Monthly Archives: November 2015

That Wallpaper

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On graduating from the Sorbonne, London-born journalist Claire de Pratz, née Zoe Clara Solange Cadiot, worked as an English teacher before becoming a correspondent with both Le Petit Parisien and the Daily News. During her lifetime, she wrote several well received novels and non-fiction books.

In July 1889, when she was aged just seventeen, de Pratz wrote an article, ‘Pierre Loti and His Works’, for The Woman’s World, a magazine that was edited by Oscar Wilde at the time. When she met Wilde in Paris towards the end of his life, she reminded him that he was her first editor and they struck up a friendship.Wilde christened her ‘the good goddess’or ‘la bonne déesse’.

An interview de Pratz gave to Léon Guillot de Saix in L’Européen on 8 May 1929, and her memoir France from Within,  give fascinating insights into the final months of Wilde’s life. In these, de Pratz reports that Wilde often spoke of his mother but never of his trials and imprisonment. Clearly devastated by the consequences of his conviction, he asked her: ‘Is there on earth a crime so terrible that in punishment of it a father can be prevented from seeing his children?’

It was to Claire de Pratz that Wilde said of the wallpaper in his room at the Hotel d’Alsace – chocolate flowers on a blue background – ‘my wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other has to go’. Unfortunately, it was to be him. Oscar Wilde died on 30 November 1900. Although he was just 46, he had outlived his father and mother, his sister and brother, and his wife.

Claire de Pratz is one of the remarkable women in my book Wilde’s Women, read more here.

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REFERENCE:

L’Européen8 Mai 1929, ‘Souvenirs Inedits’ reeferenced in Témoignages d’époque,  Claire de Pratz, Rue de Beaux Arts, Numéro 37 : Mars/Avril 2011 http://www.oscholars.com/RBA/thirty-seven/37.13/epoque.htm accessed on 2 March 2015

 

 

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Win a Copy of Wilde’s Women

I’m running a giveaway on the Goodreads website for signed copies of Wilde’s Women. Enter here.

 

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I wrote about a brilliant, exiled Irish writer whose life unravelled – not Oscar but Maeve Brennan

I took a break from writing about Wilde’s Women to write about Maeve Brennan instead:

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I love writing for THRESHOLDS: home of the international short story forum, which is based at the University of Chichester, in West Sussex, and aims to provide a creative and supportive space for anyone interested in the Short Story form. Here’s my latest post for them, an author profile of the amazing Maeve Brennan:

It sometimes takes an outsider’s gaze to capture the essence of a place with an authenticity that lies beyond the sight of the indigenous observer. For this reason, it should have come as no great surprise to readers of The New Yorker when the Long-Winded Lady, columnist and faithful, if eccentric, documenter of life in the eponymous city, was unmasked as Irishwoman Maeve Brennan, an immigrant who had arrived in her mid-twenties. John Updike, among others, realised that this watchful interloper ‘brought New York back to The New Yorker’. In her whimsical contributions to the exalted ‘Talk of the Town’ column, Brennan was rare in establishing a distinct persona, and unique in ensuring that this voice was a female one. Stylish, ambitious and armed with a waspish wit that conjured up recollections of Dorothy Parker, her personality contrasted violently with that of her passive, suburbanite alter-ego.

Between 1954 and 1968, Brennan documented a city in flux, a place where the wrecker’s ball swung in perpetual motion as residents embraced a post-war transience. She too drifted: a self-confessed ‘traveller in residence’, she hopped from short-lease apartment to anonymous hotel suite, or borrowed summer houses from glamorous friends like Gerald and Sara Murphy, Fitzgerald’s models for the Divers in Tender is the Night. In her wake she left little beyond a miasma of cigarette smoke and a trace of expensive scent. As one-time editor at The New Yorker Gardner Botsford observed, Brennan would ‘like the Big Blonde in the Dorothy Parker story … transport her entire household, all her possessions and her cats – in a taxi’. In her story ‘The Last Days of New York City’, published in The New Yorker in 1955, Brennan confessed: ‘All my life, I suppose, I’ll be running out of buildings just ahead of the wreckers’.

