Vol 1 No 2
Oscar Wilde: The Final Scene
The fact of Oscar Wilde’s death-bed conversion to the Roman Catholic Church has been well known for more than sixty years. But there has been argument about the exact circumstances under which this event took place, and in particular about Wilde’s mental condition during the final scenes. This account, the first by an eye-witness, comes from the papers of Father Cuthbert Dunne, C.P., the priest who ministered to Wilde.
The reception of Oscar Wilde into the Catholic Church on his death-bed has been the subject of much controversy. Even the fact of his death was doubted by the sceptics. Lewis Broad in his Friendships and Follies of Oscar Wilde mentions that ‘Ross received over 300 letters of inquiry on this point’. (p. 244)
When De Profundis was published by Methuen early in 1905 interest in Wilde quickly revived. In an article on ‘Wilde in the St James’s Gazette in the first months of 1905 the following passage appeared: ‘He did not become a Roman Catholic before he died. He was, at the instance of a great friend of his, himself a devout Catholic, “received into the Church” a few hours before he died; but he had then been unconscious for many hours, and he died without ever having had any idea of the liberty which had been taken with his unconscious body.’ The article was signed ‘A’ and was presumably written or inspired by Lord Alfred Douglas.
Such a gratuitous statement, unsupported by any evidence, could be confirmed or denied only by eye-witnesses. Two such witnesses were available. One was Robert Ross; the other was Fr Cuthbert Dunne, C.P., then attached to St Joseph’s Church, Paris, who had ministered to Wilde in his last hours.
The account given by Ross is clear and unequivocal. ‘When I went for the priest to come to his death-bed he was quite conscious and raised his hand in response to questions and satisfied the priest, Father Cuthbert Dunne of the Passionists. It was the morning before he died and for about three hours he understood what was going on (and knew I had come from the South in response to a telegram) that he was given the last sacrament.
The other witness was Fr Cuthbert Dunne, who remained silent. On March 6, 1905, Abbot Hunter-Blair wrote to Fr Cuthbert Dunne, drawing his attention to the statement in the Gazette and imploring his help in the matter, which he observed ‘is the cause of simple truth against misrepresentation’. What reply Fr Cuthbert Dunne made on that occasion is not known.
Throughout the years he continued to maintain a rigorous silence, holding that what took place at the bedside of a dying man was a sacred trust and not to be disclosed. Realizing the historical importance of his testimony, I myself, a colleague of his at the time, exercised gentle but persistent pressure, urging him to set down his recollection of the facts. For many years I met with no success. Finally, moved to action by a particularly vicious reference to Oscar Wilde’s death (based upon a statement in Frank Harris’s biography), Fr Cuthbert Dunne decided to break his self-imposed silence.
With exemplary foresight, he had preserved all the evidence. In carefully-indexed envelopes he had methodically kept the original sick-call, letters from Robert Ross about the death and funeral arrangements, contemporary Press clippings from the Paris and London papers, various letters of inquiry, and so on.
Throughout the summer of 1945, five years before his death which took place in Dublin on November 4, 1950, Fr Cuthbert Dunne set down at considerable length his remembrance of Wilde’s final hours. Being of a meticulous nature, he made more than one rough draft, giving all the pertinent facts as he recalled them to memory. He also wrote a lengthy memoir of Oscar Wilde, giving the history of his various approaches to the Catholic Church throughout the years. All this material, hitherto unpublished, he entrusted to me, saying that ‘in regard to all this, I must ask you to be judex prudens et peritus!’ It was his wish, however, that none of this material should be published until after his death.
The fact that Wilde was strongly inclined towards the Catholic Church even from his Oxford days is, of course, well known. In An Oxford Reminiscence by his friend and contemporary, W. W. Ward, the writer comments upon a bundle of old letters written to him by Wilde, which he says gracefully ‘show him as he lives in my memory, radiant and humorous, affectionate and natural’. More importantly he adds: ‘They show, too, that his final decision to find refuge in the Roman Church was not the sudden clutch of the drowning man at the plank in the shipwreck, but a return to a first love, a love rejected, it is true, or at least rejected in the tragic progress of his self-realization, yet one that had haunted him from early days with a persistent spell.’ (Son of Oscar Wilde. Vyvyan Holland. Appendix B. Pp. 251-2.)
