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Shayla Walmsley reviews Oscar Wilde: a life in letters edited by Merlin Holland, Fourth Estate, £20 hbk

FOPPISH, CAMP and aristocratic – and invariably English. It took the best part of half a century for English screen and stage to admit that ‘their’ bohemian genius was not only an Irishman but a Fenian to boot. You’ll be hard-pushed to find the nationalist in this selection of letters but you will find a record of a rampant social climber who was at once a brilliant artist and a loyal friend, father, husband and son.

Most people know three things about Wilde: that he was brought down by his lover and nemesis Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (true); that he was an aesthete (true); and that, at US Customs, he had nothing to declare but his genius (alas, false).

Given the expectation of wit and scandal, after the first 100 pages or so of this book of letters you begin to resent the accumulation of relatively insignificant jottings. By the end you realise they have built up a life lived in every pore but one that ends in penury, with Wilde, forcibly separated from his children and abandoned by Bosie, borrowing from his friends to make ends meet. The final letter is not from Wilde but about him, written by one of his friends after his death.

Even the best work gets pretty short shrift in these letters and the private life probably too much. In between is the struggle between art and Mammon. (He only converted to Catholicism on his deathbed because, before then, “to go over to Rome would be to sacrifice and give up my two great gods: ‘Money and Ambition’ [sic].” )

And you could be mistaken for seeing Wilde as a dilettante of a nationalist, more influenced by bells and smells than the cause. But perhaps the impression is the result of the selection and annotation, rather than the letters themselves. These reveal his reverence for his mother Jane, The Nation’s outspoken nationalist ‘Speranza’. He lectured miners and Mormons in the US but the greatest turnout (for a lecture on 19th century Irish poets) comprised Irish-Americans coming to see Speranza’s son.

Overall, the annotation make sense of the letters but it has its stingy moments. Wilde had planned in his youth to marry one Florence, who ran off to marry Dracula author Bram Stoker instead. Characteristically, Wilde wrote to her: “I shall always remember you at prayer.” Years later, he asks actor Ellen Terry to give a bouquet to a fellow actor named Florrie. Same woman? No idea – and the notes don’t help.

Holland takes his task as editor seriously and, to be fair, he confesses in advance that this is a “highly personal” selection. But is he up to the task? Wilde, at least, might be pleased at some of the outrageous name-dropping. He sent copies of his books to anyone with a letterbox, and just because this included Yeats, Walt Whitman and a host of other literary greats, that is little reason to include every (almost identical) cover letter.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-07-08 13:37:17.
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