Sarony photograph #19 must have been a favorite of Wilde’s as it is almost certainly the one he was referring to when, in March 1882, he wrote to his tour promoter, Richard D’Oyly Carte, to suggest that a lithograph of himself would help business. He said: “The photograph of me with head looking over my shoulder would be the best – just the head and fur collar.”
It is not surprising, therefore, that one occasionally sees this photograph signed by Wilde as a gift for friends, and two such examples can be seen in the footnotes.
However, a third example, featured above, is of more interest because it is inscribed: “pour mon ami, Carroll Beckwith” which, even for most Wilde scholars, invites two questions: who was Carroll Beckwith, and why is Wilde’s inscription in French?
But never before I have replicated Oscar’s tour so closely as I shall on August 11, 2022, when, 140 years to the day that Oscar Wilde gave a talk in Sharon Springs, NY, as part of a Summer vacation in the Catskills, I shall be doing precisely the same. Or, more formally, I shall be delivering the Klinkhart Hall Arts Center’s inaugural Oscar Wilde Memorial Lecture.
The event is allied to the Arts Center’s wider Poetry Festival, an annual tradition established by Festival founder Paul Muldoon, the award-winning Irish poet and professor of poetry, at which distinguished poets are invited to read, talk about their work, and conduct poetry workshops, all free to the public.
COMPLEMENTARY ARTICLES IN THE CURRENT ISSUE OF THE WILDEAN
—A Publication of the Oscar Wilde Society—
During the less furtive period of his post-prison exile, many young men passed fleetingly through Oscar Wilde’s life, most of whom are either lost to posterity or little more than unidentified footnotes. But two such acquaintances have recently gained in renown, being recognized as adding interest, and even significance, to the Wilde story.
Both of these young men emerged from a short period during the Summer of 1899 when Wilde escaped the combined heat of Paris and an unpaid hotel bill, to spend time out of the city at a charming riverside hotel called L’Ecu on L’Île d’Amour at Chennevières-sur-Marne.
One of these young men, with a hitherto unheralded connection to Wilde, was Christian Frederick Gauss, a future dean at Princeton, who can now be seen to have been a potential love interest for Wilde and the dedicatee of one of his poems.
The other is the mysterious figure of Thomas Langrel Harris about whom Oscar wrote so bitterly during his last months in Paris, but whose biography as an ill-fated young artist and scoundrel was, until recently, unknown.
Oscar Wilde Society members who have recently received the July issue of The Wildean will have been fascinated by each of these young men as they are featured in two related articles: ‘Three Times Tried’ by the present author; and ‘Oscar Wilde’s Infamous Young Swindler’, by Patricia J. Fanning.
To learn more about the Oscar Wilde Society and to receive its scholarly journal The Wildean and other benefits, visit: https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk, or simply click below to join:
The Oscar Wilde Society, a literary society devoted to the congenial appreciation of Oscar Wilde, is a non-profit organization which aims to promote knowledge, appreciation and study of Wilde’s life, personality, and work.
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 (“the island of love”) 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, rowing, 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. However, Oscar muddled through, and by the end of the month he was back in Paris moving out of 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 last short summer, he talked pleasingly to new friends and wrote pleadingly to old ones.
In February of 1900, Oscar Wilde wrote to his young friend and admirer, Louis Wilkinson, lamenting, ‘I am very sorry you are in correspondence with Langrel Harris [sic]. He is a most infamous young swindler, who selected me – of all ruined people – to swindle out of money. He is clever, but little more than a professional thief. He introduced himself to me, and induced me to make myself responsible for his hotel bills, left me to pay them, and stole money besides. What the French call “un sale individu”. Don’t write to him any more, or know him. But how did you know him? Please tell me by return.’1
In Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis’s magisterial 2000 edition of Wilde’s letters, a short note remarks – ‘This curiously named character [Langrel Harris] has eluded identification.’ In the past twenty years, however, the World Wide Web has grown ever larger and ever finer – and it has become possible to catch even such elusive figures – and recover something of their fugitive careers. And the career of Thomas Langrell Harris – as he was more properly called – was fugitive in more senses than one.
In my latest post I referenced the godfather of Oscar Wilde researchers, Stuart Mason, in connection with his unique scrapbooks of Wilde ephemera.
“Stuart Mason” was, in fact, the pseudonym of Christopher Sclater Millard, who produced Wilde’s first, and finest, bibliography, a decade-long study he conducted alongside his many other Wildean pursuits including authoring Wilde books, being his staunch defender, of the man, and sharing his experience as a fellow victim of state-sanctioned homophobia and imprisonment. He was also, crucially to our story, at one time the private secretary to Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross, in whose circle he was intimately entangled.
One of Millard’s projects in 1910 was to produce, with the assistance of Ross, a small volume entitled The Oscar Wilde Calendar. A Quotation from the works of Oscar Wilde for every day in the year with some unrecorded sayings selected by Stuart Mason.