In an interview granted to John Clifford Millage, Paris Correspondent of the Daily Chronicle, about three weeks before he died, Wilde left no doubt as to his paramount intention. ‘He turned to religious subjects,’ says Millage, ‘and muttered most savagely: “Much of my moral obliquity is due to the fact that my father would not allow me to become a Catholic. The artistic side of the Church and the fragrance of its teaching would have cured my degeneracies. I intend to be received before long”.’ Concluding his report, which was written a few days after Wilde’s death, Millage observed: ‘Oscar Wilde tried to articulate the prayers which accompany Extreme Unction and his death-bed was one of repentance.’
Wilde had already more than once confided to Ross his desire to become a Catholic. But, filled with misgivings, and knowing Wilde’s unstable nature, Ross always advised him to wait. On one of these occasions, Wilde retorted in his own inimitable style: ‘I wish indeed to enter the Catholic Church, but at every approach I make, Robert Ross stands at the door like an angel with a flaming sword and drives me away.’
Apropos of this, Fr Cuthbert Dunne makes the comment: ‘Mr Ross, who was a convert and a good Catholic, told me how much he regretted having given this advice. But he feared that Wilde might be only in one of his varying moods and deemed it safer that time should be allowed to prove the stability of his resolve. Wilde could, of course, have taken the initiative into his own hands, but one can imagine the frame of mind to which the shame and disgrace of his fall had reduced him. And, as we otherwise know, converts are often shy about approaching a priest when contemplating this important step. In fact, he wanted someone to give him the lead.
‘At any rate, no further move was made at the time. Wilde satisfied himself by laying a conscientious obligation on his friend, exacting from him a promise that, if ever he became suddenly ill and was in danger of death, the first thing he should do was to call a priest to his bedside and have him received into the Church. This was agreed between the two.’
At this time, in the early part of the winter 1900-01, Wilde was living in the Hotel d’Alsace, Rue des Beaux-Arts, under the name of ‘Sebastian Melmoth’. Ross was passing through Paris on his way to Mentone and called at the hotel to see Wilde. Fr Cuthbert says that ‘Wilde was not feeling well, and fearing that something was going to happen, he reminded his friend of their standing promise, though nobody thought the end was to come so soon. Indeed, if he had observed any signs of an impending breakdown, Ross would at once have sought the services of a priest for the ailing man.’
‘Mr Ross had not been long at Mentone,’ continues Fr Cuthbert Dunne, ‘when one day a telegram arrived. It was from the hotel-people requesting his immediate presence with “Mr Melmoth”, who was dangerously ill. He took the next train back to Paris and hurried to the hotel; from there he came at once to the Avenue Hoche, where he found me and requested that I should come in haste to attend a dying man.’
At this date Fr Cuthbert Dunne, also by a strange coincidence a native of Dublin, was just thirty-one years of age. He was not at first aware of the identity of the dying man to whom he was so urgently called. Robert Ross had mentioned no name. On the back of his visiting-card, with the address of the Reform Club, Ross had scribbled a hurried message: ‘Can I see one of the Fathers about a very urgent case, or can I hear of a priest elsewhere who can talk English, to administer Last Sacraments to a dying man?’
Having been informed of the patient’s condition, Fr Cuthbert Dunne made the requisite preparations. His own account states: ‘Having been told the necessary details, I went with him, prepared to administer Baptism as well as Extreme Unction, with Holy Communion if possible.’
The Archives of the Passionist Church at Avenue Hoche contain an accurate note of the time of the sick-call. The entry reads:
On Thursday, November 29th, 1900, towards 4 in the evening, Father Cuthbert was called to the bedside of the once famous Oscar Wilde to receive him into the Catholic Church and administer the sacraments of the dying. He was unable to articulate but endeavoured to recite the acts of Faith, etc, suggested and showed signs of a sincere conversion. The following day he passed away peacefully.
That is a record of simple fact, but in the priest’s personal narrative the scene springs suddenly to life. ‘As the “voiture” rolled through the dark streets that wintry night, the sad story of Oscar Wilde was in part repeated to me. When we reached the little bedroom of the hotel, the attendants were requested to leave. Robert Ross knelt by the bedside, assisting me as best he could while I administered conditional Baptism, and afterwards answering the responses while I gave Extreme Unction to the prostrate man and recited the prayers for the dying.’
But the crucial question remains: what was the precise condition of Oscar Wilde at that moment of supreme spiritual crisis?