Although rarely absent from New York State, Brennan used fiction to return to her native Ireland, which she had left while still in her teens. In The Visitor, her posthumously published novella, she explains why: ‘Home is a place in the mind,’ she writes, ‘when it is empty it frets’. Yet, her memories were never those of a misty-eyed romantic. Born within a year of the failed Easter Rising of 1916, to a staunch Republican father who was in prison at the time but was later appointed Secretary of the Irish Legation to Washington, Brennan was tangled up in political turmoil for much of her early life. The precariousness of her existence and the ever-present threat of displacement seep into stories shot through with anxiety and unease. In ‘The Day We Got Our Own Back’, from The New Yorker in 1953, Brennan documents how she watched wide-eyed as her family home was raided:

One afternoon some unfriendly men dressed in civilian clothes and carrying revolvers came to our house, searching for my father, or for information about him.

Throughout her life, she had a horror of being pinned down and she rarely made firm arrangements.

Conventional boundaries between memoir and fiction are rarely observed in Brennan’s revealing Irish stories, many of them collected posthumously in The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, a book compared favourably to Joyce’s Dubliners. Although these tales of lower-middle class Dublin life appear superficially innocuous, they revealed an unfamiliar malevolence to second– and third-generation Irish-Americans who hankered after a mist-shrouded holy land. Her characters operate furtively, seeing out their thwarted lives in the shadow cast by a stultifying and spiritless Catholic Church.

From the safety of cosmopolitan New York, Brennan time travelled back to darkened confessionals where guilt-ridden children cowered under the gaze of a vengeful deity, and to the antechamber of an enclosed convent where a bereft mother strained to discern the voice of a lost daughter who sang in praise of her unearthly spouse. Teaching nuns, capricious in their accusations, note that the young Brennan was headstrong and wilful, traits that are inappropriate in Irish womanhood. Decades later, in ‘Lessons and Lessons and More Lessons’ from The New Yorker, Brennan described how, in a city where the ‘three-martini lunch’ is commonplace, she hid her glass instinctively when two nuns entered the Greenwich Village restaurant she frequented.

In New York, Brennan embraced her ‘otherness’; as one colleague observed, ‘She wasn’t one of us. She was one of her!’ To strangers, she could appear hard-edged and watchful, yet friends found her warm and generous, voluble and funny. Everyone agreed that she was beautiful. Barely five feet tall and beanpole slim, she looked younger than her years and compensated with vertiginous heels. She tottered along the robustly masculine corridors of The New Yorker offices at West Forty-Third Street, make-up immaculate, hair neatly coiffed and carefully chosen costume exquisitely cut, with a fresh flower in her lapel, generally a rose. She had the ceiling of her office painted Wedgwood blue and threw open her door while she tap-tapped away on her typewriter, a curlicue of smoke rising from the ever-present Camel clenched between her fingers. Her language was defiantly fruity, and the mischievous notes that she slipped under the doors of her male colleagues elicited great explosions of laughter: ‘To be around her was to see style being invented,’ recalled her friend and editor William Maxwell.

An ill-fated stint as fourth wife to fellow New Yorker writer St. Clair McKelway – a hard-drinking, mentally frail man – took her to bohemian Sneden’s Landing, a community of artists and writers that nestled alongside the Hudson in upstate New York. Brennan recast it as ‘Herbert’s Retreat’, a rarefied enclave where privileged New Yorkers partied under the watchful gaze of their derisive Irish servants. With an insider’s familiarity, Brennan used her stories to juxtapose the prudent Catholicism of her countrywomen with the flagrant immorality of their employers. As the beautiful and sophisticated daughter of a diplomat, Brennan enjoyed a status that allowed her to pass in society, yet she had rubbed shoulders with girls who would enter domestic service and must have felt a sneaking solidarity with them. As a former fashion writer with Harper’s Bazaar, it apparently amused her greatly when the trappings of Irish peasantry – shawls and tweed and tea leaves – were adopted as status symbols by wealthy American women.

At times, Brennan grasped onto the trappings of Irishness with a fervour that suggested desperation and displacement. She drank tea obsessively, and although her rented homes rarely featured a kitchen, she insisted on an open fireplace, considering a fire to be a living thing, company almost. When her marriage failed in 1959, she embraced a solitary life, borrowing houses in the Hamptons and walking the Atlantic beach with her dog, Bluebell before returning to the twin comforts of a scalding hot cup of tea and a roaring fire, which she shared with several cats, ‘small heaps of warm dreaming fur all over the furniture and the floor’. In summertime, when the Hamptons filled up, she would return to New York City or travel home to Ireland.

