Monthly Archives: April 2017

Henry James versus Oscar Wilde

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of Henry James, who is regarded as one of the key figures of nineteenth century literature; his most famous works including Portrait Of A Lady, The Bostonians, The American and Washington Square.

Although born in New York City on 15 April 1843, James spent much of his life in London and became a British citizen. His grandfather, William James, was from Bailieborough in County Cavan, Ireland. Best remembered as a novelist, James was also a playwright and rival of a certain Oscar Wilde. The two clashed on several occasions and James actively campaigned to lessen Wilde’s success during his tour of America in 1882. In honour of his birthday I am posting two excerpts from Wilde’s Women that illustrate the professional rivalry between Henry James and Oscar Wilde:

FROM CHAPTER 1: THE REAL MRS. ERLYNNE

Also present [at the first performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan] was Henry James, another would-be playwright but someone who rarely had a kind word for Oscar. He deemed the play ‘infantine’ and of a ‘primitive simplicity’, a pronouncement that had all the characteristics of a fit of professional pique. Yet, even he could not ignore the obvious enjoyment of those seated around him, and he was forced to admit, albeit grudgingly:

There is so much drollery – that is, “cheeky” paradoxical wit of dialogue, and the pit and gallery are so pleased at finding themselves clever enough to “catch on” to four or five of the ingenious – too ingenious – mots in the dozen, that it makes them feel quite “décadent” … and they enjoy the sensation as a change from the stodgy.*

Interior_of_St._James_Theatre,_London_(watercolour)_by_John_Gregory_Crace

The interior of the St. James’s Theatre by John Gregory Crace

FROM CHAPTER 17: A LESS THAN IDEAL HUSBAND

Given the delight with which The Importance of Being Earnest was received, it is extraordinary to think that George Alexander [Actor-Manager at the St. James’s Theatre] passed it on to Charles Wyndham at the Criterion. He asked for it back once he realised that Henry James’s Guy Domville was failing to attract an audience.

For more on their rivalry, professional and personal, read Wilde’s Women:

*Source: Letter from Henry James to a friend written on 23 February 1892, quoted in Daniel Karlin, ‘Our precious quand même’: French in the Letters of Henry James », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 78 Automne | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2013, accessed on 2 March 2015. http://cve.revues.org/945

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A Glimpse of Oscar & his Mother

My research requires the reading of firsthand accounts of life during the latter half of the nineteenth century. As a result, although I’m not specifically looking for information on Oscar Wilde at the moment, I often stumble across little anecdotes. The latest comes from Here and There Memories, published in 1896 under the pseudonym Hi Regan. The author of this book was Captain John Joseph Dunne, a colourful character and father to George Egerton, who is the subject of my current research. Here’s what he wrote:

‘A tall, elderly lady, dressed with a certain not unbecoming bizarrerie in yellow silk and black lace, came to sign the roll*. She was accompanied by a puppy-faced young man with a lackadaisical air and drab boots. Till then, though I knew her husband well, I had never seen her, and was rather astonished when she signed ‘Francesca Wilde (“Speranza”).’ Her long-haired escort, a la Buckstone’s ‘stricken one,’ was Oscar, not yet above the horizon of self-assertion, nor perhaps dreaming of future effulgence.’ (380)

*‘Butt started the National Roll as a means to get together funds for the Home Rule League’s operations’ (380).

Young Oscar

Oscar Wilde as a Young Man

We can date this incident to 1874. Oscar would have been nineteen and coming to the end of his time as a student at Trinity College Dublin. That autumn he would continue his studies at Magdalen College, Oxford. Lady Jane Wilde was fifty-two – hardly ‘elderly’ – and would reinvent herself in London shortly afterwards.

My thanks to Michael Seeney for prompting me to point out that Oscar’s hair was short at the time, as the photograph shows. Dunne is writing with hindsight. He was also notoriously unreliable! In A Leaf From the Yellow Book, his relation Terence de Vere White wrote of him that he was ‘a born liar if his reminiscences are to be judged’. Also, he wasn’t particularly well disposed towards Oscar since his beloved elder daughter’s career had suffered greatly in 1895 due to Wilde’s perceived association with John Lane and The Yellow Book.

For far more on Oscar and his mother read Wilde’s Women.

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In Honour of Millicent Fawcett

Here’s a tiny excerpt from Wilde’s Women to mark the announcement that a statue of Millicent Fawcett is to be erected in Parliament Square in London, the first of a woman to be commissioned. I love how forthright she was in expressing her opinion.

Millicent Fawcett

Oscar invited Millicent Garrett Fawcett, prominent suffragist and co-founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, to address the issue of women’s suffrage [in The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited]. In Fawcett’s opinion, the exclusion of women was, quite simply, morally reprehensible: ‘Even felons were not excluded when once their term of imprisonment was over; lunatics were joyfully admitted’, she argued. It was her bold contention that by enfranchising women, a nation could put an end to war.[i]

[i] Millicent Garrett Fawcett, ‘Women’s Suffrage’, The Women’s World, Volume II, pp.9-12

Read more in Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was Shaped by the Women he Knew

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