Special Issue : Oscar Wilde, Jews & the Fin-de-Siècle

Summer 2010


‘To defend the undefendable’ : Oscar Wilde and the Davis Family

Margaret D. Stetz

University of Delaware


There is more than one portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890–91).  Alongside Basil Hallward’s masterwork in paint, which idealizes its sitter’s beauty and physical grace, stands Dorian’s own attempt, albeit in a different medium, at the art of representing character through surface appearance.  For the benefit of Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian conjures up in words the image of a man whom he had encountered during an evening’s prowl through London’s East End:

‘About half-past eight I passed by an absurd little theatre, with great flaring gas-jets and gaudy playbills.  A hideous Jew, in the most amazing waistcoat I ever beheld in my life, was standing at the entrance, smoking a vile cigar.  He had greasy ringlets, and enormous diamond blazed in the centre of a soiled shirt.  ‘Have a box, my Lord?’ he said, when he saw me, and he took off his hat with an air of gorgeous servility.  There was something about him [,] Harry, that amused me.  He was such a monster.’ (42–43)

This is the best-known representation of a Jewish character in Oscar Wilde’s fiction and it is, of course, unambiguously anti-Semitic.  Whether we should ascribe the anti-Semitism here to Dorian Gray alone or to Wilde as well is, on the other hand, not so clear.  Is Dorian, who calls the theatre manager (later identified by another character as a ‘Mr. Isaacs’) a ‘most offensive brute’ (46), merely looking into a mirror and, in effect, projecting onto another the monstrosity that lurks in his own soul? Is the reader meant to recognize in Dorian’s arrant and arrogant racism an early sign of the heartlessness that will lead him to cruel acts of violence? Or does this passage do nothing more than unselfconsciously give voice to a sentiment that the majority of the novel’s Christian readers would have endorsed—a bodily, as well as moral, loathing echoed by Wilde’s narrator, who speaks of ‘the fat Jew manager who met them at the door [and who] was beaming from ear to ear with an oily, tremulous smile’? (63).  And was this a feeling that Wilde himself shared?

Identifying Wilde’s attitude toward Jews is no easy matter, given both the anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism, inextricably mixed, that pervaded the age and the various worlds in which he moved, including the bohemian, theatrical, and aesthetic worlds.1 Wilde famously adored a number of Jewish women, from Sarah Bernhardt to Ada Leverson, and he was a supporter of the work of Amy Levy, both before and after her early death.  Nonetheless, in late-Victorian gentile circles and in Wilde’s own social milieu, close relations with particular Jews (and with Jewish women, in particular) did not guarantee an absence of the kind of negative stereotyping of Jews in general so common in nineteenth-century Britain.  Certainly, the poet and critic Arthur Symons managed both to sleep with Jewish stage performers and, in ‘Esther Kahn’ (1902), his short story about an actress from the East End, to characterize Jews as dirty, shrewd, vengeful, and obsessed with money.  In her recent essay for the volume ‘The Jew’ in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Culture (2009), Nadia Valman has steered a safe middle course by noting that ‘[t]he villainous and power-hungry Jew appeared in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (56); her phrasing diplomatically avoids any linkage between the presence of such a figure and the author’s own beliefs. 

Equally vexed is the question of how Wilde’s Jewish contemporaries felt about him.  We can, however, get at least a small vantage point onto these matters through a look at Wilde’s relations with one Jewish family, the Davises, who were also central figures in the same worlds in which he was prominent.  Wilde, of course, had grown up in Dublin.  The Davises, though Londoners, spent a number of years in Dublin, and several of their eight children were born in that city, a fact that gave them an immediate connection to the transplanted Irishman and that might account for his presence in their household quite early in his career, as well as their own continuing interest in him, before and after the catastrophe of 1895 and even long after his death. 

As the sons of a prominent surgeon and a published poet, Oscar and William Wilde were positioned at the top of the Protestant social hierarchy of Merrion Square; as the sons and daughters of a Jewish dentist, the children of Hyman Davis and his wife, Isabella, did not occupy quite so lofty a place in Dublin society during the years 1849 to1863.  Even after the family re-established itself in London in 1864 and Hyman abandoned dentistry for a career as a professional portrait photographer, the Davises remained firmly within the middle classes—burdened, moreover, with social disadvantages that non-Jewish families, such as the Wildes, did not experience when they relocated to England.  Oscar enjoyed the privilege of becoming an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford.  James Davis (1853–1907), who was born in Dublin one year before Oscar, attended the less prestigious University College, London, then worked as a solicitor from the mid-1870s through the mid-1880s, while dabbling in journalism, pursuing his love of theatre (and of actresses), and betting compulsively on horses.2 Precisely how James became friends with the Wildes in the late 1870s—whether they had first met during their Dublin boyhoods or only as young men making their way in London—is unknown, but he brought both Oscar and Willie into his parents’ Bruton Street household as visitors, according to the recollections of one of his younger sister.  As Eliza (1866–1931), who would later be known to the literary world by her married name, ‘Mrs. Aria,’ recorded in her 1922 memoir, My Sentimental Self,

Oscar Wilde was a slender stripling, inclining towards fat only in the face, and I would sit and gaze at him with his chin in his hand, in silent wonder at his strange slow utterances, while I respected, with no notion what it implied, that ‘He had won the Newdigate.’

