The other Sunday I made a pilgrimage to the Père Lachaise cemetery, in the northeast of Paris, France, to pay my respects to the shade of Oscar Wilde. I found I was not alone.
The great man’s grave was surrounded by quite a crowd, including a party of Japanese students, a family of Germans (the father was wearing lederhosen) and an assortment of young people in their twenties: French, Italian, British and American.
As I arrived, one of the young women was planting a kiss on the huge Jacob Epstein angel that surmounts the poet’s grave. She was kissing the marble deliberately, to leave the lipstick impression of her mouth on the monument. "Why did you do that?" I asked. "Because I love him," she replied. "We all do," added another of the girls (she was from Baltimore). "He’s one of us."
Wilde, it seems, is our contemporary. He died in Paris 109 years ago, a near-friendless exile, impoverished, shunned, disgraced. Today, he is world-famous and universally admired. There are 1,000 lipstick impressions on his tomb. He would not have quarrelled with the attention: he was a pioneer of celebrity culture. "If you wish for reputation and fame in the world," he advised, "take every opportunity of advertising yourself. Remember the Latin saying, ‘Fame springs from one’s own house.’ " At theatrical first nights, as a matter of policy, during the 10 minutes before the curtain was due to rise, he would make a series of brief appearances around the auditorium – in the dress circle, in the stalls, in the boxes on either side of the stage. He wore outlandish clothes; he said outrageous things. He set out to get himself noticed. He was.
And he is. I am writing a series of Victorian murder mysteries featuring Wilde as my detective, and, as my publishers take me about the world, I am discovering that my hero’s fan base extends way beyond Europe and North America. He has a substantial following in South America, the Middle East, India and – wait for it – Korea. Other Victorian writers may be more widely read (Dickens and Conan Doyle, for example), but I reckon that no other individual Victorian, however eminent (no, not Queen Victoria herself), lives on as a personality in quite the way that Wilde does.