Monthly Archives: November 2016

Oscar Wilde: October 16 1854 – November 30 1900

As his life drew to a close, Oscar’s general health was poor. For much of his adult life, he had suffered from intermittent deafness and infections in his right ear, a condition that had flared up in prison but was inadequately treated. In September 1900, he fell ill once again, to the extent that it was necessary for his right ear was operated on in his hotel room. Although the procedure appeared to have been effective, by mid-November he had suffered a relapse and was confined to bed.

During the final weeks of his life, Oscar was nursed lovingly by his great friends Robbie Ross and Reggie Turner. On 29 November, Ross, a convert to Catholicism since 1894, sent for Father Cuthbert Dunne, a priest attached to the Passionist Church of St. Joseph’s in Paris. Although incapable of speech at that point, Oscar was conditionally baptised into the Catholic faith; Ross assured Ada Leverson that was in accordance with her friend’s long-held wishes.

Early on the morning of 30 November, a change came over Oscar and his breathing became laboured. Shortly before two o’clock in the afternoon, he heaved a great sigh and breathed his last. Ross laid out his friend’s body and found two Franciscan nuns to watch over him while he informed the authorities of the death of Oscar Wilde.

Wilde’s first grave in Bagneux

NOTE:

In their paper ‘Oscar Wilde’s terminal illness: reappraisal after a century’, Ashley H Robins and Sean L Sellars concluded, based on medical evidence, that Oscar Wilde died of meningoencephalitis secondary to chronic right middle-ear disease. (The Lancet, Vol 356, November 25, 2000, pp.1841-1843)

Excerpt taken from Wilde’s Women

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Oscar ‘drew off part of the crowd which had formed around Miss Alcott’

Novelist and campaigner Louisa May Alcott was born on 29 November, 1832 in Pennsylvania, the second of four girls. She is best remembered as the author of Little Women. As she makes a brief appearance in Wilde’s Women, I’ve posted an extract in her honour.

Louise May Alcott aged around 25

Louisa May Alcott

Oscar’s final engagement that evening was a reception hosted by English-born Jane Cunningham Croly in honour of author Louisa May Alcott, who was nearing the end of her career and her life. Croly, better known by her pen-name ‘Jennie June’, was an exceptionally useful supporter to cultivate. Credited with pioneering and syndicating the ‘woman’s column’, she ran the women’s department at the New York World for ten years and was chief staff writer at Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions, later renamed Demorest’s Monthly Magazine. As ‘Jennie June’, she wrote ‘Gossip with and for Women’ for the New York Dispatch and ‘Parlour and Sidewalk Gossip’ for Noah’s Sunday Times. The sole breadwinner in her family, she juggled the responsibilities of motherhood and journalism by spending mornings at home before heading into the office at noon and working steadily until after midnight. Sunday nights were reserved for entertaining New York’s intellectual and artistic elite.

A passionate believer in networking for women, Croly founded the Women’s Parliament in 1856. She responded to the exclusion of women journalists, herself included, from an honorary dinner organised for Charles Dickens by the New York Press Club by founding Sorosis, America’s first professional woman’s club. She also established the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the New York Women’s Press Club. The elite members of her own New York Women’s Club campaigned for education, improved working conditions and better healthcare for women. An uncompromising realist, she once wrote:

Girls are none the worse for being a little wild, a little startling to very proper norms, and much less likely, in that case, to spend their time gasping over sentimental novels, and imagining that every whiskered specimen they see is their hero.1

It was after eleven by the time Oscar arrived and immediately he ‘drew off part of the crowd which had formed around Miss Alcott’.2

1 Jane Croly as ‘Jennie June’ in Demorest’s Monthly Magazine, June 15, 1877 , quoted in Roy Morris Jr., Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America (Cambridge, Belknap Press, 2013), p.39

New York Tribune, 9 January 1882, p.5

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Did Oscar Wilde Steal the Baby from the Cradle?

I’ve been immersing myself in the work of George Egerton for weeks now. She’s one of Wilde’s Women and I’ve written about her before but this weekend I’m presenting a paper at a conference on Nietzsche, Psychoanalysis and Feminism at Kingston University (it’s a big deal, Luce Irigaray is speaking & I’m quite scared). Although Egerton was often categorized as a New Woman writer, she doesn’t fit neatly with this group for various reasons. Her stories were influenced by Nietzsche’s philosophy, which she read in the original German ten years before he was translated into English. She was also interested in Wilde’s work and his commitment to individualism.

