Oscar Wilde's Father's Cat
Oscar Wilde’s father, Sir William Wilde, was Ireland’s leading oculist in the late 19th century. According to the poet William Butler Yeats, Sir William once removed a patient’s eyes and put them on a dish on the table, intending to replace them once his work was done.
Having little to no knowledge of 19th century surgical procedures, I am forced to assume that this was more or less standard practice at the time. At least in Ireland.
However (so the story relayed by Yeats runs), Sir William’s attention wandered. As he had at least three illegitimate children and was at one point dragged into court and accused of having inappropriate and illicit sexual relations with a client—presumably one not under anesthetic and with the usual allotment of eyes, otherwise we could find ourselves in the world of the most disturbing Japanese erotic comic art and let’s not—perhaps Sir William was distracted by a buxom Irish chambermaid. With his patient’s eyes sitting in a dish on the table, he would have been sufficiently unafraid of any witness’s testimony to engage in some light flirtation.
At any rate, taking advantage of this lapse in concentration, the Wilde family cat leapt onto the table, sniffed out the dish containing the eyes and ate them both.
I have no more knowledge of 19th century surgical procedures than I had a few paragraphs ago, but I nonetheless feel confident in stating unequivocally that this was not standard practice. Not at the time. Not even in Ireland.
The person to whom Yeats related this story was a cat-lover himself, and is recorded to have responded to this rather gruesome anecdote with the considered, if laconic, comment: ‘Cats love eyes.’
As insightful as this remark is, it can hardly be allowed to stand as the final word on the matter. There are at least a dozen unanswered questions that spring to mind. Among them, what was the cat doing in the surgery? How exactly does a nineteenth century eye surgeon go about removing a patient’s eyes and, more to the point, how did he propose to reattach them? Were they still attached to the optic nerve? If so, does this mean that the patient could actually see throughout? And if so, what does a cat’s intestinal tract look like from the inside and exactly how buxom a chambermaid are we talking about? Finally, exactly how did Sir William Wilde explain this incident the next time he had to re-apply for medical malpractice insurance?
The fate of Oscar Wilde’s father’s cat is not recorded. After its starring role in this fanciful anecdote, he or she disappears from history. One presumes it found itself banished from the family home or at least from Sir William’s surgery. History is silent on whether it found itself held up to public opprobrium, condemned in open court and eventually destroyed.
I prefer to think of the wayward tabby escaping from the scene of its crime to the bedroom where the child of the house, young Oscar, slept, and, by the grace of some unknown power, slipping away into his dreams. Evading justice and equipping him for life with a sleek feline muse with a belly full of stolen visions.
As an image standing for illicitly obtained wisdom, I find it infinitely less tedious than that tired old nonsense about the snake and the fruit and the garden. A cat exploiting the momentary distraction of a lecherous oculist to eat his patient’s eyes possesses a combination of the absurd, macabre, sinister and hilarious that seems as good an explanation of any for the subsequent life and work of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, patron saint and sinner of wit, sexual martyrdom and the English language.
An eye-eating cat and a taste for dangerous public scandal is an unconventional legacy to pass from father to son, but then the Wildes were rarely safe and never conventional.
Of course this vision of Oscar Wilde’s father’s cat’s fate is a work of sheer imagination. As is the figure I see in the courtroom of Wilde’s third trial, the one that led to prison and the ultimate breaking of one of literature’s finest minds on the grey and hypocritical rock of English justice. That repugnant scene is somewhat lightened by the thought of an ancient eyeless figure, listening attentively to the judge pronouncing sentence and muttering in a thick Irish brogue, ‘Serve the bastards right.’
To draw a suitably immoral moral, it seems the difficulty with awarding extra vision to some is that it leaves others severely wanting.
About the Author
Nicholas Rasche is a writer and performer based in Melbourne, Australia. His fiction has appeared in journals including Island, Verandah, Going Down Swinging, The Jersey Devil, Danse Macabre, The Famous Reporter, and Lowestoft Chronicle. He recently co-wrote and presented ‘Supermanchild’ at the 2010 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.