Oscar Wilde: famous, succesful, wealthy, popular, well-fed, the darling of London society, the quintessential Englishman, dazzling his admirers with sparkling, if superficial, wit, tossing off ingenious epigrams, scribbling down ‘hilarious’ plays about the charming foibles of the aristocracy, not a care in the world.
He didn’t write this book.
A different Oscar Wilde, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, was born just down the street from Dublin’s largest railway station. His father was a respectable man, Sir William Wilde, editor of the Dublin Journal of Medicine and a noted surgeon, as well as a famous philanthropist. Sir William (youngest child of a local doctor from a small town in the west of Ireland) had at least three children out of wedlock, and had his reputation badly shaken in a legal dispute arising from a patient’s claim of rape against him – he invited notoriety by refusing to testify under oath on the matter. Sir William’s wife, Lady Jane, was even more notorious. She was a feminist, and a radical nationalist, who published pseudonymous poems not only supporting the cause of Irish nationalism but explicitly calling for armed revolt against the English oppressors (she failed to attract the martyrdom she desired, however – when the editor of The Nation refused to reveal her identity in court (the famous paper was closed down as punishment for having printed her works, and its editor sued), she stood up to publically declare her authorship, but when the authorities realised her identity they refused to prosecute her, and the whole matter was quietly hushed up, in much the same way that Countess Markiewicz would later be spared execution on account of her rank and gender). Wilde grew up in a house filled with distinguished literary and academic guests, and became a brilliant academic himself. Perhaps inspired by his father’s hobby of archaeology, Wilde became a prize-winning scholar of Greek and the Greeks (he reportedly picked up his conversational style and taste for epigrams from his tutor), first at Trinity in Dublin and later in Oxford, where he also won a prestigious poetry prize.
But early academic promise came to nothing. He was unable to secure any academic teaching position. His father died, the latest in a line of family tragedies (his younger sister had died when he was a boy, which had a lasting impact on him, and his two half-sisters burned to death when he was a young man; of his sister Isola’s grave, he later wrote “All my life’s buried here, / Heap earth upon it.”; his half brother was to die at 39 the following year), and it was discovered that the man had been virtually bankrupt. Penury would afflict the entire family from then on – when his mother died, Wilde, from his jail cell, tried to pay for a decent funeral (his elder brother himself being penniless), but could not afford even the smallest headstone, and she eventually had to be buried anonymously, in an unmarked grave in a common plot. Wilde came back to Ireland hoping for domestic bliss, but the woman he loved rejected him for Bram Stoker. It was said that her affections lay more with Wilde – but anyone could see that Wilde was a man of no standing, station, respectability, wealth, fame, prospects or any visible hope of success in life, at any endeavour.
In 1888, Wilde was, quietly, a failure. His one small book of mediocre poetry had been politely, even pleasantly received, but was neither critically praised nor even remotely commercially succesful. His play, Vera, had proven a disaster, unable to find a theatre in London and allowed to run for only one week in New York after receiving devastating reviews (his other play, The Duchess of Padua had done even worse, being instantly rejected by everybody and not performed until years later). He had acquired a limited notoriety delivering public lectures on matters of art and design, positioning himself as the high prophet of the new ideology of Aestheticism, particularly in his American lecture tour series – but interest had faded (critics said he seemed more interest in notoriety for its own sake than in the content of his philosophy), and he had never made any money at it anyway. He had tried writing reviews and newspaper articles, had even become editor of a small, struggling women’s magazine (“Lady’s World”, which he renamed “Woman’s World” as part of an attempt to increase its seriousness), but although he had gained some attention this way he was not a success (and he was to resign his editorship the following year as a result of low sales). He had somehow managed to carve out a little public identity for himself as a walking symbol of an Aesthetic movement he had neither originated nor noticeably contributed to, but this didn’t pay the bills – worse, to maintain his image as an arbiter of taste, he felt obliged to spend beyond his means to maintain a fashionable façade. As a young man he had once declared that he found himself increasingly unable to live up to his blue china – a comment that I suspect concealed more sincerity than people at the time assumed. The only thing that kept him from abject poverty was his marriage to a beautiful young woman with a healthy allowance from her parents (the ungenerous might worry that this was the reason for the marriage, given that they met in a chance encounter and were married only a few months later – however, his affection for her does sound genuine in surviving evidence, and it’s possible it was simply love at first sight). That brought its own problems – Wilde was certainly devoted to his two sons, who in ’88 were three and two years old, but they must have added to his financial concerns for the future greatly. And Wilde had recently been seduced by a young boy.
