A Wilde discovery of letters

 

THE ARTS:HE MAY HAVE excelled at the unexpected, but even Oscar Wilde himself would have to bow down to this delicious irony. Several of Wilde’s working drafts and personal letters were thought, by scholars, to have been lost for over half a century, until a gift to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York revealed otherwise, writes BELINDA McKEON

Here were the drafts, nine of them in all, and here along with them were four precious letters, comprising some 50 pages of handwritten Wilde, beautifully bound in a red leather volume. And here, on the cover of that volume, stamped in gilt, was the coat of arms of the family which had cared enough to seek out those manuscripts and letters, to bring them together and to keep them so elegantly intact: the winged horses and the proud shield of the Marquess of Queensberry.

Unsurprisingly, the collector in question was not the ninth Marquess, John Sholto Douglas, who had played such a part in Wilde’s downfall and his imprisonment, in 1895, for acts of “gross indecency”. Nor was the volume assembled by the Marquess’s son, Lord Alfred (“Bosie”) Douglas, the lover so fondly addressed by Wilde in one of its items, a letter from the early 1890s. It was Bosie’s nephew, the eleventh Marquess, who made the effort to track that letter down, whether on the market or through family connections, and who did the same for the other pages of writing and correspondence which are now a part of the Morgan’s extensive Wilde archive. Evidently, the later Queensberry felt that his family’s entanglement in literary history was something, if not to celebrate, then at least to acknowledge and to mark.

Declan Kiely, head of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan, says that the Marquess is likely to have acquired some of the manuscripts from Wilde’s son, Vyvyan, and bought others at auction. The collection stayed in Queensberry’s hands until 1953, when it itself went to auction and promptly disappeared behind the padlocks of a private collection; so patchy was the auctioneer’s listing of the time, meanwhile, that the question of exactly what had been lost was unclear to scholars and historians. Sometime in the 1980s, the volume passsed into the hands of another collector, the Brazilian banker Walter Moreira Salles. And then, late last year, the widow of Moreira Salles contacted the curators at the Morgan to let them know she had a package for them. The Morgan, she had been advised by Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, would be the best home for the Queensberry volume; the library already had important holdings of Wilde manuscripts, including the earliest manuscript of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the only surviving letter from Wilde to his wife, Constance.

The Queensberry volume, with three of its items removed from their mountings and displayed by its side, is currently part of a large exhibition at the Morgan’s Engelhard Gallery, showcasing the institution’s most important new acquisitions since 2004. The volume sits in illustrious company, sharing a room with autograph manuscripts by Beethoven, Darwin and Dickens, among others; letters by Van Gogh, Handel, and Henry James; original photographs of Mark Twain and TS Eliot; artwork by Delacroix, Degas, Lichenstein and Warhol, and a 13th-century illustrated Book of Hours, the earliest ever printed in France. The exhibition also includes two beautiful items pertaining to WB Yeats: a deluxe vellum-and-gilt edition of The Wind Among the Reeds(1899), in a binding designed by the Irish artist Althea Gyles, and a rare photograph of Yeats, inscribed to the manager of his US lecture tour, JB Pond. (Kiely, himself a Yeatsian scholar, instigated the acquisition of both these items, with the photograph purchased by the Morgan from Cathach Rare Books in Dublin.)

IT’S AN EXHIBITIONfull of genuine treasures, and a testament to the importance of the Morgan, which began as the private library of the financier and collector Pierpont Morgan and was turned into a public institution by his son, JP Morgan, in 1924. Morgan’s original library is still part of the building, which has expanded a number of times to accommodate its growing collection, most recently in 2006, when a redesign by the Italian architect Renzo Piano rendered it one of the most beautiful spaces in Manhattan. But even among all its treasures, these rediscovered fragments in Wilde’s looping, loping hand truly stand out; they are at once beguilingly personal and strikingly purposeful, blending feeling and philosophy, desire and design. In the note to Bosie – the earliest surviving piece of correspondence between them, and one of the few to survive Bosie’s purge of their letters around 1910 – we can begin to see, says Kiely, “the positioning of older suitor towards younger man”. Writing on the stationery of the Albemarle, his London club, Wilde begins by expressing his gladness at Bosie’s recovery from some recent illness, and his gladness, too, that Bosie liked “the little card-case” given to him by Wilde (traces of another rich irony, given that the criminial trial which would later destroy Wilde was precipitated by an insult scrawled on the back of a calling-card). Wilde tells Bosie that he “should awfully like to go away” with him, “somewhere where it is hot and coloured”, before complaining of being “terribly busy” in London, and of “strange and troubling personalities walking in painted pageants” there. “Love to Encombe”, he writes in pencil across the top of the first page – a salute to Bosie’s Oxford roommate, whose male servant, and Wilde’s conduct towards him, would also prove a crucial and disastrous part of the trial.

