OSCAR WILDE'S FIRST REFUGE IN DIEPPE
1st September 2020
When Oscar Wilde was released from Reading gaol on a cold May morning in 1897, he headed immediately for France – not the bright lights of Paris, but the subtler charms of the Norman port-resort of Dieppe. It was a natural enough choice. Dieppe in those days was very chic, very English, and very popular with writers and, especially, artists – in part because of the wide skies and unique silvery light, in part because of the lively social scene that revolved around the magnificent Casino. Throw a stick on the Grand’ Rue or the esplanade and the chances were you’d hit an artist, a writer, or an Englishman.
The distinguished, well connected and decidedly Anglophile painter Jacques-Emile Blanche presided over Dieppe’s artistic scene, befriending and entertaining visitors such as Degas, Renoir, Whistler and (Camille) Pissarro. At the time of Wilde’s arrival, he was extending his patronage and friendship to Aubrey Beardsley (in Dieppe for his health, but soon to die) and the dissolute Charles Conder, who painted exquisitely on textiles. Walter Sickert was living more or less permanently in Dieppe (when not nipping over the Channel to commit the Jack the Ripper murders*). Also resident was the Norwegian painter Fritz Thaulow, who, with his statuesque Russian wife, delighted in entertaining all comers. There is a striking portrait of the Thaulow family, by Jacques-Emile Blanche, in the castle museum.
Among writers, frequent visitors included Max Beerbohm (often with his friend, the artist Will Rothenstein), George Moore, and the poets Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons. Also in Dieppe at the time of Wilde’s arrival was the publisher and pornographer Leonard Smithers, founder of the Decadent magazine The Savoy, which published some of Beardsley’s finest work.
Wilde knew Dieppe well, and had friends, enemies and kindred spirits there, both English and French. His loyal ally Robert Ross met him off the steamer, and Wilde immediately handed him the manuscript of De Profundis (The Ballad of Reading Gaol had yet to be written). That journey by steam packet, incidentally, would have taken an hour less than the huge car ferry that is today the only sea link with Dieppe – and it delivered the traveller into the centre of town, not to an out-of-town terminal.
Wilde was travelling under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth, but everybody knew who he was – and there were many in Dieppe who did not relish the prospect of the notorious Oscar’s arrival. These included Jacques-Emile Blanche and his friends Conder and Beardsley, all of whom were nervous of being seen in his company. And there were many others to whom Wilde’s presence was going to be at least embarrassing…
Things began to go wrong when a celebration at Dieppe’s old-established Café des Tribunaux got out of hand, there were complaints, and Wilde received a stern written warning from the Sous-Préfet. Restaurateurs and shopkeepers became anxious about the possible effects of Wilde’s presence on their businesses. When Oscar took up conspicuous residence under the arcades of the Café Suisse, close by the jetty where the steamers arrived and left, he became a target for ostentatious snubbing, slights and casual insults, especially from English visitors.
While Blanche and Conder shied away from potential encounters with their erstwhile friend, initially pretending not to have seen him, Walter Sickert, who in the past had received many kindnesses from Wilde, shamefully avoided him altogether and made no contact. Sickert, who lived with a fishwife in Le Pollet, the old fishing quarter of Dieppe, was too conscious of his position in respectable society on the other side of the harbour to risk any damage to his reputation.
Others were kinder. On one occasion when Wilde was being publicly humiliated in a café, Fritz Thaulow walked over and loudly invited him to dinner en famille. And Mrs Arthur Stannard, who wrote bestselling novels under the name of ‘John Strange Winter’, took pains to make him feel welcome, on one occasion intervening when Wilde had been pointedly cut by a group of English visitors to demand in a loud voice, ‘Oscar, take me to tea!’
Unsurprisingly, Wilde soon tired of the uncertain atmosphere of Dieppe and moved a few miles up the coast to the quiet village of Berneval, which for a while he found perfect. However, that didn’t last either, and Melmoth the wanderer moved on – to Italy, to be reunited with his nemesis, Lord Alfred Douglas…
If Wilde were to see Dieppe now, he would have no trouble recognising the place. The profile of the old town, dominated by the castle and the spires and domes of the two old churches, remains unmistakable, and the wide lawns still sweep down to the long esplanade. The Café Suisse is still there under the arcades, though now it is a garishly decorated brasserie rather than the plush mini-Café Royal that Wilde knew. The Café des Tribunaux on the Grand’ Rue still thrives and is little changed, and the Tout Va Bien (established 1876), opposite the Café Suisse, does a roaring trade. Though the Casino has long gone (destroyed amid the carnage of the Dieppe Raid in 1942) and the grandest of the hotels (the Palais Royal) in now converted into apartments, many of the substantial villas of the belle époque still stand. The quiet back streets, though gradually gentrifying, retain the tenebrous allure – such a contrast to the sparkling light of the beach side of town – that so fascinated Sickert. However, Dieppe, for all its enduring charm, is no longer the chic artistic resort it was a hundred years ago, nor is it so attractive and easy of access to the English. Though some of us still love it and visit frequently, Dieppe today is less a destination than a place that English visitors pass through on the way to somewhere else. Just as Wilde, in his Wildean way, did all those years ago.
* According to a theory floated by Patricia Cornwell in Jack the Ripper – Case Closed, Sickert was that notorious serial killer.
For more on the special relationship between Dieppe and the English, Simona Pakenham’s 60 Miles from England: The English at Dieppe, 1814-1914 (Macmillan, 1967) is well worth seeking out.
Nigel Andrew’s The Mother of Beauty: On the Golden Age of English Church Monuments, and Other Matters of Life and Death is available direct from the author (firstname.lastname@example.org), price £12 or on Amazon.
Nigel is a regular and established blogger here.