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BOOK REVIEWS Essays on Wilde Regenia Gagnier, ed. Critical Essays on Oscar Wilde. New York: G. K. Hall, 1991. ix + 265pp. $40.00 THIS VOLUME, edited by the well-known Wilde scholar Regenia Gagnier, appears as one of the G. K. Hall books of Critical Essays on British Literature. In keeping with the high standards set by that series, it offers among its contents some of the finest individual efforts in recent interpretations of Wilde's writings. (Most notably among them all in my view is Kerry Powell's excellent piece.) The result is a collection of generally fine essays that offers stimulating responses to portions of Wilde's canon. As in any compilation of this sort, of course, problems arise from the sheer mechanics of bringing such a volume together. While I see no significant drawbacks inmost of the individual studies, I am somewhat disappointed by the overall constitution of this collection. Both in terms of the number of Wilde's works that are examined and with regard to the variety of epistemologies represented, its range proves far narrower than I anticipated from the volume's title. Furthermore, most students of Wilde will already be familiar with a great many of these articles. All but three have appeared in previous publications, and well over onethird have been reprinted several times. Nonetheless, many essays stand out as important critical statements, and specific works deserve close attention no matter how well-known they may be. Gagnier's own essay is one such work. "Sexuality, the Public, and the Art World," a reprint of the first twenty-six pages of chapter four ofIdylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public, enforces one's sense of just how important cultural criticism can be. Using the context of the 1895 Queensberry trials that led to Wilde's public disgrace and imprisonment, Gagnier elaborates upon the obvious need to remain attentive to the extra-textual features surrounding Wilde's process of composition, and gives a virtuoso demonstration of how effectively one can apply this sort of cultural criticism. While I find some of her conclusions too prescriptive to accommodate my own readings of Wilde, Gagnier's scholarship and argument never fail to engage me in a reconsideration of my own approaches in the light of her insights. In a more traditional application of extra-textual critical material, Kerry Powell's contribution, "Algernon's Other Brothers," reprinted from a chapter in his Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s, under83 ELT 36 : 1 1993 scores the type of serious scholarly work that can still enormously enhance efforts to interpret Wilde's canon. In a fashion that avoids the common pitfalls of reductive influence studies, Powell sets The Importance of Being Earnest in the context of the dramatic ambiance of the late-Victorian period. Without enforcing a prescriptive view of the evidence , he shows how intellectual and artistic affinities between Wilde and contemporary playwrights inform the constitution of Wilde's last great play. While very clearly presenting his own interpretation of the evidence, Powell's approach so thoughtfully articulates interpretive options that one can disagree completely with his conclusions yet still find a great deal of critical insight in the work to inform alternative efforts. In "Framing Wilde," an essay whose brevity belies its insights, Gerhard Joseph offers a penetrating analysis of the concept of forging as it recurs throughout The Portrait of Mr. W H." Joseph takes the concept beyond that of convenient trope or felicitous pun to explore the aesthetic and epistemologic implications of its pivotal use in the essay. Both in terms of the usefulness of his interpretation of "The Portraitof Mr. WH." and of the broader illumination of Wilde's creative process, Joseph's analysis provides a first-rate assessment of the interpretive potential inherent in Wilde's writing. Individually, these and other essays in the collection more than repay the reader's attentiveness. Nonetheless, a certain constrictiveness in the standards for selection gives the impression of a much greater unanimity and of a much narrower range of critical interest than actually obtains in Wilde studies. I want to be precise, perhaps to the point of pedantry, in the distinction...


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