When I go to London, I make it a point to visit certain places. I go to the Cafe Royal, to see if I can still hear the discreet voices, long since hushed; glamorous and disgraced. I go to Paxton & Whitfield to look at the cheese (fortunately, it's a cheese shop). I go shopping at Fortnum and Mason – I get lavender oil for my mother and anchovy paste ('Gentleman's Relish') for my father. I go to Liberty's of London, where I spend mad money on luscious scarves – burnt the color of autumn, or colored a dusky blue and edged in cream embroidery.
I also visit a street: because it has a history, an isolated tragedy in the life of a man, in the world of art. It is Vigo Street, and in 1887 a publishing house opened its doors to that street and to the artistic traffic of a Victorian London dripping with naughtiness and simply panting to be published.
This was the house of John Lane and Elkin Mathews and it was called The Bodley Head, after Sir Thomas Bodley, the founder of the Bodleian Library. And in the two years spanning 1894/1895 its books became a byword for notoriety, scandal and beauty. Leonard Smithers' fabled collections bound in human skin. 'The Happy Hypocrite', Max Beerbohm's fairytale of masks and redemption. 'Stella Maris', Arthur Symon's love poem to a prostitute ("I know/Your heart holds many a Romeo"). 'Under The Hill' by Aubrey Beardsley – light, baroque, a minuet of Victorian pornography. And 'The Yellow Book', the periodical colored like the French novels gentlemen read in secret (and ladies not at all) – a collection of essays, poems and illustrations: new decadent, irresistible – a dirty pool in which the demi-monde could finally see its reflection.
The newspapers mocked, the critics were shocked: everyone was happy until April 3, 1895. Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor on that day, for "acts of gross indecency", despite his lucid wit, his moving speeches and the applause that followed him like his shadow.
On the following day, crowds gathered outside The Bodley Head – shiny toppers mixed with scruffy caps, frock coats intermingling with ragged shirts…for once the classes stood shoulder to shoulder, and it took a posture of ignorance to do it. Curses were shouted, stones were thrown – heat and ugliness filled the air. And it was all because of the irresponsible reasoning of the mob: the decadence The Yellow Book would surely welcome criminals such as Wilde – wasn't his good friend Aubrey Beardsley (i.e. 'Awfully Weirdsley' – oh, Punch, stop; you're killing me!) its Art Editor? And wasn't this the place where their evil words and tainted thoughts were printed? Tear it down! Tear it down!
No matter that Wilde and Beardsley hated each other, ever since the fiasco over 'Salome'. Wilde wrote the play in French, and ignored Beardsley's offer to translate it into English. Wilde was disappointed in Beardsley's illustrations: they were "like the naughty scribbles a precocious boy makes on the margins of his copybooks." Aubrey never forgave him.
No matter. Oh April 4, the mob sought the source of this artistic dissipation and swarmed through Vigo Street, up to the windows of The Bodley Head, each person intent on casting the first stone.
So – I always walk across Vigo Street when I'm in London. I imagine it without department stores, traffic cones, buses and walking directions painted on the asphalt. I try instead to see it powdered with dust: crowded with carriages, broughams, landaus and all manner of horse drawn conveniences.
I try to hear the tramp of feat, feel the anger in the air, see the shards of glass bursting from shattered windows. I try to comprehend history's shame and the destruction of genius.