For this reason I was not at all surprised when I read of how a book replaces a baby in her intriguing story ‘The Spell of the White Elf’, which is included in her hugely popular collection Keynotes.

and then a valuable book – indeed, it is really a case of Mss., and almost unique – I had borrowed for reference, with some trouble, could not be found, and my husband roared with laughter when it turned up in the cradle.

It struck me that she must have been influenced by Wilde’s hugely significant reversal in The Importance of being Earnest, when Miss Prism admits:

In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the bassinette, and placed the baby in the hand-bag.

And then I remembered that Keynotes was published in 1893, while Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest during the summer of 1894, and it was first performed on 14 February 1895.

Oh Oscar!

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Ada Leverson: Wilde’s Wonderful Sphinx

One of the more significant women in Wilde’s Women is Oscar Wilde’s great friend and confidante Ada Leverson. I wrote a profile of her for the Bluestocking Bulletin, which I have reposted here:

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BLUESTOCKING PROFILE

Ada Leverson (1862-1933)

by Eleanor Fitzsimons

Ada Leverson (née Beddington) was a friend and disciple of Oscar Wilde’s who became a widely respected satirist and novelist in her own right. Born in London, England, on 10 October 1862, she was the eldest of nine children born to Samuel Beddington, an affluent Jewish wool merchant, and his wife Zillah, who was an exceptionally talented pianist. From an early age, Ada demonstrated a passion for literature and a particular enthusiasm for the poetry of John Keats. Since her enlightened but authoritarian father arranged for her to be instructed in Latin and Greek as well as the more commonplace French and German, she was also an accomplished linguist with a deep understanding of the origins of language.

Although the Beddingtons encouraged their daughters to become educated, they were also strict disciplinarians and Ada found family life stifling. At nineteen, in a bid to find some measure of independence, she married Ernest Leverson, the son of a prosperous diamond merchant. Her father opposed the match, and with good reason; Leverson, aged thirty-one, was a compulsive gambler and philanderer who had neglected to mention that he had a daughter, Ruth, who was being raised in a convent in Paris while he courted Ada.

Ada and Ernest had little in common and theirs was not a particularly successful marriage. Yet she embraced her fate with good humour, declaring that it was: ‘better to have a ‘trying’ husband than none’. She had an exceptionally clear-eyed view of Victorian marriage and understood that, while it was imperative for a woman, marriage offered no real advantage to a man: ‘Marriage is not his profession, as it is his wife’s,’ she declared. ‘He is free in every way before marriage, tied in every way afterwards – just the reverse with her’. The Leverson’s marriage was blighted by tragedy in 1888 when their infant son George died of meningitis. A daughter, Violet, was born eighteen months later.

Although Ada was witty and exceptionally clever, she lacked confidence in her ability as a writer. For years she seemed content to contribute anonymously to publications like Black & White, The Yellow Book and Punch, while acting as a muse to more prominent, and generally male, writers. In his Memories of a Misspent Youth 1872-1896 (1933), English publisher and writer Grant Richards, who would publish the novels Ada wrote from 1907 onwards, saluted her as:

…the woman whose wit provoked wit in others, whose intelligence helped so much to leaven the dullness of her period, the woman to whom Oscar Wilde was so greatly indebted.

Ada’s friendship with Oscar Wilde was valued greatly by both. While Wilde, who nicknamed her Sphinx, praised her wit and encouraged her to write, she inspired dialogue found in some of his best loved plays: ‘Your dialogue is brilliant and delightful and dangerous,’ he declared. ‘No one admires your clever witty subtle style more than I do’. Celebrating their matched temperaments, he quipped: ‘Everyone should keep someone else’s diary; I sometimes suspect you of keeping mine’. Although she was fond of Wilde’s wife, Constance, Ada encouraged him to bring his young lovers to dinner at her home. She always enjoyed the company of witty and exuberant gay men.

Through her writing Ada helped publicise Wilde’s work. Although she detested the ‘plethora of half-witted epigrams and feeble paradoxes by the mimics of his manner’, both she and he regarded skilful parody as a form of homage: ‘One’s disciples can parody one,’ Wilde insisted, ‘nobody else’. In a letter to writer Walter Hamilton, he listed the ingredients for a worthy parody: ‘a light touch, and a fanciful treatment and, oddly enough, a love of the poet whom it caricatures’. Ada had each in abundance. She delighted in parodying her friend’s work in Punch magazine, and she displayed an uncanny talent for sending up any hint of pomposity. Her parodies can be read in the Punch archives.

