The Wit of Oscar Wilde

Sally Richardson reviews The Wit of Oscar Wilde, compiled and edited by Seán McCann, O'Brien Press, ISBN 10 1-84717-067-6, £7.99 pbk

The Wit of Oscar Wilde

O'BRIEN have reissued Seán McCann's compilation of Oscarisms, which was first published in 1969, and a sweet little book it is.

Oscar Wilde, like his fellow Dubliner and close contemporary Bernard Shaw (Wilde was two years older, but Shaw lived twice as long) delighted in paradox and carefully cultivated a public reputation as a man of wit. He was a mass of contradictions - flippant and serious, an amoral moralist who hid behind his scandalous private life as if it were a mask. His life also took a contradictory course, from aesthetic dandy and habitué of the Savoy to a prison uniform and the treadmill.

The transition from William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement ('have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful') to Aesthetic Movement decadence (Oscar's 'All art is quite useless') was epitomized by Wilde's carefully cultivated public persona, although the movements were similar in style and overlapped considerably. The importance of being earnest was a very serious matter for the mid-Victorians; by 1895 Wilde had turned it into a joke.

McCann's compilation is something for dipping into, meant to amuse rather than to provide a serious selection of Wilde's work. It succeeds very well on these terms, and although scholarly dates and references are lacking, the source work is supplied for each quote.

The full range of Oscar's work has been plundered, from his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (a real morality tale) and his delightful fairy tales for children to his plays and essays. His works are well worth reading in full, and perhaps the snippets given here will induce the casual browser to go back to them.

McCann's short introduction contains more anecdotes than it does serious biographical material, but with Oscar, the anecdotes tell you as much or more about him as anything else does.

Before giving us a few facts about Wilde's unusual, to say the least, family background, McCann points out that "The surprising thing about (Wilde) is not that he turned out to be one of the world's most tragic geniuses, but that things weren't a lot worse." Quite. However, his assertion that Wilde's redoubtable mother Speranza wanted a girl and dressed him as one until he was nine is inaccurate and has been refuted by Wilde's grandson Merlin Holland.

The quotes are collected under topic headings. The two biggest of these are (significantly) 'Saints and Sinners' (Wilde was something of both) and 'Love and Marriage' (love brought out his romanticism; marriage his cynicism) but he also has a lot to say about 'England and the English'. It's nearly always a treat to hear the Irish being rude about the English, and Oscar (why does one always want to call him by his first name?) does it better than most.

Mind you, Wilde was accused of plagiarizing some of his choicest gems from another celebrated wit, the American artist Whistler. On one occasion, Whistler said something particularly clever and amusing. 'I wish I'd said that,' said Wilde. 'You will, Oscar, you will,' returned Whistler.

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