Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Wildeana

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 19th October, 2020

One might think that everything written by and about the great Irish playwright Oscar Wilde had already been published, but one would be wrong. While researching his magisterial biography, Oscar, published two years ago, author Matthew Sturgis came across a number of hidden gems buried in libraries and obscure volumes of memoir. These he has now published as Oscar Wilde’s Wildeana (riverrun, £14.95). Some of the stones are paste to be frank, but others glitter with the brilliance of real jewels. Oscar is perhaps best remembered for his epigrams, several of which were worked into his four masterly comedies, so of course one hunts first for these. “Boys — like postage stamps you must lick them first if you want them to be of use,” from his Oxford notebooks made me laugh out loud. Later in his all too short life he was more subtly naughty, and knew how to titillate the very aristocracy who flocked to his dramas. “I don’t know any Duchesses who could be described as the thin end of the wedge,” was a line considered but rejected by Wilde for The Importance of Being Earnest.

Like his mother, Francesca, Lady Wilde, he savoured the idea of sin as lifting one above the boredom of everyday life. As one might expect from the author of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, however, Wilde nudged this concept up a notch: “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to explain the superior attractiveness of others.” In speculative gossip with friends (including the Fleet Street hack, William Mackay), Oscar mused, “If I were not a poet, and could not be an artist, I should wish to be a murderer.” Fame and notoriety are after all two sides of the same coin, and Wilde paid with and for both. He was indeed sometimes vain and he loved showing off, but he was also fundamentally kind and large of spirit. He also could pay genuine court to great intellects (as well as great beauties). As the poet Stuart Merrill recalled in an unpublished memoir, “I have seen him as meek as a little child before Walter Pater at a dinner given by a friend at the Garrick Club.. With a playful deference he called him ‘Sir Walter’ and he proudly recognized him as his master.” Yes, even the most “complete” library belonging to fans of Oscar Wilde will find room to delight in this welcome little volume.

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