Little Oscar and the Art of the Illustrated Letter
Have you noticed how most of Victorian life appears to correspond? Everyone seems to know everyone else, and one thing usually leads to another. Well it’s the same with Victorian studies,
On my agenda last week were two pieces of business:
First was research into a parody of Wilde and Walt Whitman written by Helen Gray Cone entitled “Narcissus in Camden” which casts the two poets as ancient Greek poseurs, and needless to say, Wilde is Narcissus. It appeared in the November 1882 issue of the Century magazine. Incidentally, the reason for my Wilde/Whitman pursuit relates to the need to counter some juvenile online speculation about their famous meetings in Camden, New Jersey.
Second was a periodic pilgrimage to the Mark Samuels Lasner collection at the University of Delaware, one of the country’s foremost collections of books, manuscripts, letters, and artworks by British cultural figures who flourished between 1850 and 1900, One such figure was Edward Carpenter, and the ostensible purpose of my visit was to accompany an Edward-expert friend to see Carpenter’s inscribed books and Rothenstein’s chalk sketch. of the man.
These two diversions came together, in a roundabout way in a pleasing piece of Victorian correspondence.
A previously unpublished autograph letter signed (ALS) by Oscar Wilde appeared a little while ago at auction in North Carolina.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.
Philadelphia Library Acquires Rare Typescript of “De Profundis”
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, which should have been a portent of the standards I was about to discover, had I not been obliviously more concerned with fitting in,
My café table had an inlaid chessboard and what alerted to me to how I fitted in was made clear in an early gambit. 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 did not exist. As I was such a third alternative I decided to counter with the department store maneuver: “I’m just browsing.” It was a defense designed to replace the probability of being actually neither with the possibility of vaguely being either.
However, it soon became apparent to me, if not to my new friend, that even the self-imposed rank of ‘browser‘ wildly overstated my standing as a potential customer.
A rediscovered letter by Oscar Wilde informs his relationship with anonymity
Wilde’s college exploits, his aesthetic entry into London society, the self-publicity of his American tour, and his pursuit of fame have all been well documented; and the story often distills to the crucial moment of his fall from grace, a short period in 1895 when fame turned to infamy.
But there is a more enduring, more subtle, and underlying theme that began with Wilde’s desire for the opposite: a journey through his art and life towards an imperative for anonymity.