How impressed I was with his soliloquy, all unintelligible as it was to me, on a girl he had met at six o’clock in the morning in Covent Garden Market.

‘She carried a large bunch of lilies.  How beautiful you are! I murmured, and she passed by in silence.  How beautiful.’

Both Oscar Wilde and Willie Wilde became frequent visitors, and in a public garden which spread its ill-kept lumpish lawn behind our dwelling we often played tennis together: Willie in a shirt showing some desire to be divorced from the top of his trousers, and Oscar in a high hat with his frock-coat tails flying and his long hair waving in the breeze.  (15–16)

Eliza Davis Aria would acquire fame of her own as a journalist, as the editor of a fashion magazine titled The World of Dress, as author of numerous books on costume and motoring, and as a society hostess, but also infamy as both a divorcee and the longtime lover of the adulterous Sir Henry Irving.3 It is in connection with Irving that she makes her sole appearance in Richard Ellman’s biography of Wilde, performing a good action on Oscar’s behalf, as she tries unsuccessfully to interest Irving in the script of The Duchess of Padua (219).  Ellmann supplies no date for this benevolent intervention, to which she herself alludes in My Sentimental Self, but it could not have occurred before 1888, the year in which Eliza Aria claims to have met Irving at a dinner at the house of the writer and editor, Walter Ellis. 

Why she would have taken up Wilde’s cause as a playwright, years after his visits to her parents’ house, is unexplained by Ellmann, but a clue may lie in her memoir.  There, she reports that her older sister, Julia (1859–1916), who became the wife of Arthur Frankau but later published novels under the masculine pseudonym ‘Frank Danby,’ gained her entry to the literary world in Wilde’s shadow: ‘Julia’s attempt at a parody of a villanelle by Oscar Wilde which had appeared in The World led to an interview with Edmund Yates [its editor], who found in it some excuse for encouraging her to take up writing as a career.’ Aria follows this information with the remark that ‘It is a coincidence that her [Julia’s] first published lines should have owed their existence to Oscar Wilde’ (16), but evidently Julia herself felt a continuing debt, and it might have been she who encouraged Eliza to approach Irving.

The evidence of this sense of indebtedness lies in the extraordinary public gesture that Frankau performed six years after Wilde’s death, at a moment when his literary reputation was still at a low point and his name remained unmentionable in polite circles.  In 1906, once again using the pseudonym of ‘Frank Danby,’ she published the melodramatic society novel The Sphinx’s Lawyer, in which her fictional protagonist, Errington Welch-Kennard, speaks often of the public’s unjust treatment of his late client, Algernon Heseltine, a figure based on Wilde.  The novel is by no means a vindication of Wilde, for it describes him as ‘mad’ and suggests that, instead of being sent to prison, he should have been confined to a hospital, as a lunatic or a leper: ‘He might have been placed in safety, kept from spreading his disease, from working evil’ (103).  Nonetheless, it is also an indictment of the hypocritical society that demanded his punishment, while ignoring the sins of others, and a diatribe against the inhumanity of his sentence:

The fire of his own genius had burnt Algernon’s youth.  The light that blazed about him obscured for him the minor rules of meaner men.  He saw more largely, amazing visions thronged, all sense of proportion became lost.  He was not as others.  He felt that, and at first the dazzled world which his personality fascinated saw it too, and applauded.  When the applause changed to low suspicious muttering, he became more flamboyant; he was supremely conscious of his gifts.

The end was not swift, yet it was upon him before he knew.  He stood before his accusers in the dock as a child might have stood, impudent, bewildered, irresponsible.  Those for whom he and his ailments held no meaning found him guilty, and sentenced him to a terrible end.  He was as a sick child, morally, mentally, physically, dazed, and failing.   

For his fine hands, which had penned epic and philosophy, poem, and drama, there were bundles of tarred oakrum [sic].  When he failed over his task there was darkness, more appalling solitude, less food, stripes.  It ought to be incredible, but the whole bare truth is beyond it.  The personal degradation to which this man of genius was subjected, the outrages to his glimmering sense and dying manhood, made a martyr to him to those who knew.  (104–05)

