In fall 2008, The Morgan Library & Museum received the gift of a highly important bound collection of Oscar Wilde’s letters and manuscripts, the whereabouts of which has been unknown to scholars for over half a century. This digital facsimile provides images and transcriptions of all the items housed in the volume.
The red-leather-bound volume, totaling just over fifty handwritten pages, comprises nine manuscripts of poems and prose pieces and four important letters that illuminate the life and work of the celebrated writer, dramatist, aesthete, wit, and self-proclaimed “lord of language.” Of special note are the earliest surviving letter from Wilde to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas (called “Bosie,”); a manuscript of the story “The Selfish Giant” in the hand of Wilde’s wife, Constance; the only surviving autograph manuscripts of Wilde’s Poems in Prose; and a letter in which Wilde reiterated his famous claim that art is “useless.”
The volume is the gift of Lucia Moreira Salles, a Brazilian-born philanthropist who acquired the manuscripts with her late husband, Walter Moreira Salles, a Brazilian banker, diplomat, and book collector. It joins the Morgan’s fine collection of Wilde material, which includes the earliest manuscript of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the only surviving letter from Wilde to his wife, Constance.
A highlight of the volume is the earliest surviving letter documenting the start of one of the most famous and tragic intimate relationships of all time—between Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the Magdalen College undergraduate with whom Wilde became passionately involved in the early 1890s. Writing on stationery of the Albemarle Club, probably in late 1892, Wilde expresses candid yearning to be with Douglas (“I should awfully like to go away with you”) and hopes that Douglas likes the visiting-card case he has given him, perhaps for Douglas’s twenty-second birthday. Douglas later destroyed many of the letters Wilde wrote to him. (Virtually all those he retained are now in the Clark Library at UCLA.)
The volume has both a distinguished and intriguing provenance. It was Douglas’s father, the ninth marquess of Queensberry, whose rage at his son’s involvement with Wilde led to one of the most notorious criminal trials of all time, resulting in Wilde’s conviction on charges that he had committed acts of “gross indecency.” It is therefore striking to find, on the cover of the volume, stamped in gilt, the arms of the marquess of Queensberry—the shield flanked by two winged horses over the motto Forward. The manuscripts and letters housed in the volume were collected and preserved by the eleventh marquess of Queensberry, the grandson of the man who played a major role in instigating Wilde’s downfall.
In another letter in the volume, written to a young man named George Kersley, Wilde captured the intergenerational appeal of his 1888 collection of stories The Happy Prince and Other Tales, calling them “studies in prose, put for Romance’s sake into a fanciful form: meant partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy.”
Though none of Wilde’s own manuscripts for the tales in The Happy Prince survive, the volume contains an intriguing manuscript of one of the stories—”The Selfish Giant”—in the handwriting of Constance Wilde, who also had been writing some children’s stories at this time. Oscar Wilde wrote the title and his own name on a cover sheet and signed the manuscript at the end, and he made small changes in pencil within the text penned by his wife. Additional, more substantive changes were made to the text before publication, indicating that the manuscript is an early draft—but by whom? Does the existence of an early version of the text in Constance Wilde’s hand indicate that she had a role in the composition of the story? This manuscript invites speculation about the authorship of one of Wilde’s best-known prose works.
Wilde’s conviction that works of art ought to exist for their own sake is expressed dramatically in an 1891 letter to a young man, Bernulf Clegg. Wilde told him, “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 its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it.” This important letter, offering a concise expression of Wilde’s artistic credo, is an extraordinary companion to one of the Morgan’s greatest treasures, the manuscript of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s fictional exploration of this very idea.
The volume also contains several literary manuscripts that offer insight into Wilde’s composition process. Included are working drafts of five of the six short compositions that Wilde called his Poems in Prose, heavily revised and several bearing ink smudges and compositors’ marks that indicate that they were used by a printer. Wilde wrote these pieces in the mid-1890s in an effort to commit to paper some of the stories he had related to a range of listeners who had been dazzled by his verbal acuity.
The titles in manuscript are “The Doer of Good,” “The Disciple,” “The Master,” “The House of Judgment,” and “The Artist.” Wilde wrote “The Doer of Good” at the height of his fame, with three successful plays running at once, but on the verge of his downfall. W.B. Yeats was impressed by its “terrible beauty” and recorded, in The Tragic Generation, that Wilde called it “the best story in the world” and would repeat it “to himself on getting out of bed and before every meal.”
In a working draft of “La Dame Jaune,” one of several poems in which Wilde explored the lyric possibilities of yellow—a color associated with decadence—Wilde described a woman removing her jewelry, letting down her hair, and loosening her clothes. He worked through various color possibilities—pale blue, rose pink, amber, and boxwood—before settling on “lemon yellow” and “ivory.” The volume also includes manuscripts of “Roses and Rue,” a poem Wilde composed for the actress Lillie Langtry, and “Under the Balcony,” a poem written for a hospital fund-raiser and published on the day of his marriage to Constance Lloyd. It also contains a letter from Wilde to his publisher John Lane about the publication and American copyright of his play A Woman of No Importance.