Sunday, June 03, 2018

Spam of the month

More like spam of the quarter, to be honest, if not of the year. I don't get as much funny spam as I used to — either the glory days of the Nigerian scam e-mails are long gone, or the spam filters are getting better — probably the former :) Nevertheless, recently I got the following masterpiece.

Good day.

Dont consider on my illiteracy, Im from India.

Don't worry, my criminally-minded friend! You have just the perfect mixture of illiteracy and stiff pomposity that is practically the job requirement of a scammer :)

We put mine virus on your device.

How very intriguing. On the one hand, using “mine” instead of “my” lends the text a delightful touch of archaism, but on the other hand I think that even centuries ago it would not have been used like this unless the noun after it started with a vowel. . .

Then I pilfered all personal data from your OS.

LOLOLOL “pilfered” :))) I can only imagine that the author started his career as a street urchin, a little scamp who made his living as a pickpocket before he progressed to sending scam e-mails.

Withal I received some more then just data.

Ohhh yeah, first “pilfered” and now “withal”. . . keep doing this, I'm almost there. . .

The most entertaining compromising which I stole — its a record with your wanking. I installed malware on a porn page and after you loaded it. As soon as you selected the video and tapped on a play, my malware instantly loaded on your system.

I love the sudden transition from the old-fashioned formality of the previous sentences to the plain, honest directness of “wanking”. Good job! And I'm particularly impressed that you managed to do this on a computer with no camera. You might want to patent this fabulous new technology, it would probably make you more money than sending scam e-mails :)

After setup, your front-camera shoot the video with you self-abusing,

Ah, there he goes, switching into Victorian schoolmaster mode again. By the way, on the subject of “self-abuse” vs. “wanking”, I recommend this hilarious comment from an old blog post (jeez, the sort of things I find buried in my memory :]. . .).

moreover I saved precisely the porn video you selected. In next few days my malicious software grabbed all your social and work contacts.

I can practically see your software twirling its moustache and rubbing its hands evilly :))

If you want to erase the records- pay me 510 euro in Bitcoins.
I provide you my Btc number — [redacted]

Sure, bitcoin may have its advantages, but I can't help feeling that some of the old charm of these scams is gone now that they aren't using Western Union wire transfers any more.

You have 22 hours to go after reading. When I see transaction I will eliminate the videotape in perpetuity. Otherwise I will send the video to all your colleagues and friends.

Far be it from me to tell you how to run your business, but it might be better to get people to pay you to avoid receiving a video of me wanking :))


Definitely one of the funniest pieces of spam I've had in a long time. The prose is not quite as purple and orotund as in the better sort of Nigerian scammers, but where it really shines is its choice of diction, where I suspect Indian English is unparalleled. You can't help feeling that these people learnt English back in the days of queen Victoria, found that they liked it just fine as it was, and decided never to change anything subsequently. Thus you end up with them using words like “pilfered”, “withal” and, best of all, “self-abuse”. . .

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "Historical Criticism Notebook"

Oscar Wilde's Historical Criticism Notebook. Transcribed and edited by Philip E. Smith II. Oxford University Press, 2016. 9780199688012. xxxiv + 255 pp.

I think I first heard about Wilde's Historical Criticism a few years ago when I read volume 4 of the new Oxford edition of Wilde's works, edited by Josephine Guy (see my post from back then). It's a relatively little known essay that he wrote towards the end of his student years, entering it into a prize competition in the hope that it might be a stepping-stone towards an academic career, but this didn't work out so he ended up becoming a famous writer instead. Nor did I care terribly much for the essay itself, as I found it a bit too technical for my liking.

The present volume was published a few years later and contains the text of a notebook kept by Wilde while he was working on that essay. (I couldn't help but think of the phrase ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ when I heard about this book. A notebook kept while writing a student essay? Let us hope and pray that Wilde's shopping-lists have not been preserved.) It's fairly rough, mostly consisting of incomplete fragments of sentences, occassionally things being crossed out or inserted, etc. Whoever has typeset this book has gone to a lot of trouble to imitate the arrangement of things in the manuscript by a careful use of spacing, various rules and lines, etc.; and they even included the photographs of a few pages to give you an idea of what the original looks like.

Reading Wilde's text in this book was an odd experience because it's so fragmentary. It gave me a feeling of vagueness, perhaps something like one might get from reading something very (post)modern and avant-garde where even the finished product is deliberately maintained in a fragmentary state :) I guess that this stuff is interesting not so much for the sake of the contents themselves but as a chance to see the writer at work, take a peek behind the scenes so to speak. He seems to have initially generated very rough and incomplete fragments of sentences, disjointed and with major parts missing, and then gradually connected them into normal prose in subsequent passes through the essay. I remembered reading a few years ago in the very interesting book Oscar Wilde's Profession that “[i]t's as if Wilde's very creativity itself was manifest via the composition of small, discrete units” (see my post from back then). The fragmentary nature of the text in his notebook here seems to be a good confirmation of this.

I was wondering if there is some way I could profit from his example, but I doubt it. When I write these blog posts for example, I mostly write normal sentences from the start, even if I sometimes go back to them later and try to improve something. I can't quite see how I would generate such rough fragments first and then use them to form sentences later. But clearly his system was well suited to how his creativity worked, since the result, as we can all see, is that he wrote a lot of very lovely prose.

What I found more interesting than Wilde's notebook itself was the commentary by the editor, Philip Smith. I couldn't help admiring the obviously enormous amount of effort that he must have put into this book. Judging by the photographs of the manuscript pages, deciphering Wilde's handwriting can't have been all that easy to begin with; and then he has gone to the trouble of identifying, for each fragment in the manuscript, which passage of the finished essay it corresponds to. The contents of this notebook cover about half of the material in the finished essay, suggesting that Wilde may have had a second notebook that has been lost (p. xix). Sometimes several separate passages in the notebook correspond to the same passage in the finished essay, as Wilde reworked his initial rough fragments into something more closely resembling normal prose such as would eventually appear in the essay. There are also a few things in the notebook that Wilde did not include in the final version of the essay, e.g. a discussion of Tacitus (p. xxvi).

The editor has also identified the exact sources of various quotations that Wilde includes or alludes to in his notebook. In this sense his commentary could be seen as a supplement to Guy's commentary to Historical Criticism, and in a few cases he even points out things that Guy's commentary has missed or got wrong (see e.g. notes 8, 14, 150). At times I couldn't help thinking that it would have been better if, instead of publishing this notebook as a separate volume, Guy and Smith had joined forces and published the notebook and the finished essay together. In its present form, the notebook published as a standalone volume will probably be of interest to very few people. I would certainly never dream of buying it or reading it if it wasn't for my determination to read the Oxford edition of Wilde's works, to which the present volume could perhaps be thought of as a sort of supplement (although formally it isn't a part of that edition).

One thing I found interesting is how heavily the editor's commentary relies on digital resources — scanned copies of 19th-century editions on Google Books and the Greek classics from the Perseus digital library. One downside of this is that a lot of very long, very ugly Perseus URLs are included in the text here. I don't think there's any way around it, but URLs do look hideously ugly in print. After all, they were never meant to be printed much — in a normal HTML document you usually only see them when you move your mouse over a link or something of that sort.

This book also has a lovely light blue dust jacket. I'm pointing this out because the volumes from the Oxford edition of Wilde's works do not have dust jackets. I'm so disappointed. Clearly the publisher is still capable of producing dust jackets, so why don't those other volumes get them? . . .


There's a very interesting remark from Horst Schroeder quoted on p. xvi, arguing that Wilde might not have submitted the Historical Criticism essay to that competition at all, because it is “such a manifestly incomplete paper and in such a poor outward form at that”.

An interesting quote from Ernest Renan's Vie de Jésus: “One is of one's century and one's race even when one protests against one's century and one's race” (p. 150, n. 8).

A wonderful quote Historical Criticism, included here on p. 155, n. 39: Wilde mentions the “spirit of exclusive attention to form which made Euripides often, like Swinburne, prefer music to meaning, and melody to morality”. I haven't read any Euripides, but how very well this description suits Swinburne! And I loved his poetry for just these reasons :)

As an example of the attention to detail in this book, the editor has even provided footnotes describing Wilde's doodles in the margins of the manuscript. “In the center of the double space below the line Wilde has drawn a cartoon side view of a banded snake.” (P. 14.) I couldn't help chuckling at the thought how it would have been if someone edited some of my college notebooks in the same way. I'm still rather proud of that drawing of a mouse screwing a cat... :P

There is one odd detail on p. 133. Wilde, discussing Plutarch, says that “[h]e trusts not to mere rumour, for no historian is more careful than he in making use of ancient monuments and inscriptions of Greece with which if except Persians, no one was more familiar than himself”. Why would you expect Persians to be unusually familiar with Greek monuments and inscriptions? Did the Persian army feature a prominent contingent of antiquarians when they fought in Greece? By coincidence, this passage occurs on one of those few pages of the notebook of which this volume includes a photograph, also on p. 133. Wilde's handwriting seems to me to be a bit unclear at this point, but I can't help wondering if the word in question isn't meant to be Pausanias rather than Persians. You would expect the famous geographer and travel writer to be more familiar with monuments and inscriptions than a bunch of hairy foreign soldiers.

Wilde refers several times to the idea that the task of historical criticism is to discover some sort of general laws and principles that govern history (p. 109). He mentions that “while the conceptions of Law and Order have been universally received as the governing principles of the phenomena of nature in the sphere of physical science, yet their intrusion into the domain of History, and the life of man, has always been met with a strong opposition” (Historical Criticism, quoted here on p. 199, n. 321).

I think he's on to something here. In one of the first history classes in secondary school, when we learnt what history as a branch of enquiry is trying to do, discovering laws of the development of human society was definitely mentioned there as one of its main goals. I suspect that the ancient historians whom Wilde discusses in his essay would also agree that this is an important goal.

But on the other hand, I later got the impression that historians nowadays mostly shrink from actually doing this like vampires from sunlight. They used to do this — Toynbee comes to mind — but nowadays it's only outsiders to the field of history that dare to attempt it, people like Jared Diamond or Steven Pinker, and whenever anybody tries anything of that sort, a hundred thousand angry pedants rise up, each with his “well, actually”, eager to point out this or that of the countless little inaccuracies that one is bound to commit if one attempts to generalize history, deduce any sort of general laws or observations from it, and treat it as anything more than just one damn random contingent thing after another.

I suppose that this is a sort of immune reaction to the tendencies of airy-fairy generalists to spin whatever theory they fancy and shoehorn actual historical facts into it as needed, but I can't help feeling that the reaction goes too far into the opposite direction. If you aren't allowed to generalize from history, why on earth would you even investigate it? You might just as well read a novel then — or the phone directory.


  • Philip E. Smith II, Michael S. Helfand (eds.): Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of a Mind in the Making (1989). Mentioned here on p. xvi. A similar book containing some of Wilde's other notebooks. Apparently there is also a “Philosophy Notebook” that is still in the process of being edited for publication, at a speed that strikes me as not merely glacial but positively geological (p. viii here).
  • Julia Brown: Cosmopolitan Criticism: Oscar Wilde's Philosophy of Art (1997). Mentioned here on p. xxix, n. 11.
  • Iain Ross: Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece (2013). Mentioned here on p. xxxii.
  • John Addington Symonds (tr.): Sonnets of Michael Angelo Buonarroti and Tommaso Campanella (1878). Wilde quotes from one of Campanella's sonnets (p. 207, n. 364).