Yet something more than mere gratitude toward Wilde or happy memories of earlier days might also have inspired this 1906 work.  Frankau was a longtime friend of Ada Leverson, going back to the early 1890s and to their shared experiences as members of the circle around J.  T.  Grein’s Independent Theatre (Speedie 42–43).   Frankau’s novel may have been, in part, an attempt to say what Leverson—known to the world as Wilde’s dearly loved Jewish ‘Sphinx,’ whose words would have been dismissed by the public as mere special pleading—could not say herself.  Whatever influenced Frankau’s tribute to Wilde and protest against his fate, it was accompanied by a most astonishing Preface—an open letter, addressed ‘TO MY BROTHER ‘OWEN HALL,’’ that began with the author declaring, ‘Because you ‘hate and loathe’ my book and its subject, I dedicate it to you.  For, incidentally, your harsh criticism has intensified my conviction of the righteousness of the cause I plead, and revolt from your narrow judgment has strengthened me against any personal opprobrium that such pleading may bring upon me’ (Danby n.p.) In the years since James Davis had introduced Oscar to his sisters, he had left his career in law, edited several periodicals, worked as a drama critic, and then, in the 1890s, become a playwright and librettist himself, under pseudonyms—Payne Nunn (‘payin’ none’) and Owen Hall (‘owin’ all’)— that alluded punningly to his incurably spendthrift ways and carelessness about his financial obligations (d’Arch Smith 30).  As ‘Owen Hall,’ however, he enjoyed unexpected success with the public, which flocked to his The Geisha, Florodora, and other musical comedies, little knowing, of course, that the creator of these immensely popular entertainments was Jewish. 

Timothy d’Arch Smith, a descendant of the Davis family, has tried to account for the fierce and implacable hostility that James expressed toward Wilde, following the scandal of 1895: ‘Davis was fond of … [saying] that he could be trusted with anything except a sovereign; and, he added, a pretty girl.  It was this compulsive attraction to women that led him to regard Oscar Wilde’s behaviour as an abomination’ (50).  But this explanation is unconvincing, and the reason behind Davis’s extreme antipathy remains a matter of speculation.  Did the root of it lie merely in homophobia? Was there some unsettled personal score between two Dublin-born men of the London theatre, perhaps stemming from a moment when Wilde had not done enough to advance the theatrical ambitions of his old acquaintance? Did Davis feel it necessary to make a moral distinction between his own obvious, yet unpunished, failings and those of his scapegoated contemporary, as a sop to his own conscience or his own vanity?

Whatever the cause, there was a deep and public rift in the Davis family over Wilde, with James as accuser and Julia as advocate.  Reflecting upon The Sphinx’s Lawyer more than fifteen years later, in her 1922 memoir, Eliza Aria would refer to her older sister’s novel as having been ‘written to defend the undefendable Oscar Wilde,’ a phrase that suggests her own opinion was more in sympathy with that of her brother (Aria 54).  Yet the single adjective ‘undefendable’ is the only censorious mention of Wilde in My Sentimental Self, and alongside it stands the wryly amusing, but by no means unfriendly, account of his youthful appearance and of his visits to her parents’ home. 

In The Picture of Dorian Gray and elsewhere, Wilde produced caricatured portraits of Jews.  But in later years, his Jewish literary contemporaries also drew portraits of him, sometimes favorable and sometimes not.  What all these differing representations signify about the ‘true’ social attitudes and personal views of those who populated the cosmopolitan artistic circles of late-Victorian London remains a mystery even deeper than the question of why Basil Hallward’s painting of Dorian aged and changed. 


For more about the combination of attraction and repulsion displayed by adherents of the aesthetic movement in London of the 1890s and, in particular, about its influence on the reception of Sarah Bernhardt, see Margaret D.  Stetz, ‘Esther Kahn: Antisemitism and Philosemitism at the Turns of Two Centuries,’ in Antisemitism and Philosemitism in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries: Representing Jews, Jewishness, and Modern Culture, eds.  Phyllis Lassner and Lara Trubowitz, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008, 119–37.

For many of these details about the Davis family, I am indebted to Todd M.  Endelman, ‘The Frankaus of London: a Study in Radical Assimilation, 1837–1967,’ Jewish History, 8: 1 / 2 (1994), 117–54, and to Elizabeth Eccleshare, ‘Frankau, Julia (1859–1916),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/55572, accessed 6 Sept 2009].

In his biography of Irving, Jeffrey Richards refers to her discreetly, on one occasion, as ‘the companion of his final years’ (41) and somewhat damningly, on another, as his ‘mistresss’ (82).  See Jeffrey Richards, Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World.  London and NY: Hambledon and London, 2005.

Works Cited

Aria, Mrs.  [Eliza].  My Sentimental Self.  London: Chapman and Hall, 1922.

Danby, Frank [Julia Frankau].  The Sphinx’s Lawyer.  NY: Frederick Stokes, 1906.

d’Arch Smith, Timothy.  The Times Deceas’d.  Settrington, UK: Stone Trough Books, 2005.

Ellmann, Richard.  Oscar Wilde.  London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.

Speedie, Julie.  Wonderful Sphinx: The Biography of Ada Leverson.  London: Virago, 1993.

Valman, Nadia.  ‘Little Jew Boys Made Good: Immigration, the South African War, and Anglo-Jewish Fiction.  ‘The Jew’ in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Culture: Between the East End and East Africa.  Eds.  Eitan Bar-Yosef and Nadia Valman.  Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.  45–64.

Wilde, Oscar.  The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Ed. Donald L. Lawler.  Norton Critical Edition.  NY: W.W.  Norton, 1988.


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