Author: lauraleeauthor

I'm the author of the novel Angel and a dozen other books on topics ranging from Elvis Impersonation to the science behind annoying things. The San Francisco Chronicle said, "Lee's dry, humorous tone makes her a charming companion… She has a penchant for wordplay that is irresistible."

George du Maurier’s Trilby: A Victorian Phenomenon

Interesting Literature today has a nice feature on George du Maurier’s Trilby, a novel that figures prominently in Oscar’s Ghost. The popularity of Trilby was such that the idea of mind control, and a person surrendering his will to someone who seduces him or her through art, was an undercurrent in Oscar Wilde’s trials. In writing De Profundis, Wilde was reacting to a narrative that he, like Svengali, was able to influence impressionable young minds. In his attempts to posthumously rehabilitate Wilde, Robert Ross would also focus on the question of influence. By strategically leaking concealed parts of De Profundis, he tried to demonstrate that Wilde was no Svengali and that it was Lord Alfred Douglas, not Oscar Wilde who had all of the influence. Trilby was arguably the first modern best seller. It was far more popular than Oscar Wilde’s works were. Yet today Trilby usually comes up in trivia related to the origin of hat names, whereas Wilde’s work is endlessly studied. This article explores some of the reasons why.

Interesting Literature

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle doffs his hat to a half-forgotten Victorian sensation

Here’s a question for you: what was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era? And who wrote it – Dickens perhaps? George Eliot? Robert Louis Stevenson? It was none of these, though they all enjoyed huge sales. Instead, the accolade arguably goes to a man who was principally known, not as a novelist at all, but as a cartoonist. (I say ‘arguably’ because reliable sales figures for nineteenth-century books are not always easy to find.)

The cartoonist’s name was George du Maurier and the novel is Trilby (1894). Du Maurier had made his name as an illustrator: in 1895 he was responsible for the famous curate’s egg’ cartoon (with its complaisant curate assuring the vicar, concerning the bad egg he’d been served up, that ‘parts of it are excellent’)…

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To Live Unmoored from Social Norms

There was an article in the Guardian today that brought to mind some thoughts I was playing with here back in 2014.

On the new Netflix show Ozark, financial adviser Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is forced to launder millions of dollars in a rural red state, under threat of death from a Mexican drug cartel. In Billions, which finished its second season in May, viewers are meant to envy and respect mega–hedge-funder “Axe” (Damian Lewis), despite his evident criminality. And then there is the wildly popular Empire, about a hip-hop dynasty ruled by the ridiculously wealthy and brutal Lyon family.

Welcome to the new aspirational television, about a 1% that lives with impunity. These series center on brilliant, albeit extremely violent entrepreneurs. Our antiheroes have technical specialties they managed to turn into criminal know-how: on Ozark, money management becomes money laundering, and on Breaking Bad, high-school chemistry instruction becomes meth production.

These anti-heroes are born of the modern struggle to remain in the middle or upper middle class. We watch these characters and receive, I argued in my previous article, the same sort of thrill delivered by Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.  We all, at times, feel burdened and constrained by society’s rules. Victorian England was still more of an honor/shame society than a good person/bad person society. People (at least those of Oscar Wilde’s class) felt most constrained on a day to day basis by the need to keep up a respectable appearance and to behave in morally upstanding ways. Therefore sexual vice and hedonism had a strong, dangerous appeal. The story of Dorian combined the pleasurable fantasy of being freed from social constraints with the horror of what society might look like if those constraints did not exist.

I argued in my article that in “modern stories where a person is attracted to evil and finds himself trapped in a world from which he cannot escape, the characters were driven by financial rather than sexual temptation.”

Dorian’s audience feared what would happen if sensuality and sexuality were decoupled from a sense of responsibility for one another. Today we are regularly confronted with stark images of what happens when money is decoupled from any sense of responsibility for others.

In her Guardian article Alissa Quart concluded: “Just ask the immensely wealthy man who is now our president and appears to say and do exactly what he wants to, regardless of the consequences: today, the ultimate luxury isn’t wealth itself. It is the ability to live unmoored from social norms, like the gods.”