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BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "The Short Fiction"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 8: The Short Fiction. Ed. by Ian Small. Oxford University Press, 2017. 0198119593. cvii + 521 pp.

This volume contains all of Wilde's short stories — the two collections of fairy tales, as well as the slightly more ‘realistic’ stories such as The Portrait of Mr. W. H. and the ones in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories. It's been quite a long time since I've last read any of Wilde's short stories, so this book was a very enjoyable read. I had mostly forgotten what the stories were about, so they were for all practical purposes almost completely new to me now. There is a lot of diversity here in terms of style and subject matter, but pretty much every story here was enjoyable in its own way.

I remember reading somewhere that Wilde was very good at presenting very different faces to different segments of the market, and the short stories in this book are a good example of that. (See also p. xlvii in this volume for interesting remarks on the market for fairy tales in the 1880s and '90s.) On the one hand you have the fairly traditional-looking fairy tales for children in The Happy Prince and Other Tales, often with a very blunt and obvious moral lesson and in many instances relying surprisingly heavily on christian religious ideas, much more so than I would expect from someone like Wilde. On the other hand you have the fairy tales in A House of Pomegranates, which, as Wilde himself said (pp. xlviii–xlix), were aimed more at grown-ups than at children. Moral lessons are much less prominent here (perhaps with the notable exception of The Star-Child), and the focus is on showcasing Wilde's decadent sensibility and bathing the reader's mind in a thick soup of adjectives. And on the third hand there's Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, written in a more realistic style and set amongst the same sort of rich high-society people as Wilde's comedies (which he wrote a few years later, and for which he occasionally re-used quips, phrases, character names, etc., as is pointed out by the editor's commentary in this volume).

A Fire at Sea

The book starts with a tale I had never read before — Wilde's translation of Turgenyev's A Fire at Sea. I vaguely remember that I once read something about Wilde's translations from Turgenyev, and wondered how he did it without speaking any Russian. Well, it turns out that Turgenyev spent the last years of his life in France, living with a French woman, and he dictated this story to her in French so she could write it down (p. 291). So Wilde had to translate from French rather than from Russian.

This story didn't feel very Wildean to me, but felt very much like a work of Russian realist literature, so I'm guessing he did a pretty good job as a translator. What I've read of Russian realism so far was more or less entirely novels (mostly those by Dostoyevski, but also Tolstoy's War and Peace and Turgenyev's Fathers and Sons), so it was interesting to read a short story in that style for a change. I could easily imagine this sort of thing appearing as an episode in one of the long novels that Russian realist writers liked to write.

The story involves a shipwreck on a relatively short voyage in the Baltic. I liked this line where the narrator, having just reached the shore, watches the ship burn to ash: “ ‘Is this all?’ I thought, ‘and life itself — what is it but a handful of ashes strewn on the wind?’ ” (P. 9.)

The Happy Prince

The titular Prince is actually a statue. His eyes are precious stones, there's also one on his sword-hilt, and at his request, a Swallow distributes the gems to the poor people of the city. This turns out to be quite a big sacrifice; the Swallow was supposed to migrate to warmer climes, but distributing the Prince's gems takes him so long that winter comes and the Swallow freezes to death. Meanwhile, the statue, now devoid of its ornaments, ends up looking so unimpressive that the townsfolk decide to dismantle it without any further ceremony. No good deed goes unpunished :P Wilde isn't, I think, much of a person for happy-endings when it comes to fairy-tales.

There are many moving portrayals of poverty in this story, and the Prince's charity is commendable, but as usual in such situations, I couldn't help feeling that charity is the wrong way of trying to do anything about poverty; obviously the only thing that could actually make any difference in the bigger scheme of things is structural change — social reforms, preferably putting an end to capitalism, etc. I think Wilde was perhaps vaguely aware of this in The Soul of Man under Socialism, but there isn't any trace of it in this fairy-tale. But I shouldn't complain too much, as social and economic reforms are hardly the sort of thing that would fit into a fairy-tale.

One thing that surprised me (pleasantly) about this story is how much of the decadent sensibility there is in it, even though it isn't really supposed to be one of his explicitly decadent works. The Swallow describes Egypt, where he intends to spend the winter, in richly exotic terms that would not be out of place e.g. in The Sphinx or in some of the more purple parts of Dorian Gray.

The Nightingale and the Rose

This seems to be somewhat of a recurring motive in this book: someone makes an enormous sacrifice, and the world doesn't care one whit (we'll see it again in The Devoted Friend). A poor student wants to go to a dance with a rich girl, but she demands a red rose from him; the nightingale wants to help, but the nearby rose-bush has only white roses; but its rose will turn red if the nightingale impales itself on one of the rose-bush's thorns to the point where the thorn pierces the bird's heart. The nightingale agrees to do it, resulting in one of the most touching passages in this volume. It is always very affecting when someone dies while singing, and I was reminded of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, dying in her last song while floating on her boat. Well, here the nightingale dies, the rose turns red, but it's all to no avail. The rich girl has changed her mind and went dancing with someone else, and the student throws the rose away and forgets about the whole thing.

This struck me as a rather grim ending of the story. I suppose that the lesson is supposed to be not to make pointless, enormous sacrifices for people who won't appreciate them, and that's surely very reasonable, but if so, then the message was somewhat undermined by the fact that the nightingale's act of sacrifice is described in such moving terms.

The Selfish Giant

This was a pleasant enough story, especially since it has a happy end, unlike so many others in this book. The Giant initially acts like the stereotypical grumpy old man telling those damn kids to get off his lawn — all he needs is a rocking-chair, a ketchup-stained wifebeater shirt, and perhaps a shotgun — but eventually changes his mind when he realizes that since there are no children playing in his orchard, spring has started to avoid it as well and he now has eternal winter in it. The smallest and weakest of the aforementioned children turns out to be none other than Christ himself — I winced a little when I got to that part, as I really wasn't expecting such conventional religious sentiments in something written by Wilde. But I shouldn't complain; I imagine that by the standards of Victorian-era fairy-tales, the amount of religion in Wilde's stories is probably rather mild.

The Devoted Friend

Well, there's a difference between being devoted and being a spineless fool, but that never seems to occur to the protagonist of this story. Hans is a poor farmer whose neighbour, a rich miller, professes great friendship for him, but never actually does anything for him, while constantly requesting all sorts of favours and goods from poor Hans. The latter never says no and eventually dies by drowning in a swamp while running yet another errand for the miller.

While reading this story, I wanted to scream in rage at the smug, self-satisfied, fat bastard of a miller, but occasionally also at the spineless Hans who should have stood up for himself early on and then none of this would have been happening in the first place. As a result, I thought that this tale is a bit short on likeable characters. Obviously we sympathise with the poor Hans, but we cannot help wishing that he weren't quite such a pushover.

The Remarkable Rocket

This was a pleasantly silly tale. The eponymous Rocket has a very high opinion of itself, on which it is happy to expound at interminable length in conversations with other bits of pyrotechnic equipment as well as anyone else in its general vicinity, but the poor thing ends up being thrown away and eventually going off without even being seen by anyone. Obviously it's meant to be an example of what not to act like, but the whole thing is so silly that you can't really dislike the Rocket. When such an insignificant thing takes itself so seriously, it ends up being funny rather than annoying. The editor's notes point out some interesting ideas on what may have inspired the story; the Rocket could very well have been inspired by Wilde's rivarly with Whistler (p. 365), and the conversation between the various rockets in the beginning of the story has some vague parallels with the conversation between pots in Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat in Fitzgerald's translation.

The Rocket is a veritable fountain of delightfully outrageous epigrams: “I am always thinking about myself, and I expect everyone else to do the same. That is what is called sympathy.” (P. 42.) “Why, anybody can have common sense, provided that they have no imagination.” (Ibid.) “The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else, and this is a feeling that I have always cultivated.” (Ibid.) “Indeed, I have always been of opinion that hard work is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do.” (P. 46.)

Lord Arthur Savile's Crime

Apparently palmistry or cheiromancy was ‘trending’ (as we might say nowadays) at the time Wilde wrote this story, and this gave him an inspiration. He was even interested in it enough to ask a cheiromantist to prepare a horoscope for his newly-born son (p. 317). Anyway, Lord Arthur Savile is a rich young man of the sort that appear as protagonists in so many of Wilde's works. A cheiromantist looks at his palm and predicts that he is going to commit murder at some point. Lord Arthur is planning to get married soon, and decides that he wants to get this unpleasant business of murdering out of the way before he gets married. He tries to poison an elderly aunt, but she dies of natural causes without taking his poison. He makes contact with anarchist terrorists and sends a bomb to another relative, but it fizzles out pathetically. Eventually Lord Arthur, quite desperate by now, simply murders the cheiromantist and then gets married happily.

I really enjoyed this story. Its great charm lies in the fact that it tells the whole absurd tale with a completely straight face. The idea that murder is morally wrong, or that Lord Arthur might, perhaps, just plain choose not to commit it, is scrupulously avoided. Thus, murder becomes simply funny, like a harmless lark, and we can have a good time following the failures of Lord Arthur's increasingly desperate plans to murder someone before he has to postpone his marriage yet again.

The Sphinx without a Secret

This is one of the shortest stories in this volume; not a bad story, but nothing to write home about either. The Sphinx of the title is a woman who is so keen to have something secret and mysterious in her life that she actually rents a spare apartment and occasionally there, with the air of great secrecy, only to do nothing but sit there for a while and then go back home. I suppose you could say it's a study of a curious mental quirk. I was reminded of the cargo cults of the Pacific islands; perhaps she hopes that mystery will come into her life if she starts to act as if there were some mystery in it already. Plus, the story is perhaps an extension of the familiar idea that women's nature is inscrutable and hard for a man to understand. Wilde would later reuse the idea of “sphinxes without secrets” in The Picture of Dorian Gray and in A Woman of No Importance (p. 342).

The Canterville Ghost

This is perhaps my favourite among Wilde's short stories, and certainly the funniest. A rich American family buys an old castle in Britain, haunted by the ghost of a medieval knight. The ghost has reduced many people into gibbering nervous wrecks over the centuries, but now the tables have turned; the Americans don't take him in the least bit seriously, the bloody stains that he likes to leave around are easily dispatched using modern chemical products, the children of the family play pranks on him mercilessly, etc.

I suppose that there must be a lot of stories based on the ‘culture clash’ of Americans and Europeans in the late 19th century (see also the editor's commentary, p. 349), but I haven't read much in that vein so far and this one has the added bonus of the paranormal element, so it was really great fun to read. Here are two of my favourite examples:

“Many American ladies on leaving their native land adopt an appearance of chronic ill-health, under the impression that it is a form of European refinement, but Mrs. Otis had never fallen into this error.” (P. 83.)

From a conversation between the ghost and Virginia, the American girl (p. 97): “ ‘I don't think I should like America.’/ ‘I suppose because we have no ruins and no curiosities,’ said Virginia satirically./ ‘No ruins! no curiosities!’ answered the Ghost; ‘you have your navy and your manners.’ ”

On a more serious note, you can't help feeling sorry for the poor ghost, who ends up being just another victim of modernity and progress, and who looks less and less like a fearsome paranormal entity and more and more like an unfortunate and increasingly pathetic actor who has a hard time facing the fact that his career on the stage is coming to an end. It was good to see that the story has a reasonably happy end.

