- Wilde's Historical Criticism Notebook
VERY FEW POSTGRADUATES would welcome an in-depth study of a notebook they used to record research sources and thoughts prior to preparing the first draft of an important essay. Such a document would likely be a scrappy affair: sketchy doodles mingled with paraphrases and half-quotations; a few ideas or themes jotted down, perhaps haphazardly; scattered book, chapter and page references; an address mentioned by someone that had meaning on the day, but long forgotten; and, if the work was going really slowly and inspiration was truly at a standstill, then perhaps a few efforts at practising one's signature in a mature but quirkily arresting form. This new volume, a transcription and edition of Oscar Wilde's Historical Criticism Notebook, evidences just such features. Nonetheless, even if (difficult to believe) Wilde himself might have hesitated at having such preliminary student work put under the magnifying glass, academics and scholars working on Wilde will welcome this fine production and discover much to acclaim.
Philip E. Smith II's excellent edition of the previously unpublished Notebook, used by Wilde in preparation for an Oxford University essay competition, provides access to a much-neglected resource, even though the essay in question, Historical Criticism, has long been in the public domain. It first appeared in 1908 in Robert Ross's Collected Edition of Oscar Wilde. More recently, it was re-edited by Josephine M. Guy in the Oxford University Press Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Volume IV (2007). However, these versions were prepared without reference to the Notebook. Instead, Guy drew on "three fair-copy quarto notebooks," though there is now some evidence to suggest these were not final polished drafts of Historical Criticism. Smith persuasively argues that the Notebook, which predates these other source materials, is significant because it introduces new information and corrects some previous claims pertaining to Historical Criticism. As an "ante-text," it contains Wilde's initial collection of examples as well as his direction [End Page 389] of thought, his preliminary stabs at shaping the language for some sections of the essay, and even some early formulations of his later aesthetic philosophy.
Interestingly, the small exercise book of 133 leaves had originally been used by Wilde for another purpose altogether. If the book is reversed and held upside-down, it contains jottings that are likely connected to Wilde's personal examination revision. The notes relate to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (a set text "for the 'Greats' examination in the Literae Humaniores program"), the Poetics, and Greek tragedy and comedy. However, when the topic for the Chancellor's 1879 English Essay Prize was announced—"Historical Criticism among the Ancients"—it seems probable that the new graduate reversed the notebook and used it to prepare for an ambitious and showy try at the Prize. In the event, there is no evidence in university records, memoirs, or Wilde's own correspondence to suggest the essay was submitted, but as Smith's meticulous and painstaking work makes clear, Wilde approached his task with gusto and imaginative flair.
The volume benefits from a thoughtful, clear and comprehensive "Introduction," a beautifully set out page-by-page transcription of the text with a close attention to accuracy (even ink blots are scrupulously noted), and an impressively detailed "Commentary" by way of notes, translations, glosses and engagement with other scholarship on Historical Criticism itself. As the editor makes clear, the text gives insight into Wilde's "practices of research and composition." It demonstrates an impressive breadth and depth of reading and a precocious ability to forge links between a wide range of Greek and Roman historians and philosophers and those of the early modern and contemporary period (such as Vico, Lewes, Symonds, Michelet and Renan). Wilde also moves comfortably from literature to particular historical events to historians' self-consciousness about historiographical issues. On one occasion, allusions to Plato, a Campanella sonnet, and Hamlet are joined to assert the need to maintain philosophical beliefs and resolution in the face of the "'buffets of fortune,'" leading to...