Was there ever a more 1890s-sounding character than Theodore Wratislaw? His surname sounds like a Beardsley drawing: the craggy ‘wrati’ leading into the sinuous ‘slaw’. If that isn’t enough, his middle name ‘Graf’ hints at possible connections to the Bohemian nobility: a useful foil for a poet whose birthplace was the town of Rugby in Warwickshire. To those who haven’t read their copies of The Yellow Book or The Savoy too closely, Theodore Wratislaw seems invented – qualities that clearly endeared him to Max Beerbohm, whose famous fictional 1890s hero ‘Enoch Soames’ contained at least a ‘dash’ of Wratislaw.
Theodore Wratislaw (1871-1933) was, however, not only very real, but – as D. J. Sheppard’s excellent new biography reveals – shared Beerbohm’s fate of living the vast majority of his life outside of the decade in which he achieved passing notoriety. The question of what happened to the main players of the 1890s in the 1900s and beyond has always been a fascinating one. Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson and Johnson were all dead by 1902, leaving the survivors of the decade to either trade in nostalgia for the rest of their lives (as Beerbohm did, to some extent), or try to forge a new identity for the coming century (as attempted, in various ways, by the artists William Rothenstein and William Strang, and others besides). In either case it wasn’t an easy transition and Wratislaw cannot have been the only figure to have pondered whether he wouldn’t have been better off following Beardsley and Dowson to an early grave. In the last thirty years of his life, Wratislaw – best known for such poems as the 1896 ‘Orchids’ – published very little, although he did live long enough to enjoy the renaissance of the 1890s (which started, in fact, as early as 1913, with Holbrook Jackson’s well-known survey).
‘Who would have thought that there would ever be a biographical study of Theodore Wratislaw?’ asks Barry Humphries – a keen collector of 1890s material – in the foreword to Sheppard’s book; a roundabout way, perhaps, of addressing the key question here: does Wratislaw really merit the full biographical treatment, or does his reputation as a minor poet of the 1890s ensure that such a publication is addressed more at specialist collectors than a general scholarly audience? Sheppard’s stance is interesting: this is not the study of a lost genius so much as the study of one who never quite had the talent to earn the title in the first place. Sheppard wants to shed new light on Wratislaw’s verse, clearly, but he doesn’t seem overly invested in overturning his current reputation – although he is of course keen to clarify hitherto hazy aspects of the poet’s biography. If anything, Sheppard is perhaps too often embarrassed, or eager to highlight, the so-called mediocrity of many of Wratislaw’s poetic efforts, making value judgements that don’t always sit so easily in a study of this kind. None of this, however, detracts from the fact that this is a deeply-researched and wonderfully-engaging biography, which more than justifies Sheppard’s opening argument that there is great worth in carefully tracing the movements of marginal figures.
Wratislaw emerges as a curious character. Destined for the civil service from an early age, he pushes his way into poetry, but struggles to establish an independent identity. He drifts back into the civil service, where he is never really happy, and endures a string of unfortunate relationships, losing his first wife to tuberculosis, before stumbling into a bad second marriage (which ends in divorce) and thence to bankruptcy in 1913. He recovers to enjoy a rather more stable third marriage, and a second poetic life in the form of 1890s anthologies – though he never manages to carve out a successful post-decadent identity for himself, despite the surplus of melancholic material provided by his personal circumstances.
Exactly what Wratislaw offered the 1890s literary scene is unclear. Much of his 1890s work now looks like an imitative pose: the homoerotic poem (‘To a Sicilian Boy’) that he essentially disowns; the inevitable music-hall obsession; the flower symbolism; the almost-comic all-pervading despondency. He was, as Sheppard suggests, probably depressed at a low-level – and obviously had a dark side, which came out in violence later on in life, and led to the break-up of his second marriage. As this hints, Wratislaw is not always easy to like, though his biography does throw up some memorable stories – most notably the account of Wratislaw’s 1893 visit to Oscar Wilde at Goring-on-Thames: a weekend that might have been a turning-point in the young poet’s life, had he worn the right suit and stopped bringing up the wrong subject matter. It is, in a sense, the story of Wratislaw’s career in miniature: he engineers himself into the right place, but doesn’t really know what to do with himself when there.
It is this aspect of Sheppard’s study – the careful detailing of artistic networks in 1890’s London – that, I think, offers the most valuable insights. Creating art was important, of course, but knowing which cafes to frequent, and which critics to attract the attention of, was obviously crucial. Wratislaw’s best review, notably, was written by one of his closest friends; he used his own reviews, meanwhile, as a means of getting back at his enemies (Richard La Gallienne being an especial target). In fact, Wratislaw received very few reviews – and probably sold very little work – outside of his own circles. Only one of his publications (his study of Swinburne) made it into a second edition, and most were self-funded in part, if not in whole. His literary career was a struggle, with few obvious rewards, save a passing mention in a literary study or two (and popularity among collectors for whom the rarity of Wratislaw’s publications makes him all the more interesting). Sheppard recounts these struggles with great patience and authority, and a keen understanding of the wider context of the poet’s endeavours.
Wratislaw was – like most of his peers – unlucky to have been part of a movement that was essentially killed off overnight, following the social uproar over Wilde’s trial. In this book, however, he has proved himself very lucky indeed: few marginal figures get such meticulous treatment, despite the light such studies shed on wider questions of the period. This is not only an marvellously-detailed book, but a beautifully-produced one too: much more than the sum of the fragments it purports to present.
Samuel Shaw, January 2017.