One thing surprised me about the editor's notes to this story. Mr. Otis is described as “the United States Minister” (pp. 82, 87, 89, 90), and the notes interpret the word “minister” in the sense of a clergyman (p. 347). But clearly Mr. Otis is very rich (as he has bought Canterville Chase; p. 82), he got married to “a celebrated New York belle” (p. 83), he seems to be involved in politics (“My father will be only too happy to give you a free passage, and though there is a heavy duty on spirits of every kind, there will be no difficulty about the Custom House, as the officers are all Democrats”, p. 97) and is writing a book about the history of the Democratic Party (p. 94). I have a hard time imagining that a person like that would have become a clergyman (and why would he then move to Britain?). Nor does the story ever show him doing any sort of work that you might associate with a clergyman. Surely a more likely explanation is that “minister” refers to a diplomatic representative? American plutocrats don't usually become clergymen, but they do sometimes become diplomats. Admittedly, this theory also has a downside: the U.S. did not have a minister in Britain, but an ambassador (i.e. a higher-ranking diplomat). (See also my post about vol. 6, where a similar situation has occurred as well.)

The Model Millionaire

The title is a bit of a pun. A painter hires a grizzled beggar-man to pose for him as a model, but later it turns out that the beggar was really an eccentric millionaire, who appreciates having been treated kindly by the painter and gives him a lavish gift in return. Thus he is not only a millionaire model, but a model millionaire (p. 110). This was a pleasant story, but a very short one. As the editor's notes point out, it may have been inspired by one of Wilde's journalistic pieces about artists' models (p. xx).

The Young King

I really enjoyed this story. The old king dies and the only successor is his grandson from an illegitimate relationship, who has been brought up by a poor adoptive family. He is now brought to the court and preparations for a coronation get underway. At first he is fascinated by the splendour and luxury of the court, but then a series of dreams reveals to him the costs of this luxury: poor people toiling away to make the precious items he would use in his coronation ceremony. He decides to reject all this and proceeds towards the coronation in the simple peasant garb that he used to wear until a few days ago. The noblemen around him are shocked and almost revolt at the sight of this, but when he gets into the cathedral, his staff bursts into bloom, a light from above shines upon him, etc., and the archbishop can only conclude: “A greater than I hath crowned thee.” (P. 122.)

Much like before, I couldn't help wincing a little when the religious element came into plain view like this, but I have to admit that it fits well here and isn't really bothersome at all. It was also nice to see that Wilde allowed a happy end here and resisted the temptation to spoil it somehow like in so many other stories in this book. This story also has many other things to recommend itself: a touching sympathy with the toiling masses of the poor people (although, again, without an awareness of the structural aspects of poverty) and lots of wonderfully purple passages describing the king's riches and the exotic places whence they came.

The Birthday of the Infanta

Some of the characters in this story were apparently inspired by some real Spanish royalty from the early 17th century (p. 385), but judging by the editor's notes, these correspondences between the story and historical persons don't actually go very deep. In any case, not very much happens in this story. The Infanta is a very spoilt princess and as part of her birthday celebrations is going to be entertained by the antics of the Dwarf, who has the peculiar characteristic of not only being grotesquely misshapen and disfigured, but also of being completely unaware that he is in any way abnormal. People laugh at his antics, but he innocently thinks that they are laughing with him rather than at him. But then at some point he looks in a mirror and slowly realizes that the monstrosity staring back at him is none other than himself. He dies on the spot, of a broken heart, and neither the princess nor anyone else is the least bit sorry about him.

I don't much like sad tales with a sad end, and this is very clearly one of them. My favourite part of the story is the moment when the Dwarf starts looking at himself in the mirror and slowly realizes that it's him. It reminded me of a similar moment in H. P. Lovecraft's delightful short story The Outsider, but I think Lovecraft did it better: he provided a better excuse for why the protagonist hasn't seen himself in a mirror before, and the moment of recognition is more sudden and comes as a surprise to the reader as well, not just to the protagonist.

Apart from that, as I said, not much happens in The Birthday of the Infanta and much of the story is mostly about Wilde exhibiting his usual luxuriant decadent prose, this time with more of a Spanish flavour which is otherwise not particularly common in his work.

The Fisherman and His Soul

This story is an interesting and, to me at least, original take on the old question of what to do about the human soul. The protagonist is a poor Fisherman who falls in love with a Mermaid, but cannot follow her into the sea because his soul gets in the way. So he is determined to get rid of it — not to sell it to the devil or anything like that, he simply figures he doesn't need it and wants to let go of it. He is completely cheerful and light-hearted about the whole thing, which was really refreshing to see considering that getting rid of a person's soul is usually portrayed very differently, as a serious and momentous act and usually as a part of a transaction with the devil. Anyway, after some trouble our Fisherman gets help from a witch who gives him a magical knife with which he can cut off his own shadow — and this, as it turns out, is his soul.

He goes to live in Y'ha-nthlei the sea, very happily, with his Mermaid, while his soul wanders around on land. They still meet and talk once a year, and the soul tries to tempt him into allowing it back. He is not impressed by offers of wisdom or riches, but eventually agrees to re-unite with his soul when it promises to show him some women who have feet and thus can dance, unlike his Mermaid. But it turns out to have been a ruse; his soul became rather evil in those years of wandering around without a heart, and it even tempts him into committing some crimes. He also finds that he cannot detach himself from his soul a second time. He returns to the sea shore and lives there as a hermit for a few years, hoping to see his Mermaid again; but he doesn't, until the sea washes her dead body ashore, and then he promptly drowns himself too.

This isn't a bad story, but I don't quite know what to make of the religious symbolism in it. Too much of it feels like one damn random thing after another. Why would it be regarded as wrong for the fisherman to give up his soul? Clearly the mermaid isn't evil, and he is genuinely happy while living with her; there's no reason why anyone should object to anything here. Why would he even have to give up his soul in order to go live with her? Having detached his soul once and later rejoined it, why can't he detach it again? We don't really see any convincing explanation of all this, there's just one dour old priest who repeats unconvincing old dogmas — the merfolk don't have souls, they are damned, you shouldn't interact with them, etc.

I could sort of understand objecting to e.g. a person selling his soul to the devil. But here, where the fisherman gives up his soul with no evil intention, and he obviously lives happily and harmlessly without it, there's really no reason why he should be punished with all the trouble that afflicts him in the later parts of the story.

And the whole idea of detaching oneself from one's soul isn't explored thoroughly enough in this story. We see no change of any kind in the fisherman while he is detached from his soul. He is obviously and in every sense still the same sort of person as before. What was the soul for anyway? And why then is it such a big deal if he gives it up? Clearly we are dealing with a very unsual conception of the soul here. The usual idea is that the soul is the part of a person that gives him or her life, and without which you are just a corpse. Or there's the voodoo idea that the soul (one of them, anyway) is what gives you personality and individuality, and without it you're just a living corpse — a zombie. But in this story none of these interpretations make sense.

The Star-Child

I didn't like this story as much as some of the others in this collection. The protagonist was found as a baby on the site of a meteor and adopted by a poor woodcutter; he grows into a beautiful but arrogant young man. Eventually a poor and ugly beggar-woman shows up, claiming to be his mother, but he sends her away. For this he is suddenly struck with ugliness and remorse, so he decides to go looking for her and ask her to forgive him. After several years of wandering and tribulations, he finds her and it turns out that he is actually the heir to the throne of a great and rich city, which he then proceeds to rule as a wise and good ruler. Wilde, as if afraid of such a conventional happy end, cannot help adding a twist: the the Star-Child dies after ruling for only three years, and “he who came after him ruled evilly” (p. 193).

I suppose the obvious moral lesson of this story is that one should be kind and charitable to people in need, but I couldn't help feeling that this worthy principle is rather undermined by the absurd, extreme lengths to which this story tries to drive it. For instance, a random beggar-woman shows up and claims to be your mother. Sure, you shouldn't be arrogant towards her — but would it really be unreasonable to ask for some more proof that she really is who she claims to be? And would it be unreasonable to say that, if she is proposing that you should follow her into a beggar's life, that perhaps you would actually prefer to keep on living with the poor woodcutter and his family, who may be poor but are still a damn sight better off than a destitute vagrant?

And later in the story, when the Star-Child is enslaved by an evil magician and sent to fetch him pieces of gold from a forest each day, on pain of horrible punishments if he fails to bring the gold — well, every day as he is returning with the gold, a beggar asks him for that piece of gold — would it really be unreasonable for the Star-Child to then say: look, I already gave you a piece yesterday, it should last you for several days, if I give you today's piece as well my master will kill me, am I really the only person in this town from whom you can get alms, etc. (Or, to be honest, why doesn't the Star-Child simply escape when his master sends him on these stupid gold-fetching quests?)

Anyway, I suppose that these sorts of things are considered normal in fairy tales, and perhaps that's fine if they are aimed at children, but in this one I found them fairly annoying. But perhaps it's unreasonable to expect psychological realism in a fairy tale.

The Portrait of Mr. W. H.

This is a curious combination of a story and an essay, and much of it felt like something that would fit better into something like Intentions than among Wilde's short stories. The essay side deals with a subject with which I have so far been almost completely unfamiliar, namely the background of Shakespeare' sonnets. Evidently they have been inspired by certain real people that he knew and various events in his relationships with them, but not much can be said with certainty about the real historical facts behind this. The detail that particularly interests Wilde here is the identity of a Mr. “W. H.” to whom many of the sonnets are dedicated. Unsurprisingly, numerous people over the centuries have come up with various theories about who W. H. was, and many of these are mentioned in passing by Wilde or by the editor's commentary (which is impressively detailed and exhausted, as always in this series). The theory discussed by Wilde here is that W. H. was a boy actor named Willie Hughes who worked in the same theatrical company as Shakespeare. Judging by the way Wilde presents this, it seems like a charming theory that elegantly explains many details from the sonnets — the problem is just that there's no solid evidence that Willie Hughes ever even existed in the first place. The theory is supported by more or less plausible speculation, often resting on the appearance of the words hues and hews in the sonnets, which could be interpreted as a punning reference to the surname Hughes.

The way Wilde presents this theory is to embed it into a story. I rather liked this story because of the intricate way in which belief in the theory jumps from person to person, almost a bit like an infectious disease. It involves three people: Cyril, Erskine, and the unnamed narrator of the story. Cyril comes up with the theory and describes it to Erskine, who finds it intriguing but insists that some solid evidence of Will Hughes' existence must be found before the theory can be published. When he and Cyril, after much effort, fail to find any such evidence, Cyril even goes to the length of commissioning a forgery — a portrait ostensibly of W. H. — to convince Erskine that the theory must be true. By chance, Erskine discovers that it was a forgery, whereupon Cyril committs suicide. Erskine does not believe in the theory at this point, but tells about it to the narrator of the story, who then catches the bug, as it were, and spends a lot of time and effort on developing the theory and finding additional supporting evidence. He finally sets all this out in a letter to Erskine, hoping to convince him that the theory is true — and what do you know, the belief now jumps to Erskine. The narrator stops believing the theory as soon as he posts the letter, but Erskine is completely convinced by the letter and now starts trying to convince the narrator as well. A few months later, Erskine dies abroad, of consumption, but tries to leave the impression that it was suicide due to not being able to convince the narrator that the theory is true. The narrator inherits the forged portrait and is thenceforth content with the somewhat more moderate view that “there is really a great deal to be said” (p. 258) for the Hughes theory.

I rather liked this story, but didn't care much for the Hughes theory itself, or the parts of the story where it is discussed at great length, with countless quotations from Shakespeare's sonnets and the like. Perhaps I would care more about it if I had got around to reading his sonnets at some point. I read Spenser's sonnets many years ago and liked them a lot, but for some reason never really got into Shakespeare's, of which I read only a very few. In any case the impression I got was that there simply isn't enough evidence to say anything solid about who exactly W. H. was (or the other people behind Shakespeare's sonnets, for that matter), and I'm not really interested in delving into various theories about it if they cannot hope to be more than merely speculative.

