Think of the “Second Spring” of English Catholicism and you will probably picture converts such as Cardinal Newman, Ronald Knox and GK Chesterton. Oscar Wilde – who converted on his deathbed in 1900 – is not usually associated with them. But The Happy Prince, a new film about the final years of Wilde’s life directed by Rupert Everett, may help to change that.
The sincerity of Wilde’s conversion is often questioned. Some point out that Wilde was semi-comatose on his deathbed. Others, like Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellmann, question whether his conversion was about faith or fashion, comparing the “application of sacred oils to [Wilde’s] hands and feet” to the playwright’s habit of “putting a green carnation in his buttonhole”.
Fr Cuthbert Dunne, the young priest who attended Wilde on his deathbed, kept silent about the controversy for most of his life. But before he died in 1950, mindful of the historical importance of the event, he set down his recollection of it:
[Wilde] 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.
Fr Dunne visited Wilde several times to comfort him. “At these subsequent visits,” Fr Dunne states, “he repeated the prayers with me again and each time received Absolution.”
The deathbed scene is movingly depicted in Everett’s biopic. If the emotional climax of Brian Gilbert’s 1997 film Wilde is the defiant speech the author gave at his trial on the “love that dare not speak its name”, the dramatic high point of The Happy Prince is Wilde’s conversion. It was one long in the making. An entry in the diary of Liberal MP Ronald Gower in 1876 notes that he met an Oxford undergraduate named “Oscar Wilde … a pleasant cheery fellow, but with his long-haired head full of nonsense regarding the Church of Rome. His room filled with photographs of the Pope and of Cardinal Manning.”
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