So that’s Wilde in 1888. He’s an Irish nationalist (writing in defence of Parnell), and an anarchist and socialist sympathiser (The Soul of Man Under Socialism defends a kind of anarchism in which everyone is free to explore their own artistry; more practically, Wilde joined the campaign for a pardon for the anarchists facing execution over their alleged role in the Haymarket Massacre). He is not entirely the effeminate dandy that he is thought to be – at Oxford he was a boxer, and once beat up three fellow students who had attacked him en masse. When he toured America, he had little time for the rich and sophisticated, but found friends among miners and labourers he could drink whiskey with. He views English high society with something approaching contempt – years later, when discussing how his The Ballad of Reading Gaol was to be published in a paper read by ‘the criminal classes’, he enthused that ‘for the first time I will be read by my peers’. At 36, after ten years of muddling through, he could no longer even be considered a talented young man, a promising talent for the future. As for his commitment to aestheticism, he himself expressed grave doubts:
To drift with every passion till my soul
Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play,
Is it for this that I have given away
Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control?
Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll
Scrawled over on some boyish holiday
With idle songs for pipe and virelay,
Which do but mar the secret of the whole.
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God:
Is that time dead?
The Happy Prince and Other Tales is not, then, some minor footnote to Wilde’s more famous works. It’s what made him famous. The collection of fairy tales was well received; two more short story collections followed, and a collection of essays on art, and then a novel, and then one controversial and four immensely succesful plays. And then he went to jail. There is this popular image of Wilde, the socialite, but we forget how fleeting that moment was. In 1888, Wilde was mildly and inoffensively notorious among a certain literary and artistic set. The Happy Prince was his first success. In 1891, he made the big time with Lady Windermere’s Fan. In 1894, his career more or less ended with his incarceration. He was the darling of society for only three years.
Why does any of this matter? Because I think you may have to know who the author is to really understand what’s going on in The Happy Prince.
Ostensibly, this is a book of children’s fairy tales. This was a genre that was becoming popular at the time – the Grimm brothers had begun it, of course, but other authors had followed, not only with true folk tales but with their own concoctions – most famously H.C. Andersen. Despite Andersen, however, fairy tales were still inextricably linked to traditional storytelling, whether Christian or pagan, and traditional storytelling ran in the family – Sir William Wilde had (as another hobby of his) collected old Irish folk tales, and after his death Lady Jane had taken to trying to earn money by writing up these stories, and essays on Irish folklore, for various magazines. Wilde himself had included stories for children in “Woman’s World”. So perhaps the idea of writing his own collection of fairy tales wasn’t quite as out of the blue as it might appear to a modern reader.
There are five stories here: “The Happy Prince”, “The Nightingale and the Rose”, “The Selfish Giant”, “The Devoted Friend” and “The Remarkable Rocket”. Certain common themes can be discerned between them. All five, but particularly the first two, show a commitment to a certain stylised, poetic form of beauty, most often displayed in descriptions of nature and natural things. Four of the five (all bar “The Selfish Giant”) are tragedies, and the same four also show a vitriolic (though delicately polite) condemnation of ‘society’ and the concern for social status. “The Selfish Giant” and “The Happy Prince” are both blunt religious parables, with “The Devoted Friend” a traditional fable-with-a-moral.