Incidentally, this story has an interesting publication history. Wilde first published it in Blackwood's Magazine in 1889 (p. liv), and then started working on an expanded version, which was supposed to be published by the Bodley Head. This publication was delayed, partly because Wilde was slow at finishing the manuscript and partly because the two partners that ran the Bodley Head had a falling out and started dissolving the partnership (p. lxx); and by then it was 1895, and the Wilde trials made his name toxic to most of the British public, making it pretty much impossible to get the longer version of the story published. It was eventually published in 1921 by Mitchell Kennerley, a former employee of the Bodley Head (p. lxxiv) who it seems somehow got ahold of Wilde's manuscript. This version is even available on

Both versions are printed here in volume 8; the longer version is about twice as long as the original magazine version. The difference is mainly due to more discussion of the sonnets (and quotations from them) in the middle part of the essay. For me, this was in any case the least interesting part of the essay, so I liked the shorter version better.

A curious factoid from this story (p. 234): “Elizabeth had issued a commission authorising certain persons to impress into her service all boys who had beautiful voices that they might sing for her in her Chapel Royal”.


I was amazed to see how poorly preserved some 19th-century magazines are. The editor says that it was impossible to find a copy of the original versions of The Sphinx without a Secret, which appeared in The World, May 1887 (p. xciv), and of The Young King, which appeared in the Lady's Pictorial, Christmas number 1888 (p. xcv). :(

The editorial commentaries in this series always err on the side of explaining too much rather than too little (not that I'm complaining about that), and the present volume has a couple of nice examples: the editor thought it necessary to gloss “faggot” (in the bundle-of-sticks sense, of course; p. 313) and “Stars and Stripes” (p. 351; the editor mentions that there are fifty stars, and I was actually a bit surprised that he did not mention that there would have been fewer in Wilde's time :)).

There's a very interesting discussion on the emergence of the London high society in the 19th century (and its decline in importance in the early 20th) in the editor's comments on pp. 304–5.

I was surprised by the editor's explanation on p. 335 that “Nihilism was a Russian terrorist movement aimed at the overthrow of the Tsarist state.” I always thought of nihilism as merely a philosophical position, something mostly about being unable to consider things truly meaningful (a problem that has been afflicting myself for quite a long time now), but now I was interested to learn in the wikipedia that there was in fact also a minor Russian revolutionary movement by that name.


What to say at the end? I really enjoyed reading Wilde's short stories again after all this time. And the editorial commentary is excellent, as always in this series. According to the OUP's web site, the next two volumes are coming out in October this year, so I can start drooling in anticipation already :)


  • Jarlath Killeen: The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (2007). Mentioned here on pp. xi, xvi. “Killeen tends to treat the tales as a body of disguised commentary on contemporary Irish politics, explaining that Wilde's attraction to the ‘short story’ as a form [. . .] may have originated in his membership of a society (that is, Dublin society) ‘whose entry into modernity was problematised by disruptions such as those caused by colonisation’.” Sounds a bit far-fetched but perhaps interesting :)
  • Anne Clark Amor: Mrs Oscar Wilde: A Woman of Some Importance (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1983). Mentioned here on p. xv, n. 7.
  • H. Montgomery Hyde: Oscar Wilde (1975). Mentioned here on p. xv, n. 7.
  • Constance Wilde: There Was Once: Grandma's Stories by Mrs Oscar Wilde (London: Ernest Nister, 1888); A Long Time Ago: Favourite Stories Re-told by Mrs Oscar Wilde and Others (London: Ernest Nister, 1892). Two volumes of tales by Oscar's wife, mentioned here on p. xxii, n. 18.
  • Franny Moyle: Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde (2011). Mentioned here on p. xxiii, n. 19.
  • George Sandulescu (ed.): Rediscovering Oscar Wilde (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994). Mentioned on p. xxx, n. 25.
  • Anne Markey: Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales: Origins and Contexts (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2011). Mentioned here on p. xlvii, n. 74.
  • Geoff Dibb: Oscar Wilde: A Vagabond With a Mission: The Story of Oscar Wilde's Lecture Tours of Britain and Ireland (London: The Wilde Society, 2013). Mentioned here on pp. lxxxv, 359. Sounds interesting; working as a travelling lecturer was the first stage of Wilde's public career, before he settled into journalism and fiction writing, so it would be good to read more about it.
  • Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell: Oscar Wilde's Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery (2015). Mentioned here on p. 410. Wilde wrote a short biography of Chatterton, Pen, Pencil and Poison (see my post about vol. 4).
  • Alan Sinfield: The Wilde Century (1994). Mentioned here on p. 413. I love wild/Wilde puns in book titles.

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BOOK: Guy and Small, "Oscar Wilde's Profession"

Josephine M. Guy and Ian Small: Oscar Wilde's Profession: Writing and the Culture Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century. Oxford University Press, 2000. 0198187289. x + 314 pp.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, my interest in Wilde mostly started as a result of my reading the Picture of Dorian Gray. One of the things that fascinated me most about it were the bold, delightfully outrageous ideas about art that Wilde promoted in that book, especially in its famous preface. It had many fine sentiments about art for art's sake, the creation of beautiful but useless things, and so on. Those are perhaps not very practical concepts, but I found them highly admirable.

I felt, as every sensible person must, that having to take other people's preferences and wishes into account when doing something is unpleasant, inconvenient, constraining and annoying; and yet, of course, this is precisely what the world around us tends to try to pressure us into doing all the damn time. Wilde's ideas were like a breath of fresh air to me: what could be more charming and admirable than the idea of an artist doing whatever the hell delights him, because it delights him, while treating the opinions of the masses with well-deserved olympian contempt!

And thus Wilde's work has always remained strongly associated with these ideas in my mind; for me, reading him has always had an element of escapism: his work reminded me of the beautiful idea of doing something because you like it, and not because somebody else wants it or needs it. It is not something that me or most other people could normally do, but at least it's pleasant to fantasize about it as a hypothetical possibility — or perhaps a reality for someone like Wilde.

In fact I always vaguely imagined, without really paying all that much attention to the details of Wilde's life, that he sort of embodied this ideal — that he walked the walk, not just talked the talk. The very amount of his writings seems to support this idea: he clearly wasn't the sort of writer who gets up at 6 o'clock every morning and churns out half a dozen pages before breakfast, publishes one new novel every year, etc. If he did, you wouldn't be able to fit his collected works into one volume, as many editions of Wilde do. And there's the diversity of genres: he wrote a bit of poetry, some short stories, a short novel, plays of various kinds, critical essays — you can easily imagine him as a kind of ingenious dabbler who flits from genre to genre as the mood strikes him, nibbles on each thing for a while and then moves to something else again according to where his fancy directs him.

I suppose that, if I had bothered to think about this a bit more soberly (though where's the fun in that?), I should have realized that this view of Wilde and his work must be somewhat unrealistic. But what this fascinating book, Oscar Wilde's Profession, does is demonstrate very clearly just how unrealistic this view of mine was. This book is basically a view of Wilde's career as a writer from a ‘materialist’ perspective.

This is, I guess, not usually something that one thinks much about as a reader; for me as a reader, the only touch with the materialist aspect of literature is when I have to pay for the book that I want to buy. But you are vaguely aware that behind this, literature is also a profession, a trade, a business for many people — writers, publishers, booksellers and so on; people who have to plan incomes and expenditures, think about marketing and advertising, draw up and sign contracts with each other, and so on. And these people can't afford to think of literature as art for art's sake, and before they publish anything they want to have a good idea of who is going to buy it and whether it will make them any money or not.

In fact, I suspect that nowadays we are more aware of these aspects of literature than would be the case in the past. Many professional writers have blogs where you can often catch a glimpse of the business aspects of a writer's career.

But I didn't use to think of Wilde as that kind of writer — the professional kind of writer that pays careful attention to the business aspects of his work. However, as this book demonstrates, he very much was that kind of writer, and in fact couldn't afford not to be. There did of course exist ways in which a writer could insulate himself a little from the demands of the market; you could be independently wealthy (but Wilde wasn't, or certainly not wealthy enough) or try to combine literature with a stable and respectable job such as being a professor or a civil servant (Wilde tried entering both of these careers but without success; pp. 24–5). Thus, if he wanted to be a writer, he had to be the sort of writer whose work sells well enough that he could live off its profits.

To a considerable extent, the image he presented to the public, of an artist-with-a-capital-A leisurely creating art-for-art's-sake for a small but distinguished audience, was just that — an image, an illusion deliberately projected for the sake of branding and marketing. It's not that he didn't want to be that sort of writer; he did, but most of the time he just couldn't afford to be.

Thus in this book, we see Wilde's efforts at self-promotion and advertisement, his dealings with publishers, his efforts to find additional ways to sell and market his work; we see what sort of contracts he was signing and what sort of money he was making from them. As he flits from genre to genre, from publisher to publisher, the only constant thing is the never-ending need for money and for finding ways of making his writing more profitable.

For example, he often tried to find ways of selling the same material multiple times, e.g. by expanding some of his magazine articles about criticism and publishing them in a book, Intentions; or by first publishing the Picture of Dorian Gray in a magazine and later again as a book, with a bit of additional material (p. 59). This latter plan didn't work out too well, as it turns out: relatively few people wanted to buy the book, since most had already read the novel in the magazine, which was also much cheaper than the book (p. 57).

Some of his best-known works nowadays are his comedies, but judging by this book it seems that Wilde largely went into writing comedies for the sake of money; writing plays, especially ones that would be performed in a theatre (as opposed to just being intended for reading), wasn't his natural preference, nor something that he could do easily and effortlessly. But he realized that he could make much more money from having a reasonably successful play performed in theatres than he could from his articles and books (see e.g. p. 75).

In fact his income from the theatre in the 1890s enabled him, perhaps for the first time in his life, to stop worrying about how well his books were selling, and on whether they would appeal to a sufficiently large part of the public or not. He could now afford to have his books published in precious limited editions by the Bodley Head, where they more often than not turned a decent profit by appealing to a small but wealthy market of connoisseurs and book collectors (p. 142).

There's an interesting discussion in ch. 5 of how this trend came about in the first place. It started with the idea that certain valuable and exclusive works of art naturally fail to appeal to the masses but are instead appreciated only by a small circle of sufficiently sophisticated people (pp. 138–40). From this it was only a small step to what is really the opposite idea, namely that a book must be an important work of art simply because it appeals only to a small elite — even if this elite-only appeal was in reality caused by the deliberate decision to publish the book in an expensive limited edition (pp. 141–4, 177). This shift was achieved by marketing from clever publishers such as Lane and Mathews from the Bodley Head. At the same time there were others who decried this trend and correctly recognized it as a cynical marketing ploy (p. 144).

Wilde deliberately encouraged this trend, and you can see letters from him to his publishers, demanding that his books must be more expensive and thus more exclusive (p. 145); or suggesting that they put fewer lines of verse on each page of The Sphinx to pad out the book a little (p. 153) — because he, along with the publishers, was being a bit greedy and wanted to make an entire book out of a poem that's less than 200 lines long. (The same problem recurred a few years later with The Ballad of Reading Gaol; the publisher eventually solved it by printing on one side only, p. 190. And The Happy Prince was “set in large type with wide margins; the format could have been designed with the child reader in mind, but it had the serendipitous effect of padding out a small amount of text to fill 116 pages.” P. 231.)

