Putting Wilde in His (Im)Proper Place

Author: Gregory Castle (Arizona State University)

Oscar Wilde in Context

Oscar Wilde in Context. Edited by Kerry Powell and Peter Raby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, xxxiv + 402 pp.

Oscar Wilde in Context, a recent addition to the long-running Cambridge University Press series, comes at a time when Wilde’s work is being read in multiple frameworks: as a Victorian writer, an aesthete, a latter day Irish Gothic, a modernist, a postmodernist, an icon of queer studies, a revolutionary dramatist, a staunch defender of his own ethical choices and, of course, a felon. This proliferation of Wildes is tied to a proliferation of contexts, a point that Ian Small makes in the concluding essay of the volume, which investigates how we read Wilde’s texts contextually. In reference to the idea of “textual and contextual pluralism,” Small writes that what matters in our choice of texts and contexts “is the often overlooked imperative that the choice of text and the choice of context should be commensurate with or appropriate to each other” (376). He goes on to emphasize that text and context should exhibit a historical consistency: Wilde’s early work emerged out of different contexts than that of the later work, and it is misleading at best to assume that attitudes native to the later work inform and help explain textual or dramatic strategies and themes in the early work (and vice versa). Small, like so many of the contributors to this volume, assumes that context matters every bit as style, theme, and form; indeed, context would appear to be a driving force in much of Wilde’s work, to the point that if we get the context wrong by even a few years (or a few miles), we are likely to miss not just nuances of textual meaning, but the significance of the text itself.

Like other volumes in the series, the essays in Oscar Wilde in Context are arranged in broadly-defined sections: Wilde’s Dublin, London, and Paris; aesthetic and critical contexts; cultural and historical contexts; and reception and afterlives. There are points of contrast and contradiction within and across these sections—particularly on aestheticism, the question of Wilde’s trial, and certain key works (Salome, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray)—that are not the result of misreading but of showcasing in close proximity perfectly plausible contextual readings in contest with each other. But there is quite another result, one that may not have been intended by the editors but that nevertheless creates the conditions for the kind of reappraisal of a major figure that such volumes, at their best, enable. For we discover, in not a few of these essays, cautious but more or less persuasive arguments that some of the innovations for which Wilde has become famous turn out to have many and varied precedents. Oscar Wilde in Context reveals what many general and even specialist readers may not know: the extent of Wilde’s indebtedness and continuity with Victorian ideas, which does not displace so much as qualify in important ways Wilde’s role as a modernist subversive.

The costs of his subversiveness are everywhere apparent in this volume. The prosecution and imprisonment of Wilde for “gross indecency” shadows nearly every essay and insinuates itself into our understanding of Wilde’s art and his social and cultural significance. Fine essays by Sean Ryder, Jerusha McCormack, Matt Cook, Philip Smith and John Stokes (on Wilde’s parents, Dublin, London, Oxford, and Paris, respectively) convey a sense of the artist’s chameleon-like ability to move with ease in wildly different urban environments; these essays offer a fuller picture of Wilde’s resistance to conventional aesthetics and morality. Dublin offered him a foundation of political awareness and cultural rootedness, not the least through the work of his parents, Lady Jane (Speranza and Sir William Wilde), as Ryder explains. According to McCormack, Dublin schooled Wilde in the art of the “open secret” and the way the written word can both maintain and reveal it (20-3). London and Paris, by contrast, were spaces of transformation and transgression. Of special importance were the years spent in Oxford, where, as Smith indicates, he learned an “aesthetic temperament and philosophy” that incorporated homoerotic desire as part of a new aesthetic standpoint (33), one that Stokes, in talking about Wilde’s Paris, called “a kind of erotic contagion” (65). Wilde scholars may find these meditations familiar, but for the non-specialist reader they provide a succinct and detailed biography of a writer whose sense of urban space was vital to his ongoing aesthetic Bildung.