“The Happy Prince” is probably the most famous of the five stories, though it may also be the worst. It tells the tale of a beautiful statue who looks out at his city and is moved by the plight of its inhabitants (in something of an off note, Wilde naturally equates a poet who struggles with voluntary unemployment so that he can finish his play with children starving and dying of cold), and is helped by a migrating swallow. At the end, God arrives to explain the moral of the story, which, broadly, is that charity and love are more important than status and wealth. It’s hard not to wonder whether the story may be motivated by Wilde’s memories of his father, the philanthropist who ended penniless. Perhaps the religious angle is also related to this – Sir William seems to have been a devout man, given that he threatened to cut off his son’s allowance if he converted to Catholicism. Wilde himself had a long and contradictory history with religion. Though generally considered an amoral hedonist and an opponent of organised religion, Wilde was deeply fascinated by Catholicism – he was a day away from conversion at Oxford (he jilted the priest at the last moment, sending flowers instead of himself), and finally was baptised on his deathbed.
“The Selfish Giant”, in which a selfish giant tries to keep some pesky kids out of his garden, and in the end God arrives to explain the moral of the story, is even more obvious moral lesson (friendship and love are more enjoyable than material possessions, and sharing is more enjoyable than keeping things to oneself), but oddly works a little better as a result. “The Happy Prince” tries to put beauty and satire and morality and pathos all together, and feels a little disjointed as a result, but “The Selfish Giant” sets out to be a plain parable from the start. It’s probably the story most genuinely suitable for children – it has an appealing simplicity to it.
It should perhaps be noted at this point that there is another possible reason for the religious nature of these stories: in telling parables, Wilde puts himself in the position of Christ. This is a position he is very fond of. The myth he created for himself – first in writing and speech, and later in his life through his largely self-contrived martyrdom – sought to equate Wilde, and the artist in general, with the suffering Christ, and references to Christ are never far from the surface. Here, he evokes Christ in his role as a storyteller; in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde the penal reform advocate continually invokes Christ in his role as forgiver and protector of the sinful; in De Profundis, he explicitly compares himself to Christ in his supposed role as martyred artist-revolutionary, “despised and rejected of men”.
“The Devoted Friend”, on the other hand, is not religious, and merely tells the story of a linnet and a water-rat, in which the linnet tells a moral story to the water-rat about the value of friendship – the whole thing being in essence a socialist diatribe about the evils of the moneyed classes, and how they use social mores to exploit the working man. In the story-within-a-story, a miller exploits his neighbour, Little Hans, by appealing to the friendship between them, and creating false equivalencies in what they do for one another. In its commitment to social criticism and its implicit revolutionary politics, it wouldn’t feel out of place from a modern left-wing blogger, perhaps satirising Mitt Romney’s economic views during the last election. It’s a clever story, and well-written – but unfortunately it takes what is in essence an appealing and provocative joke and drags it out long past the point where we all know the punchline; the charming jibe becomes a wearisome polemic. The water-rat ends by storming off, angry that someone has told him a tale with a moral; both characters in the story and the narrator himself overtly say that stories with morals are to be avoided. This certainly accords with the overtly amoral aestheticism Wilde was known for, particularly during his three years of success. “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” he wrote: “a book is well-written or badly-written and that is all”. “An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style”. “An artist has no ethical sympathies at all”. “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people we personally dislike”. “If a man sees the artistic beauty of a thing, he will probably care very little for its ethical import”. But though the narrator here warns that moral stories are dangerous, he still choses to tell the story – and the sympathies of the reader are clearly intended to align against the moral-hating water-rat. [In a similar way, many of the most notable assertions of the primacy of art over morality come in The Picture of Dorian Grey – a novel which can almost be read as a sustained attack by Wilde on Wilde’s own public persona]. The entire collection of stories seems to mock and deride those who live hedonistically, aesthetically, without moral conscience. The form may be typical Wilde, but the content seems at direct odds to his usual professions.