An interesting if somewhat surprising thing that I learnt from this book is that much of Wilde's work was, at his time, relatively unsuccessful, in commercial as well as in critical terms. The reason why this surprised me is that he strikes me as being so much more popular and better known nowadays than many of his contemporaries, who however turn out to have been more successful than he in his own day. His poems were published in middlebrow magazines and when collected in a book (Poems, 1881) were recognized as poor derivatives of Rosetti, Swinburne and other established poets. He tried his hand at drama and wrote two plays, Vera and The Duchess of Padua, that basically flopped, and he had great trouble finding anyone that would want to produce them in the first place. Then his book of critical essays, Intentions, sold far less well than similar books by critics such as Pater and Arnold (pp. 62, 73). One of his books of fairy-tales was a moderate success (The Happy Prince; but its sales were tiny compared to bestsellers of the genre, p. 55), the other (House of Pomegranates) was a failure, seemingly because its efforts to appeal to a grown-up audience just managed to confuse the readers (pp. 63, 76, 82). The Picture of Dorian Gray was a hit in the magazine where it was first published, but as a book it enjoyed decidedly sluggish sales. Even his comedies, the most commercially successful part of his work, weren't nearly as popular as those of some other contemporary playwrighs (e.g. one Henry Arthur Jones, about whom I never heard before; p. 111). (That doesn't mean that he didn't make good money from the theatre, of course. But that income was uneven, and he was careless in spending his money, so even the early 1890s were not an entirely prosperous time for him. Pp. 134, 179.)

He often had a hard time getting himself to finish a book (see e.g. p. 188), especially if he hadn't yet managed to sell it to a publisher (or producer, in the case of plays); this is also the reason why he never finished several of his plays and scenarios.

There's an interesting chapter about Wilde's career in the post-prison years. That part of his career is often seen as a bit shabby; he promised to write various books and plays which he then failed to complete (or even to start), sometimes even selling the same thing to several publishers in ways which are hard to see as anything other than fraudulent. But the authors argue that this was not so much due to any fundamental change in Wilde as such (the focus on money and the difficulty of finishing his book projects were already present in his earlier years; p. 188), it's just that he wasn't able to market his work like he could before prison: his works used to be marketed to a large extent on the basis of his name and personality, and this very fact made them unsellable in his post-prison years as he was being shunned by society (p. 219). They also point out that the situation looks worse because he died in 1900, leaving all those projects unfinished; but we can't blame him for that, as he couldn't have known that he would die so soon (p. 212).

A well-known feature of Wilde's writing is his tendency to reuse the same ideas, aphorisms, sometimes entire passages in several works; and sometimes to reuse the ideas of other people. Chapter 7 in this book discusses this aspect of Wilde's work and the various responses to it: some critics have accused him of (self-)plagiarism borne out of mere laziness and a lack of creativity; others suggested that he was doing it deliberately as some sort of clever postmodernist joke. But the authors of this book argue that this might have been mostly a result of the way Wilde's mind worked: “It's as if Wilde's very creativity itself was manifest via the composition of small, discrete units” (p. 245). He could then use, re-use, rearrange etc. them in various ways; and the same would apply to other people's ideas: entire books that he had read (and which would influence him) had distilled themselves in his mind down to a single aphorism. Coming up with witty epigrams came easy to him; but what he always found difficult was writing a longer story or argument (pp. 245, 258). He was aware of this and was quite willing to collaborate with other people who had more experience in such things (pp. 249, 254).


A note on p. 20 mentions the following very funny reply of the poet A. E. Housman when they wanted to include his poetry in an anthology of 1890s verse: “Mr Symons . . . may be consoled, and also amused, if you tell him that to include me in an anthology of the Nineties would be just as technically correct, and just as essentially inappropriate, as to include Lot in a book on the Sodomites.”

P. 73 mentions an interesting classification of “the British book-buying public”, based on an 1892 article from The Bookman: “ ‘clergymen’, ‘doctors’, ‘lawyers’, ‘men of leisure’, ‘women of culture’, and ‘a very large class of readers whose purchasing powers never rise beyond a novel with which to while away an idle hour [. . .]’ ”. The authors point out that Wilde's work didn't really manage to reach any of these groups all that well (p. 74).

Here's a passage from one of Wilde's letters to Leonard Smithers, his publisher, proving that Wilde could still turn out a fine epigram in his later years: “The public is largely influenced by the look of a book. So are we all. It is the only artistic thing about the public.” (P. 193.)

I always suspected that preparing the new Oxford edition of Wilde's collected works must take a huge amount of effort. Here we have another indication of this: the appendix on p. 286 mentions that “A full scholarly edition of Wilde's Journalism is currently being prepared by Russell Jackson and John Stokes for the Oxford English Texts Edition of Wilde's Complete Works.” This must have been written no latter than 2000 (when Oscar Wilde's Profession was published); incidentally, the first volume of the OET Complete Works of Wilde was published in the same year; and Wilde's journalism was finally published as vols. 6 and 7 in 2013, so it was in preparation for 13 years or more.


  • Melissa Knox: Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide. London, 1994. (Mentioned here on p. 4, n. 12; described by the publisher as “the first full-length psychoanalytic biography of Oscar Wilde”.)
  • Stuart Mason: Oscar Wilde: Art and Morality: A Defence of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. London: J. Jacobs, 1908. (Mentioned here on p. 57, n. 16.)
  • John Stokes: Oscar Wilde: Myths, Miracles, and Imitations. Cambridge UP, 1996. (Mentioned here on p. 245, n. 39.)

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

BOOK: John Cooper, "Oscar Wilde on Dress"

John Cooper: Oscar Wilde on Dress. Philadelphia: CSM Press, 2013. 0989532704. x + 197 pp.

I first became aware of this book while writing my post about Vols. 6 and 7 of Wilde's collected works, which contain his journalism. This included several essays on the subject of dress and especially on dress reform; these drew my attention again to what is probably Wilde's most famous epigram on this subject, namely the remark that “fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”.

While trying to find out where exactly he used it for the first time, I came upon John Cooper's very interesting web page about the origins of this epigram: it emerged from Wilde's various lectures on dress which he held during 1883 and 1884, but his first use of it in print was in The Philosophy of Dress, a little-known essay that he published in an American newspaper, the New-York Daily Tribune, in 1885. (Cooper discusses the various versions of this epigram on pp. 103–5. The version with “intolerable”, which seems to be the most widely known, is from an 1887 column in the Woman's World; the 1885 essay has “unbearable” instead.)

In fact that essay was so little known that it hadn't been included in previous bibliographies and collections of Wilde's journalism, and would even have been missing from the new Oxford edition of Wilde's works if Cooper hadn't pointed it out to its editors (Cooper p. 100; Vol. 6 p. viii). The website also mentioned that Cooper had published an entire book containing this essay, various other related articles and letters, along with extensive commentaries and annotations; this sounded intriguing enough that, in my enthusiasm to not miss any of Wilde's works, I decided to buy and read this book as well.

To be honest, my impression at the time was that The Philosophy of Dress is missing from the Oxford edition altogether, which was another reason for me to get Cooper's book; but this was just due to my carelessness and lack of concentration, for by that time I had already read Vol. 7 of the Collected Works, where this essay is included as Appendix II. (I find it interesting that it's included as an appendix and not in the main part of the book; perhaps the editors became aware of it so late in the process that inserting it at the correct chronological point in the book would require them to make too many modifications elsewhere.)

In any case, I don't in the least regret buying and reading this book; although the Philosophy of Dress is included in the Collected Works, much of the related correspondence by other people isn't, and besides this book contains lots and lots of interesting observations by Mr Cooper himself. Another advantage of this book is that it includes a generous amount of illustrations. For example, Wilde's 1884 article “More Radical Ideas upon Dress Reform”, in which he answers the critics of his earlier essays on dress, included two illustrations which Cooper prints next to the article, just where you would expect them (pp. 179, 182); but in the Collected Works, they aren't included with the article itself, and the editors' commentaries just mention that the original newspaper did include illustrations (Vol. 6, p. 232); as it turns out (but the commentaries don't mention this), those illustrations are in fact included in Vol. 6, but not where you would expect them — they are on p. xvii of the Introduction.

I found Cooper's book very interesting even though I'm not otherwise particularly interested in dress, nor for that matter in Wilde's writing about it. There's a very nice introductory chapter about the context in which Wilde wrote his essays on dress; this emerged from Wilde's early career as a lecturer, and dress was one of his most successful and popular lecturing topics in 1883–4 (pp. 65–6). Wilde took a keen interest in the ‘dress reform’ movement of the time (his soon-to-be wife, Constance Lloyd, was also active in it), and Cooper's book describes several other people active in that movement, showing how Wilde was influenced by their ideas (pp. 30–63). By the way, I was also extremely impressed by Cooper's ability to dig up highly obscure newspaper articles about Wilde; on p. 39, he even cites a New Zealand newspaper (called Hawke's Bay Herald)!

Cooper also argues that Wilde's essays on dress mark an important point of transition in his career as a writer: previously he had mostly worked as a lecturer and published only a handful of articles, mostly reviews, whereas now he began to be taken more seriously as a writer and was increasingly able to publish original essays and articles under his own name (pp. 72–5, 112).

There's also an interesting section on the status of copyright in the journalism of Wilde's time (pp. 95–101). The idea of copyright was hardly thought to apply to newspapers, and they reprinted each other's articles quite shamelessly. In the mid-1880s there was an increased interest in enforcing copyright in that area as well, and Wilde's Philosophy of Dress included a copyright notice when it was published in 1885. This seems to have successfully deterred other newspapers from reprinting it, but it may have also inadvertently helped ensure that the essay was almost completely forgotten in the long term.

The last part of the book consists of about a dozen other letters-to-the-editor and essays, a few by Wilde but mostly by other people, discussing Wilde's ideas on fashion and dress reform. Most of this was published in 1884 and was triggered by reports of Wilde's lectures on dress. I found this quite interesting as most of the non-Wilde material was new to me; the editors of the Collected Works included a summary of this debate in their comments (Vol. 6, pp. 228–33), but not the complete text of the letters.

So all in all, this was a very interesting book and I'm definitely glad to have read it. I just have a few minor complaints about it: it's meant to be a kind of bibliophile edition, and is thus relatively expensive ($125; but admittedly you can get the same content as an e-book for $10); the fore-edge is untrimmed, which I find annoying (but I suppose that for some people it would be a plus, especially for a hand-bound book like this one); and worst of all, it's set in an odd sans-serif font which I don't like one bit. What sort of person would set an entire book in sans-serif anyway?


The Philosophy of Dress includes several other typically Wildean epigrams. “The French milliners consider that women are created specially for them by Providence, in order to display their elaborate and expensive wares.” (Pp. 83–4.) And: “All truths are perfectly obvious once one sees them. The only thing is to see them.” (P. 84.) And also: “Catharine de Medicis, High-Priestess of poison and petticoats, invented a corset which may be regarded as the climax of a career of crime.” (P. 88.)

The context of the ‘every six months’ epigram in that essay is also illustrative: “Fashion rests upon folly. Art rests upon law. Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal. Indeed what is a fashion really? A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months! It is quite clear that were it beautiful and rational we would not alter anything that combined those two rare qualities.” (P. 87.) But I'm not sure if I completely agree with Wilde here; people might get bored of something after a while even if it was beautiful and not ugly to begin with.

