- Oscar Wilde’s Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery by Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell
In their new study of Oscar Wilde’s fascination with Thomas Chatterton, Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell challenge the accusations of plagiarism that have, until now, plagued Wilde’s “Chatterton” notebook. Bristow and Mitchell contend that “the ‘Chatterton’ notebook inspired many of the remarkable shifts that took place during the mid and late 1880s in Wilde’s [End Page 206] evolving emergence as a major fin-de-siècle author” (21). They add that “In the decades following Wilde’s untimely death, Chatterton continued to inspire other artists, particularly young poets, who regularly honoured the ‘marvellous Boy’ in verse, as generations before them had” (29). As in Oscar Wilde and Ancient Greece (2012), in which Iain Ross examines “fragmentary notes and jottings from [Wilde’s] Trinity and Oxford years” (6), much of the insight in and pleasure of this book comes from its thorough research, with examples taken from art, literature, and the periodical press providing a number of interesting comparisons and connections. As Bristow and Mitchell draw on Wilde’s “Chatterton” notebook and archival materials, along with “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” and “The Decay of Lying,” this study establishes “a fuller picture of Wilde’s detailed engagement with Chatterton than has previously been possible” (30).
Bristow and Mitchell make good use of anecdotal and biographical materials relating to both Chatterton and Wilde, and convincingly argue that in Chatterton’s Rowley poems, Wilde found a “consummate art that strove to invent, not imitate, reality” (303). In early chapters, the authors discuss the cultural and historical myths that surrounded Chatterton. Beginning with an overview of his life, the Rowley controversy, and his “tragic self-murder” (2), Bristow and Mitchell dissect David Masson’s Chatterton: A Story of the Year (1770) and Daniel Wilson’s Chatterton: A Biographical Study (1869) before considering Henry Wallis’s painting The Death of Chatterton (1856). The authors then turn their attention to the charges of plagiarism aimed at Wilde’s “Chatterton” notebook and his identification of Chatterton as the “father of the Romantic Movement in literature” (19). In these chapters, Bristow and Mitchell show how attitudes toward Chatterton were changing by the mid-1880s, the period in which Wilde began to compile his notebook and delivered his now-lost lecture on Chatterton at the Birkbeck Library and Scientific Institution.
Wilde’s devotion to and paradoxical position on art is well known, and Bristow and Mitchell illustrate that Wilde explored the idea that “fine art might arise from criminal instincts” (27) before arguing that “untruths and weaving deceptive fiction” (27) constitute the highest form of creativity. The chapters that focus on Wilde’s criticism, shorter fiction, and concept of forgery are perhaps the strongest and most enjoyable as they show how Chatterton’s influence remains visible in Wilde’s later works. Wilde chose Thomas Griffiths Wainwright, a murderer and an accomplished art critic, as the subject of “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” and the authors argue that the connection between this piece and his “Chatterton” notebook is that “the subjects of both works were forgers, executing different varieties of such deceit for similar ends” (217). Bristow and Mitchell also argue that elements of Wilde’s “Chatterton” notebook are visible in “The Decay of Lying,” as both connect “the artistry of the lie” with the notion “of lying for the sake of art” (233). This, the authors demonstrate, informs Wilde’s position on great art [End Page 207] as emerging from “representational deceptions” (234).
Bristow and Mitchell explore the notion of forgery further in their chapter devoted to “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” Wilde’s tale of the suicide and suspected suicide of two men connected to a faked portrait of the youth addressed in William Shakespeare’s sonnets. In this, the most complex and focused chapter of the book, they concentrate on literary forgers and critics such...