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Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture

The Making of a Legend


Edited by Joseph Bristow


Athens (Ohio): Ohio University Press, 2008

Paperback, xlii, 355 p. ISBN 978-0821418383. $29.95


Reviewed by Emily Eells

Université de Paris-Ouest-Nanterre





Joseph Bristow has achieved a tour de force in Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend. The title of the volume reflects its conceptual clarity: how did Wilde become a living legend and a leading figure in modern culture? The series of twelve essays, arranged in a loosely chronological order, never lose focus and constitute an informed, eloquent response to that question. They are all well researched and documented by recognised scholars in the field who offer coherent, highly readable histories and analyses of Wilde’s place in 20th-21st century culture. Their strength lies in their originality, as they offer surprisingly fresh insight into a well-worked subject. This volume is a major contribution to Wilde studies: a must-read for Wilde scholars, with important pieces for those interested in queer studies, inter-medial adaptation and performance.


The volume bears the mark of its editor, the formidable Wilde expert, Joseph Bristow. His lengthy introduction is arguably the best essay in the volume, and an added extra to his informative preface presenting the twelve pieces he edits. In his 45-page introduction, Bristow gives a gripping account of Wilde’s wretched death and burial in Paris, before broaching its aftermath. Far from repeating the well-known facts concerning Wilde’s demise, Bristow sheds new light on Wilde’s impoverished last months, focusing on his fraught relationship with Frank Harris and even more complex friendship with Robert Ross. He arouses the reader’s curiosity to know more about how Ross flouted Wilde’s instructions and sold the manuscript of De Profundis before time, or how some colourful eccentrics (‘a practiced forger who traded palm oil in West Africa, a surrealist boxer who disappeared into the Pacific, and a perfidious, parrot-loving English woman who sported a Thai name’ [26]) were involved in creating the Wilde myth. Bristow’s introduction is charged with energy: he sets the tone for the dynamic essays which follow with his accounts of forged texts and published apocrypha, fictionalised reports exaggerating details of Wilde’s death (his ‘friend’ and biographer Frank Harris imagined that Wilde’s bowels exploded when he died, provoking such a nauseating smell that the mattress had to be burnt), and quotations from a medium who claimed that Wilde’s spirit told her (with plausible Wildean wit) that ‘Being dead is the most boring experience in life'.


His introduction defines the subject of the volume and is an enticing invitation to read on. Bristow’s preface gives a run-down of the articles to follow, but he goes well beyond simply summarising them. He adds fascinating points which develop the work of his contributors, and bring out how they engage in a critical dialogue with one another. He picks up on the irony Lucy McDiarmid points to in her article, ‘Oscar Wilde, Lady Gregory, and Late-Victorian Table Talk’, when she writes of one evening party where Wilde mocked his host Herbert Asquith who later, in his capacity of Home Secretary, turned the tables when he laid criminal charges against him for his ‘acts of gross indecency’. Bristow sounds another note of irony when he reminds the reader that it was Asquith’s son Anthony who directed the inimitable 1952 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, in which the actress Edith Evans immortalised Lady Bracknell’s expression of horror at the thought that her daughter’s suitor Jack Worthing was if not born, at least bred, in a handbag.

McDiarmid introduces the much debated question of Wilde’s double self (the writer and the man) by considering it in the context of dinner-table talk. She highlights how the Victorian drawing room was on the threshold of the private and the public spheres and provided Wilde with a space in which his charisma could shine and his wit scintillate. Wilde’s true life performances are echoed in his fiction, both in Lord Henry Wotton’s performances in London’s high society and in the social comedies notably The Woman of No Importance where Lord Illingworth utters the epigrammatic line with which McDiarmid opens her essay: ‘A man who can dominate a London dinner table can dominate the world.’


In ‘Sexuality in the Age of Technological Reproducibility: Oscar Wilde, Photography, and Identity,’ Daniel Novak focuses on how Napoleon Sarony fashioned an image of Wilde in the series of photographs he took of him to publicize his arrival in America. Novak returns to the trial involving those photographs (Sarony sued the company who copied Wilde’s pose in an advertisement) which ruled that Sarony had authorship of the pose, and that Wilde was merely the model. Novak draws a resonant comparison between that ruling and Wilde’s own aesthetics in The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the sexuality of the eponymous model is created by the portraitist.