In 1905, Ernest Leverson, who had lost most of his fortune, moved to Canada and invested in the lumber trade. He was joined there by his daughter Ruth, but Ada and Violet stayed in London and Ada reinvented herself as a columnist, writing the women’s column ‘White and Gold’ for The Referee magazine under the name ‘Elaine’. Apparently, she wrote propped up in bed, surrounded by a disorder of newspapers, cigarettes and oranges. Her first novel, The Twelfth Hour, was published in 1907. A trilogy,Love’s Shadow (1908), Tenterhooks (1912) and Love at Second Sight (1916), was reprinted as The Little Ottleys, in 1962, and again in 1982, when interest in her work was revived. She wrote two further novels: The Limit (1911) and Bird of Paradise (1914).

Retaining the sharp characterisation and keen ear for dialogue that she had exhibited when parodying Wilde’s work, Ada was hailed as a witty social satirist and documenter of English society who demonstrated a healthy disregard for societal conventions. She was well respected in the literary and artistic circles of 1920s London and befriended T.S. Eliot, Somerset Maugham, Ronald Firbank, and Percy Wyndham Lewis among others. When Ernest Leverson died in Canada in 1922, Ada sold her London home and divided her time between London and Florence. In 1930 Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde, with Reminiscences of the Author, which she had compiled and written shortly after Wilde’s death, was published by Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ada Leverson died in London on August 30, 1933. Her work is all but forgotten today. For more on Ada Leverson and her work read Wonderful Sphinx by Julie Speedie.

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Jane Elgee & William Wilde: ‘Wed on Wednesday, Happy Match’

On 12 November 1851 Dr William Wilde married Jane Elgee at St. Peter’s on Aungier Street, Dublin. Here’s an excerpt from my book, Wilde’s Women to mark the occasion:

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Excerpt from Chapter 3: Taming Speranza

Shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 12 November 1851, , a carriage brought Dr. William Wilde and Jane’s uncle John Elgee to the door of 34 Leeson Street, the home she had shared with her mother, recently deceased, for the past eight years. To the men’s surprise, Jane was ready to leave, allowing them to reach St. Peter’s on Aungier Street [1], her parish church, in time for a nine o’clock wedding. The modest ceremony that joined ‘William R. Wilde Esq., F.R.C.S.’ and ‘Jane Francesca’ was conducted by the groom’s older brother, Reverend John M. Wilde. For the occasion, Jane had exchanged her mourning clothes for a, ‘very rich dress of Limerick lace’ with matching veil worn under a head wreath of white flowers, but she was back in black by eleven o’clock that same morning.

Both bride and groom were well known in the capital, and their dozens of acquaintances would surely have delighted in witnessing the sealing of such a dynamic alliance, but a lavish wedding would have been inappropriate on account of Sarah’s death. Describing the day to the bride’s estranged sister, Emily, Elgee hinted that the couple had married a day earlier than expected and confirmed: ‘nobody were present save our own party and the old hangers on of the church’. Perhaps they desired an auspicious start to their married life. An old folk rhyme beloved of Victorian brides advised: ‘Wed on Wednesday, happy match’. Theirs was certainly happy, but it did not lack turbulence.

After a celebratory breakfast at the Glebe house, Elgee waved the newlyweds off on their short journey to the coastal village of Kingstown, now Dun Laoghaire, where they caught the steamer to Holyhead. Judging by his letter to Emily, he was determined to improve relations between the sisters: ‘I don’t want to see open war between you and them’, he cautioned. Acknowledging that, ‘love of self’ was a prominent feature of Jane’s flamboyant character, he countered by insisting that she possessed, ‘some heart’ and, ‘good impulses’. It reassured him that she had chosen for her husband a man she clearly liked and respected: ‘Had she married a man of inferior mind he would have dwindled down into insignificance or their struggle for superiority would have been terrific’, he warned.

Notes & Sources:

[1] This was the church where her literary uncle by marriage, Charles Maturin served as Anglican Curate for the last eighteen years of his life.

Much of the detail in this post comes from a letter sent by John Elgee to Emily Warren. This letter was shown to Terence de Vere White and he quotes from it in ‘Speranza’s Secret’, Times Literary Supplement, 21 November 1980.

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John Strange Winter (1856-1911) – What A Remarkable Woman!