Part II, on aesthetic and critical contexts, includes insightful revelations about Wilde’s intellectual and aesthetic influences (mainly through a line that includes William Morris, James McNeill Whistler, John Ruskin, and Walter Pater) but also some surprising considerations of his relation to French artistic and intellectual forebears. Marcus Waithe’s chapter on Morris and decorative aesthetics reminds us that Wilde’s reassessment of the object of aesthetic judgment builds on but does not take as foundational his Victorian predecessors. Wilde goes farther than Morris may have gone in his “decadent interiors,” in which “museumification ceases to be a last resort, and enters the home as a decorative virtue” (93). Leon Litvack, in his discussion of Wilde’s American tour, points out that his aesthete pose and emphasis on decorative arts was, to a considerable degree, developed against the backdrop of American resistance to it (Ruth Livesey’s essay in part III on aestheticism adds more detail to this important aspect of Wilde’s work). Aesthetics for Wilde was always a matter of simultaneously borrowing and subverting dominant ideas about art, the artist, and the spectator. John Paul Riquelme, like Waithe, usefully shows how Wilde situated himself between two very different mentors—Ruskin and Pater—in a way that allowed him to move beyond them. As he says of Wilde’s relationship to Pater, “[h]is advocacy of the mask, wit, the decorative arts, borrowing, contradiction, lying and forgery in art are so at odds with Pater’s positions that the contrast approaches the absolute” (131). This same strategy of accommodation and resistance is evident in his relationship to Henry James, a “life long rivalry,” as Michèle Mendelssohn notes (138), a dialectical opposition that was “symptomatic of the cultural oppositions of aestheticism itself, antagonisms between American and British culture, elite and mass culture, plagiarism and originality, hetero- and homosexuality, social inclusivity and exclusivity” (145).

Of particular interest are the essays on Wilde and British art and on Aubrey Beardsley and Salome (by Richard Dorment and Susan Owens respectively). Both authors paint a less than salubrious picture of Wilde. Dorment presents us with a man who “had nothing original to say about the visual arts” and was a “self-confessed plagiarist” (102); he goes to say that Wilde’s notoriety did considerable harm, for a “sense of danger in British art died with the trial” (105). To accuse Wilde of ruining art for others, as Dorment does, is to tell only a small part of the story; it might be wiser and more accurate to look at the late nineteenth-century legal and moral contexts in which Wilde figured as both victim and provocateur. Essays by Harry Cocks on English law concerning “gross indecency” and Merlin Holland on the facts and fictions circulating about Wilde’s trials are illuminating on this score.

Susan Owens similarly argues the point for negative influence by claiming that Wilde relied too heavily on his sources, but she does so without fully appreciating the fin de siècle context in which it developed. As Ellis Hanson illustrates, artistic movements at this time were constantly in flux, moving from aestheticism to decadence to symbolism in way that radically altered how the past works on present artistic practice. If Wilde was indeed a “self-confessed plagiarist,” then we have to reassess what plagiarism means to him as part of such a practice, in which a play such as Salome emerges as “metatheatrical,” “an allegory about allegory, or more particularly a symbolist allegory about the erotics of the symbol in its decadence” (157). We shouldn’t assume that Salome bears the stamp of felonious theft; instead, we should try to see his practice as the restatement of literary relationships. Wilde’s play is as much about prior representations of Salome and her relationship to St. John the Baptist as it is about producing an “original” work about it. Steven Price, in Part IV, quotes a reviewer who “brilliantly described Salome as ‘the daughter of too many fathers’” (329). This metaphor of natural affiliation, of shared paternity, is closer to the point than Owen’s attempt to hoist Wilde on the petard of Beardsley’s creativity; for while it may be true that Beardsley “used the illustrations [in the first edition of Salome] to make a range of more subtle and complex jokes about Wilde and his play”—including references to his sources—it is quite possible that Beardsley understood Wilde’s attempt to express this sense of shared paternity precisely through the incorporation of his predecessors (112). By contrast, Peter Raby’s essay on the “French connection” in The Picture of Dorian Gray counters Owen’s view of Wilde’s influences by putting his work within a French tradition that includes it rather than keeping it outside its perimeter. While drawing on writers such as Théophile Gautier, Stéphane Mallarmé and J. K. Huysmans, Wilde does not merely copy their characteristic mannerisms; rather, he joins in their experiments with “aesthetic writing” and helps to inaugurate “an exploration into the nature of art, into what is being expressed when a painter strives to create an image of perfect youthful beauty” (163). In view of the modernist aesthetic of pastiche and “principled and strategic theft” (as Riquelme puts it in his essay [130]) that begins, arguably, with Wilde, Owens strikes me as caught up in a vision of conventionality and ownership that modernists stridently combated. Kerry Powell’s essay on Wilde’s reworking of farce splits the difference by showing how Wilde both borrows from and subverts the main tropes of farcical drama, at the same time reflecting on the world from which farce typically offers us an escape: “In rewriting the genre of farce, Wilde has also rewritten ‘real’ life” (172). If farce goes for the laugh by focusing on the “shifting, unstable, mysterious nature” of personal identity, “so at odd with Victorian ideas of a true and knowable self,” Wilde shifts the affect so that laughter falls imperceptibly into a thoughtful smile of recognition (171). Like Riquelme, Powell offers us a more complex, more ambivalent, and more generous picture of Wilde’s indebtedness.