A fine epigram from Wilde's 1884 article, “More Radical Ideas upon Dress Reform”: “The word practical is nearly always the last refuge of the uncivilized.” (P. 183.) There seems to be a minor genre of these ‘last refuge’ epigrams; the one you usually hear (and which, I imagine, started the whole thing) is “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, which seems to be from Dr. Johnson. Wilde himself has another one: “consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative” (from “The Relation of Dress to Art”, 1885; p. 188 in this book).

Some of the letters to the editor in the last part of the book are very funny. There's a hilariously exasperated letter from “an Old Sailor”, who seems to be an epitome of Victorian prudishness: “Has it occurred to your readers that there is any impropriety, not to say indelicacy, in discussing the arrangement of women's petticoats in the public press? In the days of my youth we were taught to regard woman's dress as a sacred mystery; [. . .] We do not want to know how their lower rigging is placed and set up; that surely is their own business, and the discussion of it by men in the public press is disrespectful and impertinent.” (P. 159.)

I thought that the familiar tales of how the Victorians regarded even the sight of an ankle as indecent were exaggerations, but one of the letters here seems to confirm it: the writer complains that women “now, owing to their absurd tied skirts, display from their lounging chairs an amount of ankle that would have scandalized our grandmothers, whose feet were never seen when sitting down.” (P. 175.)

There's an interesting article from the Life magazine on p. 176, illustrating how Wilde was an early example of the modern type of celebrity: “Every time he cuts his hair, for instance, the Tribune has a cablegram to that effect followed by a two column letter on the subject a week or so later.”


  • Violet Wyndham: The Sphinx and her circle: a biographical sketch of Ada Leverson, 1862-1933 (A. Deutsch, 1963). Cited here on p. 127.

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BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "Journalism"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 6: Journalism Part I. Ed. by John Stokes and Mark W. Turner. Oxford University Press, 2013. 019811964X. lxiii + 430 pp.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 7: Journalism Part II. Ed. by John Stokes and Mark W. Turner. Oxford University Press, 2013. 0198119631. xii + 622 pp.

Wilde's journalism is that part of his work with which I have until now been more or less completely unfamiliar. I was vaguely aware that he used to do some work of that sort — I read a couple biographies of Wilde, and they mentioned that he used to write various reviews and short essays for magazines, and he even worked as the editor of a women's magazine for a few years. But I never actually read any of his journalism, unless you include essays such as those in Intentions, which are based on things that he initially published in magazines.

Of course, in a way this is hardly surprising; newspaper articles, reviews and the like are usually considered to be very ephemeral things and don't tend to get reprinted much. Judging by the introductory material in this volume, the only previous publication of Wilde's journalism in book form was in Robert Ross's 1908 edition of Wilde's collected works, and even that edition doesn't contain all of the pieces that appear in the present two volumes.

These two volumes contain 168 short pieces, on average about three pages long; most of them are reviews of books and theatre performances, some also of art exhibitions, and the rest are short essays on various other subjects. I've found this to be the sort of stuff that gets boring in large quantities, but can be quite interesting if you read it in small amounts at a time. Wilde's writing here has many of the same qualities that make his fiction such a delight to read, with plenty of witty epigrams and aphorisms, generous amounts of sarcasm, and the like. Occasionally you encounter ideas and expressions that Wilde would later re-use in some bit of fiction, where they became better known (see a few examples below).

Probably my favorite part of the collection were Wilde's book reviews; some of the books he reviewed sound interesting enough that I'm tempted to want to read them myself. Some of his reviews are delightfully sarcastic, but often he also strikes me as being admirably charitable, and makes an effort to point out the good things in a book even if as a whole he didn't like it.

I was also impressed by the editors' comments at the end of the book, which must have taken an enormous amount of effort. For example, Wilde's book reviews often quote short bits of text from the books he reviewed; but just as often, Wilde merely paraphrases something from the book without specifically indicating that he's doing so. The editors seem to have gone very carefully through all the books that Wilde had reviewed, and they mercilessly hunted down all such quotations and paraphrases, and provided page references in their notes at the end of this volume.

Similarly, Wilde's theatrical reviews often mention the names of actors that appeared in that particular performance, and the editors always make an effort to provide some more information about those actors in the notes — at least their year of birth and death, although in some cases they weren't able to find any such information about this or that obscure actor.

It was also interesting to read the notes to Wilde's reviews of art exhibitions. The editors tried to trace the present whereabouts of the paintings that Wilde mentions in his reviews, and sadly it often turns out that some of these paintings have been lost by now, or at least their whereabouts are now unknown.

The editors' introduction contains among other things an interesting discussion on the difficulties of discovering the newspaper contributions of a particular author, since many articles in 19th-century newspapers weren't signed. “[I]t was the custom of Pall Mall editors [. . .] to mark up runs of the paper, identifying contributors of anonymous items in order to indicate payment.” A large archive of this sort of material was preserved until the 1950s, when “this treasure trove had been offered to the Superintendent of the British Library Newspaper Library, who, in his wisdom, had declined the offer”, and the whole archive was promptly sent to the garbage dump. (See vol. 6, p. lvi for more on this sad story.)

As a last resort, one can try carefully reading unsigned articles to see if they have any stylistic similarities with a particular author, such as Wilde. A few articles discovered in this way, which might be by Wilde on the basis of style, are included at the end of Vol. 7 as “dubia”; the editors included very interesting notes pointing out exactly which passages include typically Wildean stylistic constructs.

Snark, glorious snark

“Dr. Donaldson's article on Byzantine Literature is as interesting as any account of a literature written entirely by mediocrities could be” (vol. 6, p. 23).

On Whistler: “For that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, is my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler himself entirely concurs.” (Vol. 6, p. 36.) And from a later article: “Mr. Whistler always spelt art, and we believe still spells it, with a capital ‘I.’ ” (Vol. 7, p. 156.)

“The nineteenth century may be a prosaic age, but we fear that, if we are to judge by the general run of novels, it is not an age of prose.” (Vol. 6, p. 61.)

“Mr. Armstrong also carefully observes the rules of decorum, and, as he promises his readers in a preface, keeps quite clear of ‘the seas of sensual art.’ In fact, an elderly maiden lady could read this volume without a blush, a thrill, or even an emotion.” (Vol. 6, p. 67.)

“Doctor Goodchild seems to be an ardent disciple of Mr. Browning, and though he may not be able to reproduce the virtues of his master, at least he can echo his defects very cleverly.” (Vol. 6, p. 68.)

“Mr. E. O. Pleydell-Bouverie has endowed the novel-writing fraternity with a new formula for the composition of titles. After ‘J. S.; or Trivialities,’ there is no reason why we should not have ‘A. B.; or Platitudes,’ ‘M. N.; or Sentimentalisms,’ ‘Y. Z.; or Inanities.’ There are many books which these simple titles would characterize much more aptly than any high-flown phrases—as aptly, in fact, as Mr. Bouverie's title characterizes the volume before us.” (Vol. 6, p. 70.)

“The book can be read without any trouble, and was probably written without any trouble also. The style is prattling and pleasing.” (Vol. 6, p. 87.)

From the review of a volume of poems written by two tramps: “we are sorry to see that that disregard of the rights of property which always characterizes the able-bodied vagrant is extended by our tramps from the defensible pilfering from hen roosts to the indefensible pilfering from poets. [. . .] we feel that bad as poultry-snatching is, plagiarism is worse. [. . .] From highway robbery and crimes of violence one sinks gradually to literary petty larceny” (vol. 6, p. 96).

“Mr. Quilter is the apostle of the middle classes, and we are glad to welcome his gospel. After having listened so long to the Don Quixotes of art, to listen once to Sancho Panza is both salutary and refreshing.” (Vol. 6, p. 108.) Later in the same review: “How valuable also in connection with house decoration is Sententia No. 351: ‘There is nothing furnishes a room like a book-case, and plenty of books in it’! How cultivated the mind that thus raises literature to the position of upholstery, and puts thought on a level with the antimacassar! [. . .] Mr. Quilter is quite earnest in his endeavours to elevate art to the dignity of manual labour.” (P. 110.)

“There are two ways of misunderstanding a poem. One is to misunderstand it, and the other is to praise it for qualities that it does not possess. The latter is Mr. Noel's method” (vol. 6, p. 113). By the way, a similar and more widely known epigram attributed to Wilde is: “There are two ways to dislike poetry: one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.” This one appears widely on the web, but I couldn't find out where exactly it's from; according to this article from Notes and Queries, it's from a letter (p. 482 in the 1962 ed. of Wilde's letters).

“Still it is a thoroughly well-intentioned book and eminently suitable for invalids. (Vol. 6, p. 129.)

“They [i.e. remarks on the Greek Drama] show a want of knowledge that must be the result of years of study.” (Vol. 6, p. 141.)

“We are sorry too to find an English dramatic critic misquoting Shakespeare, as we had always been of opinion that this was a privilege reserved specially for our English actors.” (Vol. 6, p. 148.)

“Mr. Campbell leads off by apostrophizing the Muses as—// These cultured sprites/ Who occupied, of yore, Olympus' heights,// and they do not seem to have been propitiated by this novel form of address.” (Vol. 6, p. 164.)

“Such novels as Scamp are possibly more easy to write than they are to read.” (Vol. 6, p. 183.)

“Dull as Tiff is—and its dulness is quite remarkable—it does not deserve so detestable a binding.” (Vol. 6, p. 184.)

“In discussing this important question of conversation, he has not merely followed the scientific method of Aristotle, which is perhaps, excusable, but he has adopted the literary style of Aristotle, for which no excuse is possible.” (Vol. 7, p. 35.)

Wilde quotes the following passage from Bella Duffy's Life of Madame de Staël, about Staël's novel Corinne: “It is extremely moral, deeply sentimental, and of a deadly earnestness — three characteristics which could not fail to recommend it to a dreary and ponderous generation, the most deficient in taste that ever trod the earth.” (Vol. 7, p. 61.)

“ ‘The Chronicle of Mites’ is a mock-heroic poem about the inhabitants of a decaying cheese [. . .] This cheese-epic is a rather unsavory production, and the style is, at times, so monstrous and so realistic that the author should be called the Gorgon-Zola of literature.” (Vol. 7, p. 68.)

“It is a curious fact that the worst work is always done with the best intentions, and that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves very seriously.” (Vol. 7, p. 81.)

“ ‘Andiadorocté’ is the title of a volume of poems by the Rev. Clarence Walworth, of Albany, N.Y. It is a word borrowed from the Indians, and should, we think, be returned to them as soon as possible.” (Vol. 7, p. 102.)

“Dr. Cockle tells us that Müllner's ‘Guilt’ and the ‘Ancestress’ of Grillparzer are the masterpieces of German Fate-tragedy. His translation of the first of these two masterpieces does not make us long for any further acquaintance with the school.” (Vol. 7, p. 193. This is from article No. 123, in which Wilde reviews 9 volumes of more or less bad poetry by various authors, and in fact the entire article is delightfully sarcastic.)

“An eminent Oxford theologian once remarked that his only objection to modern progress was that it progressed forward instead of backward” (vol. 7, p. 237).

“But I must not allow this brief notice of Mr. Pater's new volume to degenerate into an autobiography. I remember being told in America that whenever Margaret Fuller wrote an essay upon Emerson the printers had always to send out to borrow some additional capital ‘I's,’ and I feel it right to accept this transatlantic warning.” (Vol. 7, p. 244.)

“ ‘A World in White, and other Poems,’ are eminently respectable products of the clerical school of versifying. They are doubtless much esteemed in the author's parish.” (Vol. 7, pp. 304–5.)

“Many literary sins have been committed in the name of elocution, but none deadlier than Mr. F. G. Webb's ‘Original Ballads.’ ” (Vol. 7, pp. 305.)