Our temptation to abandon the community to satisfy our own desires excites and terrifies us.  Thus in fiction those who would be gods are destroyed and our bond of common responsibility is restored. The jury is still out on whether this is what happens in real life.

From the Crewe Collection: The Rossiad, by Lord Alfred Douglas

Trinity College Library posted an article on an artifact of the feud between Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas tried to deliver a copy of his scathing satire of Ross, The Rossiad, to Lord Crewe.

Lord Alfred’s reputation was such that a civil servant sent a note to the marquess on official paper saying:

“Lord Crewe – I suppose it would be dangerous to send any form of acknowledgement”

To which Lord Crewe replied

“No reply, of course”

Trinity College Library, Cambridge

Oscar Wilde; Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas by Gillman & Co, May 1893, NPG P1122
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The Crewe collection contains a number of early editions of works by Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900). Wilde was known to the 1st marquess of Crewe when he was Lord Houghton and a fellow member of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt’s Crabbet Club. The collection also contains works about, and relating to, Wilde published after his death.

Robbie Ross by Elliott & Fry, circa 1914 Robbie Ross by Elliott & Fry, circa 1914, NPG x12885
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Lord Alfred Douglas (1870 –1945), a cousin of Blunt, was an author and poet but is better known as the friend, lover and instigator of the downfall of Oscar Wilde. Following Wilde’s death Lord Alfred’s behaviour became increasingly erratic and led to his involvement in several libel actions and much public controversy. His relations with Robert Ross (1869 –1918), an art critic, art…

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Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy – Laura Lee (Amberley Publishing)

Thank you to Out in Print for the first review of Oscar’s Ghost.

Out in Print: Queer Book Reviews

Buy from Amberley Publishing

This is a story about stories. On its most basic level, Oscar’s Ghost is about Oscar Wilde’s life and how its telling affected the lives of two people whom fate had cast as characters in it. But it is also about other stories: the stories told in courtrooms masquerading as the `whole truth’; the stories we tell ourselves to create an identity; stories we tell others to carve out a place in the community; stories that marginalized groups tell themselves to make sense of their difference; and the stories society relies upon to explain a moment in history. Oscar’s Ghost explores how all these stories interact and what happens when contradictory narratives collide.

So begins Oscar’s Ghost by Laura Lee. Ostensibly, Lee’s book is about how Oscar Wilde came to write De Profundis, and the subsequent feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. While…

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“Individuals of a Better Station in Life”

Working on Oscar’s Ghost over the past few years, I’ve had occasion to give some thought to social class. In Oscar Wilde’s England, social class was spoken of quite openly and the lines were not supposed to be crossed. Much of the circumstantial evidence that convicted Wilde rested on the idea that there was no legitimate reason for a man of his station to socialize with grooms and valets. (There is a nice scene in the movie Wilde where the audience in the courtroom gasps when an attorney brings up the working class professions of some of Wilde’s companions.)

A medical professional who examined Wilde in prison wrote in his report that the prisoner “practised the most disgusting and odious of criminal offences with others of his own sex and that too not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

Crossing class lines was suspicious. We often read passages like this with a little snicker, feeling a tad smug about how much wiser we are today. But are we? Or have we just changed the way we talk about social class?

There is a television commercial I’ve been seeing a lot lately. It is for an online dating service and one of the featured women says that she went with the service because you have to pay to be on it, and that proves that the men are serious about a relationship.

Of course, it is a luxury to be able to spend money on a service, especially one that has free variants available. So seeking out men who are willing to pay for the service is not only about “seriousness” it is about weeding out the poor. “Professional” is a euphemism we use these days rather than saying “people of my class” as Lord Alfred Douglas would have.

I would call this kind of language “coded” but that is not quite right. To speak in code is to be aware that you are conveying a hidden meaning. Most of the time when we use this particular kind of code we are keeping the class ramifications secret even from ourselves. I don’t believe that the dating service customer believed she was using code when she said “serious.” She believed she meant “serious” not “of my social class.” But the idea she has of a serious person includes certain social class markers.

