In short: This book has great subject matter but a rather unbearably dramatic style.
Dolly Wilde was Oscar's niece, who hobnobbed with the rich and famous and sponged off them, too; she never had much money of her own or did much work. She was a charming, witty and volatile lesbian or bisexual woman (Schenkar seems to prefer the former interpretation), a passionate lover, an avid reader, and a drug addict prone to depression. She was also a prolific writer of letters -- and nothing else, despite her friends agreeing she was destined for a literary career. She survived a convent school, an alcoholic father, and an intermittently loving mother; drove an ambulance in the First World War; and spent half of her life ambling from one friend's home to another, mainly between London, where she had a flat she never stayed in, and Paris, where the love her life, the filthy rich and resolutely polyamorous American expatriate Natalie Clifford Barney, held court.
What a subject! Dolly herself was drawn to the melodramatic turn of phrase, though in her letters the style also held a saving grace of acute observation and clever turn of phrase. Joan Schenkar's passion for her subject comes through, but I have to admit I could have done with less of Schenkar's adoring and romanticizing description, not to mention frequent repetition of details. The author also reads symbolism into small details and acts that don't necessarily warrant it. She admits herself that her method is less scientific and more an attempt to fill in what we don't know about Dolly. There's little enough material to build her upon -- mainly her 200 surviving letters, interviews with people who knew her personally, and an earlier slim book about her by Barney and her circle.
The biography is presented in a disordered jumble of stories, but which works well enough. Dolly emerges as a full character and the interesting details and revelations keep coming all the way to the end. The sad tone of the note on which the biography ends is possibly the best thing about it. However, it is hard to forgive any biography that unironically uses sentences such as the following (to describe a photograph of Dolly):
Her arms, crooked and bent, create two open isosceles triangles that frame her upper body. Their Classical geometry accentuates the Romantic carelessness of her pose.
The author repeatedly refers to Dolly, through quotations from her friends, as a fictional character or a piece of art, and here has managed to describe a snapshot in the terms of an art review. The style is suitable for the personality of the subject, but somewhat exasperating to boring old me, who sometimes distrusts romance and hyperbole. Does it elevate life? To be sure, but it also obfuscates it. I suppose it's a matter of point of view.
Two other peeves:
1. Frequent lists of names to describe how very literary and important
(aka posh, artistic, Bohemian, famous or scandalous) Natalie's and Dolly's casual friends were -- which is boring and smacking of snobbery!
2. The author's intent shines through in the body of the text and especially in the appendix "The Lesbian in Louise Brooks's Life" -- an intent which is, if we are kind, to expose a forgotten lesbian Wilde who had the potential to rival Oscar, as well as a piece of lesbian history; and if we are unkind, to stress Dolly's same-sex attractions and build her up as fame never did specifically because
she had same-sex attractions. Let's put it this way: I got the feeling Schenkar would not have written this book had Dolly been straight. That's not a bad thing, exactly, but one might have been less obvious about it.
Nonetheless, it's an evocative book full of interesting and subtle characterizations and I can heartily recommend it. And now that I've got my peeves off my chest: When's the movie coming out?