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193 ADA LEVERSON AND OSCAR WILDE1 By Charles Burkhart (Temple University) To many people Ada Leverson is best known as the friend of Oscar Wilde who sheltered him at the time of his trials, rather than as herself a considerable personality, novelist, and wit. Oscar Wilde was dead long before the first of her six novels. The Twelfth Hour (1907), was published; but it is in large part due to his friendship for her and his admiration for her early writings, short pieces which appeared In the Nineties In Punch. The Yellow Book, and elsewhere, that she became fully conscious of her gifts and began a more serious employment of them. The turning point In her life came at the age of thirty, for it was at this time, when she was past her first youth, and stalemated in an unsatisfactory marriage, that she met Wilde and published her first story. It is later than most writers begin, but earlier circumstances can In retrospect be viewed as propitious for a literary career. In family background she was fortunate; the Beddingtons were a large, cultured, and prosperous mercantile family, and Ada's childhood included parental recognition of her literary aptitudes . A classics tutor was engaged for her, and she read widely . The family mansion in Hyde Park Square had an atmosphere that we associate with late Victorian culture at its best, and dozens of its details are recalled in the novels she wrote a generation later.2 Her aptitudes might have found fulfillment sooner had not marriage Intervened. She was nineteen when she married Ernest Leverson , who was thirty-one. The disparity between them was more than one of age. When the first romance of wedded life was over, Ernest's chief interests, gambling and horses, became Ada's daily realities. She could not share these interests, nor could her husband more than superficially appreciate her wit, character, and charm. Yet they were a highly civilized pair, and whatever their basic incompatibility, the surface of their life in the Eighties was agreeable. It was fashionable and extravagant: Ada had her dresses from Paquln, Ernest had his Journeys to Dieppe and Monte Carlo. However, beneath the surface of her life, the creative instinct was stirring. She sought some stronger expression of herself than the impermanence of conversation gave; a brilliant social life and the success with which she kept an impossible marriage possible were not, finally, enough. The immediate catalyst to her literary career was her meeting with Wilde. It is impossible to separate the personal relationship of Ada Leverson and Oscar Wilde from their literary relationship, just as it is impossible to separate, in Oscar Wilde himself, the manner from the man. The story of their friendship, which follows, is also in large part the story of Ada Leverson·s literary career in 194 the Nineties. They met in I892, at a party given by Mrs. Oswald Crawfurd.3 Wilde, at thirty-eight, was approaching the zenith of his success. They were instantly attracted to each other, and it was not long before he was calling her "the wittiest woman in the world." His affection for her survived even his later quarrels with Ernest; it was founded on their mutual love of comedy, elegance, and affectation. She herself was not affected, but playfully urged others to be, and some of Wilde's letters and even more frequent telegrams to her (she once said that she planned to edit The Collected Telegrams of Oscar Wilde) must have gratified this desire: You are one of those - alas, too few - who are always followed by the flutes of the pagan world. I shall be in town soon, and must come and charm the Sphinx with honey-cakes. The trouble is I left my flute In a railway carriage - and the fauns take so long to cut new reeds.5 Even though the friendship formed in I892 lasted uninterruptedly until Wilde's death In 19OO, Mrs. Leverson's early admiration often took the form of parody. She began to contribute stories and sketches to Black and White and to Punch. inspired by Wilde's triumphs and by his urging. Parody often has its origin In...


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