Book Review - Romantic fool
Collection of letters reveals Wilde’s imaginative wit
On this, the 100th anniversary of his death, it is time to rethink Oscar Wilde’s central place in the canon of world literature. Wilde himself, the secular muse of self-promotion, could not have anticipated the burgeoning interest in his life and work or the odd perversities of 21st century marketing. After pop-revisionism, academic hype and gay politics have had their moments, Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis’ authoritative edition restores the Wildean voice to its true distinction as a model of humanity and sophistication.
This volume extends and refines the project set forth in Davis’ previous Oscar Wilde: The Complete Letters of 1962. Collected here are 300 “new” letters never before published. If there remains some question as to whether a full disclosure of his letters represents Wilde better than an artfully edited selection, this book may well settle the matter. Wilde is at once the bon vivant, iconoclast, literary theorist, urban roue, parlor demon, master of flattery, fiend of indiscretion and, to the last, a romantic fool. While almost every letter is a charming delight, the easy drollery of his epistolary style cannot conceal the fierce complexity of his imagination. This, more than his scandalous exploits, is the compelling tension of Wildean style, in which even a postcard may dramatize the inner experience:
“Dear Ernest, I must see you; so I propose to breakfast at St. Martin L’Eglise tomorrow at 11:30 and you must come. Take a voiture and be there. I want to have a poet to talk to, as I have had lots of bad news since you left me. Do try, like a good chap, to be there, and wear a blue tie. I want to be consoled. 28 June 1897.”
This book rescues Wilde from the campy textures of his current gay cachet without delivering a critique on his contested sexuality. Similarly, it preserves all of Wilde’s contradictory inflections and his radical wit without denying him his essential moral program. One hundred years from now, the take on Oscar Wilde will have evolved on yet further revelations, but no scholar or casual reader may ever consider Wilde’s amazing narrative complete without recourse to this remarkable, generous and illuminating collection.