Miscellaneous interesting things in vol. 6

In an 1884 article, Wilde writes: “beauty, as some one finely said, is the purgation of all superfluities” (vol. 6, p. 32). The editors' note on p. 233 says this idea is from Michelangelo, though Wilde probably got it via Emerson. Perhaps this was also the inspiration for an even more famous quote from Saint-Exupéry: “perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away”.

A nice aphorism from Baudelaire, quoted by Wilde in vol. 6, p. 39: “A man can live for three days without bread, but no man can live for one day without poetry”. He reused it in a later review as well (vol. 7, p. 51).

There's an 1885 article with an interesting discussion of Shakespeare's views of stage-scenery: “it is impossible to read him without seeing that he is constantly protesting against the two special limitations of the Elizabethan stage, the lack of suitable scenery, and the fashion of men playing women's parts” (vol. 6, p. 42). One way of dealing with that was to include more picturesque descriptions of the scene into the text of the play itself, and Wilde suggests that we might count ourselves lucky that he didn't have access to better stage machinery, or we would now be deprived of such picturesque passages in his plays (vol. 6, p. 43).

I guess this whole thing should be understood as part of a discussion on how Shakespeare's plays should be performed in the modern day. Wilde concludes: “let those critics, who hold up for our admiration the simplicity of the Elizabethan stage, remember that they are lauding a condition of things against which Shakespeare himself [. . .] always strongly protested” (vol. 6, p. 44).

There's an interesting phrase on p. 49, in a description of over-acting: “unless he has sawn the air with his hand, mouthed his lines, torn his passion to tatters, and out-Heroded Herod”. I haven't heard of ‘sawing the air’ before, but it sounds wonderfully evocative. I guess it's something similar to what tvtropes nowadays calls ‘milking the giant cow’.

A delightfully aesthetic passage from a theatrical review: “Through an alley of white hawthorn and gold laburnum we passed into the green pavilion that served as the theatre, the air sweet with the odour of the lilac and with the blackbird's song;” (vol. 6, p. 57). This almost sounds like something from the beginning of Dorian Gray. It's a nice example of how Wilde's style in the reviews prefigures that of his later literary work.

A wonderful phrase for taking out of context: “nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning” (vol. 6, p. 62). Taken in context, it's a bit less delightfully outrageous: “the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching, to Parnassus there is no primer, and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning”. Wilde would later write similarly in his review of Chuang Tsǔ, summarizing some of the ideas of that philosopher as: “true wisdom can neither be learnt nor taught”. And it reminds me a little of Lord Fermor's line in chapter 3 of Dorian Gray: “If a man is a gentleman, he knows quite enough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him.”

An interesting explanation of art for art's sake, in a review of the letters of George Sand: “Perhaps she valued good intentions in art a little too much, and she hardly understood that art for art's sake is not meant to express the final cause of art but is merely a formula of creation” (vol. 6, p. 65).

There's an interesting review of a performance of Shelley's The Cenci in 1886 (No. 32, vol. 6, pp. 77–8). The incest-themed subject matter of the play clashed with various anti-obscenity laws, so the organizers had to make use of a loophole: the Shelley Society organized the performance as a private event for their own members, and thus it didn't count as a public performance for the purposes of the law (see vol. 5, p. 34). But Wilde's review is a bit lazy, as more than half of the review consists of quotations from Shelley.

From an 1886 review: “A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. Who would care to go out to an evening party to meet Tomkins, the friend of one's boyhood, when one can sit at home with Lucien de Rubempré?” (Vol. 6, p. 89.) He would later reuse this in The Decay of Lying (see vol. 6, p. 295; and vol. 4, p. 375).

From the review of an anthology which had apparently been badly mauled by numerous misprints: “A poet can survive everything but a misprint.” (Vol. 6, p. 99.)

There's a very interesting discussion of nihilism in an 1887 review (vol. 6, p. 159). Similar ideas can later be found in The Decay of Lying (see vol. 6, p. 271.)

An editorial comment in vol. 6, p. 248 mentions that “W[ilde]'s most famous comment on Raffalovich is that ‘he came to London to found a salon and succeeded only in founding a saloon’ (H & H-D, 255–6)”. He seems to have reused the same idea in chapter 1 of Dorian Gray, where Lord Henry says: “My dear fellow, she tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant.”

There's a very funny poem by E. W. Bowling, quoted in the editorial comments (vol. 6, p. 247–8) to Wilde's review of Bowling's book Sagittulae. In the poem, a very Aesthetic young woman addresses her wanna-be suitor: “ Art thou soulful? Art thou tuneful? Can'st thou weep o'er nature's woes?/ Art thou redolent of Ruskin? Dost thou love a yellow rose?/ Hast thou bathed in emanations from the canvass of Burne Jones?/ As thou gazest at a Whistler, doth it whistle wistful tones?” etc. :)

On dress reform

Some of the early articles in this collection are on the subject of fashion and “dress reform”, which was apparently of much interest to Wilde and even more to his wife Constance, who was active in the Rational Dress Society (see vol. 6, pp. 228–9). Much of what he writes seems surprisingly sensible. His main ideas are that clothing should be comfortable, that it should pose no undue constraints on the wearer's motion, and that it should be designed with an understanding of the inherent beauty of the human figure.

“[T]he beauty of a dress depends entirely and absolutely on the loveliness it shields, and on the freedom and motion that it does not impede./ From this it follows that there can be no beauty of national costume until there is a national knowledge of the proportions of the human form. To Greek and Roman such knowledge came naturally from the gymnasium and the palæstra, from the dance inthe meadow and the race by the stream. We must acquire it by the employment of art in education.” (Vol. 7, p. 584.)

“And, after all, what is a fashion? From the artistic point of view, it is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months. From the point of view of science, it not unfrequently violates every law of health, every principle of hygiene.” (From an 1887 article; vol. 7, p. 10.) Wilde reused this idea several times; apparently it originated in his 1884 lecture on dress (see the editors' note in vol. 7, p. 333). See also this very interesting website which points out that Wilde's first use of this quip in print occurred in an 1885 article; It was recently published in John Cooper's book Oscar Wilde on Dress, CSM Press, 2013, and it's also included in Vol. 7 as Appendix II.

On lumpy flowers

In the editors' notes in vol. 6, pp. 249–50 there's a very funny exchange of letters concerning the pronunciation of the word “tuberose”. This is the name of a flower and appeared in the title of a book of poems, Tuberose and Meadowsweet, by André Raffalovich. Wilde reviewed it (p. 46) and complained about the fact that Raffalovich used the word as if it had three syllables, rather than two. Raffalovich replied with a letter pointing out that it does in fact have three syllables, since the name comes “from the Latin tuberosus, the lumpy flower” (p. 259) and has nothing to do with tubes or roses. He even cites a passage from Shelley's poem The Woodman and the Nightingale where it's used as trisyllabic. This view was supported by letters to the editor from several other readers.

Wilde replied in his characteristic style: “I am deeply distressed to hear that tuberose is so called from its being a ‘lumpy flower.’ It is not at all lumpy, and, even if it were, no poet should be heartless enough to say so. Henceforth, there really must be two derivations for every word, one for the poet, and one for the scientist. [. . .] [The poet will] leave to the man of science horrid allusions to its supposed lumpiness, and indiscreet revelations of its private life below ground. On the roots of verbs Philology may be allowed to speak, but on the roots of flowers she must keep silence. We cannot allow her to dig up Parnassus.” (P. 250.)

Wilde even cites another poem by Shelley (The Sensitive Plant), where he says the word is used as a disyllabic one. But from reading this second poem by Shelley, it isn't obvious to me that you can really say anything definite about the number of syllables in that word. This poem doesn't seem to have such a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables; there are four stressed syllables per line, but there are variously one or two unstressed syllables before each stressed syllable, in no definite pattern. In fact this poem strikes me as more suitable for singing than reading. You could easily read “tuberose” there as either two- or three-syllabic, it's just that in the trisyllabic version you'd have to pronounce the first two syllables a bit faster.

Miscellaneous interesting things in vol. 7

From an 1888 review: “As for George Meredith, who could hope to reproduce him? His style is chaos illumined by brilliant flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything, except language; as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story; as an artist he is everything, except articulate.” (Vol. 7, p. 47. Wilde later reused this in The Decay of Lying; see also the editors' note on p. 369.)

There's a very funny short article called “London Models” (No. 111, from 1889) about people who make a living by being hired by painters to pose as models for their paintings. “Every country now has its own models, except America. In New York, and even in Boston, a good model is so great a rarity that most of the artists are reduced to painting Niagara and millionaires.” (Vol. 7, p. 133.) And: “ ‘What do you sit for?’ said a young artist to a model who had sent him in her card (all models by the way have cards and a small black bag). ‘Oh, for anything you like sir,’ said the girl, ‘landscape if necessary!’ (Vol. 7, p. 134.)

There's an interesting article about the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tsǔ; Wilde reviewed a translation of his works into English (vol. 7, pp. 237–43) and includes a summary of his ideas. Tsu seems to be quite an unusual thinker. “He sought to destroy society, as we know it, as the middle classes know it; and the sad thing is that he combines with the passionate eloquence of a Rousseau the scientific reasoning of a Herbert Spencer” (p. 238); Tsu objected to government, philantropy, education, etc. The way he's described here strikes me as a weird sort of anarcho-libertarian :S

There's a very pretty love-sonnet by Laurence Binyon, quoted in its entirety by Wilde in his review of Primavera, a book of poems by Binyon and three other authors (vol. 7, p. 251).

After Tennyson's death in 1892, it apparently took several years to appoint a new Poet Laureate. Wilde wrote in 1895 (No. 137): “Mr. Swinburne is already the Poet Laureate of England. The fact that his appointment to this high post has not been degraded by official confirmation renders his position all the more unassailable. He whom all poets love is the Poet Laureate always.” (Vol. 7, p. 252.) According to the Wikipedia, the appointment was eventually given to Alfred Austin in 1896.

There's a curious review of Wilfrid Blunt's In Vinculis, a book of poems written in prison. “Prison has had an admirable effect on Mr. Wilfrid Blunt as a poet. [. . .] To him, certainly, it has been a mode of purification.” (Vol. 7, p. 149.) And in fact Blunt himself writes in the preface of his book: “Imprisonment is a reality of discipline most useful to the modern soul, lapped as it is in physical sloth and self-indulgence. Like a sickness or a spiritual retreat is purifies and ennobles; and the soul emerges from it stronger and more self-contained.” I wonder how Wilde felt about these things later when he went to prison himself. Alas, his soul, far from emerging stronger, in fact emerged from prison completely broken.

There are quite a lot of reviews of works by Russian realist writers (Turgenyev, Tolstoi, Dostoievsky); see Nos. 34, 69, and several more in the ‘dubia’ section, meaning that they are probably but not certainly by Wilde (Nos. 151, 153, 154, 157, 158). Wilde's reviews of them tend to be fairly positive, although there's the inevitable occasional jab against realism, as e.g. in this passage from No. 151 (a review of Tolstoy's “War and Peace”, in the dubia section): “It is not a highly organic story; for the author is a realist, and, in the opinion of realists, inability to construct a plot is the strongest proof of creative genius.” (Vol. 7, p. 283.)

Also from the dubia section (No. 157), here's a curious review of a short story by Tolstoy: “ ‘The Romance of a Horse,’ otherwise a somewhat revolting sketch, is remarkable for the writer's marvellously complete knowledge of horseflesh.” (Vol. 7, p. 297.)

