Frankel and Earnest (and other boys’ names)

Nicholas Frankel’s scholarly edition of The Annotated Importance of Being Earnest

I am fascinated by the editorial introduction and inter-leaf annotations in Nicholas Frankel’s new scholarly edition of The Annotated Importance of Being Earnest [1]. The publisher, Harvard University Press, tells us that Frankel’s running commentary, “ties the play closely to Wilde’s personal life and sexual identity, illuminating literary, biographical, and historical allusions.”

Quite right. The book includes not only insights into Wilde’s meaning, but also information about the chronology of Wilde’s textual changes, some of which were made four years after the play was first staged. All this is quite revelatory for those who, like me, appreciate the research that must have gone into it. Or, put another way, it’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you like that kind of thing.

However, this article is not a book review. I have something revelatory of my own.

The intrigue starts with Frankel’s reminder of the probable source of the Earnest/Ernest wordplay: namely gay writer John Gambril Nicholson’s 1892 collection Love in Earnest: Sonnets, Ballades, and Lyrics (Elliot Stock, 1892), which is a hyperbolic (and eventually interminable) series of  homoerotically lovelorn verse. One particular ballad entitled Of Boys’ Names is dedicated to “W.E.M.”, the flaxen-haired, blue-eyed William Ernest Mather (1877–99), which contains the refrain “And Ernest sets my heart a-flame”. This observation is not new: reference to Ernest as a major dedicatee in Nicholson’s Love In Earnest can be traced back through Edmonds, McKenna, and The Daily Telegraph, at least to Timothy d’Arch Smith’s study of Uranian love in 1970 [2].

But what none of these sources, nor Frankel, mentions are the other names in Nicholson’s poem that have Wildean parallels:

To begin with, among the boys’ names Nicholson mentions in this poem are Bernard (Shaw), Leonard (Smithers), Lionel (Johnson), Stephan-e (Mallarme), Frank (Harris), and Herbert (Beerbohm Tree). Ah but! you will say, those are all commonplace names whose occurrence might easily be coincidental, and, moreover, they are not all homosexual men. So let us not get carried away just yet.

Neither let conspiracists think that Nicholson’s allusion to deathless wreaths of asphodel echoes Dorian Gray (ch. VIII) where Lord Henry said he had buried his romance in a bed the same yellowy perennial. All of these allusions can be planted by the grassy knoll where, perhaps, they belong.

Beyond Coincidence

But what I find beyond coincidence are two further names in the poem.

It is not just that these two names are less common, they are, no less, the two names of Oscar’s own sons: Cyril and Vivian (which Wilde’s spelled Vyvyan). Surely, their inclusion should give us pause to wonder how this might have come about. Two possibilities emerge. Either Wilde was around Nicholson and suggested them; or Nicholson is directly referencing Wilde’s duologue The Decay of Lying in which Wilde himself gives the interlocutors his sons’ names, with the amended spelling used by Nicholson.

One of the reasons why this little curiosity has rarely, if ever, been cited is that Nicholson’s poem is never given in full. So, it’s worth digging it out for a closer look. Here it is.


© John Cooper, 2015.

More On Boys’ Names

[1] The Annotated Importance of Being Earnest, Edited by Nicholas Frankel.
ISBN 9780674048980
Publication: February 2015
Trade paperback.

[2] Love in Earnest: some notes on the lives and writings of English ‘Uranian’ poets from 1889 to 1930. Timothy D’Arch Smith, Routledge & K. Paul, 1970.

4 thoughts on “Frankel and Earnest (and other boys’ names)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s