And then there is “The Remarkable Rocket”, a fairy tale about how pathetic Oscar Wilde is. It’s the only one of the stories with a clear ‘Wildean’ figure, the eponymous firework, and as often with Wilde, the authorial stand-in is, in essence, the villain, or at the least the blinkered fool. The remarkable rocket is to be let off in celebration of a royal wedding (though he, of course, believes the wedding is taking place in honour of his being let off), and mocks and belittles the other fireworks for their pedestrian views. He arrogantly converses in epigrams and blasé self-obsession, and is fixated upon being seen and noticed and being a great success, but nobody really pays any attention to him. It is very hard not to see the autobiography here of a brilliant mind who had been relegated to the status of professional dinner-guest, invited along everywhere to provide some pleasant repartee in the background while the important people ate.
Why does Wilde continually turn against himself? It’s impossible to say. Perhaps he possessed a healthy sense of perspective and wasn’t afraid to mock or even question himself. Perhaps he had an unhealthy degree of self-loathing. Perhaps he was so desperate to be attacked, ridiculed, exiled, martyred, and generally the subject of notorious attention that he felt the need to be his own accuser in public (which might explain why, when The Picture of Dorian Grey was initially controversial, he responded by both removing the more explicitly objectionable passages and by doubling-down on his amorality by adding a series of aphorisms to the preface that flagrantly assaulted popular morality). Perhaps there was genuine tension between the two sides of Wilde – the passionate, moral man and the cultured work of studied triviality – or perhaps only one was the real Wilde. It may have been the aesthete who was the real Wilde, who felt the need, either for artistic reasons or for popular acceptance, to hint at a real, conventional human soul hidden somewhere within him; or it may have been that human soul who constructed the artifice of “Oscar Wilde” around him, either as psychological protection from the world or simply to make money. There really is no way of telling. It’s one reason I find Wilde so fascinating – other writers may have mastered the art of speaking paradoxes, but Wilde was able to embody them.
Finally – or second in the collection, but I’ve left it until last here – there’s “The Nightingale and the Rose”, which in my opinion is the stand-out story of the five. This is a story without a clear moral, exactly, though it certainly has a very clear sentiment, and it’s the most tragic of the five. At heart, it’s the complaint of a neglected artist, who feels that beauty – though crucially here true ‘beauty’ is shown as intrinsically linked with love and self-sacrifice – deserves more attention from an unfeeling and self-obsessed society. It’s difficult to make this sort of story work – to make it seem as though the suffering artist has a point, rather than just being a narcissist – but I think Wilde succeeds wholly here, despite hinting toward an undermining of his own position. It’s almost a manifesto for pure art over commercial success (which is probably why it’s been so often borrowed and adapted by other artists), but unlike at other places in Wilde, here ‘pure art’ is kept rooted in reality, not allowed to drift off into an untouchable world of reciprocal mirrors.
It’s also, in my opinion, stunningly written. Wilde’s style will always be divisive – it’s the sort of prose you can only write if you think the King James Bible just isn’t purple enough – and even I struggle with it sometimes. But I must confess that this story – the marriage of beauteous words and beauteous sentiment – was actually so beautiful that I cried.
And that’s what Wilde is about at his best. Underneath the games and the uncertainties, what is constant is a cry to observe the beauty of the world, combined with fear for the tragedies that can follow when beauty – and by extension the real world, in contrast to the conventional world of society – is ignored.