I wrote a profile of John Strange Winter, one of the more colourful women in Wilde’s Women, for the excellent Bluestocking Bulletin recently. I’ve reproduced it below:

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John Strange Winter (1856-1911)

Given the inevitable scepticism levelled at a woman who wrote fictional accounts of military matters in patriarchal Victorian Britain, it will hardly surprise you to learn that immensely successful nineteenth-century novelist “John Strange Winter” was born Henrietta Eliza Vaughan Palmer in Trinity Lane, York, on 13 January 1856. Her father, Henry Vaughan Palmer, rector of Saint Margaret’s Church in York, had served as an officer in the Royal Artillery and was a descendant of a long line of military men. This circumstance, coupled with the proximity of the Vaughan Palmer household to the York Cavalry Barracks, and the regular visits paid by the men stationed there, gave young Henrietta plenty of material for her early novels.

A disinterested scholar, she was educated at Bootham House School in York; in John Strange Winter: a volume of personal record, her biographer, Oliver Bainbridge, quoted her as saying:

“I never missed an opportunity of playing truant and attending a review. Races also were my keen delight, and I would ostensibly go to school, in reality to watch a big race from some safe and unseen coign of vantage.”

Yet, she was a voracious reader from an early age: “I always read,” she told Bainbridge.

“I think I was two and a quarter when I read aloud from a poetry book to a tax collector whom I found waiting in the hall. I suppose I thought I would beguile the tedium of his waiting.”


Henrietta, who was, in her own words, “an insatiable novel reader” from the age of four, submitted her first work of fiction to Wedding Bells magazine when she was just fourteen. She never received a reply from its editor. From the age of eighteen onwards, Henrietta, under the pseudonym Violet Whyte, wrote stories, many of them on a military theme, for the Family Herald and other popular journals. She soon attracted enthusiastic readers:  Art critic John Ruskin, later godfather to two of her children, wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph in which he referred to Henrietta as:

“the author to whom we owe the most finished and faithful rendering ever yet given of the British soldier.”

Yet, in 1881, publisher Chatto and Windus refused to bring out Cavalry Life, a collection of her “regimental sketches,” under a woman’s name, arguing that no reader would believe it was not written by a man. To circumvent this, Henrietta borrowed the name “John Strange Winter” from one of her characters in Cavalry Life.

Readers and reviewers were duped. One reviewer for the Morning Post insisted:

“His [sic] intimate knowledge of the inner life of barracks, and his tales of soldiers and their ways are accurate, whilst they are without exception bright and amusing.”

So convincing was this assumed identity that the committee of the Royal Literary Fund wrote to her publishers inviting eminent literary gentleman Mr. John Strange Winter to act as a steward at their anniversary dinner. Henrietta was obliged to write and point out that, as she was a woman, this was not allowable under their rules. To their credit, once the Royal Literary Fund voted to allow women members, she was the first they approached.

In time, Henrietta was outed as a woman, most notably when an announcement appeared in the press congratulating John Strange Winter on the birth of twins. She had four children, three girls and a boy, with her husband Arthur Stannard, who she married in 1884 after a very short courtship. Once her identity was revealed, Henrietta was free to appear in public. She made her debut as a public reader in the Putney Assembly Rooms in 1886, at a charity event she had organised on behalf of a local man who had fallen on hard times. This was characteristically generous of her. The proceeds of her novel A Soldier’s Children were donated to the Victoria Hospital for Children in Chelsea.


Henrietta enjoyed huge success with Bootles’ Baby: A story of the Scarlet Lancers, which was serialised in the Graphic in 1885 and sold two million copies in book form. A dramatised version, first staged in 1889, toured for four years. In 1891, she also launched Golden Gates, a penny weekly illustrated magazine that she ran almost single-handedly. She changed its name to Winter’s Weekly after twelve months and it survived until 1895. Henrietta did much to help fellow women writers too. Well regarded in journalistic circles, she played a pivotal role in convincing the Society of Authors to facilitate the election of women to official positions. She also helped establish the Writers’ Club, a rival women-only body; in 1892, she was appointed its first president. That same year, she established the Anti-Crinoline League, a crusade against “ridiculous, vulgar, inelegant, and ungraceful” skirts that often caught fire, resulting in the death of the wearer.

In 1896, as Arthur’s health was deteriorating, the Stannard family moved to Dieppe on the advice of his doctors. An enthusiastic ex-pat, Henrietta is credited with turning the town into a popular tourist resort by means of her glowing accounts of its many charms. She returned to London in 1901, but retained a holiday home in Dieppe until 1909. (Michael Seeney’s article ‘John Strange Winter and Dieppe’, published in The Wildean No. 23, July 2003, gives an excellent account of her time there.)

