- The Creative Editor:Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde and the Collected Works
Despite the efforts of various historians, principally Maureen Borland, to describe Robert Ross's life independent of his relationship with Oscar Wilde, it is as Wilde's literary executor, editor, and therefore his most loyal friend, that he is remembered in literary history.1 After carefully sampling the potential market for Wilde's work with an extensively cut edition of De Profundis in 1905 (which sold in unexpectedly large numbers2 ) Ross produced his monumental fourteen-volume Collected Works of Wilde's writing in 1908. It is difficult to overestimate the centrality of Ross's labours in the slow process of rehabilitating Wilde's reputation after the debacle of the trials in 1895 and Wilde's relatively early death in 1900. Now, almost a century later, Ross's editorial work is often cited by Wilde scholars and modern editors, and the texts which he established still form the basis of many modern editions.3 A few reviews and a few poems apart, no works have been added to Wilde's oeuvre that were not printed by Ross.
Given this situation, it is strange that Ross's role as an editor has rarely, if ever, been questioned, nor have his editorial practices ever been systematically investigated. The very diligence with which he undertook the dual tasks of securing Wilde's reputation and freeing his estate from bankruptcy appears to have led most modern commentators to assume that he acted with integrity and transparency, faithfully reproducing both Wilde's intentions towards his texts and his ambitions as a writer. The present article tries to rectify this state of affairs: it attempts to do justice to the range and nature of Ross's considerable achievement, but it also suggests that the motives which governed his [End Page 138] practices are certainly more complex, and often not quite so laudable, as earlier commentators have generally assumed.
"Integrity" is, of course, an easy term to invoke, but it is not easy to define precisely what, in terms of editorial procedures, actually constitutes it. Ross's task was complicated and fraught with difficulties. He reproduced much more than simply Wilde's published books. That task alone would have been taxing, because several of them, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and the essays in Intentions, had appeared in different versions and therefore posed complex problems of their own. Nor was the choice of copy-text for the plays straightforward. However, in addition to these well-known items, the Collected Works also includes completed but unpublished texts, privately published works, occasional pieces such as journalism, signed and unsigned, and introductions to the work of others, as well as manuscript fragments. This very variety suggests that Ross had to make numerous editorial judgments, especially relating to matters of copy-text. Any scholar with a glancing acquaintance with Wilde's manuscripts, even those used as printer's copy, is well aware that the transition from pen to print involves numerous interpretative decisions, which range from deciphering Wilde's often barely legible corrections, to normalizing obvious errors in spelling and punctuation. All editors are to some degree mediators of the works they edit, but in the case of Wilde's works that mediation has necessarily to be extensive. This is a situation, we will argue, of which Ross must have been aware; but no trace of the complex editorial process he put in train is visible in his Collected Works. With the exception of the rare footnote, there is no textual apparatus; moreover the reader is never informed of the principles used for selecting copy-text. A modern reader turning the pages of that edition is first struck by the elegance and the luxury of the books as artifacts, and then by the "finished" quality of the texts. In fact that finished quality is largely a product of the invisibility of any mediating apparatus, and in its turn it may help us understand why Ross's procedures have never been systematically examined.
Ross was almost certainly not being deceitful or duplicitous in omitting to declare his editorial principles. The practice of producing a...