Today is April 14, a date noted in history for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the sinking of the Titanic. Not that Oscar Wilde had much to do with either event, although he once met the former President’s widow, Mary Lincoln, when she was living in retirement in New York City; and two of his friends died in the Titanic disaster.
But April 14 is also the 161st anniversary of the opening of the short-lived but historic Pony Express, and this, surprisingly, does give me an opportunity to talk a little about Oscar Wilde.
by John Cooper With the kind assistance and guidance of Rob Marland and Matthew Sturgis. *
The artist Banksy has recently demonstrated that deliverance from Reading Gaol remains a popular concept. But, as you might imagine, Oscar Wilde’s real life liberation from the prison was an even more newsworthy event back in 1897.
Oscar himself attested to the potential for a public invasion of his privacy. This is what he wrote to his dear friend, Reggie Turner, just prior to his release:
Already the American interviewer and the English journalist have arrived in Reading: the Governor of the Prison has just shown me a letter from an American interviewer stating that he will be here with a carriage on Wednesday morning for me, and offering any sum I like if I will breakfast with him! Is it not appalling?
(Complete Letters, 829).
The archive photograph of Reading Gaol (above) curiously portends such a carriage handover. But, of course, no interview took place outside Reading prison—appalling breakfast or otherwise—nor could it, because Wilde was not discharged from the prison system at Reading. He was spirited 43.8 miles away to be released from Pentonville Prison in London, his first place of incarceration.
This subterfuge, and others along the way, protected Wilde’s seclusion well enough, and so history has chronicled Wilde’s removal from Reading free from the Fourth Estate.
But now it is time to reconsider the event—particularly for those who might underestimate the doggedness of the Victorian press. Could it really be possible that, in fact, there exists a hitherto forgotten prison interview?
As remarkable as this sounds, it appears that a media dialogue of sorts could have taken place with Wilde at Reading Gaol.
THE FIRST APPEARANCE OF OSCAR WILDE
AS A CHARACTER ON SCREEN—BUT WHO WAS IT?
In charting the cultural rehabilitation of Oscar Wilde in my article Finding Oscar, I alluded to the first appearances of him as character on screen.
I made reference to the well known bio-pics about Wilde released in 1960; before those he was in episodes of two separate UK and American TV series in 1958; and the erstwilde earliest Oscar could be found in a Canadian TV drama series of 1955.
Now the bar has been lowered. Predating all of those Oscars was this brief portrayal (above) by a quite Wildean-looking actor complete with cane and green carnation.
The problem is that nobody seems to know who he was.
In my last article I alluded to how that erstwhile sinner, Oscar Wilde, had achieved the exalted air of sainthood. Unfortunately, for collectors of Wildean memories, with that classification comes the cliché that a good man is hard to find.
And nowhere is that maxim manifested more in Oscar Wilde’s case than in the promised land of lost pictures. On the artifact scale of hardness-to-find, the rarest commodities are gold dust, hen’s teeth, and, finally, previously unseen photographs of Oscar Wilde.
At least that was the case until earlier this year when this late in Wilde’s long posthumous existence (what the American Indian appropriately dubbed the happy hunting ground), unearthed a little-known, and even less seen, image of Oscar. That photo has now ascended to the canonical next life as Sarony 3A. For Wildeans, that one discovery alone would be normally be rapture enough. However, now another rare photograph has appeared from the digital clouds.
During his visits to America in the early 1880s, Oscar Wilde was merely a controversial figure. His fall from grace was more than a decade hence; or, to employ his own ethical framework, he was still a sinner who had a future.
This idea forms a part of Wilde’s redemptive aphorism in which he differentiates saints and sinners in just one respect: the passage of time.
The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
A Woman of No Importance (1893)
Wilde’s dictum has devolved so much into the public domain that it is often misattributed to the ancients, so I shall not dwell upon it beyond noting that Grayson Quay recently provided an interesting, although circular, analysis of it here.
Besides, now that the Sinner in question has ascended to Saint Oscar—just as he once amusingly styled himself —his quotation has reached the finality of QED. Nothing remains except for me to use it as a shaky segue into another saint with a Wildean past: namely St. Louis, Missouri and Oscar’s visit there in February 1882.
The strain is worth the while, however, as it gives me the opportunity to focus on the two proximate men in the splendid St.Louis cartoon above.
Nobody ever alleged that my allegiance to alliteration was anything other than alluring, so allow me to allude to this little Oscar Wilde story about the ladies Labouchère and Langtry, the Liberal, and the Lord of Language.
Or perhaps it would be even more obscure, and thus more intriguing, to say it is about Henrietta Hodson, Hester & The Two Henrys, and The Home Depot.
Either way, we must first place the tale in context.
In my now completed itinerary of Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of across North America in 1882, you will find logged the more than one hundred hotels or houses where Oscar stayed while lecturing, and illustrated are all the different lecture theatres, music halls, and opera houses where he spoke.
A commonality emerges among most of these venues, and it is exemplified in the phrase most often repeated in the chronicle: Destroyed by Fire—a common occurrence for many public buildings during an era of open hearths, gas lighting, indoor smoking, and a general lack of fire-resistant materials.
Some of the buildings Oscar visited suffered this fate more than once, but none were burned down more times than the Dafoe House in Belleville Ontario.
Here we see an illustration and a photograph of Oscar Wilde in the same pose.
In a recent post I drew attention to the photograph (which is from the collections of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin), as it has recently taken its place among the list of known Sarony photographs of Oscar Wilde.
The reason for the photograph’s belated addition to the canon is that it does not appear to have been previously published, nor was there any digital example online—so it is true to say that it had never been widely, if at all, circulated.
And yet, its existence should not come as a complete surprise to Wilde scholars. To understand why, we must consider the part played by the corresponding illustration.
Its rarity is evidenced by the fact that it does not appear to have been been published in any publicly available print medium to date, nor anywhere else previously online.
However, a proof print of it has lain dormant in the extensive Wilde holdings of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin—in the James McNeill Whistler collection to be precise—and their copy might be the only extant print.
To see how this photograph re-emerged and how it affects the total count of known Sarony images of Oscar Wilde, let’s start the ball rolling.