Inventing literary tradition, ghosting Oscar Wilde
and the Victorian fin de siècle
The best thing for everybody now is to forget all about Oscar Wilde, his perpetual posings, his aesthetical teachings and his theatrical productions. Let him go into silence, and be heard from no more.
Echo (1895) 1
Curiously enough, in light of literary modernists' demonization of the Webbs for the latters' presumed indifference to the arts, Beatrice Potter Webb keeps perfect company with the likes of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Virginia Woolf in observing the silence about Oscar Wilde advocated by the Echo in 1895 — and preserving it for twenty-odd years. 2 In one sense, Webb's failure to mention Wilde even once in any of her writings is entirely in keeping with her complete silence on contemporary socialist writings about art, as noted in Chapter 1. Still, it is hard to imagine now how and why a woman with her commitment to diary- and letter-writing could have failed to register any response whatsoever to one of the key events of her time. Webb's silence roars.
Of course, silence, as Foucault has taught us to understand, is “less the absolute limit of discourse” than “an element which functions alongside the things said. ”
There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and cannot speak are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses. 3
Recognizing thus that Webb's motivations for silence might have been quite different from those of any of the literary modernists to be discussed below, it is nonetheless worth noting how frequently the Echo's injunction to silence is honored by the latter as well. Wilde's significance for Willa Cather, Katherine Mansfield, and Radclyffe Hall as lesbian