In a review of J. M. W. Schwartz's “The Morning of a Love, and other Poems” (1885) that is probably but not certainly by Wilde (No. 142), the reviewer cites from one of the poems: “I cast my songs upon the world,/ I know now that the world will say;/ Enough for me that I have hurled/ This burden from my heart away” and remarks: “The world will probably say very little, for it has had so many poets' heart-burdens hurled at it that it has come to regard such missiles with comparative indifference.” (Vol. 7, p. 262.)

And a later passage in the same article (now reviewing “A Book of Verses” by W. Gershom Collingwood): “There are many other echoes in the book — Wordsworthian, Tennysonian, Rossettian — and if Mr. Collingswood fails to make his mark as a poet, he may, with diligence, achieve distinction as a parodist.” (Vol. 7, p. 263.)

Another extremely funny review from the dubia section is No. 159, mercilessly mocking the style of George Saintsbury's “A History of Elizabethan Literature” (1887). “Even when Mr. Sainsbury supposes himself to be writing English he is afflicted every now and then with an odd ‘xenomania,’ to use a word he much affects. (He talks in one place of ‘a judicious xenomania’—surely a strange phenomeon.) The Elizabethan miscellanies, he tells us, ‘were literary only by paregon.’ He assures us that ‘constant catena’ of authority attributes ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ in part to Shakespeare. He speaks of ‘a jaculative genius,’ an ‘unnovercal’ stepmother, ‘variety of tentative,’ ‘ostentatious usherment and harbingery.’ Worst of all, perhaps, is his allusion to the qualities which ‘give “The Faërie Queene” its unique unicity, if such a conceit may be pardoned.’ Such a ‘conceit’—to use no harsher term—may not be pardoned.” (Vol. 7, p. 301.)

The obligatory whine section

The number of typos and similar mistakes seems to be on the rise again, but I didn't bother keeping track of them this time. A very funny typo occurs in vol. 7, p. 478, where Ferdowsi is misspelled as “Ferdowski”. There's got to be a Soviet Russia joke in there somewhere :P In vol. 6, p. 262, Chatrian is once misspelled as Chatrain.

There's also an interesting one on p. 351: “See lines 000 above” where they apparently forgot to replace the placeholder by the correct line number.

The word “Lethaen” appears in vol. 6, p. 16; I suppose it's a typo for “Lethean”; but since it occurs again in the note on p. 217, I guess that it might be a quirk in the original newspaper from which that particular article was taken.

There's “I'Enéide” in vol. 6, p. 72; I wonder how an “l” gets mistaken for an “I” unless some sort of scanning and OCR was involved at some point; well, maybe it was.

I'm similarly confused about the appearance of “xaîpe” in the text of one of Wilde's reviews in vol. 6, p. 190, and also in the corresponding editorial comment on p. 393. Surely this cannot be meant as a Latin transliteration of the Greek word, for in that case x and p would not be appropriate; I guess they simply forgot to switch to the correct font that would display something like χαιρε in Greek.

There's an odd editorial comment in vol. 6, p. 351, where “United States Minister” is glossed as “i.e. a minister of the church.” But the context of this phrase is a discussion of the presence of Americans in British high society (vol. 6, pp. 141–2): “as far as society is concerned, the American invasion has been purely female in character. With the exception of the United States Minister, always a welcome personage wherever he goes, and an occasional lion from Boston or the Far West, no American man has any social existence in London.” Surely the minister in question is a diplomatic representative, not a clergyman. (On the other hand, admittedly the U.S. representative in Britain would probably have been an ambassador and not a mere minister.)

In deciding which words to gloss, the editors sometimes seem to err on the side of generosity. Is it really necessary to explain what “entourage” is? (Vol. 6, p. 221.)

There's a very curious typographical oddity in vol. 7, page 54, line 97. The line is “2ND. SEMI-CHORUS” and is set in all-caps. Now, this book normally uses old-style figures (which is good), but an old-style 2 is the same size as a lower-case letter and thus doesn't look so well in a line of all-caps text. The obvious solution would be to use a modern-style figure instead, which would be the same size as an upper-case letter. But what they did in this particular case was to simply enlarge an old-style 2 to the size of a capital letter, while keeping all its proportions intact — with the unsurprising result that several parts of the figure are much too thick and the whole thing looks simply bizarre. People sometimes come up with “poor-man's small caps” by simply shrinking normal caps, but this is the first time I've encountered the reverse form of this process.

Also on the subject of typographical oddities, there are some very odd quotation marks in Nos. 139 and 140, which according to the editors' note (vol. 7, p. 527) have been “preserved from the original publication” (in the Vanity Fair magazine, 1887). Basically there are superfluous opening quotation marks inside a quotation, resulting in things like “Arabian “Nights” and “Make “me a willow cabin at your gate,” (both from vol. 7, p. 256). I wonder what this looked like in the original newspaper publication; perhaps they tried to resurrect the quaint old custom of starting each line of quoted text with an opening quotation mark. But by 1887, this custom had been obsolete for probably more than a century, perhaps two.

The extreme aversion to illustrations, which I already mentioned in my post about vol. 5, continues here. For example, one of Wilde's reviews in the Pall Mall Gazette was “accompanied by sketches of four of the sculptures in question” and these were reprinted in Ross's edition of Wilde's works (vol. 6, p. 392), but not here in the OET edition.

One annoying thing about these two books is how thick they are. Volumes 5–7 seem to have been printed on much thicker paper than volumes 1–4. Volume 6 here has just around 500 pages, but it's noticeably thicker than volume 4, which has 700 pages. Vol. 7 with 630 pages is thicker still. I'm a bit disappointed by this move towards excessively thick paper. Perhaps their idea is that it will make the books more durable, but I wonder if that's really necessary. I have several volumes that were printed by Oxford University Press at the beginning of the 20th century on what they called “India paper” — wonderfully thin, and the books are still in good shape despite being more than a hundred years old.

Interesting books reviewed by Wilde

  • Dinner and Dishes by ‘Wanderer’ (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1885). Reviewed by Wilde in vol. 6, pp. 39–40.
  • W. G. Wills: Melchior (London: Macmillan and Co., 1885). Seems to be a narrative poem in Browning's style. Reviewed approvingly by Wilde in vol. 6, pp. 40–2.
  • Greek Lays, Idylls, Legends, &c. Translated by Miss E. M. Edmonds. (London, Trübner and Co., 1885.) Translations of *modern* Greek poems, reviewed approvingly by Wilde in vol. 6, pp. 53–4.
  • Sir Thomas Lauder: The Wolfe of Badenoch: a Historical Romance of the Fourteenth Century (1827). An 1886 reprint was reviewed by Wilde in vol. 6, p. 86. He points out that the book was popular in Sir Walter Scott's day, but Wilde and his contemporaries were turned off by its self-conscious antiquarianism.
  • Hugh Stutfield: El Magreb: Twelve Hundred Miles' Ride through Morocco. London, 1886. See Wilde's delightful and approving review in vol. 6, pp. 97–8.
  • Ernst Eckstein: Aphrodite, tr. from the German by Mary J. Safford (NY and London, 1886). A historical novel; “Eckstein is a sort of literary Tadema, and cares more for his backgrounds than he does for his figures, still he can tell a story very well” (vol. 6, p. 102).
  • Willam Morris's translation of the Odyssey (two vols., London, 1887). Glowingly reviewed by Wilde, vol. 6, pp. 154–6 (“a true work of art, a rendering not merely of language into language, but of poetry into poetry”). The style is more like something you'd expect in ancient English poetry: “But therewith unto the handmaids goodly Odysseus spake:/ ‘Stand off I bid you, damsels, while the work in hand I take,” etc.
  • Walter Pater: Imaginary Portraits. Reviewed by Wilde in vol. 6, pp. 178–80.
  • Stephen Coleridge: Demetrius (London, 1887). A historical novel set in Russia around the time of Ivan the Terrible. Reviewed approvingly by Wilde in vol. 6, pp. 181–2.
  • Caroline Fitzgerald: Venetia Vistrix (1889). A volume of poems in the style of Robert Browning. See Wilde's positive review in vol. 7, pp. 207–10.
  • [Mrs.] Graham R. Thomson: The Bird-Bride (1889). “[A] collection of romantic ballads, delicate sonnets, and metrical studies in foreign fanciful forms” (from Wilde's review, vol. 7, pp. 221–4). Includes a few imitations of border ballads.
  • Norman Macleoud: A Dutchman's Difficulties with the English Language. Mentioned in vol. 7, p. 262.
  • J. M. W. Schwartz: The Morning of a Love, and other poems (1885). Reviewed by Wilde in vol. 7, p. 262 (“as for his matter, it is rather monotonously erotic and melancholic”).
  • William Morris: A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and all the Kindreds of the Mark (1889). "[I]t is written in blended prose and verse [. . .] and tells the tale of the House of the Wolfings in their struggles against the legionaries of Rome then advancing into northern Germany” (from Wilde's review of it in vol. 7, pp. 185–7).


  • Karl Beckson: London in the 1890s: A Cultural History (NY and London, 1992). Vol. 6, p. 524.
  • Davis Coakley: Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish (Dublin, 1994). Vol. 6, p. 203.
  • John Cooper: Oscar Wilde on Dress (CSM Press, 2013). See Vol. 7, pp. 10, 333; includes an article by Wilde that is missing from vols. 6 and 7. See also the book's website and amazon page.
  • Regenia Gagnier: Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Aldershot, 1986). Vol. 7, p. 366 (“W[ilde] was particularly astute in presenting an image for consumption by the media”).
  • Charlotte Gere with Lesley Hoskins: The House Beautiful: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Interior (London, 2000). Vol. 6, p. 199; vol. 7, p. 429.
  • Merlin Holland: The Wilde Album (London, 1997). Vol. 6, p. 232.
  • Joy Melville: Mother of Oscar: The Life of Jane Francesca Wilde (London, 1994). Vol. 6, p. 339.
  • Kevin O'Brien: Oscar Wilde in Canada (Toronto: Personal Library, 1982). Vol. 7, p. 553.
  • Richard Pine: The Thief of Reason: Oscar Wilde and Modern Ireland (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1995). Vol. 7, p. xiv.
  • Annabel Robinson: The Life and Work of Jane Ellen Harrison (Oxford, 2002). Nothing to do with Wilde really, but a separate subject of interest to me. Harrison is however mentioned in Wilde's review of a production of Alcestis in Oxford, in which Harrison also appeared in the titular role (vol. 7, p. 382).
  • Sir James Rennell Rodd: Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf (Philadelphia, 1882). He was Wilde's friend at Oxford; Wilde wrote a preface for this book of poems by Rodd (vol. 7, p. 399).
  • Edgar Saltus: Oscar Wilde: An Idler's Impression (Chicago, 1917). Wilde met Saltus during his American tour and they remained in contact (vol. 6, p. 297).
  • Tomoko Sato and Lionel Lambourne (eds): The Wilde Years: Oscar Wilde and the Art of his Time (London, 2000). Vol. 6, p. 197.
  • T. de Vere White: The Parents of Oscar Wilde (London, 1967). Vol. 6, p. 339.
  • Oscar Wilde: Irish Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: A lecture delivered in Platt's Hall, San Francisco on Wednesday, April Fifth, 1882, ed. Robert D. Pepper (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1972). Vol. 7, p. xiv.
  • Oscar Wilde: The Women of Homer, ed. Thomas Wright and Donald Mead (London, 2008). Seems to be an essay written by Wilde as a student (vol. 6, p. 209).

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