Erin Williams Hyman uses a drawing by Toulouse-Lautrec as the spring-board of her argument in ‘Salome as Bombshell, or How Oscar Wilde Became an Anarchist’. She identifies the back of one of the figures watching La Goulue dance as Oscar Wilde, who is sitting next to the more easily recognisable anarchist Félix Fénéon. This piece (one of the numerous instances where judicious use of the visual is made in this volume) shows how Wilde’s preoccupations as an artist brought him into a network of Parisian-based Symbolist writers revolving around Stuart Merrill and Marcel Schwob and the Mercure de France, renowned to favour anarchist insurgency.


In assessing a volume comprising pieces on a wide range of aspects of Wilde’s oeuvre, it is inevitable that a reader will be drawn to the essays closest to his or her own interests. While recognising the quality of all, Richard A. Kaye’s essay on ‘Oscar Wilde and the Politics of Posthumous Sainthood: Hoffmansthal, Mirbeau, Proust’ arrested my critical attention. Kaye outlines a hagiography of Wilde identifying him with St Sebastian whose presence can be felt from his early writings (note the following line of his poem ‘The Grave of Keats’ authored as an undergraduate: ‘Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain’) to the pseudonym he adopts after his release from imprisonment (Sebastian Melmoth). After establishing that Wilde, in his 1877 essay on Keats, also compared the Romantic poet to a ‘Priest of Beauty slain before his time’, who evoked ‘the vision of Guido [Reni’s] St. Sebastian’ [116], Kaye traces how representations of the saint as an ephebe prompted 19th century writers to view him as a symbol of male homosexuality and ‘tacit masochism’ [117]. A collection of essays has the merit of giving the reader a taste of a critic’s work, and this section of Kaye’s piece certainly whets my appetite for his monograph, ‘Voluptuous Immobility’: St Sebastian and the Decadent Imagination (forthcoming at Columbia University Press). His section on Octave Mirbeau’s Le Journal d’une femme de chambre, published four months before Wilde’s demise in 1900 and casting him as the fictional character Sir Harry Kimberly, echoes back to the opening piece of the volume. Mirbeau has Kimberly address the guests at a dinner party in a virtuoso performance inspired by Wilde’s own brilliance as a story-teller. Given the complexity of Mirbeau’s position—he was homophobic but elicited sympathy for Wilde in a front-page newspaper article entitled Hard Labour published at the time of his imprisonment (Le Journal 16 June 1895)—Kaye again arouses our interest to know more.


His piece however moves on to a subtle analysis of how Proust’s novel reflects the impact Wilde had made on early twentieth-century French culture despite the stigma attached to his name. Kaye quotes in full the two-page long sentence central to Sodome et Gomorrhe I, in which Proust reflects on the ‘homosexual race’ and their lot in society. He gives the passage historical significance when he likens homosexuals to the Jews, who needed a cause like the unjustly convicted Dreyfus to bring them together in united force. Although Wilde is not named in this passage, there can be no doubt that Proust alludes to him when he speaks of ‘the poet who was yesterday being fêted in every drawing-room and applauded in every theatre in London, only to be driven on the morrow from every lodging-house, unable to find a pillow on which to lay his head’ (cited by Kaye [123]), especially as he spelt out his name in a manuscript version of this passage before deleting it. Kaye astutely analyses how Proust constructs his entire sentence around Wilde without naming him despite his pivotal role. The ripple effect of the pebble which has hit the water without being seen could serve as a suggestive image for the entire volume which so eloquently illustrates how Wilde’s impact in modern culture disturbs the surface of the water, creating beautiful patterns on it.


