- "Who Was That Man?"
Angela Kingston's book takes its cue from the famous comment made by Wilde in De Profundis that he "stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of [his] age" and "awoke the imagination of [his] century so that it created myth and legend around [him]." At one level Oscar Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction attempts to give substance to Wilde's boast by drawing our attention to some of the contemporary documents that are instantiations of that myth. Kingston argues that her book is both "a survey and [an] analysis" of "Wilde's many appearances … in the fiction of his contemporaries." These depictions amount to some thirty-seven examples taken from novels or stories published in English between 1877 and Wilde's death in late 1900. The "remarkable corpus of fiction" which contains these "appearances" is precisely the substance of that Wilde "myth and legend."
Kingston goes on to assert that this material has been "largely unexploited by academics." She does note the importance of earlier work by John Stokes, Robert Tanitch, and Merlin Holland, although she further observes that the attention paid to "Wildean portraits in the better-known fictions" (by which she means Bram Stoker's Dracula, Henry James's The Tragic Muse, and Robert Hichens's The Green Carnation) has obscured the "treasure" of the resource material collected in her own volume. In this respect, part of the value claimed for her project resides in the sheer number of "appearances" which she brings to the reader's attention (in practice these amount to slightly over one portrait every year during that quarter of a century), appearances which she describes as "comprehensive" while at the same time acknowledging that they are not complete nor exhaustive. Her survey will be, she suggests, of "particular interest to the modern scholar who seeks to understand Wilde's contemporary context."
Kingston's volume is divided into three sections that answer to what is by now a fairly widely accepted, if over-schematised reading of the key moments in Wilde's career: "Aesthete 1877–1890," "Decadent 1891– 1895" and "Pariah 1896–1900." The entries contained within each section are arranged chronologically, but can be read as discrete items. So, [End Page 210] for example, anyone interested in Wilde's changing reputation at the time of the publication of the periodical and book versions of Dorian Gray could, according to the premises of Kingston's volume, consult entries on The Tragic Muse, A Willing Exile, and The Sign of Four (all 1890), as well as The Silver Domino and My Flirtations (both 1892). Some of these titles, along with many others in the book, are now little known and so virtually unread, and some are quite difficult to come by. Many readers will be grateful to Kingston's diligence in surveying and examining such a large body of often quite unmemorable fiction, and indeed few will have had the patience to wade through such eminently forgettable works as Besant and Rice's part-utopian novel The Monks of Thelema, where improbable smock-frocked labourers read Pater's Renaissance and equally improbably "make marginalia over Mill's 'Political Economy.'" Kingston's impressive and admirable range of reading is augmented by a thirteen-page appendix listing many further "appearances" for the period 1900 until 2007.
So far so good, then, because at first glance Kingston's volume appears to be doing the same kind of survey work as Karl Beckson achieved in his important collection of contemporary reviews of Wilde's oeuvre in Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage (1970; 1997). However readers using these resources alongside one another in the hope of arriving at a fuller sense of Wilde's reputation will notice an immediate limitation to Kingston's book. Unlike The Critical Heritage series, Kingston's volume does not reprint source materials, even as extracts or abridgments, though she does quote from them. Her main aim is to provide summaries and commentaries. In this respect her volume does not proceed in the manner of a...