On her return, Henrietta was elected president of the Society of Women Journalists. As sole supporter of her family, she was obliged to earn a second income from the sale of cosmetic preparations of her own devising after a paper she had started failed, leaving her in debt. By then, her own health was poor; she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and undergone a mastectomy. Henrietta Vaughan Stannard died in 1911 following complications arising from an accident. She was fifty-five. Her last novel as John Strange Winter, Miss Peggy: the Story of a Very Modern Girl, was published posthumously the year after her death, adding to more than one hundred novels and story collections from her pen. Many can be read online here.

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Oscar Wilde & George Bernard Shaw: An Uneasy Admiration

I was delighted with the very warm welcome I received when I addressed the Shaw Society on links between Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw in London last week. Shaw features in my book Wilde’s Women but I added much more detail for the occasion. I have reproduced my script here (warning, it’s a long one!)

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OSCAR WILDE AND GEORGE BERNARD SHAW FOR THE SHAW SOCIETY

27 OCTOBER 2016

CONWAY HALL

Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw had much in common. Both Dubliners, born within twenty minutes walk of each other. Both of a similar age: Wilde was less than two years older than Shaw. Both inventive men who remained dogged in their questioning of the status quo. Together, they were recognised as the first Irish playwrights in decades to make an impact on the London stage

wildeshaw

Yet, they were wildly different in both temperament and inclination, and, as a result, they developed no more than an uneasy and rather distant relationship. They never became close friends and met on only a handful of occasions, mostly by chance rather than arrangement. Despite this coolness, each held the other’s talent in high regard and both were influenced by ideas conceived by the other.

A little background information to start: George Bernard Shaw was born at 3 Upper Synge Street, in the lower-middle class Portobello district of Dublin city, on 26 July 1856. His father, George Carr Shaw, was an ineffectual, alcoholic civil-servant-turned-corn-merchant. His mother, Bessie, who was considerably younger than her husband, was a rather disillusioned and distant presence. An exceptionally accomplished singer, she introduced music into her son’s life.

3-upper-synge-street

3 Upper Synge Street

At the time of Shaw’s birth, Wilde, aged 22 months, was living twenty minutes walk away at 1 Merrion Square, an opulent residence described by his mother, Jane, who, as Speranza, was a significant literary figure in her native city, as having ‘fine rooms and the best situation in Dublin’.  Wilde’s father, Dr. William Wilde was an eminent eye and ear surgeon, and an accomplished author with a keen interest in history and folklore.  He was also reckless with money and a notorious philanderer who was involved in a sex scandal, the Travers affair, which broke his spirit.

1merrionsquare

1 Merrion Square North

Although there is no record of them ever meeting in Dublin, Shaw was certainly aware of the brilliant, flamboyant Wilde family. In ‘My Memories of Oscar Wilde’, the biographical portrait he contributed to Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions’ (1916), he describes his first encounter with William and Jane Wilde:

I was a boy at a concert in the Antient Concert Rooms in Brunswick Street in Dublin. Everybody was in evening dress; and – unless I am mixing up this concert with another (in which case I doubt if the Wildes would have been present) – the Lord Lieutenant was there with his blue waistcoated courtiers. Wilde was dressed in snuffy brown; and he had the sort of skin that never looks clean, he produced a dramatic effect beside Lady Wilde (in full fig) of being, like Frederick the Great, Beyond Soap and Water, as his Nietzschean son was beyond Good and Evil. He was currently reported to have a family in every farmhouse; and the wonder was that Lady Wilde didn’t mind – evidently a tradition from the Travers case, which did not know about until I read your account, as I was only eight in 1864.

Shaw also recalled:

Sir William Wilde…operated on my father to correct a squint, and overdid the corrections so much that my father squinted the other way all the rest of his life.

The explanation for Shaw’s early presence in the Antient Concert Rooms may be that this was the venue used by his mother’s music teacher George John Vandeleur Lee to stage his Amateur Musical Society concerts. In fact, one of Lee’s best-known singers was Bessie Shaw. Incidentally, years later, Shaw appeared on that stage too, as a speaker rather than a singer.

In 1873, when Shaw was almost sixteen, Bessie moved to London with Lee, taking her daughters with her. Lucinda, always called Lucy, the oldest child, became a successful music hall singer. Elinor, the middle child, died of TB in a sanatorium on the Isle of Wight on 27 March 1876. Shaw remained with his father in Dublin, to complete his education and afterwards, worked as an office boy for a land agent, a job he hated. He considered his expertise in literature, theatre and music as hard won when compared to the privileged start enjoyed by Wilde, who had the finest education and moved within rarefied circles from childhood.

