[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — Katherine Miller Weber]


Illuminated initial T he Oxford English Texts (OET) edition of Wilde's Complete Works has been slowly appearing since 2000. So far, its volumes include Wilde's Poems, De Profundis, The Picture of Dorian Gray and a volume of his critical writing, and this year brings us a volume of his early plays and two volumes of his journalism. The number of volumes given to his journalism in this ground- breaking edition testifies, perhaps, to the way it has been re-evaluated. Previously dismissed as Wilde's youthful ephemera, it is finally taking its long-deserved place in the canon of his writings.

As editors of these volumes, John Stokes and Mark Turner have worked under the general editorship of Ian Small, who has supervised the OET edition of Wilde from the outset with his customary expertise and attention to detail. As in all the other volumes in the series, the introduction explains at length the editorial methods used in these two. Unlike some previous editors of Wilde's journalism, Stokes and Turner do not rely on Robert Ross's collection of it (published in 1908), which is marred by revision and cutting, but return instead to the periodicals in which the articles were originally published.

Like the poems of volume I of this edition, Wilde's articles and reviews appear in order of composition rather than of imprint. This method of organization allows "the reader to identify periods of greater or lesser activity and to study the interaction between various pieces" (VI, xii). Besides showing how hard Wilde worked from 1877 to 1890, this collection lets us see how some of his ideas migrated from one periodical to another and into the rest of his writing. We can also see the diversity of the tasks he undertook, such as writing paragraphs on heterogeneous topics for The Woman's World, book reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette and theater criticism for The Dramatic Review. Noting that Wilde probably did other kinds of writing at the same time, Stokes and Turner helpfully link his journalism to work found in other volumes of this edition. To recover the contexts of Wilde's journalism, the editors include in their introduction photographs of his articles as they originally appeared in periodicals that are now rare. The editors also explain in detail each of the periodicals, their key players, and how Wilde came to contribute to them. We learn, for instance, that the Pall Mall Gazette aimed chiefly to gratify "Clubland" readers (VI, xxiv-v), a point that strongly sharpens the picture of that periodical and its audience. We also learn how Wilde's journalistic work nurtured his critical theories. Commenting, for instance, on his contributions to The Dramatic Review, the editors find that the theatrical practice of archaeological realism influenced Wilde's thinking about realism in his later critical essays.

The introduction could perhaps have furnished more detailed discussion of anonymity. Although Wilde felt that his style was "recognizable, at least by [his] friends" (VI, xxv), as the editors note, it is interesting to speculate about why his work sometimes appeared without his name. A possible reason is that he used his name to bolster his public image as a serious writer, a man who, as he said in a letter of the mid-1880s, wrote "only on questions of literature and art" (VI, xlviii). His hack work, the day-to-day reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette, were published anonymously, which allowed Wilde to distance himself from them and insist on his status as a writer and not a journalist. More discussion of anonymity, therefore, would have enhanced the editors' account of Wilde's discomfort with being described as a journalist later in his career and his insistence on having "merely to do with literature," as Gilbert says in Wilde's 1890 dialogue on "The True Function and Value of Criticism" [outside the Victorian Web] (129).

As Wilde knew very well, it was probably his image and status that first drew publishers' attention to him as a potential contributor and editor, especially as editor of The Woman's World from 1887 to 1889. After all, Wilde was the first editor to have his name on the cover of a magazine published by Cassell's. (Much to the chagrin of W. E. Henley, who edited The Magazine of Art for Cassell, his own name had never emblazoned the cover.) To make a success of The Woman's World for both his contributors and his readers, Wilde knew that he had to appear to manage it with a safe pair of hands. But according to Stokes and Turner, Wilde could not make his vision for the periodical "a reality day-to-day and in the long term" because his enthusiasm waned and "Cassell's no smoking policy at work rather curbed his enthusiasm for the office" (VI, xxxiii).

This view of Wilde as a rather reluctant editor is based on the recollections of his sub-editor Arthur Fish, who claims that Wilde was sometimes tardy and uninterested in the magazine. Fish's account of Wilde's style as editor does not, however, reflect the diligence Wilde showed, at least at the beginning of his editorship, in soliciting contributions and marketing the magazine. As a cursory glance through Wilde's letters with regard to The Woman's World will show, there is evidence of hard work here copying and adjusting formula letters, inviting contributions, and importuning patronage. Wilde may indeed have later lost interest in such work, but this may have been due to an upsurge in his non-journalistic commitments rather than to a specific aversion to the grind of editing. Stokes and Turner needed a little more nuance in their account of what Wilde actually did for The Woman's World rather than falling back on anecdotes which perhaps did not fully represent Wilde's work, just the lackadasical image he donned for the public.