It is difficult now, with an over-abundance of real and imaginary Wilde quotations, to appreciate that back in 1910, a book of Oscar Wilde quotations was not only a novel idea, it was a necessary one. The majority of these now famous Wilde sayings would have been new to most people fifteen years after Wilde was airbrushed from society.
Ross, meanwhile, was on a charm offensive to rehabilitate Oscar’s reputation, and this little book of daily quotes would help to amuse the public and fill a literary gap. In this respect, it is worth noting that the Calendar is also symbolic as the first appearance in print of two images: the last live photograph of Oscar Wilde taken in Rome in 1900, and the painting of Wilde by Harper Pennington.
Returning to our purpose, however, this little Calendar is important because it provides a new earliest example of the remark Wilde dubiously made at New York Customs: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
Take a closer look at the details of the above cartoon.
It is one of the Fancy Portrait series from the long established satirical journal Punch and it appeared in response to the opening night of Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan at the St. James’s Theatre on February 20, 1892.
It was an event worth memorializing, not least for the occasion of Oscar’s famous curtain call, two aspects of which have become the stuff of legend.
First, the fact that Wilde took to the stage still smoking a cigarette—which some thought disrespectful. Second, that he gave an amusing speech of playful immodesty—which others thought condescending. Or, at least they did in those stuffy Victorian days. One irate newspaper correspondent referred to Wilde’s “vulgar impertinence”.  These were, of course, the Victorians who could neither grasp irony nor face the change in attitudes that Wilde boldly anticipated.
Conversely, others saw no ill-manners in Wilde’s appearance. Indeed, the theatre audience on the night was thoroughly amused, and one report of it found his demeanor “very touching”.  One is reminded of Karl Beckson’s observation of the general divide in this respect when he said “what irritated the critics was that the audiences seemed to enjoy the play.”
Whichever view one took, everyone agreed on one thing: that Wilde was different. And being different is a sure way in any era of achieving the second worst thing the world: i.e. being talked about. So the story of Wilde’s curtain call was seized upon by the press at the time and has been well-documented by authors over the years.
But my analysis begins with the cartoon. In it Wilde’s curtain call is immediately recognizable: the smoking, the speech, and Lady Windermere’s fan. So as we have already alluded to the record of journalism and biography, let us revisit the circumstances through the prism of caricature.
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.
Wilde’s play Salomé was published in the 1890s in two languages, and the bane of each was a lordly limitation.
First was the original work that Wilde wrote in French—albeit with a little help from his friends. Rehearsals in 1892 for a London production based on the French draft starring Sarah Bernhardt were unexpectedly derailed by the Lord Chamberlain who deemed the drama too decadent to be staged. One can only presume that incestuous and homoerotic desire, murder and necrophilia were a tad more taboo in those days—and so the autocratic aristocrat refused to grant Salome a license for the theatre. Undeterred, Wilde proceeded into print and the play appeared in book form as Salomé: Drame en un acte — or what is now referred to simply as the original French edition (1893).
Next was the troublesome task of translating the text into English. This time the noble impediment was altogether more predictable because it was Wilde’s paramour and translator of the play himself Lord Alfred Douglas—or Bosie to his friends if he had any friends left after characteristic bouts of squabbling and fraught correspondence about his lingua franca with all concerned.
Owing to the personal discord between various participants and the 23 year-old Douglas, his work on the translation has often been maligned in mainstream commentary. But such a conviction conveniently overlooks the fact that Wilde’s conversational French to begin with was grammatically unsatisfactory, and its composition artistically unsuited to an English version. Little wonder that Wilde, who had himself required native assistance with the finer points of the argot, did not translate his own work and never repeated the experiment.
So it might be a more sympathetic view of the Douglas translation to accept that literary style is notoriously difficult to render harmoniously at the best of times—never mind the complications of converting Wilde’s repetitive symbolist subtleties from the gendered Gallic into the neutered syntax of stodgy old Anglo-Saxon.
In any event, the task was clearly a tall order for his willful lily-like lordship, and, consequently, authorial corrections and editorial diplomacy were requisite to Wilde’s French play eventually being Anglicized about a year later as Salome: Tragedy in One Act, or the First English edition (1894).
So we have the French and the English editions, and these twin pillars of publication have provided an orthodoxy accepted by all studies of Salome to date, namely that the Douglas translation of 1894 marked the first time the English-reading world had been privy to Wilde’s controversial French play.
So far so good; but not so fast.
What if a hitherto unheralded full synopsis of the play and a partial translation in English was already in the public domain long before Bosie got his hands on Oscar’s feminine nouns?
Moreover, would it not be a noteworthy addition to the bibliography of Salome if such an English translation not only existed prior to Douglas’ ‘First English’, but also that it appeared in print on the very day after the French edition was published?