Annotated Prison Writings and an Oscar Wilde What If?

9780674984387-lg.jpg Recently I started reading The Annotated Prison Writing of Oscar Wilde edited by Nicholas Frankel. It reminded me of what led me on my Oscar’s Ghost journey to begin with: my fascination with Wilde’s prison opus De Profundis.

It began when I read Robert Ross’s edited 1905 version. I wanted more, and turned to the version published in the Complete Letters, and that left me with more questions, which led me to biographies of Wilde, Ross and Douglas. But at the heart of it was De Profundis. I can’t tell you why, but my fascination with that document never seems to wane. There are the soaring passages about Wilde’s philosophical journey in prison that first drew me in. Then there is the question of the conditions under which he wrote it. There is the mystery of what Wilde wanted to do with the work, and the impact it had on two of his friends, the battle over its ownership and how it would frame the biography of Oscar Wilde for future generations. Every time a new version with notes and annotations comes out, I am gripped again. This is a wonderful edition, well laid out, easy to follow, full of interesting insights and to top it all off, unlike a number of the scholarly editions out there, it is affordable.

If you read Oscar’s Ghost (or even if you didn’t) and you wanted to know more about the prison manuscript that was at the heart of it all, I highly recommend this book.

An idea came to me while I was reading one of the De Profundis annotations.  One of the questions that comes up often when reading about Oscar Wilde is “What if?” What if Wilde had not sued the Marquess of Queensberry? One of the “What ifs” that tormented Lord Alfred Douglas was what if he had been able to testify in court.

One of the what ifs that struck me early on involved an event on February 14, 1895, the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. Queensberry had come to the theater, armed with a “bouquet of vegetables” that he intended to throw at Wilde during his curtain speech. Word of his plan leaked, and he was prevented from entering. Wilde wanted to sue Queensberry over the incident and use that to stop his harassment. Had he done this, the question of his sexuality might not have been an issue and things might have gone entirely differently. Unfortunately, the theater’s management didn’t want to be involved in a scandal and they refused to allow staff to act as witnesses. What if they had? It seems like such a lost opportunity.

Today one word in one of Nicholas Frankel’s notes leapt out from the page. The word was “narrowly.”

“As Wilde relates, Queensberry was only narrowly prevented from entering the St. James Theatre…” Only narrowly prevented.

It struck me that it would have been better if he had not been prevented from entering the theater that night. Until the Wilde trials, with the exception of the rules of boxing, Queensberry was best known for one thing. He was the eccentric peer who had interrupted a performance of Tennyson’s “Promise of May” to rant against the dialogue of a fictional freethinker. He was pilloried in the press,

“Like…the bray of a donkey…the Marquis has burst upon the public with a suddenness and vehemence that are perfectly appalling,” wrote the Aberdeen Weekly Journal. “Nobody was thinking of him, dreaming of him, apprehensive of him– or wanting him.”

When Wilde’s libel case was announced, until the evidence about prostitutes came up, many journalists were predicting the case would end with Queensberry locked up in the madhouse.

Imagine, then, that a second outburst at a theater had not been “narrowly” prevented. Imagine that this character who was widely viewed as unstable, disruptive–mad even–had done it again? Imagine if Wilde, at the height of his fame, in front of a first night audience, was pelted with vegetables by this man? The sympathy would have been all with Wilde. It would matter little what he was shouting about. This was the man who publicly threatened to horse-whip Lord Rosebery. There would have been ample witnesses to testify that his lordship had disturbed the peace. Just think, that bouquet of vegetables might have changed the course of history.

Some creative soul should really write the Oscar Wilde Choose Your Own Adventure Book. I’d buy a copy.

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