- OUP’s Complete Wilde: Volumes 6 & 7
ON 14 APRIL 1888 A READER of the latest issue of the Pall Mall Gazette would have discovered an opinionated, unsigned review of a new biography of George Sand. This pithy discussion by Oscar Wilde is just one of the gems now collected in volumes VI and VII of The Complete Works; these most recently published texts provide a comprehensive compilation of his journalism produced for a range of periodicals between 1877 and 1890 (with a final brief note from 1895). The review of the Sand biography is particularly fascinating because it encapsulates so many qualities characteristic of Wilde’s journalistic output overall—not only in its aesthetic and critical tendencies but also in its methodology, wit and style, its erudition and breadth of reading.
Wilde was never hesitant to make his personal enthusiasms and tastes clear both overtly and by implication through a sarcastic nudge or a teasing wink. In this relatively short piece, for example, he praises Sand repeatedly, focusing on “her wonderful personality,” “the grandeur of that large womanly nature” and “the masculine force of that strong and ardent mind.” He also uses her work as a springboard for introducing a number of his own theoretical and cultural predilections: for romance over the dead reportage of factual realism; for “social regeneration” and reform; for an irresistible art of charm and passion which “is the very leaven of modern life” and which can fashion “our age anew.” The strong persona of the reviewer and the acclaimed genius of an unconventional French novelist actually serve as a method of critique; they vastly overpower the biography and its hapless writer, M. Elme-Marie Caro, a recently deceased French academic. The effect is slyly calculated from the opening sentence with its amusingly superior downward glance at M. Caro, a “very lady-like writer” chattering with “all the fascinating insincerity of an accomplished phrase-maker.” Wilde’s characteristic linguistic brio, at home with alliteration and witty reversals of expectations and figures of speech, is used to batter a [End Page 257] biographer whom the reviewer judges quite out of sympathy with both Sand and his own literary purposes. As well as being neither “fortunate” nor “felicitous,” M. Caro is shockingly timorous; his “modesty [in avoiding Sand’s private life] … almost makes one blush.” The review also shows something of Wilde the scrupulous scholar, demanding precision, clarity and accuracy. Although reviewing the English translation of the biography, Wilde clearly had the French original to hand, and he makes use of it for an incisive critique of the (poor) quality of translation, concluding that the work is not simply unworthy of the translator but “also quite undeserved by the public. Nowadays even the public has its feelings.”
Indeed, it is Wilde’s engagement with the feelings of “the public” and the culture of his age that is one of the key revelations of these splendid new volumes. As John Stokes and Mark W. Turner point out in their well-judged, meaty introduction, the Wilde most readers know is the brilliant writer of the 1890s. But that figure is in large part constructed in the 1870s and 1880s through his journalistic work (primarily reviews, but also short articles, literary gossip and other notices). It is here that his distinctive personality and voice—flippant and committed, offhand and passionate—were perfected and deployed with increasing confidence and skill. Journalism also provided a highly visible professional opportunity for Wilde to display his extensive knowledge of contemporary culture (both elite and popular) and to reveal and enhance his significant literary and cultural networks. The multiple readerships of the periodicals (from the academy to Clubland) gave him the chance to comment on, challenge and shape the tastes of significant sections of British society. In short, in Wilde’s hands, journalism was performance—an exhibition of a carefully crafted persona and an entertaining dialogue with literary and cultural figures and trends of the...