Wilde himself, of course, never quite lived up to his ideals. Following his martyrdom – in which he declared with the naivity of a man in love with both his own ideology and his own social status that “all trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death” – he fled to France (which he’d refused to do to avoid prosecution). His wife, echoing the concerns of his other friends, only consented to allow him to see her and their children if he avoided seeing the execrable Lord Alfred Douglas, the cause of his downfall – he chose to see Douglas instead (though Douglas eventually left him due to pressure from his own friends). Though he spoke of growth and rejuvenation, healing and new wisdom, the truth is that his new life had very little content. He adopted an assumed name, which fooled nobody – “Sebastian Melmoth” was, appropriately enough, half religious allusion, half literary allusion, and wholly self-glorifying in a martyred way. He continued to attend some fashionable salons (notably those of Natalie Barney, a young American he had first met when she was still a child, and who after his death became the lover of Wilde’s niece (and seemingly of every other woman in Paris in the first half of the twentieth century…)), but he wrote nothing beyond a few corrections and edits to earlier work, and spent more and more of his money on alcohol, until he became a living humiliation for himself and for his former friends, and confined himself almost entirely to his room. The man who had pilloried others for being too concerned with what society thought of them could not, it seems, live with the lose of his good social standing. His estranged wife died prematurely after a fall, and her relatives took legal action to ensure that he would never be allowed to see his sons (whose surnames had been changed) again. He himself died at 46. [His elder brother had died at the same age the previous year. Of Sir William Wilde’s six children, not one lived to see 47. Wilde’s niece, Dorothy, (by all accounts a brilliant but underachieving wit herself) would herself die, probably of a drug overdose, two months short of reaching 46; Wilde’s son Cyril died at 29 in the War. His younger son, Vyvyan, was the only member of the family not to die prematurely].
Of course, Wilde’s untimely death was an accident of history. Though one theory blames syphilis, most likely it was simply an unfortunate medical complication of a minor ailment. Most people don’t even know that Wilde died young – because, I suspect, he died when his life had already ended. Perhaps if he had lived, we would simply see that time as his fallow period, his wilderness years – certainly it’s possible to imagine an older Wilde enjoying great fame and fortune in the decadent twenties, and until his downfall his talent had grown with every work, so perhaps we never saw the best of Wilde. But it’s hard to escape the thought that after a lifetime striving for fame, three heady years of great success, and total and public humiliation, Wilde already believed that his story had come to a close. Whether a martyr to his art, or a tragic waste of talent misled by pride and hedonism, the final act had already taken place.
But anyway. The book.
Adrenaline: 1/5. In terms of excitement, this book is a miserable failure. That’s not a great surprise. Neither the fairy tale as a genre nor Wilde as a writer are really suited to adrenaline. Instead, the tone is elegaic and contemplative.
Emotion: 3/5. There is a pervading, as I say, elegaic quality, despite the constant flippancy; however, the absence of strong characters and a rather inconsistent tone do dilute the emotion. Nonetheless, I’m marking it up to average on account of the moving “Nightingale” and “Prince”.
Thought: 3/5. There are, as I hope the review has indicated, some intriguing elements here. On the whole, however, the stories are too simplistic and heavy-handed to captivate the intellect.
Beauty: 5/5. Perhaps this is generous, but it certainly applies to “The Nightingale and the Rose”, and I think the other stories have enough beauty in them not to mark down the collection. Wilde is a stunningly poetic prose stylist.
Craft: 4/5. A great stylist, but sometimes here not entirely certain what style to employ, and sometimes with mistakes in pacing, and a lack of nuance. The plots are simple, but then given the genre they’re meant to be.
Endearingness: 4/5. While flawed, I found the book very likeable and memorable – a lot more accessible than much of Wilde thanks to the childlike simplicity of the stories.
Originality: 3/5. On the one hand, taking the stories as stories, they could easily have been written by many other writers (they were criticised at the time as ‘echoes and ghosts’ of Andersen). On the other hand, in execution, they couldn’t be mistaken for the work of any other author.
Overall: 5/7. Good. Wilde’s talent is evident throughout – perhaps a little too evident – and it’s easy to see why this collection was a success at the time. Simple, accessible stories with a great deal of glitter and some deeper resonances. However, the limitations of the form, Wilde’s unfamiliarity with the form (he sometimes seemed to be straining to include more of his own brilliance, distracting from his own stories) and the straightforwardness of most of the stories do restrict the brilliance of the book. The result is now what it proved to be at the time: a limited but noteworthy exhibition, and an invitation to read more of the author.
P.S. This is a good book to get a special edition of. Wilde’s stories appealed greatly to many artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and there are some really beautiful illustrated editions out there.
P.P.S. fun fact: a translation of “The Happy Prince” was Jorge Luis Borges’ first published work (at the age of 9)