In April 1876, Shaw joined his mother and surviving sister in London. In November of that year he was invited to Lady Wilde’s home at Park Street – she had moved to London after the death of her husband. Shaw speculated that Lady Wilde took an interest in him as the brother of Lucy Shaw, who may have been popular with the Wilde boys. He wrote: ‘The explanation must be that my sister, then a very attractive girl who sang beautifully, had met and made some sort of innocent conquest of both Oscar and Willie.’ At that time, Wilde was an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, taking a degree in literæ Humaniores, or Greats.

lucy-shaw

Lucy Shaw

Shaw was grateful for Lady Wilde’s kindness and patronage at a difficult time in his life – he was working part-time at the Edison phone company and spending his free time in the reading room of the British Museum attempting to write novels. ‘Lady Wilde was nice to me in London,’ he remembered:

during the desperate days between my arrival in 1876 and my earning of an income by my pen in 1885, or until a few years earlier when I threw myself into socialism and cut myself contemptuously loose from everything of which her “At Homes“ themselves desperate affairs enough ‘were part.

Shaw met Wilde at one of Lady Wilde’s gatherings, an encounter he recalled with mixed emotions. Wilde, he wrote:

…came and spoke to me with an evident intention of being specially kind to me. We put each other out frightfully; and this odd difficulty persisted between us to the very last, even when we were no longer mere boyish novices and had become men of the world with plenty of skill in social intercourse. I saw him very seldom [Shaw recalled possibly between six and twelve’s times from first to last], as I avoided literary and artistic coteries like the plague….

As Shaw developed an interest in socialism, he began to avoid invitations to Lady Wilde’s gatherings, but he met Wilde elsewhere. The first mention of Wilde recorded in his diary is in September 1886, when both were guests at the home of Irish novelist and historian Joseph Fitzgerald Molloy. Wilde, who was also  interested in socialism, but had his own distinctive take which differed greatly from Shaw’s and was rooted in individualism, reportedly listened somewhat sympathetically to Shaw’s plans for the establishment of a socialist magazine, although it is also reported that he teased him about its name.

However grudgingly, Shaw admired Wilde. Praising ‘Oscar’s wonderful gift as a raconteur’, he recalled an enjoyable day they spent in each other’s company. What also drew Shaw to Wilde was gratitude when he alone signed Shaw’s petition of 1887 requesting that those involved in the Haymarket riots in Chicago in May 1886 be reprieved. Afterwards, he wrote:

It was a completely disinterested act on his part; and it secured my distinguished consideration for him for the rest of his life.

In November 1887, Shaw wrote in his diary that he ‘had a talk with Wilde’ at Lucy Shaw’s wedding tea at St. John’s Church.

The careers of both Irishmen followed a similar trajectory. As both wrote anonymous reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette, it seems Wilde’s submissions, three to four per month, were occasionally misattributed to Shaw, and vice-versa (Shaw confirmed this to biographer and editor David J O’Donoghue).  Shaw would surely not have minded, since he admired Wilde’s style, describing it as ‘exceptionally finished in style and very amusing’.

As a book reviewer, Shaw reviewed Lady Jane Wilde’s Ancient Legends of Ireland in July 1888, and concluded that ‘probably no living writer could produce a better book of its kind’ – faint praise that may have reflected gratitude for her kindness despite his lack of interest in her subject. He also insisted that her ‘position, literary, social and patriotic’ was ‘unique and unassailable’.

Image result for Lady Jane Wilde’s Ancient Legends of Ireland

On 6 July 1888, Wilde attended a meeting of the Fabian Society in Willis’s Rooms. There, he listened to artist Walter Crane, who had illustrated his The Happy Prince and Other Tales, published just a few weeks before. Crane spoke on “The Prospects of Art under Socialism.” Wilde’s attendance was reported in evening newspaper the Star, as was Shaw’s:

Mr. Oscar Wilde, whose fashionable coat differed widely from the picturesque bottle-green garb in which he appeared in earlier days, thought that the art of the future would clothe itself not in works of form and colour but in literature…. Mr. Shaw agreed with Mr. Wilde that literature was the form which art would take….

Although Shaw, writing to Frank Harris, claimed it was a talk he had delivered that influenced ‘The Soul of man Under Socialism’, several of his biographers, among them Stanley Weintraub and Karl Beckson, believe it was this lecture by Crane combined with a discussion Wilde had with Shaw afterwards.