Yvonne Ivory’s ‘The Trouble with Oskar: Wilde’s Legacy for the Early Homosexual Rights Movement in Germany’ traces Wilde’s early reception in Germany, a country he himself found dull, but where his work quickly became the centre of interest. Although it is well-known that the German première of Salomé triggered a wave of ‘Salomania’ and secured the play’s reputation, as Richard Strauss was inspired to make the text into the libretto for his opera, the German homosexual circle’s adaptation of Wilde deserved the foregrounding granted by Ivory. She reproduces documents which show how both Wilde’s and Dorian Gray’s names were coded in early twentieth-century Germany and used by homosexuals seeking to share accommodation or signing petitions and making donations in favour of homosexual causes. She underlines the decisive contributions made by the ostentatious homosexual Von Teschenberg, who translated Wilde’s works and facilitated their circulation in Germany in affordable editions. The annotations to Ivory’s article rival the interest of the body of her piece, for example when she suggests in note 41 that Von Teschenberg was in possession of the four-act version of The Importance of Being Earnest, and was the first to publish it. Ivory’s chapter anticipates and complements the studies on the reception of Wilde in Germany in Stefano Evangelista’s The Reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe (Continuum Press, 2010), as she covers the homosexual aspect of the question whereas the contributors to Evangelista’s volume focus on the reception of his works, in particular Salomé and Bunbury (the first German title of the play, which preceded von Teschenberg’s translation entitled Ernst sein ! )


Julie Townsend’s ‘Staking Salome: The Literary Forefathers and Choreographic Daughters of Oscar Wilde’s “Hysterical and Perverted Creature” ’ excels in its close readings of the French textual avatars of Wilde’s Salomé. Her history of the performance of Salomé’s dance extends to study of costume and lighting, indicating how Wilde’s laconic stage directions (in the first manuscript version of the play, the only indication he gave for the dance was a squiggly line; in the final version he says no more than ‘Salomé danse la danse des sept voiles’) gave rise to inventive choreographies using various media to achieve their effects.


Lizzie Thynne’s ‘ “Surely You Are Not Claiming to Be More Homosexual Than I?”: Claude Cahun and Oscar Wilde’ centers on the lesbian surrealist, who was the niece of Marcel Schwob, and her partner Suzanne Malherbe, an artist who traded under the name of Marcel Moore. Lizzie Thynne shows how a nexus of close relationships developed around Wilde and the issue of same-sex love: Claude Cahun’s uncle was one of the friends who corrected the French in Wilde’s script of Salomé, and her lover was no other than her stepsister. The images accompanying the text illustrate Cahun’s affinity with Wilde’s work, especially in the portrait reflecting her face in the mirror which is suggestive of Dorian Gray. Thynne shows how Cahun and Moore’s striking work is indebted to Wilde for its bold, provocation representation of transvestitism and homosexuality, drawing an all too brief parallel with Beardsley’s illustrations for Salomé.


Laurel Brake’s ‘Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife: A Dialogue’ is a fascinating textual study. Brake returns to the question of the authorship of the play Mr and Mrs Daventry, which Wilde initially conceived as a counterpiece to An Ideal Husband. She makes a convincing argument that Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife is an adaptation of a neglected play (or rather synopsis of a play) by Wilde entitled Constance, first published in a French edition in 1954. The fact that the first production of Constance is playing at the King’s Head Theatre as this review is being written gives immediate relevance to Brake’s discussion and highlights just how vibrant Wilde’s legacy is.


Leslie Moran’s ‘Transcripts and Truth: Writing the Trials of Oscar Wilde’ works together many of the key issues concerning Wilde: the twisted strands of life and fiction, performance and identity, homosexuality and art. Moran foregrounds the discovery Ed Cohen imparts in Talk on the Wilde Side, namely that H. Montgomery Hyde’s The Trials of Oscar Wilde, which was for many years considered to be the canonical, factual account of the trials, was not in fact based on transcripts of court proceedings, but on reports in the press. Merlin Holland’s recent volume, Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess, claims in its subtitle to be The Real Trials of Oscar Wilde (my emphasis), which according to Moran can be coupled with Neil McKenna’s biography, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, to form a diptych on Wilde’s sexual life (both volumes were published in 2003). The trials were also the subject of two competing films produced in 1960, which themselves were the subject of a trial over copyright. Moran’s informed piece treads the fault-line of fact and fiction which runs throughout this volume, bringing into play the latest documentation.