Father Cuthbert Dunne was not unaware of the importance of this point. His is not only an eye-witness account; it is the narrative of one who played the leading part in that last scene. ‘As the man was in a semi-comatose condition,’ states Fr Cuthbert Dunne, ‘I did not venture to administer Holy Viaticum; still, I must add that he could be roused and was roused from this state in my presence. When roused, he gave signs of being inwardly conscious. He made brave efforts to speak, and would even continue for a time trying to talk, though he could not utter articulate words. Indeed, I was fully satisfied that he understood me when told that I was about to receive him into the Catholic Church and give him the Last Sacraments. From the signs he gave, as well as from his attempted words, I was satisfied as to his full consent. And when I repeated close to his ear the Holy Names, the Acts of Contrition, Faith, Hope and Charity, with acts of humble resignation to the Will of God, he tried all through to say the words after me.’
In a second draft of his MS, Fr Cuthbert Dunne confirms this account and adds a further detail: ‘When I reached his bedside he was half-conscious, trying indeed to speak, yet not able to utter an articulate word. I remarked at once that, on his head above the forehead, there was a leech on either side, put there to relieve the pressure of blood upon the brain.’
Fr Cuthbert Dunne was assiduous in his ministrations and visited the dying man several times to comfort and console him. He continued to observe him closely and what he saw confirmed his first impression that, although the power of speech had failed, Oscar Wilde still retained a large measure of consciousness and coherence. His evidence continues: ‘At a later visit, I was if anything more convinced as to his inward consciousness when, in my presence, one of the attendants offered him a cigarette, which he took into his fingers and raised to his face although, in the attempt to put it between his lips, he failed. At these subsequent visits, he repeated the prayers with me again and each time received Absolution.’
Oscar Wilde died shortly before two o’clock in the afternoon on November 30. The news was conveyed to Fr Cuthbert Dunne in a hastily-pencilled note, delivered by hand to Avenue Hoche and endorsed on the cover: ‘Immediate. R.S.V.P.’ Cautious as ever, Ross does not mention the dead man’s name. The note reads:
Rue des Beaux-Arts.
Dear Father Cuthbert,
My friend passed away at 2 o’clock. I have been to see about the formalities and was sorry to miss you this afternoon. Can you tell me where I can find a Nun or some religious to come and watch the body for tonight and tomorrow night? If so, please send the bearer of this note to whatever place with a note from you. The funeral will be on Sunday at Baigeux [sic] Cemetery. I will let you know exactly when I know myself. The body will first be taken to St Germain des Pres.
So many thanks for all your kindness and sympathy.
Very sincerely yours,
Gesling was most kind in every way and is to smooth over difficulties.
In the Register at St Joseph’s Church, Fr Cuthbert Dunne carefully inscribed the details of his ministration. The entry is No. 547 and reads:
1900/Nov. 29. Today, Oscar Wilde, lying ‘in extremis’ at the Hotel d’Alsace, 13 Rue des Beaux-Arts, Paris, was conditionally baptized by me.
He died the following day, having received at my hands the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.
Meanwhile, Robert Ross had completed arrangements for the funeral and sent a further note, a petit bleu, by Pneumatic Post, dated Saturday, 1 December.
Dear Father Cuthbert,
The funeral takes place at 9 o’clock on Monday at St Germain des Pres and afterwards at the cemetery at Bagneux, I believe a great distance off. If you would like to attend, I shall be so pleased. Many thanks for sending me the Franciscan Sisters. He was particularly devoted to St Francis and deeply read in all his life and literature, so it is very appropriate.
Ross probably remembered that, towards the end of his term in prison, Wilde had made known his desire to have some books to read on his release. The selection was left to Ross, but one book which Wilde particularly specified was ‘a good life of St Francis of Assisi’.
The Requiem Mass was followed by the usual Absolution, and Fr Cuthbert Dunne officiated at the burial service.
These simple facts refute the suggestion made by some writers that Wilde ‘died dreadfully’. It is perhaps to be regretted that they were not made known at an earlier date.
In his Present Time Appraisal (1951), Mr St John Ervine makes an apposite comment upon the failure of Wilde’s power of speech. ‘The lord of language,’ he says, ‘so brilliant in his discourse on mundane matters, was silent in the hour of his most high decision: his tongue was tied in the presence of his Lord God. He was baptized and given Extreme Unction, but not the Sacrament, which he was now physically unfit to take.’
The last comment may well be left to Fr Cuthbert Dunne, who wrote feelingly of the great injustice ‘done to a dead man who can say no word in self-defence, and who, whatever his sins may have been, expiated them by suffering severe penalties: imprisonment, ostracism from the great world in which he had been an idol, loss of all that the cultivation of his brilliant talents had brought him, poverty in which he was left dependent on others for his sustenance. After all this, he turned to God for pardon and for the healing grace of the Sacraments in the end, and died a child of the Catholic Church.
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