Forgotten authors No 18: Oscar Wilde

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The Independent Culture

Hang on. Hang on. Dear Oscar? Never off the London stage, Dame Judi, a handbag, that Oscar? There's another type of forgetfulness that occurs when we choose to remember authors by their most famous books or plays. Their lesser works get lost or sidelined. Few readers of Oliver Twist recall Dickens' round-robin collections such as The Haunted House. Tennessee Williams is treasured for A Streetcar Named Desire but not for "The Mysteries of the Joy Rio", one of around 50 exquisite short stories he penned. The collected fairy tales of Oscar Wilde are almost unknown. Although still available, they are rarely bought and read aloud any more, as they were designed to be.

Even now, it seems there are readers who have trouble squaring the unrepentant "somdomite" Wilde with these morally didactic stories, many containing overtly Christian messages. How do you deal with the repeated appearances of God? "Bring me the two most precious things in the city," says God to one of his angels at the conclusion of "The Happy Prince". The angel brings a leaden heart and a dead bird, a swallow who died in the service of a statue that gave away its finery (and heart) for a vain, unappreciative populace. Wilde uses God as a simple moral absolute, because it is needed in a story about degrees of selflessness and purity.

Many of the tales are so heart-wrenchingly sad that they may now be too upsetting for tinies. Yet it sometimes seems as if the real Wilde resides here, rather than in his barbed, brittle plays. The Selfish Giant refuses to let others enjoy his garden, so everlasting winter invades it. The Nightingale pierces its heart with a thorn and bleeds upon The Rose, only for the gift to be dumped in a gutter, wasted by society. The Remarkable Rocket is a supercilious snob convinced of success, but who instead suffers the humiliation of exploding unnoticed. Intimations of the tragedies of Wilde's life, if you seek them, are tucked into such forgotten corners.