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In a compelling narrative of moral courage and personal integrity, this biography tells the story of Robert Baldwin Ross, the man who first seduced Oscar Wilde and never wavered in his loyalty to the flamboyant wit and playwright. Unfailingly, Ross stood by Wilde through the scandals that shocked a nation, through his much-publicized trials and imprisonment, at his deathbed in Paris—and thereafter dedicated himself to defending the reputation of his famous friend.
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Fryer (Andr‚ and Oscar: Gide, Wilde and the Gay Art of Living) looks at a minor figure in literary history, Robbie Ross, the object of Oscar Wilde's first homosexual liaison. Wilde's sexual relationship with Ross (1869-1918) began when the latter was a 17-year-old student and Wilde was a 33-year-old married man. Their friendship deepened when Ross moved in with Wilde and his wife, Constance (with whom Wilde was deeply in love and to whom he was still sexually attracted), while Ross was cramming to get into Cambridge. The author also documents the many affairs the two men went on to have both with male members of London's literary circles as well as with lower class "rent boys." Although this biography is ostensibly about Ross, equal or more space is devoted to Wilde's highly successful literary career, as the subtitle suggests, covering such high points as the publication of his then highly sensational novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as his ill-fated compulsive love for "Bosie" Davis. Bosie's father, who despised Wilde, was instrumental in having him tried for sodomy. Throughout Wilde's trial, prison term and release, Ross, who maintained a career as a minor writer and art critic, remained a loyal friend and frequently assisted the somewhat irresponsible Wilde financially. Ross was with Wilde when he died several years later; afterward he became Wilde's literary executor and befriended Wilde's sons. He was frequently subjected to vicious attacks from Bosie, who married and repudiated his former life. Written in a style that is fresh and exuberant but not sensational, Fryer's biography is particularly interesting for its in-depth look at London's late Victorian gay society. Photos not seen by PW. (Jan.)Forecast: 2000 marked the centenary of Wilde's death, and if this is packaged with other recent books on Wilde it might get some sales, but Ross is a minor figure and not likely to attract much attention.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.From Booklist:
Sometime in 1886--precisely when, where, and under what circumstances remain unknown--Oscar Wilde was seduced by a puckish 17-year-old Canadian, Robert Baldwin Ross, who in 1887 became a paying guest in Wilde's home as he crammed for entrance to Oxford. The die had been cast for host and, years earlier, for guest alike, though each soon moved on to other liaisons. After one near disaster, Ross, youngest son of a prominent attorney, was discreet about his affairs. Wilde, however, wasn't, and his eventual trial and imprisonment for indecency made him one of the most reviled public figures of the nineteenth century. Ross stood by him, became his literary executor, endured years of harassment from Wilde's demented aristocratic lover Lord Alfred Douglas, commissioned rising sculptor Jacob Epstein to make Wilde's memorial stone, and finally, many years after his own death, was interred in that memorial. That that was entirely fitting Fryer's wonderfully readable biography affirms, by detailing not only how Ross helped Wilde but also all Ross did for Constance, Wilde's wife, and for Cyril and Vyvyan, Wilde's sons. Eminently generous and compassionate, he helped many others, too, and was one of the most highly prized dinner guests and beloved friends in London. A chain smoker plagued by ill health, he died at 49 in 1918. Direct those who think that the life of a genuinely good man has to be boring to this unputdownable volume. Ray Olson
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