Several essays in part II offer the reader insight into areas of Wilde’s work about which non-experts do not hear much, like his relationship to George Bernard Shaw (Anthony Roche), his use of fairy tales and the oral tradition (Jarleth Killeen), and his indebtedness to poetic traditions, particularly writers like Keats, whose romantic tales led Wilde, as Joseph Bristow argues, to sketch “the lines of sexually dissident desire” (77). While some of Wilde’s poetry sounds derivative, because of the poet’s “self-conscious desire” to identify with and venerate nineteenth-century English poets, poems such as “The Harlot’s House, “belongs to a dissident cultural tradition that challenged complacent moralizing” (83). In part III, Wilde’s thinking about such complacency is clarified (and complicated) in essays on evolutionary thought (by David Clifford), socialism (by Josephine Guy), journalism (by Mark Turner), and censorship (by Helen Freshwater). Guy’s essay is particularly helpful in untangling Wilde’s seemingly contradictory progressive politics. For Guy, “The Soul of Man and Socialism” is Wilde’s attempt “to close the gap [between collectivism and liberty] by combining an Individualist-type of attack on institutional authority with a socialist-type critique of private property in order to reach a higher form of freedom” in artistic expression (148).

 We find a more vexing contradiction in the considerations of Wilde and gender. James Eli Adams situates Wilde in a late-nineteenth century context in which masculinity was undergoing profound shifts in its moral ground and performative nature, for he “emerged in a world in which masculinity  . . . was becoming more manifold, splintering into an array of competing types” (224)—from the muscular Christianity of men like Charles Kingsley to the dandy, that consummate figure of gendered ambivalence. Readers will find comfort perhaps in this vision of Wilde’s masculinity. However, they may find themselves flummoxed by his relation to feminism and women’s issues. The progressive tenor of his audacious masculinity does not seem evident in his view of feminism, if we follow Margaret Stetz (on Wilde and the New Woman) and Barbara Caine (on feminism). Wilde’s work in the 1880s as editor of Woman’s World, according to Stetz, was not focused on women but rather on introducing a “male homosexual discourse into female space” (235). Caine is just as critical, saying that Wilde’s statements about women “raise questions about the extent and nature of his commitment to feminist goals and ideals” (290). Both Stetz and Caine are careful to indicate Wilde’s progressive representations of women and women’s issues; Stetz reminds us that women like George Egerton and Katherine Bradley and Edith Coper (who wrote as “Michael Field”) were supporters of Wilde. Caine emphasizes the importance of feminism for the plays; but his reluctance to deal with issues like prostitution, which were at the forefront of much feminist activism, seemed implicitly to encourage a double standard about sexuality.

Jan-Melissa Schramm’s essay on Wilde and Christ reminds us that Wilde was, if nothing else, an engaging (and engaged) enigma, a man whose transgressive sexuality and ambivalent gender identity were both grist for the legal mill (“gross indecency”) and the stuff of Christic sacrifice, for “the work of Wilde’s life was to articulate the place of suffering and the possibilities of redemption”—a place that was as much pagan as it was Christian. We are still trying, in the aftermath of the “Wilde century” (as Alan Sinfield famously called it[1]), to understand this enigmatic writer and his work. The general point put forward by many of these writers—that we ignore the Victorian Wilde at our peril—is complicated by the fourth and last part of the volume on Wilde’s reception in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Lynn Voskuil’s investigation of the way Wilde brought nineteenth-century theories of performativity (particularly those of George Henry Lewes) into a literary space that looks forward to late twentieth century theories of performativity associated with Judith Butler makes this point provocatively. Analysis of the reception and performance history of The Importance of Being Earnest (by Joseph Donohue), the society plays (by Sol Etis), and Salome (Price) shows that these plays are “timeless” precisely because they captured the “timely” quality of their era—a quality that enables directors to appeal to contemporary audiences and concerns without gratuitously updating the plays. Salome especially, as Price argues, remains vital precisely because it was meant to be “a pre-text for artistic transformation generally, rather than a script to be faithfully followed in production” (335). Richard Cave’s essay on stage design and Oliver Buckton’s on films about Wilde and adaptations of Wilde’s work shows just how wide-ranging the playwright’s influence has been on modern (and postmodern) drama and film.

Significantly, the volume ends on problems of textuality and textual editing (in essays by Small and Russell Jackson) that reaffirm the fundamental ambivalence and subversiveness of Wilde’s texts but that also demonstrate that readers can expect and ought to strive for a sense of contextual decorum. If Small is right when he says that we need to take seriously “the relationship between specific texts and contexts” in order to have a glimpse of “a more versatile and arguably more complex writer” (381), than this volume will serve as an indispensable primer for those who wish to fit text to context and context to Wilde.

[1] See Sinfield, The Wilde Century: Oscar Wilde, Effeminacy and the Queer Moment (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).