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  • Oscar Wilde: Conference Essays
  • Josephine M. Guy
Joseph Bristow, ed. Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture: The Making of a Legend. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008. xlii + 355 pp. Cloth $58.95 Paper $28.95

The twelve essays in Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture originated in a 2004 conference held at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California, Los Angeles; it represents a companion to Bristow's earlier edited collection, Wilde Writings: Contextual Conditions (2003), also the product of a 1999 conference at the same institution. Oscar Wilde and Modern Culture contains in addition a preface and lengthy introduction, both by Bristow, although the latter piece recapitulates what is largely familiar biographical information concerning Wilde's last years in exile, his death, the Ransome libel trial and the attempts by Max Beerbohm, Robert Ross and Christopher Millard to control Wilde's posthumous reputation, as well as the more "eccentric" efforts of recuperation—or exploitation—by figures such as George Sylvester Viereck, J. M. Stuart Young, Frank Harris and the forgers Fabian Lloyd and Mrs. Chan Toon. This material is followed by a "Chronology" which spans the period from Wilde's birth until 2008 and includes the main novels, biographies and dramas inspired by Wilde's life or works.

As with many conference proceedings, the contributors seem to have interpreted their brief in different ways, and some readers may find the title of the volume a little misleading in that few pieces directly address, or try to conceptualize, what is meant by the term "modern" or "modernity," whether in a literary historical, critical or political sense ("Wilde in the Twentieth Century" would have been a more accurate description of the contents), and only one takes as its explicit subject the mythologizing of Wilde. Lucy McDiarmid's essay, which opens the collection, exemplifies this confusion of aims, for her suggestive though short discussion of "late-Victorian table-talk" as practised by Lady Gregory and Wilde insists on the historicity of the phenomenon: "the kind of table-talk that took place when writers dined regularly with cabinet ministers, and those cabinet ministers were running an empire, represents a brief moment in the history of dinner parties." [End Page 350] This claim is surprising on two grounds: not only does it appear to undercut the basic premise of Bristow's volume, it also preempts what might have been fruitful comparisons with more recent examples of such semiformal attempts to exert political influence. After all, tabletalk of the kind McDiarmid describes, in which talk is performative and the dinner party a "crossover zone, with characteristics of both an intimate domestic sphere and a public, often official, one," has certainly not disappeared from British political life (even if Britain no longer runs an empire); well-known examples from recent history include the "champagne and shepherd's pie" dinners hosted by the writer and Tory activist (and later convicted perjurer) Jeffrey Archer during Margaret Thatcher's and John Major's premierships, as well as the regular dinners and luncheons hosted by the current premier and his wife at Chequers, the British Prime Minister's official country-house residence, perfectly suited to such public/private, formal/informal gatherings.

In contrast to McDiarmid's focus on a "brief moment" in late-nineteenth-century literary culture, the majority of pieces in the volume concentrate on examining Wilde's relationship with, or legacy for, later writers and movements, with the focus largely on European (and particularly on French and German) rather than American culture. Thus Erin Williams Hyman reexamines what she sees as the neglected topic of Wilde's anarchism by exploring the connections between Wilde and the French anarchist Félix Fénéon, taking her cue from the Toulouse-Lautrec portrait La danse mauresque ou les almées (The Moorish Dance), in which the two men appear as imagined spectators of a belly dancer. While acknowledging that the "sincerity" of Wilde's own anarchism may be a complex issue, Hyman argues that there is "little doubt that to the symbolist-anarchist avant-garde in Paris, his cause and theirs were one and the same." Yvonne Ivory pursues a similar theme when she describes Wilde's importance...


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pp. 350-357
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