- The Poets of the Nineties
This year's coverage is, with one exception, devoted mainly to brief items. The exception is Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, ed. Merlin Holland (Carroll and Graf, 2007). Holland has selected and edited letters from that larger volume of Wilde's correspondence, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (1962; 1985; and the Complete Letters, 2000, with Holland), to create a readable, but documentary account of Wilde's life for non-specialist audiences. Since Wilde's writings have always held out wide appeal to varied readerships, such an undertaking has been worthwhile. The book is divided into eleven sections, each focused on an individual era in Wilde's life and career. Holland's introductions, first to the volume itself, then to each of the eleven sections are brief but nevertheless sound, illuminating overviews to the topic that follows while the equally brief interspersed narrative comments will help the non-specialist reader.
Minus some of the rather perfunctory business correspondence that is included in the earlier edition, we get a more immediate sense of Wilde's own lively, witty personality, which is most emphatic in the first four sections; the sections that follow indicate a far more grave outlook on life. That is not to suggest that business aspects of Wilde's literary career are omitted; see, for example, Wilde to Wemyss Reid and to Nellie Sickert, (respectively pp. 100 102, 104-104); or that to Leonard Smithers (p. 326), or that to Ernest Dowson (pp. 272-273). Given the long history of legend about Dowson and Wilde, we find a refreshing change in reading Wilde's counsel to his friend about practicalities concerning publishing and royalties. On the other hand, when Wilde writes to Laurence Housman (pp. 273-274) about A. E. Housman's poems (August 22, 1897), his deprecation of the Ricketts-Shannon antipathies to AEH's techniques centers on one great characteristic of the 1890s, the mingling of the arts.
Other useful features in this book are the chronology of Wilde's life and the index to recipients and the general index. Holland's book should offer an accessible, because condensed, account of Wilde's personal and professional life, which, in many respects, are interlinked. One is reminded of other lives in which home or family and professional lives intersect, for example, those of George Meredith, Dickens, or Poe (though perhaps too much has been made of Poe the man's interlocking with situations and characters in his creative works), or, nearer Wilde's own era, that of A. E. Housman. One is also reminded of occurrences in Wilde's personal life, for example, the evident disturbing emotion registered when he had to separate from Florence Balcombe after Bram Stoker proposed marriage to her (pp. 32-33). Wilde was [End Page 353] quick to assure Florence that he was not requesting a clandestine meeting. Here we encounter a tenderness that is often forgotten when the more sordid chapters in Wilde's life or the themes and techniques in many of his writings are considered. Wilde on love (to Robert Ross, September 21, 1897, pp. 279 280), displays a combination of pleasure-pain, along with other feelings, that is strikingly modernist or contemporary. Finally, given the legendary attachments to Wilde's life and literary career, one might be surprised to find him writing letters to earlier, to some more respectable, Victorian authors such as Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold (p. 45), or Ruskin (p. 108), though indeed he had been acquainted with and assisted Ruskin at Oxford. Holland's book should enjoy a long popularity in the twenty-first century.
Far more terse, but nonetheless, significant, is Stanley Stepping Edge-combe's "Tennyson, Wilde, and the Anti-Aubade in Dombey and Son" (N&Q 253, no. 1 : 38-39). The blank, foreboding dawn on which Mr. Dombey's marriage to Edith Granger takes place in part inspired the similar symbolically grim backgrounds in the seventh lyric in "In Memoriam" and in Wilde's "The Harlot's House." Evidently Wilde thought more highly of Dickens that his frequently cited derision concerning the mawkish sentimentality in the death of Little Nell might suggest. Tennyson...