As legend has it, Oscar Wilde’s final celebrated words on his deathbed revolved around the wallpaper that decorated the hotel room at L’Hotel in Paris where he died in 1900. He allegedly said, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has got to go.”
Whether this conversation ever really took place no one will ever know, but we do know that Wilde finally converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, a subject taken up in Rupert Everett’s new film The Happy Prince, as the Catholic Herald report.
While some have questioned this conversion, Oscar Wilde had long flirted with the idea of becoming Catholic during the course of his life and particularly in his youth, but was stopped in his tracks after his father threatened him with disinheritance.
At the time that the young writer was attending Magdalen College at Oxford University, an excerpt inscribed in the diary of the future MP Ronald Gower revealed a man that was very much intrigued with Catholicism.
“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.”
It is noteworthy that after Wilde was sent to Reading Gaol in 1895, one of the books that he requested was St. Augustine’s Confessions along with a copy of the Greek Bible, something that he likened to “going into a garden of lilies out of some narrow and dark house.”
The priest who assumed responsibility for Oscar Wilde’s conversion to Catholicism in 1900 was Father Cuthbert Dunne, who refused to speak publicly about this event until close to the time of his death in 1950.
Father Dunne hit out at critics of Oscar Wilde’s decision, explaining that the dying writer was absolutely sincere in his desire to finally become a Catholic, an idea which had always held great appeal for him.
“Whatever his sins may have been, he expiated them by suffering severe penalties: imprisonment, ostracism from the great world in which he had been an idol, loss of all that the cultivation of his brilliant talents had brought him. He turned to God for pardon and for the healing grace of the Sacraments in the end, and died a child of the Catholic Church.”
With regard to the actual conversion itself, Dunne described how Wilde was fully aware of what he was doing, trying his very hardest to speak in his final hours.
“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.”
It has been noted by some critics that the deathbed scene where Oscar Wilde finally releases himself to the clutches of Catholicism in The Happy Prince is perhaps one of the most moving moments in the entirety of the film, and one suspects that Wilde would have approved.