The second letter currently on display was written by Wilde in 1891, on notepaper bearing the address of his London home at Tite Street (“That’s the house,” Kiely mentions, “that Yeats once described going to for Christmas lunch, where the dining-room was white, the walls, the furniture, everything”). Wilde, this time, in what Kiely describes as “very typical, playful mood”, is replying to a letter from an unknown figure, Bernulf Clegg, who had written (this initial letter is also in the Queensberry volume) to challenge Wilde’s assertions about art in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. “My Dear Sir,” Wilde greets Clegg. “Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way . . . A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for it own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it.” That is, he adds, “all that is to be said about our relations to flowers.”

When Merlin Holland first told her about this letter, and read it to her over the phone, Christine Nelson’s eyes filled with tears, she says. Nelson, who also works in the literary and historical manuscripts department, curated a major exhibition of Wilde manuscripts, letters and other items at the Morgan in 2001. “Because although Wilde was a wonderful correspondent and I love reading his letters,” she says, “it’s only here and there that he very clearly laid out his literary credo, and this was one of his letters.”

NELSON HAS WRITTENthe audio commentary for an impressive online facsimile of the entire Wilde manuscript, which last week went live on the Morgan’s website; it allows viewers to peruse the entire Queensberry volume in close detail, and grants access to those pages still encased in the red leather binding, and not yet excerpted for separate display, including the only surviving autograph manuscripts of Wilde’s Poems in Prose, stories he told often in company and finally committed to paper in the mid-1890s; according to Yeats, Wilde loved one of these tales, The Doer of Good, so much that he used to repeat it to himself every morning and before every meal.

These drafts – five Poems in Proseand three poems – have never before been studied by scholars, and yield an invaluable insight into Wilde’s drafting and revision methods. But the jewel of the manuscripts in the Queensberry volume has to be the fair copy of Wilde’s story The Selfish Giant, the first page of which is displayed in the current exhibition.

Simply as a manuscript, it is a beautiful, perfectly preserved artefact, but as a glimpse into how Wilde worked, it is an invaluable enigma. The manuscript is not in Wilde’s hand but in that of his wife, Constance; the entire story set out in her graceful, compressed script, yet annotated, here and there, in pencil by Wilde, and signed by him on the last page. That this is the only surviving manuscript of the five stories which were collected in the 1888 collection The Happy Prince and Other Storiesonly adds to the intrigue; could those manuscripts, also, have been in Constance’s hand? Could The Selfish Giant, at least, actually have been Constance’s story – she was a writer of children’s work herself, after all – which Wilde chose, for whatever reason, to sign as his own? Might the couple have collaborated on the story, or might Constance have been acting as a copyist or amanuensis for Wilde, even though there is no evidence that she ever filled this role for him?

There’s also the matter of the story’s ending, which delivers a Christian moral in the manuscript, but a more general message of love in the published version. It’s a mystery, say the curators, and it’s as a mystery that they’re pleased and excited to present it for the scrutiny of Wilde scholars.

“We have no interest in declaring what’s going on there,” says Nelson. “Our interest is in opening this up to the world. And that was the interest of the donor as well. She wanted this material, which had been in private hands for a long time, to go into a place where it would be publicly accessible.

“And because we can’t let everyone come in and handle the items, because they would disintegrate, the high-quality digital images are something we can offer, so that people can look at these pages from anywhere in the world.”


New at the Morgan: Recent Acquisitionsruns at the Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York until Oct 18, 2009. You can view the digitised images of the Wilde manuscripts online at http://www.themorgan. org/collections/ works/wilde