The Inhalin’ of the Green

An Irishman’s Diary about Oscar Wilde, Charles Stewart Parnell, and killer wallpaper

Killer wallpaper was indeed a feature of the Victorian era, due to some of the chemicals used in making it. And although the risks were fairly well known by 1900, a few toxic examples must still have survived in places, perhaps covering the interiors of such seedy establishments as the Hotel d’Alsace, where Wilde ended his days.

Killer wallpaper was indeed a feature of the Victorian era, due to some of the chemicals used in making it. And although the risks were fairly well known by 1900, a few toxic examples must still have survived in places, perhaps covering the interiors of such seedy establishments as the Hotel d’Alsace, where Wilde ended his days.

Wed, Aug 27, 2014, 01:00

When Oscar Wilde famously quipped that he and his Paris hotel wallpaper were fighting “a duel to the death”, and added “one of us has to go”, it was – probably – just a joke. Even so, the sentiment may not have been as great an exaggeration as it appears to modern audiences.

Killer wallpaper was indeed a feature of the Victorian era, due to some of the chemicals used in making it. And although the risks were fairly well known by 1900, a few toxic examples must still have survived in places, perhaps covering the interiors of such seedy establishments as the Hotel d’Alsace, where Wilde ended his days.

Despite the fame of its awfulness, however, I can find no detailed description anywhere of the paper that so offended him. So in the absence of evidence, it must be considered innocent of any physical role in his demise.

On the other hand, if it were ever to emerge that the wallpaper was green – a colour Wilde favoured, at least in his personal decorations – the case might yet have to be reopened.

Green was an especially dangerous dye in the interior design schemes of the 18th and early 19th centuries, because central to its production then was the chemical arsenic. Among the more common varieties were copper arsenite, better known as Scheele’s Green, after the Swedish chemist who first synthesised it, and copper aceto arsenite, aka Emerald Green, which must have been very popular on this island.

By the mid-1800s, a connection between ill health and green-wallpapered rooms was already well established. It was at first attributed to arsenical dust emitted by the paper. Then in 1839 a German chemist, noticing the “mouse-like” odour in damp rooms with green wall-covering, suggested there might be a gas involved.

But even though British medical journals were soon campaigning against the use of arsenic greens, it took almost a century to establish the facts: first that fungi in the wallpaper pastes were converting inorganic arsenic into gas and later identifying that gas as the extremely toxic trimethylarsine. It’s impossible now to measure the effects on health that arsenic greens and other poisons had in their heyday. But in an article for the journal Spectroscopy Europe a few years ago, a researcher named Andrew Meharg concluded that wallpaper emissions must have caused “mass poisonings” in Victorian times, “mainly children dying in their green-decorated bedrooms”.

Not that use of arsenical dyes were confined to wallpaper. As Meharg noted, they were common in clothes too, especially socks. And at least some of the swooning ladies in an era famous for such frailty may have been the victims of fumes emanating from their own emerald green dresses.

Perhaps, given the symbolic importance the colour has in this country, paranoid Irish nationalists may sometimes have wondered if arsenic greens were a British plot.

Against which, one of the most famous buildings of the Fenian era is a bastion of the English establishment, the “Green Dining Room” of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the walls of which were decorated during the 1860s (and found by Meharg to be highly contaminated, albeit with lead rather arsenic).

A British Medical Journal article of 1871 commented that “in the majority of [dwellings], from palace down to the navvy’s hut, it is rare to meet with a house where arsenic is not visible on the walls of at least some of the rooms”.

In any case, Charles Stewart Parnell was not taking any chances with the colour. The great parliamentarian was in general notoriously superstitious. His supporters once had to add an unnecessary 14th clause to a bill amending the 1881 Land Act, because he reacted so badly when seeing that the original draft had 13.

But his hatred of all things green was founded in the fear of arsenic poisoning. So convinced was he that a carpet in Kitty O’Shea’s London home was making him ill, she had to send a section of it away for testing (it was cleared of all charges).

And then there was the trauma of his enforced residence at Kilmainham Gaol in 1881, when patriotic female supporters tortured him by sending in knitted and crocheted gifts in the national colour. Some were items of underwear, which he destroyed. The rest – tea cosies, smoking caps, and the like – he distributed among the other inmates: until finally, as one Parnell biographer put it, there was something green on “almost every man in the prison, except himself”.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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