Of course Shaw and Wilde are recognised primarily as playwrights nowadays. Recognising a connection between their works, in 1893, Wilde initiated a pattern by sending Shaw a copy of Lady Windermere’s Fan, with the inscription “Op 1 of the Hibernian School, London ’93”. He also sent a copy of the French version of Salomé in February 1893, but excluded this from the Hibernian School, reciprocation for Shaw’s gift of his The Quintessence of Ibsenismabout which Wilde wrote:

…your little book on Ibsenism and Ibsen is such a delight to me that I constantly take it up, and always find it stimulating and refreshing: England is the land of intellectual fogs but you have done much to clear the air: we are both Celtic, and I like to think that we are friends….

In this letter Wilde also praised Shaw’s opposition to theatre censorship. As Salomé  had just been refused a licence, this was a very welcome stance on the part of his countryman.

Image result for purple cover salome french edition

When Salomé went astray, Shaw was prompted to write:

Salome is still wandering in her purple raiment in search of me and I expect her to arrive a perfect outcast, branded with inky stamps, bruised by flinging into red prison [PO] vans, stuffed and contaminated by herding with review books…I hope to send you soon my play Widowers’ Houses which you will find tolerably amusing.

He did indeed reciprocate with Op 2, his first play, Widowers’ Houses, in May 1983. Wilde responded with a letter:

I have read it twice with the keenest interest. I like your superb confidence in the dramatic value of the mere facts of life. I admire the horrible flesh and blood of your creatures, and your preface is a masterpiece – a real masterpiece of trenchant writing and caustic wit and dramatic instinct.

Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance became Op 3, while Arms and the Man became Op 4 – Wilde attended the first night in April 1894. They got as far as Op 5, An Ideal Husband, which Shaw reviewed for Frank Harris’s Saturday Review, disagreeing with the assertion of sneering critics that Wildean ‘epigrams can be turned out by the score by any one light-minded enough to condescend to such frivolity’. ‘As far as I can ascertain,’ he went on, ‘I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will’.

He concluded:

In a certain sense Mr Wilde is our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.

Undoubtedly, Shaw had a high opinion of Wilde’s talent. In an interview with The Star, published on 29 November 1992, he described Wilde as ‘unquestionably the ablest of our [Irishmen’s] dramatists’. When Lady Colin Campbell, who succeeded Shaw as art critic of the World, expressed dislike for A Woman of No Importance, Shaw insisted that Wilde’s epigrams were far superior to the “platitudes” of other dramatists and informed her:

There are only two literary schools in England today: the Norwegian school and the Irish school. Our school is the Irish school; and Wilde is doing us good service in teaching the theatrical public that “a play” may be a playing with ideas instead of a feast of sham emotions…. No, let us be just to the great white caterpillar: he is no blockhead and he finishes his work, which puts him high above his rivals here in London…. (May 1893)

The remark commonly attributed to Wilde that Shaw ‘has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by all his friends’ originates with W.B. Yeats who regarded Shaw as a ‘cold-blooded Socialist’. It is a version of a quote from Dorian Gray. Yet Shaw seemed to accept it as genuine, and told Ellen Terry in 25 September 1896: ‘Oscar Wilde said of me “An excellent man: he has no enemies; and none of his friends like him”‘.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

Shortly before the ill-fated action for libel Wilde took against the Marquess of Queensberry began, Shaw encountered him while lunching with Frank Harris at the Cafe Royal. Wilde expressed unhappiness with Shaw’s poor review of The Importance of Being Earnest, and fell out with Harris when he attempted to persuade him to drop the libel case. In 1950, months before his death, Shaw revisited Earnest in a letter to playwright St. John Ervine, describing it as ‘a mechanical cat’s cradle farce without a single touch of human nature in it’. Claiming that he was present at ‘all the Wilde first nights’, he summed up by writing:

It amused me by its stage tricks (I borrowed the best of them) but left me unmoved and even a bit bored and quite a lot disappointed.

Weintraub saw traces of Earnest in Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, which had ‘something of Wilde in it’, specifically he believed, ‘the wordplay on earnestness is too pervasive to be coincidence’. In Man and Superman (1903), Shaw writes: “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde had written: “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” In Major Barbara (1905), Shaw’s imperious Lady Britomart bares a close resemblance to Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.

After Wilde was imprisoned, Shaw drafted a petition to the Home Secretary asking that he be released. He discussed its circulation with Wilde’s brother Willie, but the brothers were estranged and Willie, showing little enthusiasm, quipped, according to Shaw: ‘Oscar was NOT a man of bad character: you could have trusted him with a woman anywhere’. Disheartened, Shaw concluded that, since only he and the Reverend Stuart Headlam had signed, it would be of little use ‘as we were two notorious cranks and our names alone would make the thing ridiculous and do Oscar more harm than good’.