During her chaotic, alcohol-soaked marriage, Brennan wrote little of any worth. When one devoted reader requested more Maeve Brennan stories, she had her editor write to explain that she had shot herself when she was ‘drunk and heartsick’. However, the 1960s heralded a period of intense productivity. Several of her finest stories, set in Dublin and Wexford, feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a couple who endure a dispiriting marriage: she is furtive and priest-ridden, while he ‘wore the expression of a friend, but of a friend who is making no promises’. Carefully crafted, these stories represent a stingingly accurate documenting of the disappointments that ambush even the most virtuous at every turn. Many of the stories from this period were published in In and Out of Never-Never Land. A number of stories from this collection are set in Forty-eight Cherryfield Avenue, in the well-to-do Dublin suburb of Ranelagh, the home she occupied as a child; William Maxwell described it as her ‘imagination’s home’.

Brennan’s story ‘The Eldest Child’ was selected for Best American Short Stories 1968. Yet even as her writing elicited fresh acclaim, her life began to unravel and she drifted, physically and mentally, becoming unkempt, erratic and paranoid. Homeless and debt-ridden, she took to sleeping on a couch in the ladies room at The New Yorker offices, and she grew paranoid that her toothpaste had been laced with cyanide. When she was institutionalised for a time, one friend testified that she became very Irish, as if the years had fallen away, and with them the carefully crafted veneer. She was discharged once she had established a pharmaceutically induced equilibrium, but she could not be relied on to take her medication and drifted once more, losing touch with friends and colleagues. She was nervously tolerated at the offices of The New Yorker as a legacy of affection and with respect for her talent, but her behaviour grew erratic: she once nursed a sick pigeon in her office and, in a more sinister episode, wrecked the offices of a number of colleagues. Sometimes, she stood outside, handing out cash to bewildered passers-by. Inevitably, she produced little that was worthy of publication. Yet ‘The Springs of Affection’, her longest and, arguably, most powerful story, appeared in The New Yorker in March 1972. Although it is almost entirely autobiographical, Brennan twisted the facts in such a fashion that one aunt was prompted to write the words ‘greatly changed for the worse’ on a photograph of her brilliant niece.

Although Brennan continued as an occasional contributor to ‘Talk of the Town’, her offerings arrived out of the blue with no indication of where she was when she wrote them. In her final outing as the Long-Winded Lady, in January 1981, she described how, walking along Forty-Second Street, she had sidestepped a shadow that she recognised as ‘exactly the same shadow that used to fall on the cement part of our garden in Dublin, more than fifty-five years ago’. That year, she turned up at the offices of The New Yorker, grey-haired and unkempt, and sat quietly in reception on two consecutive days, but no one appeared to recognise her. Maeve Brennan died of heart failure in a New York nursing home on 01 November 1993; she was seventy-six. By then, she had descended into an imaginary existence in which she appeared unaware of her status as a celebrated writer.

Excluded from the canon of important Irish writing for years, she has enjoyed a posthumous revival. Two collections of short fiction, The Springs of Affection and The Rose Garden, and her revealing novella, The Visitor, are still in print, as is a collected edition of Long-Winded Lady pieces. Jonathan Cape published Angela Bourke’s biography Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker in 2004. Since then, several new plays and collections have referenced the work of this significant Irish writer.

 

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Wilde about Keats

I’m so proud to be a contributor to the wonderful Romanticism Blog – it’s a really brilliant source of information on the Eighteenth Century and the Romantic poets. My latest post for them is a tie-in with my book Wilde’s Women.

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It can be read here or below:

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In July 1877, subscribers to the Irish Monthly, a publication subtitled ‘A Magazine of General Literature’, were treated to an entertaining and scholarly article headed ‘The Tomb of John Keats’. The author, a 22-year-old Dubliner, was an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was reading Literae Humaniores, the university’s undergraduate course in Classics. This was his first published prose article and his name was Oscar Wilde.

In this moving tribute to the young poet, which can be read here, Wilde, an avid fan, introduced Keats as ‘one who walks with Spenser, and Shakespeare, and Byron, and Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the great procession of the sweet singers of England’. While allowing that the resting place of ‘this divine boy’, which he had visited earlier that year, was surrounded by beauty, Wilde insisted that Keats’ brief but extraordinary life was not honoured fittingly by the ‘mean grave’ that held his remains.

Describing the emotions that came over him as he stood by Keats’ graveside, Wilde paid florid homage to his hero: ‘I thought of him as of a Priest of Beauty slain before his time; and the vision of Guido’s St. Sebastian came before my eyes as I saw him at Genoa’. He was moved to compose a poem:

HEU MISERANDE PUER (Later renamed THE GRAVE OF KEATS and included in Poems, 1881)

Rid of the world’s injustice and its pain,
He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue;
Taken from life while life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian and as foully slain.
No cypress shades his grave, nor funeral yew,
But red-lipped daisies, violets drenched with dew,
And sleepy poppies, catch the evening rain.

