Cello Encore


MORE OF THE MYSTERY SOLVED

—Corroborating Research

In a recent article I established the literary source for the cello coat worn by Oscar Wilde at the Grosvenor Gallery. However, I left it open to interpretation whether Wilde actually did have such a coat tailored or, perhaps, just happened to have one like it. After all, there was only one report of the “cello” shape.

However, we can now be definitive.

Further research allows us to make the coat story complete—although, as we shall see, the archaic variant word compleat would make for a better fit.

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Oscar Wilde’s Cello Coat




A Literary Mystery Solved

A Research Piece for Scholars

While there continues to be a welcome variety of approaches to Oscar Wilde’s life, many of the incidents in the Wilde story tend to remain the same.

One of the recurring plot points in most studies and biographies of Wilde and his circle, over the last 30 years, is the occasion of the opening night of the Grosvenor Gallery, when Wilde purportedly wore a coat in the shape of a cello.

This intriguing story became the subject of conversation I had at the recent annual dinner of the Oscar Wilde Society in London. Because of my work on Wilde and dress, I was asked by an academic engaged on a related theme whether I knew the earliest reference to Oscar’s cello coat—as current research could only trace the story back to Ellmann (1987). [1]

I confessed I did not know. So I decided to investigate.

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Primary Sources

Contemporaneous. Documented. Reliable.

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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 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.

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