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An Impromptu Lecture


A previously unpublished autograph letter signed (ALS) by Oscar Wilde appeared a little while ago at auction in North Carolina. Aided by the letter’s evident authenticity and the fact that the consignor is a direct family descendant, it sold at auction for $5,500.

The item is a note sent by Wilde to Anne Lynch Botta, the 19th century doyenne of New York literary society, in which he expresses regret at not being able to attend a reception, owing to his impending departure for Canada.

We can use internal evidence from the letter to learn more about Wilde’s itinerary.

Anne Lynch Botta (ALB) was the former Anne Charlotte Lynch, a first generation immigrant daughter of Dublin-born parents. She was a poet, educator, and hostess who helped launch many literary careers in New York from her brownstone salon at 25 West 37th Street.

Those who have read Eleanor Fitzsimons’ recent book Wilde’s Women will recall Anne L. Botta as one of the ladies mentioned. For those who have not had that pleasure, Eleanor features Mrs Botta in a recent posting on her blog here.

Wilde’s ALS to ALB reads:

Grand Hotel. May, 11.

Dear Mrs. Botta, I regret so much that I am unable to accept your most kind invitation for Wednesday but, I go to Canada tomorrow. I rarely can stay in any city long, but am become a sort of civilized vagrant, an artistic tramp, wandering over the wide unfinished world, my only reward being that I have learned the minor virtues, such as punctuality and getting up early; but they after all are unattractive. When I return however I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you and Professor Botta again. Believe me most truly yours Oscar Wilde.

The text raises a few points of interest.

May Days

Wilde says he was leaving for Canada “tomorrow” —which would have been May 12, but it did not work out that way.  His actual itinerary was:

May 11: Lecture at Wallack’s Theatre, New York City (afternoon).
May 12: Lecture at Lee Avenue Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. [2]
May 13-14: Train to Canada.
May 15: Lecture in Queen’s Hall, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

On Thursday, May 11, Wilde gave his scheduled, and much anticipated, lecture at Wallack’s Theatre in New York City (P.T. Barnum occupied a front row seat).

Seen in 1910, the hotel where Wilde wrote the note, and the theatre where he lecture the same day. The hotel is extant at Broadway and 31st Street.
Seen in 1910, the hotel from where Wilde wrote the note, and the theatre in which he lectured the same day. The hotel is extant at Broadway and 31st Street.

But as you can also see from the itinerary, Wilde did not leave for Canada the next day May 12 as he told Mrs Botta—as he was busy lecturing for a second time on a cold evening in Brooklyn, across the river from New York City.

Because Oscar thought he would be leaving for Canada the next day, we can assume he did not know about the Brooklyn lecture when he wrote the note to Mrs Botta that morning. This not only reinforces the idea that the Brooklyn lecture was arranged late, but provides the strong inference that the Brooklyn lecture was impromptu. [2]

Reinforcing this idea is that arrangements for the lecture did not fit the normal pattern: it was not announced in the press beforehand, nor was it held in a music hall as was the case with most lectures. Consider also, that the previous day’s talk at Wallack’s in New York had been advertised as his “Farewell Lecture”, an event, moreover, which was reported by Brooklyn Daily Eagle itself the next day without any mention of a Brooklyn lecture that evening.

The letter also attests to what a busy few days these were for Oscar.

What I believe happened was that the afternoon lecture in New York was such a success (it was sold out and Wilde much fêted) that an additional Brooklyn opportunity suggested itself, for which Oscar would deliver the alternative lecture he had developed [3] for repeat or return visits to various cities.

However, before Oscar could cross the river to Brooklyn on official business, he had a one of his own engagements to squeeze in. We know of this indication of the whirlwind weekend from a letter written by Wilde’s New York friend and mentor, Sam Ward, to his niece Maud Howe Elliot on the Friday:

New York, 12th May.

Dear Maud,

I brought Oscar Wilde to see your Mama [Julia Ward Howe] today, and we had a nice chat. He was to have dined with us tomorrow but unluckily got sailing orders from Montreal, where he has to lecture on Monday, and there is no train thither on Sunday.


So on May 12 Wilde visited Julia Ward Howe in the afternoon, was to have dined with same ward in the evening, but instead lectured over in Brooklyn. He then returned to his New York hotel and it was on May 13 that he boarded the train at the Grand Central Depot (as it was then known) for the 26-hour journey to Montreal.

The press confirmed this date and it’s suddenness:

New York Clipper, May 20, 1882

Wilde arrived in Montreal later the next day, before dining as a guest of the famous St. James’s Club. And thus it began again. More socializing and his first Canada lecture on Monday, May 15.

Montreal Daily Witness, May 15, 1882, 4
King Of The Road

Another point of interest in the text of the letter is Wilde’s portrayal of himself to Mrs Botta as, “a sort of civilized vagrant, an artistic tramp, wandering over the wide unfinished world.”  

This notion chimes with how Wilde described himself more than three years later when writing to Harry Marillier from Glasgow when he described his life: “Lecturing and wandering—a vagabond with a mission.” (Complete Letters, 272).

These two similar allusions are appealing because they show consistency. One often comes across single ideas presented by Wilde about himself which, given his nature, one suspects may be capricious. But in the search for Oscar’s character, the parallel concepts of a refined vagrancy might help us recognize, perhaps, that he thought of himself in a wider sense as an educated itinerant.

The Thriller in Marillier

The Marillier letter, incidentally, is hot stuff according to McKenna who identified it as one of Oscar’s most important for its sexual flirtation. This is understandable containing, as it does, talk about perfumes, perfect poisons and love of the impossible.

But for the more prosaic minded, the Marillier billet-doux is more relevant for providing the subtitle of two modern books about Wilde.

First, it is in the Marillier letter that we find Wilde’s phrase about the artistic life being a “long and lovely suicide” which was the subtitle of Melissa Knox’s 1994 psychoanalytic (and pseudo-syphilitic) biography.

And second, as we have already seen, it is where Wilde coined the phrase “A Vagabond With a Mission” which is the line appended by Geoff Dibb to his estimable chronicle of the UK and Ireland lecture tours. And, of course, all of this is merely the long way around to recommending Geoff’s book which is on sale  on the Oscar Wilde Society web site at the link below:


[1] Previous chronologies mistakenly recorded the venue of the May 12 lecture as Williamsburg, VA, which is 400 miles away from New York and two days round-trip by train. The correct Williamsburg is a district of Brooklyn, NY.

Also, a letter from Wilde to Norman Forbes Robertson cannot have been written from Montreal on May 12 as noted in Complete Letters, 168.

[2] Compare Wilde’s impromptu talk on St. Patrick’s Day.

[3] See Lecture Titles for the genealogy of Wilde’s lectures.

3 thoughts on “An Impromptu Lecture

  1. Thanks John. I can always rely on you to keep me abreast of Oscar’s comings and goings, 140 years ago. Perhaps the world needs a rotating message app that you might maintain. The message would read ” On this day in 1882, Oscar Wilde…” For today ( Dec. 23 1882), you tell me, was he packing up to return to London or was he sorting out his financial affairs having been fleeced by a notorious card player and swindler who passed himself off as a Drexel family member

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John, may I intrude on your hospitality to point out to Walter W Walker that Facebook Oscar Wilde Literary Fun has a daily post ‘Oscar Wilde On This Day’. It’s been going, without break, for over four years, with, not infrequent, borrowings from OWIA.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was about to say that I wouldn’t dare attempt the task given JD’s efforts in that direction. Actually I had in mind his hHrculean chronology, quite forgetting about the daily posts on Facebook.




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