Wilde about Oscar; the Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (Fourth Estate, Pounds 35). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds
Byline: Richard Edmonds
What would Wilde have done had he lived on? Would he have sent emails, voice-mails, facsimiles and so on? And to extend the thought a little further, have not all these modern technological gimmicks killed the art of the letter completely?
Who, after all, would actually sit down to unveil their thoughts to a dear friend when today they can easily pour a flood of inane chatter into a mobile phone while using a public toilet or sitting in the theatre.
It does mean that a book as vast as this one, all 1,200 pages of it (edited by Merlin Holland, Wilde's only grandson), is scarcely likely to surface in the future. Wilde's generation wrote letters as easily as they breathed the air of privilege, pursuing the epistolary excesses of fancy or imagination as the mood took them. Happily, their letters as well as Wilde's replies have been lovingly preserved here.
Millions of letters from the past have been lost, although thousands by writers such as George Bernard Shaw, D H Lawrence and Virginia Woolf do survive filling dozens of books. But when Wilde was writing sometimes a couple or three letters a day, the letter could be posted in London in the morning and arrive at some suburban address by early afternoon, in time to convey an apology that one would not be home to dinner that evening.
In 1893 Wilde speaks, in a letter to John Lane, his publisher, of the endless letters he has written regarding his play, Salome. Wilde is highly critical of Lane's handling of the matter of publishing the play and abhors Lane's shilly-shallying. Wilde reminds him that his final involvement, as the writer, is purely on a business level: 'My sphere is that of art and art merely!'
But Wilde is marvellous when his wit was on the wing. Letters written to friends before tragedy struck are like quicksilver. Several people required first night tickets for The Importance of Being Earnest. In a favourable reply to Arthur Humphreys, Wilde enclosed a stalls ticket, noting that the play was 'written by a butterfly for butterflies'.
The day before the first night (February 14, 1895) Wilde writes to a Mr Shone noting that Lord Queensbury (the man who was to prove his nemesis) was at Carter's Hotel in Albemarle Street and he requested that Shone cancel Queensbury's first night ticket for the play 'but return his money'.
On the opening night a famous one-line letter went ominously to an unnamed friend (probably Robert Ross): 'Bosie's father (Queensbury) is going to make a scene tonight. I am going to stop him.'
A month later, Wilde tells Ada Leverson - known as the Sphinx - that he is going away with Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's lover and Queensbury's son) then he will return 'to fight with panthers'.
Lord Alfred Douglas or 'Bosie' was the one great love of Wilde's life and it was unfortunate that it had to be so. At the beginning of the affair in 1891, Wilde was married and had two children. He was a devoted father, but his infatuation with the calculating Bosie had overruled everything. By July 1894, Wilde was drowning in Bosie's arms and nothing else mattered to him.
'It's really absurd - I can't live without you. You are so dear, so wonderful, I think of you all day long and miss your grace, your boyish beauty, the bright sword-play of your wit, so surprising always in its sudden swallow-flights of fancy towards sun or moon, north or south. …