O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O saddest poet that the world hath seen!
O sweetest singer of the English land!
Thy name was writ in water on the sand,
But our tears shall keep thy memory green,
And make it flourish like a Basil-tree.

Ever the self publicist, Wilde sent his poem to the eminent poet, patron and politician Lord Haughton, editor of Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848). Inviting Haughton to comment on his tribute, Wilde also petitioned his support for a campaign to replace an ‘extremely ugly’ bas relief of Keats’ head, which had been erected close to his grave, with something befitting ‘a lovely Sebastian killed by the arrows of a lying and unjust tongue’.

Wilde could be fiercely proprietorial in his devotion; he chose ‘Keats House’ as the name for the Chelsea home he shared with artist Frank Miles and suggested that only those who shared Keats’ genius were worthy of copying his distinctive style. Certainly, his own early work resonates with echoes of his predecessor, a similarity that was apparent to his critics. One anonymous and damning review of Poems, published in The Athenaeum, asserted that Wilde’s derivative style grew ‘out of a misunderstanding worship of Keats’, and concluded ‘in spite of some element of grace and beauty’, his poems had ‘no element of endurance’. This proved to be the case.

Keats was a pioneer of aestheticism: ‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth’, he declared in a letter to his great friend Benjamin Bailey, written in November 1817. Little wonder Wilde insisted: ‘It is in Keats that one discerns the beginning of the artistic renaissance of England’. Again and again, he invoked his hero as a touchstone for the admirable or the unworthy.

Wilde was scathing in ‘Two Biographies of Keats’, a review piece he wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette in September 1887. While he favoured Sidney Colvin’s evaluation over William Rossetti’s ‘great failure’, he chastised the former for drawing attention to Bailey’s toned-down characterisation of Keats as a man of ‘commonsense and gentleness’, insisting ‘we prefer the real Keats, with his passionate wilfulness, his fantastic moods and his fine inconsistence’.

Although The Athenaeum derided it, the depth of Wilde’s devotion was recognised by Keats’ niece Emma Speed, daughter of his brother George who had moved to America in 1818 and settled in Louisville in 1819. Mrs. Speed, described by Wilde as ‘a lady of middle age, with a sweet gentle manner and a most musical voice’, sought him out after he cited her uncle’s poem ‘Answer to a sonnet by J.H. Reynolds’ during a lecture he delivered at the Masonic Temple in Louisville on Tuesday, 21 February 1882. Wilde accepted her invitation to call on her the following day in order to examine the Keats manuscripts in her possession; he recalled this experience in ‘Keats’ Sonnet on Blue’, an erudite article he wrote for the July 1886 issue of The Century Guild Hobby Horse:

I spent most of the next day with her, reading the letters of Keats to her father, some of which were at that time unpublished, poring over torn yellow leaves and faded scraps of paper, and wondering at the little Dante in which Keats had written those marvellous notes on Milton.

Shortly afterwards, in an act of overwhelming generosity, Emma Speed sent him the original manuscript of ‘Answer to a sonnet by J.H. Reynolds’, prompting him to write in response:

What you have given me is more golden than gold, more precious than any treasure this great country could yield me, though the land be a network of railways, and each city a harbour for the galleys of the world.

It is a sonnet I have loved always, and indeed who but the supreme and perfect artist could have got from a mere colour a motive so full of marvel: and now I am half enamoured of the paper that touched his hand, and the ink that did his bidding, grown fond of the sweet comeliness of his character, for since my boyhood I have loved none better than your marvellous kinsman, that godlike boy, the real Adonis of our age…. In my heaven he walks eternally with Shakespeare and the Greeks…

Three years later, on 2 March 1885, Wilde attended a contentious auction in London at which thirty-five of Keats’s love letters to Fanny Brawne were being sold by her son Herbert Lindon. He expressed his disquiet in ‘On the sale by auction of Keats’s love letters’.

These are the letters which Endymion wrote
To one he loved in secret, and apart.
And now the brawlers of the auction mart
Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,
Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote
The merchant’s price. I think they love not art
Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart
That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.

Is it not said that many years ago,
In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran
With torches through the midnight, and began
To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw
Dice for the garments of a wretched man,
Not knowing the God’s wonder, or His woe?

Yet, despite his apparent distaste, Wilde reportedly spent eighteen pounds on one of these letters. Perhaps he regarded himself as a worthy keeper of the flame. In truth, he was.

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