Another example of this, a slightly more conscious one, is found in the romantic comedy “The Holiday.” I was so struck by something I heard on the commentary track that I ended up writing it into my novel Identity Theft.

Movies like this had always been a guilty pleasure for Candi. They were formulaic and fluffy, an insult to her intelligence, and yet who could resist the idea that we live in a world were perfect romance is possible? You run away from life, trade homes with another woman in an exotic faraway city, and no sooner have you unpacked than someone who looks like Jude Law knocks on your door and wants to make love to you. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that he is secretly a family man and totally the marrying kind. Candi suspected that these kinds of movies did to her brain what a diet of Twinkies would do to her body, and yet she couldn’t get enough of them.

In the commentary track, the film’s writer and director was explaining her costuming choices. It was important, she said, that Jude Law’s character was wearing a tie when he knocked on that door. Otherwise, she believed, audiences would not relate to Cameron Diaz’s character. They would think she was a slut. Good girls only have anonymous sex with boys in white collar jobs.

In other words, the definition of a slut is a woman who has sex “not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Word of the Day: Syzygy

Today’s word is brought to you by the folks at TED who give his among the list of reasons not to miss today’s solar eclipse:

2 ½. You’ll have a reason to use the word syzygy.

A syzygy (pronounced “SI-zeh-gee” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary) is the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies (such as the sun, moon and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse) in a gravitational system. It’s also worth 93 points in Scrabble if you play your tiles right, according to Mental Floss. I’m just saying…

History Obscured

Over the past couple of years in this space I have talked about how our desire to have history conform to a notion of linear progress has obscured the achievements of people who were supposed to have gained social rights only later. Two years ago I put it this way:

It is much easier to tell the dramatic story of increasing freedom for women– a straight line from corsets and arranged marriages to women’s suffrage, 1970s women’s lib, and then Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and female CEOs– if you leave out the women of previous ages who did the things we imagine they only later gained the right to do.

Another article here called Vanishing Women asks how many exceptions to the rule that women did not work outside the home do we have to come across before we start questioning if the rule is actually valid?

Another example of this surfaced recently, as reported in The Guardian. The title of the article by David Olusoga tells it all really, “Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it.

The article describes a twitter storm over a cartoon set in Roman times which depicted a dark-skinned character.

Sensing a politically correct plot to take over British history, one presumably orchestrated by the liberal elite from somewhere deep within their headquarters in the out-of-touch, metropolitan, media bubble, Watson went on the offensive. “I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?” he tweeted.

This started the ball rolling. (If you’d like to read more on my thoughts on the idea of “revisionist history” you can go back to the post History as a Straight Line.)

Olusoga goes on to give an overview of recent scholarship that shows that Roman Britain was more ethnically diverse than many people have assumed. (I recommend a read.)

He concluded his article with a question.

The deeper, more fundamental question is why? Why are some people so affronted by the very idea that the black presence in Britain stretches back so many centuries? Why, even when historical evidence is presented and the opinions of experts given, are they determined to dismiss the facts and, as we have seen in this case, seek to trash the reputation of respected scholars? The refusal to accept that the black presence in Britain has a long and deep history is not just a symptom of racism, it is a form of racism. It is part of a rearguard and increasingly unsustainable defence of a fantasy monochrome version of British history.

The notion that Britain was monochromatic or that “European Christians built this nation” legitimizes the claim of certain groups to be the true inheritors of a society. It is easier for favored groups (and groups that fear falling out of favor) to point to history and tradition than to argue that there is an inherent reason they deserve favored status.

One of the first posts I ever wrote here was inspired by a poem by Beau Sia, and Asian-American who tried to empathize with a woman who got caught up in one of those viral online shamings after posting a video rant about “Asians in the library.” Her mindset, he concluded was:

“I’m so afraid I’ll have to fend for myself without what I’ve been told was mine.”