Francesca Coppa’s ‘Artist as Protagonist: Wilde on Stage’ takes its cue from some of the other pieces in the volume, offering pertinent development of some well-chosen points. Coppa concentrates on Wilde as a fictionalised character, going well beyond the fictionalised portraits of him which appeared during his life-time—for example in Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera Patience and Robert Hichens’s novel The Green Carnation, to reveal Wilde’s presence in E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice and its 1987 Merchant-Ivory film version. The core of Coppa’s piece deals with Wilde as a character on stage, first of all in the play by Leslie Stokes and Sewell Stokes (1936) which was supplanted by Micheál MacLiammόir’s The Importance of Being Oscar (1960). Coppa’s essay shows how Wilde’s dramatic presence dominates the contemporary London stage not only (as one might expect) with productions of his social comedies, but in bio-plays. Coppa makes the important point that Eric Bentley’s Lord Alfred’s Lover (1981)—itself a charitable portrayal of Douglas—is sympathetic towards homosexuality, as it post-dates its decriminalisation. Terry Eagleton, a compatriot of Wilde’s, casts Wilde in a postcolonial context in his Saint Oscar (1989), emphasising the importance of being Irish. Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) was followed over twenty years later by The Invention of Love (1997) and along with David Hare’s Judas Kiss (1998) they exemplify how leading playwrights have made Wilde into a character on stage.


In ‘Wilde Lives: Derek Jarman and the Queer Eighties’, Matt Cook foregrounds one of the themes which unites all the contributions in this volume when he cites Barbara H. Rosenwein’s notion of ‘emotional communities’ [299]. His sympathetic discussion of the ‘affect’ associated with the artistic production of modern homosexual artists is framed in a rigorously constructed historical and political framework. Cook’s preoccupation is with the outing of homosexual culture in England in the 1980s. His essay begins with reflections on Neil Barlett’s book Who Was The Man? A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde (1988) as a lead into his sections on the film-maker Derek Jarman whose work (rather like Proust’s) both includes and excludes Wilde. Cook opens up his discussion to consider Wilde’s pervasive influence over late 20th-century artists and writers from David Hockney to Will Self.


Oliver S. Buckton’s ‘Oscar Goes to Hollywood: Wilde, Sexuality, and the Gaze of Contemporary Cinema’ concludes the volume by going global. He moves from Cook’s study of the independent film-maker Jarman to Wilde as a Hollywood star in such blockbuster films as Brian Gilbert’s Wilde (1997) and Oliver Parker’s The Importance of Being Earnest (2001). Wilde opens with a scene mistakingly like a western, with Stephen Fry as Wilde arriving on horseback in Leadsville, Colorado to lecture on art to the miners there. Buckton pinpoints Hans Robert Jauss’s concept of our ‘horizon of expectations’ to account for the discrepancy between our image of Wilde and how he is portrayed at the start of this film [315]. His discussion, like all the others in this volume, is a persuasive statement that Wilde’s spirit is still alive and creative.


The essays in Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend form an ensemble which is more than equal to the sum of its parts. They are framed by a ‘Chronology’ at the beginning of the volume and a bibliography at the end. The first part of the chronology on Wilde’s life and publications is followed by a catalogue of the rewritings, adaptations, and works he inspired. Equal weight is given to Wilde’s life and oeuvre on the one hand and the legend it has given rise to on the other, but the choice of entries raises some questions. Why does it list John Betjeman’s poem ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’, Jeremy Reed’s novel Dorian, and Walter Satterthwaite’s novel Wilde West, although these works are not discussed by the contributors? The answer cannot be that the chronology aimed to be complete, as it omits former French Minister of Justice Robert Badinter’s play C. 3. 3 (1995) dramatising Wilde’s imprisonment, which deserved to be included not only in the chronology, but also as a follow-up to discussion of Rostand’s Le procès d’Oscar Wilde (1934). Given the editor’s concern to present the making of the Wilde legend in chronological order, it is surprising that the bibliography fails to specify the first publication date of some of the important foreign language works. Octave Mirbeau’s Journal d’une femme de chambre is dated 2006 (because cited in the English translation), although it is significant this novel in which Wilde takes centre stage was published in French several months before his death. Similarly, it is misleading to give 2002 as the publication date for Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe, which was published in French eighty years earlier.


These slight reservations do not belittle the achievement of this volume. It is a collection of interdisciplinary essays of the highest academic quality, which remain accessible to the general reader as well. Every Wilde scholar should have a copy on their shelves, as it is the kind of volume one will go back to time and time again, as one’s own perspectives and preoccupations concerning Wilde evolve.




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