During July 1899 while in retreat from a sweltering Paris, Oscar Wilde spent some time at a small hotel called L’Ecu on L’Île d’Amour at Chennevières-sur-Marne.
He described the place a “a lovely spot—and island with trees and a little inn” at which he lodged by the river. While there, Oscar found rest, recreation, and even some romance. But it wasn’t all plain sailing.
Wilde was very hard up and in fear of being hounded by the agent of his Paris hotel who wished to settle his unpaid bill. He sent a telegram to his publisher, Leonard Smithers, asking for a loan. He wrote to Frank Harris enquiring if he had any spare cash for a handout. And to make matters worse a scoundrel acquaintance stole money from him before abruptly leaving the resort. Oscar muddled through, though, and by the end of the month he was back in Paris, moving out a hotel he could not afford, and into one that he could—a much more humble abode where he lived and where eventually he died.
As we enter the dog days of this year, here in memory of Oscar’s last real holiday are a few period photographs and postcards of the surroundings of his little love island, to give you a sense of where for one short summer he talked pleasingly to new friends and wrote pleadingly to old.
Personal testimony in chronicles and memoirs has forever been the basis of recorded history. Like the legal status of eye-witness testimony, accounts created during living memory have an immediacy that often frees them of taint or nuance. Not all of it is reliable, of course, so researchers should evaluate the source, the subject, and the period before the facts. And we shall get to that.
But first we need to address the inadmissible, principally the hearsay of second-hand material which is often less well defined, and less reliable. Take Columbus, for instance. And before you think this a characteristic segue into Ellmann getting the date wrong for Oscar Wilde’s lecture in Columbus, Ohio, it isn’t—although he did. I mean that yesterday was Columbus Day here in the United States, and on the subject of unreliability I am reminded of Washington Irving‘s supposed history of Christopher Columbus’ first visit to the Americas. For it was Irving who popularized the myth that Columbus set sail thinking he would fall off the edge of the world, when, in reality, the intrepid Italian knew all along about the earth’s curvature—he just miscalculated the circumference. Read Darin Hayton’s salutary article on Irving’s fabrication.
Almost as damaging as intentionally false history is unintentionally false biography. Because all too often new biography is simply an echo chamber of old biography, in which successive viewpoints grow increasingly redundant and incoherent.
Such historiography may have been acceptable, or at least accepted, in the days when collective knowledge was indistinguishable from reflective guesswork. But in an age of digital access to archival newspapers, journals, records, and books, there is no longer any excuse for apocryphal scholarship, and nowhere is this discipline more acutely needed than in the study of Oscar Wilde.