern (Brighton Road) end of the Esplanade terrace, four houses which stood between Brighton Road and the seashore at the eastern end of the town. The terrace eventually became a hotel. There is though a Blue Plaque on the site of the Esplanade terrace, a building called Esplanade Court. It is at the sea-end of the east façade of Esplanade Court (the opposite end from where The Haven actually stood). When the blue plaque was put up it caused a ripple of controversy in the town, a waiting room for heaven (or hell) with its dominant elderly population . Unworthy of Worthing said some of the duffers including a local historian: “This role model, a man preying on teenage boys with little or no education – I don’t think that would be regarded as heroic today. I think it would be regarded as smutty and reprehensible”.  All quite a contrast to Worthing’s neighbour Brighton whose alternative vibe is set by its LGBT community and whose current motto (devised by the local tourist board in response to the post-Covid term “the new normal”) is ‘Brighton Never Normal’. Oscar Never Dull.

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