One of the challenges of editing an edition of Wilde's journalism is the question of provenance. Much of the correspondence and manuscript evidence that would support attributions has disappeared. Records from The Woman's World, for instance, were burned to ashes during World War II, and valuable evidence from the Pall Mall Gazette was destroyed in the 1950s. Previous editors of Wilde's journalism, therefore, have accepted the attributions made by Robert Ross and Wilde's first bibliographer, Stuart Mason. Besides a personal knowledge of Wilde's writing activities that sprang from their friendship, it is also possible that Ross—along with Mason—may have had access to circumstantial information that is now no longer available. But in attributing articles to Wilde, Turner and Stokes do not wholly rely on evidence provided by Ross and Mason. Instead they seek to combine "'internal and external evidence'" (VI, lvii), comparing the styles of unsigned articles with Wilde's known stylistic mannerisms and with the styles of other articles of a similar period and character that can be safely attributed to him. When the editors are unsure about the authorship of an article, they have either "'omitted the piece altogether' "(VI, lviii) or placed it in the 'Dubia' section of Volume VII. Tantalizingly, however, they admit that Wilde "quite possibl[y] . . . wrote more for the press than is captured here" (VI, lvii).

The Dubia section of Volume VII includes several reviews that have been tentatively assigned to Wilde on the basis of information from his letters. Though Wilde is not known to have written for Vanity Fair, Stokes and Turner suspect that he wrote two reviews for the magazine on behalf of his brother Willie while Willie was away on holiday. While little circumstantial evidence supports this attribution, Stokes and Turner find internal evidence. As they observe, the line "In art, as in conversation, it is always better to be charming than to be accurate" (VII, 256) definitely sounds like Wilde, especially when juxtaposed with Algy's remark on his piano playing in the opening lines of The Importance of Being Earnest: "I don't play accurately—any one can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression."

The Dubia section also contains a number of reviews from the Pall Mall Gazette that may be by Wilde. These reviews suggest his authorship either because the books reviewed may reflect his personal interests or because the reviews themselves display his distinctive stylistic quirks, such as alliterative phrasing. In any case, Stokes and Turner invite us to judge whether or not Wilde wrote these reviews. Though the editors cite whatever evidence exists for his authorship, they are honest about their uncertainty. Along with their honesty, the very presence of the Dubia section in a prestigious edition like this one testifies to their editorial flexibility and their sensitivity to the challenges of editing nineteenth-century journalism. Likewise, the difficulty of attributing all of these pieces straightforwardly to Wilde highlights the complexity of the marketplace for journalism in this period and the jobbing nature of the work that Wilde did.

The Appendices to Volume VII add further pieces to the corpus of Wilde's journalism. Appendix I transcribes Wilde's unfinished review of Swiss philosopher Henri Frédéric Amiel's Journal Intime (first published in 1882) and the letters of Benjamin Disraeli. Drawn from a manuscript in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, this unfinished piece clearly exemplifies what the editors say in their Introduction about Wilde's way of composing by means of quotation. The second Appendix reprints from the New York Daily Tribune a version of Wilde's lecture on "Dress": an American version of a lecture that he had widely given in the United Kingdom throughout 1884. These two Appendices, then, shed further light on Wilde's compositional processes and the range of his writing as a jobbing journalist, doing many different kinds of work to make a living by his pen.

This long overdue edition of Wilde's journalism marks a watershed in our critical response to it. Given the complexity of the task of editing such material, the level of scholarship displayed by this edition is impressive. Assembling Wilde's journalism with a painstaking care that is reflected in their meticulous, informative Commentary, the editors have thoughtfully faced the challenges posed by provenance. Besides closely examining the periodicals that published Wilde's work, they have explored unpublished resources such as the Lady Eccles Oscar Wilde Collection from the British Library [outside the Victorian Web]. Given the excellence of these two volumes, we may well look forward to the next volume of this edition, which will contain the short fiction and both versions of "'The Portrait of Mr W. H.'" Edited by Ian Small, it is due out in 2014.

Related Material


John Stokes and Mark Turner (eds.) The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Volumes VI and VII. Oxford, 2013. Volume VI: Journalism I, lxiii + 430 pp.; Volume VII: Journalism II, xiii + 622 pp.

Last modified 14 July 2014