One hundred years ago Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde's devoted disciple, brought out the first authorised collected edition of his late friend's works. At that time Wilde was infamous for having served a two-year prison sentence for gross indecency, and Ross hoped that the edition would restore his tarnished reputation and enshrine him in the pantheon of literary greats.
Ross would be gratified to know that, a century on, Wilde is regarded as a genius and a hero. His best-selling works are taught in schools and translated into countless languages and various media, and his charismatic personality, preserved for posterity in the form of biographies and letters, is the object of cult worship. Saint Oscar's monument at Père Lachaise is covered with the lipstick marks left by the kisses of ardent pilgrims and it is adorned with their adoring graffiti. "Keep on charming dear boy – love Tim and Dave", reads one message. "The world is changed," says another, "because you are made of ivory and gold."
Wilde's name is now so musical in the mouth of fame, and his writings so safely established within the literary canon, that the Oxford University Press is currently publishing the first scholarly edition of his Complete Works. It is the most important edition of Wilde to have been issued since Ross's monumental labour of love. Criticism, the fourth volume in the series, includes the famous critical works that display Wilde at his brilliant and provocative best.
In the inspired dialogues "The Critic as Artist" and "The Decay of Lying" – in which Wilde argues that life imitates art far more than art imitates life – he outdoes Socrates for philosophic virtuosity. In the impassioned essay "The Soul of Man" he outlines his ideal of a socialist Utopia in which private property has been abolished and all dreary manual work is carried out by machines. Citizens of all classes are free to dedicate their lives to pleasant recreation – one imagines scantily clad people lying around eating ortolans and discussing the finer points of Dante – and to self-culture and self-realisation, which are the true aims of life.
The volume contains the first complete and authoritative version of Wilde's uncharacteristically laboured undergraduate essay "The Rise of Historical Criticism". It is a shame that the editor has not also reproduced, in an appendix, two even more obscure critical pieces that have survived, albeit in unfinished form, from Wilde's Oxford days. Their inclusion might have tempted the curious general reader to part with the £85 asked for the book; as it is, they will be probably reluctant to do so because, with the exception of the revamped "Rise", all of its contents are already available in cheaper editions.
Some consolation is offered, however, by the extensive and expert annotations, which take up more space in the volume than Wilde's own winged words. Virtually every allusion in his famously echoic prose is identified, and each instance of plagiarism and self-plagiarism is indicated. Wilde had a communistic attitude to literature – "Appropriate what is yours," he advised a young writer, "for to publish anything is to make it public property" – and throughout his works he borrowed and adapted phrases from his favourite authors, one of whom was himself.
The notes and the introduction offer us an idea of the extraordinary breadth and depth of Wilde's literary culture: he was a library cormorant who devoured absolutely everything from classical texts to the popular trash published in late Victorian magazines. They also outline the role that editors played in the revision of his works and describe in detail their print-run, price, format and critical reception.
Criticism is, in other words, a painstaking reconstruction of the historical context in which Wilde's writings were conceived and produced. Its historicist approach is helpful as it sets a limit to what we can say Wilde's works meant to their author and to their first audience, yet it is rather narrow in scope and application. It neglects to explore the potential meaning of Wilde's works for modern readers and it does not account for his current superstar status.
Wilde's popularity is surely due to the fact that his ideas are still relevant and challenging. As he says in "The Soul of Man", "Art is a disintegrating force" which disturbs "monotony of type" and "slavery of custom". Wilde's own century-old art is still charged with this force and it is this, along with its inherent indeterminacy, the Mozartian wit and lightness of his style, and the enchantment of his marvellous personality, that makes us so eager to engage him in a readerly dialogue across the decades.
In Coffee with Oscar Wilde, Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, literally engages Wilde in a dialogue, as he offers an imaginary and imaginative conversation between himself and his grandfather, set in a contemporary Parisian café. Over the course of their entertaining chat, Wilde emerges as the subversive "other" of the Victorian middle-class – a man who conducted an extravagant and merciless crusade against that class's "seven deadly virtues", its philistinism and its obsession with money and work.
We like to think that we are infinitely more enlightened than the Pooterish bourgeois who were the butt of Wilde's jokes, and who comprised the Old Bailey jury that condemned him to jail. And, so far as tolerance in sexual matters is concerned, we undoubtedly are.
Yet, in other ways – in our own philistine fixation with work and money, for example – we may not be quite so superior as we suppose. The ghostly Wilde of this book, for one, has his doubts: "The English," he says, "were anti-artistic and narrow-minded in my time and I don't imagine there's been much change." If there hasn't then it may explain why Wilde's works still seem so potent and so pertinent.
Holland's dainty little book is an ideal introduction to Wilde's seductive and intellectually electrifying world. It elegantly interweaves the lovely life and the whimsical work and offers a convincing imitation of his legendary talk. When they part, Holland thanks Wilde for the "delightful interlude"; he might have added: "Keep on charming, and keep on challenging, dear boy."Reuse content