Oscar Wilde's eye had been caught by a bright young journalist years before he embarked on his disastrous affair with Lord Alfred Douglas – at least, that is the conclusion which can be drawn by reading between the lines of a recently unearthed series of the playwright's handwritten letters.
Sent by Wilde to a young man named Alsager Richard Vian, the letters are due to be auctioned later this month and are expected to fetch £10,000. Ostensibly they are business letters in which Wilde undertakes to write pieces for the Court & Society Review, which Vian edited.
In one letter, reproduced above, Wilde suggests he write about amusing answers given by American school children. This part of the letter seems innocent enough, but the next paragraph reads distinctly like a proposition.
Wilde invites Vian to dinner for two with wine at a London restaurant, going on to suggest the men retire after dinner to Vian's house, the address for which Wilde requests. Before he signs off, "Truly yours, Oscar Wilde," he writes: "This is all wrong, isn't it."
Other letters concern the often mundane professional exchanges shared between editor and writer, but often end with further invitations to meet.
In one such missive, Wilde complains about being overworked by "slave driving Editors", before adding: "Will be at home tomorrow afternoon – so glad if you come down for tea." Another letter, which, like all the correspondence up for sale, also carries the "truly yours" sign-off, ends, simply, "Till Tonight."
Homosexuality was against the law in Victorian Britain. Eight years after he apparently propositioned Vian in writing, Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison after a jury found him guilty of a sexual liaison with another man. The record does not say how Vian responded to Wilde's invitation, sent in 1887, to spend an evening dining, drinking and smoking together.
In 1885, at the time when the first of the letters in the collection was written, Vian was a 22-year-old graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, while Wilde was in his 30s. The last and most suggestive of the letters was written two years later.
But when Wilde's life became engrossed in scandal in 1895, Vian was a married man and the father of a boy named Phillip, who rose to be an admiral and commander of the Home Fleet.
Wilde had by then moved on from journalism to be the greatest dramatist of his generation, and the author of the novel A Picture of Dorian Gray. His lover, Lord Douglas, could not match him as an artist, but he did write a poem containing the phrase "The love that dare not speak its name", which entered the language as a euphemism for homosexuality.
Wilde's downfall began after Lord Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensbury, had left a calling card at the Albemarle Club addressed to "Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite" (his misspelling).
Accused of something which was then a felony, Wilde sued, and lost. He was bankrupted by the court case and promptly hauled back to court where he was tried for homosexuality.
He and another man, Alfred Taylor, who ran a male brothel, were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. Wilde emigrated after his release, and died abroad.
The collection of five letters is to be sold by the fine art auctioneer Bamfords on 24 September.
A revealing handwritten invitation
My Dear Vian
Shall I do for you an article called the "Child Philosopher"? It will be on Mark Twain's amazing and amusing record of the answers of American children at a Board School.
Some of them such as Republicans – "a sinner mentioned in the Bible", or Democrat – "a vessel usually filled with beer", are excellent.
Come and dine at Pagani's in Portland Street on Friday – 7.30. No dress – just ourselves and a flask of Italian wine – afterwards we will smoke cigarettes and Talk over the Journalistic article – could we go to your rooms, I am so far off, and clubs are difficult to Talk in. This however is for you entirely to settle. Also send me your address again like a good fellow – I have lost it.
I think your number is excellent, but as usual had to go to S. James' Street to get a copy. Even Grosvenor Place does not get the C&S. Till Thursday night! This is all wrong, isn't it,
Truly yours, Oscar Wilde