On a balmy Sunday lunchtime last Spring I found myself in the refreshment area of the prestigious New York Antiquarian Book Fair. The ambience and the food were very pleasant, perhaps suspiciously so, which I should have seen as a portent for what I was about to discover had I not been obliviously fitting My café table had an inlaid chessboard and the kindly stranger opposite made the first move. “Are you a dealer or a collector?” he asked, with an air of inevitability that suggested a third alternative had not previously existed. As I was that third alternative I countered with the vague department store defense: “I’m just browsing.” It was a gambit designed to replace the probability of being neither with the possibility of being either.
However, it soon became apparent to me, if not to my new friend, that even the rank of ‘browser‘ had wildly overstated my standing.
The epiphany came in the form of a Romanesque book which happened to be laying in front of me. There had I been thinking how well met the Soave and I were with this handsome Italian volume (hardback, mind you) when I realized it was not the collectible it might have been, but merely a catalogue for the actual books on offer. The prices therein taught me the pathos that exists between actually browsing and simply gawking.
Over-egging the Bacon
So I gawked for a while.
$25,000 for Sir Francis Bacon’s 1620 Novum Organum seemed a bit hard to swallow no matter how skillfully “the calf had been rebacked and recornered”; $100,000 for an eyewitness account of the Lincoln assassination by someone who had evidently only overheard it; a Gray’s Anatomy that cost an arm and a leg; a fine example of the cartographer’s art dating from 220 BG (Before GoogleMaps) of the western parts of Virginia, but you’d think for $150,000 you would get the whole state; and a rare Shakespear Third Folio which I suspect would have commanded even more than $500,000 had it been a handier size.
You will appreciate from observations such as these that, having already disqualified myself as dealer, collector and browser, I also failed miserably as a serious gawker.
In reality I was simply a curious visitor, and, as my area of curiosity is Oscar Wilde, I wandered over to a noted UK dealer of Wildeana who showed me something very curious indeed. “Take a look at this,” he said, after the chatty preliminaries, and he handed me a sheaf of typewritten papers bound at the corner.
I Blame My Shelf Terribly
A brief examination was all that was required to know that the half-decent Oscar ephemera in my bookcase at home had not prepared me for what I now held in my grubby mitts.
It was a typescript of the originally unpublished portions of Wilde’s passive-aggressive prison masterpiece De Profundis prepared by his literary executor, Robert Ross. Remarkable enough you might think, but that was only half the curiosity—for which typescript was it?
It was not one one of the two original typescripts (or typescript and carbon copy) that Oscar asked Ross to have made after his release from gaol, both of which are lost.
Nor was it one of the three extant typescripts Ross also made, probably for private circulation, which are housed in the Clark Library (of course). At least not unless the dealer has raided the Library vaults during its current refurbishment.
Nor, again, was it the British Library Typescript identified by the Oxford University Press Complete Works as BLT-S, a designation that would warrant comment had I not already mentioned Bacon.
Fortunately the document had its own provenance in the form of an attached cover sheet which reads:
“IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
KING’S BENCH DIVISION
DOUGLAS V RANSOME AND OTHERS*
UNPUBLISHED PORTION OF “DE PROFUNDIS”
[* The Times Book Club.]
From the cover we can infer that the TS was prepared at the time of the 1913 trial when Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar’s lover Bosie) sued a young Arthur Ransome for having the temerity to imply that a person he did not name might have had a hand in Wilde’s downfall.
Ransome won the case because he was ably (and financially) supported by Robbie Ross, whose coup de grâce was to procure the original manuscript of De Profundis from where he had lodged it at the British Library.
What I now beheld was a typed version of that letter provided by Ross for Ransome’s counsel to use during the trial, highlighting the previously expurgated portions of the text damaging to Douglas. The revelations came as a surprise to Bosie because back in 1897 he had thrown his copy on the back of the fire reading no further, I would suggest, than Wilde’s words “loathing” and “contempt” on the first page.
For Bosie to hear home truths about himself in open court for the first time, sixteen years after previously ignoring them was a Shakespearean event. I was half tempted to dash back to that Third Folio with a red Sharpie to underscore the words hoist and petard which the Bard might have been coined for this very moment. Fortunately for bibliophiles everywhere, I was approximately half a million bucks shy of the asking price.
But Bosie, no mean Shakespeare scholar himself, would have recognized that tragedy turned to tragicomedy when his counsel, Mr. Hayes, likened the tactic of unearthing De Profundis to days of yore with mummies being subpoeaned from the British Museum in order to give evidence. When the defendant’s counsel disparaged this allusion, Hayes retorted, to laughter from the court, “don’t speak disrespectfully of mummies. You may be one yourself one day.”
Not to be outdone, Mr. Justice Darling, presiding, struck another historical note by ruling that it was not possible to libel the perversions of the dead, speculating that, “if you could what would become of old Caligula?”
Such was the mood of the trial which also included much impertinence from our litigious Lord who was continually rebuked by the judge for his attitude, and for initially being absent when Wilde’s damning letter was being read out. Who can blame him?
Letter of Credit
More seriously, and more to Bosie’s credit, one interesting snippet emerged from the trial.
On the euphemistic subject of “vice,” Douglas was cross-examined about the content of his letters. I quote from one he sent at the time of Wilde’s imprisonment as it seems to be little known. Douglas wrote to Ross:
“If Oscar Wilde only loves me half as much as I love him—if he comes out of prison nothing in the world will keep us apart. All friends and relations, all their plots and all their plans will go to the winds once I am alone with him again and am holding his hand.”
Finally, let us return to the typescript.
As a document used by the King’s Bench in the Ransome case, a King’s ransom was naturally the price tag. Again, the means escaped me. So I left the item to posterity with the encouraging news that an American institution had already expressed an interest in it.
And so it has come to pass. Last week I learned that the typescript has been acquired by the Rare Book Department of my local Free Library of Philadelphia, meaning that I can have the thing near me after all without having to buy it.
Those more remote will have to wait a little as it has not yet been cataloged. But when it is incorporated into the literary manuscripts collection it will be made available online. It will be worth checking out, if only to view the marginalia which includes case notes and a revealing footnote by Ross (suspiciously) exaggerating Wilde’s bankruptcy losses.
In the meantime you can peruse my photographs on this page, and the other Wilde holdings at the Free Library.