No. 13 Rue des Beaux-Arts: Lost in the Cracks of Counterfactual History

I have been researching a myriad of sources in preparation for an alternate history which diverges from our world at the point of the Fashoda Incident in 1898. In our world, Great Britain and France nearly came to blows over a ruined fort in the swamps of the Sudan. French pride and nationalism eventually succumbed to the belief that the Third Republic, bitterly divided as it was by the controversy over Alfred Dreyfus, was in no shape to fight a primarily naval and colonial war against the largest fleet on the planet. While my research has done much to question this view, it has also let me uncover one of those interesting circumstances which could have been more noteworthy in a different world.

Those of who are interested in alternate history can readily see the influence of the “Concise History of the World” entries; wars, elections, assassinations, and inventions have easily-deciphered consequences. Less commonly examined or discussed are the effects that such events have on society. Even rarer are alternate histories dealing with individuals who were not so important in the politics and battles of an era, yet who helped influence it, such as intellectuals and artists. How many alternate histories of the First World War discuss the effects of a Central Powers victory on a Sassoon or an Owen?

Looking into the sorts of propaganda used by France and the United Kingdom during the Fashoda Crisis, I discovered that Oscar Wilde actually spent the last few years of his life in exile in Paris, specifically at the Hotel d’Alsace at the address in the title of this post. Surrounded by policemen who watched his every move, Wilde lived off the goodwill of the hotel manager and a small, anonymous pension while a city in which he had been widely celebrated before his imprisonment shunned him. He suffered head pains frequently, which would not be treated because of his poor means, and visitors reported that he was reduced to packing ice around his head, giving himself frequent morphine shots, and drinking heavily to deaden the pain. He died in the October of 1900.

I have seen a handful of alternate histories which deal with the military and diplomatic effects of Fashoda (though none realistically, but that’s a topic for another time), but none which has discussed the effect that war breaking out between Wilde’s homeland and his place of exile would have.  Assuming that war between Britain and France were to break out in late 1898, what would become of Wilde?

The two alternatives are for Wilde to stay in Paris, or leave. The former seems, on the face of things, to be more likely. The impoverished aesthete desired to leave Paris for “Spain” and “the shores of the Mediterranean” in our world, but was either prevented by his finances or his dismal emotional state from leaving Paris. It seems that a sad fate would then await Wilde. The French police who watched him in our world were “carefully watching him…on the slightest provocation he would be arrested”: how much more carefully would Wilde’s activities be monitored when Great Britain was at war with France! Three further consequential branches present themselves if Wilde is forced to remain in Paris. The first, that he dies in poverty and alone, is little different to that which happened in our world, and bears no further remark. The second is that he is imprisoned, perhaps dying earlier on account of the lacking the few comforts he retained in his last years.  We would lose his corrections to The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband. The third, and least likely, considering the political atmosphere of France at the time, and especially during war with Great Britain, is that Wilde is willingly convinced (ha!) or unwillingly forced into writing propaganda against his homeland. This possibility seems the most interesting, and would lead to a more negative perception of Wilde after his death, though the willingness of the French to use a man of arts in this manner seems more suited to the mid-20th century than the late 19th.

What if Wilde leaves? Where would he go? Three possibilities present themselves, if Wilde manages to scrape together the funds necessary to travel elsewhere, or is gifted them by an admirer: somewhere else in France, back to Britain, or to somewhere along the Mediterranean littoral. If he remains in France, little changes compared to if he were to stay in Paris, though if he is in Provence, he may be able to recover a bit of his health. If he returns to Britain, little changes; now Wilde dies in ignominy in his own country, ignored by a nation which is too busy fighting a war to even revile him. A journey to Spain or Italy seems the most interesting of the possibilities.  Perhaps he recovers, and does not die in the October of 1900. His father lived to be 61; if a healthier Wilde could live to that age, he would not die until 1915. Fifteen more years of production, if he could regain his inspiration to write in Catalonia or Tuscany! His body of work up until his imprisonment had been accomplished in just over fifteen years; what could Wilde have done with the equivalent of another career? How would he have influenced or been influenced by fifteen more years of art and literature? I do not know, but it seems an intriguing possibility, one which I hope to cover to some extent if I succeed in outlining the more mundane events of an 1898 Anglo-French War that never happened in our world.

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One Response to No. 13 Rue des Beaux-Arts: Lost in the Cracks of Counterfactual History

  1. The Vulture says:

    The butterflies are what makes an AH convincing.