Instead, contrary to press policy, Shaw went out of his way to praise Wilde’s work and keep his name in the public eye. Reviewing a minor play by Charles Hawtrey in which Charles Brookfield had a minor role, both men had conspired against Wilde, in the Saturday Review in October 1896, Shaw compared it to ‘the comedies of Mr. Wilde, and insisted: ‘Mr. Wilde has creative imagination, philosophic humour, and original wit, besides being a master of language, whilst Mr. Hawtrey observes, mimics and derides quite thoughtlessly’. In 1897, when it was suggested in literary periodical the Academy that an Academy of Letters be founded, Shaw wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that only Henry James and Oscar Wilde deserved to be nominated. The academy never materialised. Later, Shaw defended Wilde in a lengthy open letter to New York anarchist publication Liberty.

When Wilde was living in Paris after his release from prison, Shaw made a point of sending him his work as it was published and Wilde reciprocated. Shaw’s last contact with Wilde was when the latter sent him an inscribed copy of the Ballad of Reading Gaol from Paris in 1898. In 1905, five years after Wilde’s death, when his prison letter appeared as De Profundis, Robert Ross sent a copy to Shaw. Although Shaw wrote in his biography of Harris: ‘We all dreaded to read de Profundis’, he had a high opinion of it and wrote to thank Ross:

It is really an extraordinary book, quite exhilarating and amusing as to Wilde himself, and quite disgraceful & shameful to his stupid tormentors. There is pain in it, inconvenience, annoyance, but no unhappiness, no real tragedy, all comedy. The unquenchable spirit of the man is magnificent: he maintains his position & puts society squalidly in the wrong – rubs into them every insult & humiliation he endured – comes out the same man he went in – with stupendous success.

Throughout his life, Shaw was asked to comment on Wilde but he generally refused. In his 1918 preface to Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions titled “My Memories of Oscar Wilde” (actually, a letter, to which Harris added the title and edited the contents, Shaw, rather bizarrely attributed Wilde’s fate to his size, writing: ‘I have always maintained that Oscar was a giant in the pathological sense and that this explains a good deal of his weaknesses’. An odd comment since, although Wilde was well above average height at 6’ 3”, Shaw was almost 6’ 2”.

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Shaw with Nancy Astor, Charlie Chaplin & Amy Johnson

During the 1930s, Shaw collaborated with Lord Alfred Douglas on a biography of Frank Harris, and the two corresponded. Shaw told Douglas:

I think Wilde took you both [Harris and Douglas] in by the game he began to amuse himself [with] in prison: the romance of the ill treated hero and the cruel false friend.

He also wrote:

The Queensberry affair was your tragedy and, comparatively, Wilde’s comedy’. In a sense this inverts a line from de Profundis: ‘I thought life was going to be a brilliant comedy, and that you were to be one of many graceful figures in it. I found it to be a revolting and repellent tragedy…

In 1940, in a response to an anonymous review of Lord Alfred Douglas’s Oscar Wilde: a Summing Up in the TLS, Shaw wrote to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement discussing the legalities of the case, since this reviewer had stated that Douglas was misled by Shaw in his assessment of Wilde’s conviction. In an interesting commentary regarding the distinction between ‘vice and crime’, Shaw wrote the following:

Oscar Wilde, being a convinced pederast, was entirely correct to his plea of Not Guilty; but he was lying when he denied the facts; and the jury, regarding pederasty as abominable, quite correctly found him Guilty.

He gives no indication as to his own view, merely confines himself to commentary on the law.

According to H. Montgomery Hyde, when reviewing Wilde’s short life, Shaw, who clearly felt some fellowship with Wilde based on their shared nationality declared:

It must not be forgotten that though by culture Wilde was a citizen of all civilized capitals, he was at root a very Irish Irishman, and, as such, a foreigner everywhere but in Ireland.

Previously, he had defended Wilde’s controversial congratulating of the audience after Lady Windermere’s Fan as ‘an Irishman’s way of giving all the credit to the actors and effacing his own claims as author’. He also condemned the critics’ dismissal of An Ideal Husband by claiming that an Englishman ‘can no more play with wit and philosophy than he can with a football or a cricket bat’. He attributed Wilde’s refusal to run from his trials to his ‘fierce Irish pride’.

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Oscar Wilde died in Paris on 30 November 1900. Writing to Harris sixteen years later, Shaw concluded:

I am sure Oscar has not found the gates of heaven shut against him; he is too good company to be excluded; but he can hardly have been greeted as, “Thou good and faithful servant’.

An affectionate summation of a man he admired but never loved.

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