Monday, 27 October 2014

Free audiobook of the first Oscar Wilde biography by Robert Sherard



Robert Harborough Sherard was Oscar Wilde's friend of 16 years and first biographer.

In 1902, just two years after Wilde died in a French hotel, Sherard published the first of his five books about the Lord of Language: Oscar Wilde: The Story of an Unhappy Friendship. He followed it up in 1906 with The Life of Oscar Wilde, and in 1917 with The Real Oscar Wilde. Shorter works followed: Oscar Wilde Twice Defended in 1934 and Bernard Shaw, Frank Harris and Oscar Wilde in 1937.

In January of 2014, all Sherard's writings entered the public domain in the UK (the earlier works were already in the public domain in the US). This means my fellow Brits can now download the biographies for free (and legally)!

It also means that I could record Sherard's first biography for Librivox, the free public domain audiobook people. So I did!

The audiobook was released today: go download it here.

And, yes, I am already recording the second of Sherard's Wilde bios...

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Sample page #6

The 16th October 2014 is Oscar Wilde's 160th birthday, and what better day to post the sixth (and sadly the penultimate) sample page (page 1page 2page 3page 4, page 5) from my comics project on Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour (click it for full size).

Since the last page, Oscar and Lillie Langtry have strolled from the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly to the brand new Savoy Theatre. There they see that the fabulously popular Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Patience, has transferred from its previous venue, the Opera Comique.

Original fa├žade of the Savoy Theatre, 1881, from Wikipedia
The Savoy opened in October 1881 and Patience was the first show put on by its builder, owner, and manager, Richard D'Oyly Carte. The theatre was the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity, so Langtry is quite right to be enthusiastic!

The walk from the RA to the Savoy only takes 19 minutes (according to Google Maps), but I have taken the liberty of shortening the distance. Also of compressing the summer into the time it takes to turn a page: Wilde and Langtry have just come from the RA's Summer Exhibition, which ends in August. But Patience didn't open at the Savoy until October 10th.

The Savoy was long the home of Gilbert and Sullivan, but in 1931 it was to host the first UK performance of Oscar Wilde's play Salome (the only performances given during his lifetime were in Paris).

Wilde would have been less keen to sit through another performance of Patience. The operetta was a light spoof of aestheticism, the creed of "art for art's sake" that Wilde was widely perceived to lead.

The original interior of the Savoy, photographed in 1920
Wilde had already seen the production, and was probably not eager to repeat the experience. However, he later forced himself to endure a performance in the Standard Theatre in Manhattan on January 5th 1882. He was there on business rather than for pleasure. As a new arrival to America's shores, he had to advertise his presence, and what better way than to upstage the very play that sought to lampoon the Apostle of Aestheticism?

As Oscar took a seat in a rear box, the audience turned en masse to get a good look at the curiosity from across the Atlantic. The New-York Tribune reported the next day that "numberless opera glasses turned toward the poet, but he appeared entirely unconscious of the scrutiny". But of course, appearances can be deceptive.

The main point I wanted to get across in this page is that Oscar is, at this point in the story, practically penniless. Danica has done a great job of conveying that, and I especially love how she's rendered Wilde's face in that final panel: Oscar has avoided what could have been an embarrassing admission of penury, deflected Langtry's request with a quip, and adopted a mask of superiority. Although he would normally indulge Langtry's every whim, he poses as bored, and suggests the riverside walk that he would ordinarily do anything to avoid.

It was Oscar's money troubles that on October 1st 1881 led him to accept D'Oyly Carte's invitation to tour America as a walking-talking advertisement for Patience, with a hastily penned telegram that read "Yes, if offer good."

The offer was good, and Oscar was soon on his way to conquering America.


Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Sample page #5

The fifth sample page (page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4) from my comics project on Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour (click it for full size).

Oscar and Lillie Langtry exit the Royal Academy (click here for Google streetview) and stroll down Piccadilly arm in arm. The fact that the Royal Academy is on Piccadilly is a pleasant coincidence, as it allowed Danica to bring to life this (possibly metaphorical) refrain from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Patience:

Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle
in the high aesthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily
in your medieval hand.

Patience was a satire of the youth culture du jour, Aestheticism. Wilde, who had positioned himself as a chief proponent of the creed of "art for art's sake", was lampooned in the operetta in the character of Bunthorne, the Fleshly poet.

George Grossmith as Bunthorne

Wilde was rumoured to present a single lily to Langtry every day, as a token of his love. But the act was seen very much as a performance, with Oscar mincing through London, the lone bloom grasped in his lavender-gloved hand. In America he was asked if there was any substance to this story. Wilde replied that his genius was not in having done it, but in making people believe that he had. Print the legend, indeed.

The line “Talent borrows, genius steals” is attributed to Wilde, but may have originated with another. Which I suppose, for a manifesto of plagiarism, is kind of the point. The aphorism would be reinterpreted in the next century by Picasso and Morrissey. The point I wanted to make is that even Wilde, the greatest wit of all time, was not some superhuman comeback-artist. Like the rest of us mere mortals, he comes up with the best put down only once it is too late. This is a Wilde whose powers are not yet at full strength.

In this page we also establish that Langtry is, at this point in their careers and arguably for the remainder of Wilde's life, the more famous of the two. Wilde's lust for recognition will be what sets him off on his all-advised tour of America. We also discover that Wilde is known mostly for his undergraduate antics. He is not yet the author of The Importance of Being Earnest, or The Picture of Dorian Gray, or even A House of Pomegranates. Instead, all Oscar has to his name is a book of self-published poems, an unproduced (and awful) play, and a few epigrams from his Oxford days.

The line that the two guttersnipes chortle over was attributed to Wilde when he was still a student at Magdalen. An avid collector of blue and white china, he was once overheard sighing that he could never live up to the contents of his display cabinet. This was the moment that Oscar Wilde as a public persona was born. Oscar was very happy to be the most frivolous man on campus, a university celebrity. But, four years later, it is easy to imagine that he might wish to escape from under the shadow of this single instance of undergraduate humour. Once an epigram has filtered down to the great unwashed, it is probably high time to disown it.


Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Sample page #4

The fourth sample page (page 1, page 2, page 3) from my comics project on Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour (click it for full size). In this page, Oscar and Lillie Langtry bump into John Ruskin. Perhaps the most eminent of the Victorian art critics, Ruskin was one of Wilde's teachers at Oxford and, along with Walter Pater, is credited with moulding the mind of the young aesthete. Or, at the very least, with providing much of the material for Oscar's American lectures.

I wanted to show that at this early stage in his career, Oscar is not as forthright with his opinions as he will later become. Awed by the great man, he can't help but agree that Alma-Tadema's Sappho and Alcaeus is "awful". Wilde's real opinions on the work of Alma-Tadema, who specialised in pictures of domestic life in ancient Greece and Rome, are (like many of Wilde's opinions) contradictory. In 1877, four years before he attended the exhibition depicted in this page, he reviewed eight of Alma-Tadema's pictures positively. But in his confidential comments to the publisher of the review, he confided the artist's draughtsmanship was disgraceful.

Evidently by 1881 he had changed his tune. Now a graduate of Oxford with a double first in Classics, he was sought out by the artist for advice on the ancient Greek language. Alma-Tadema wanted some names and slogans to be carved on the marble seats in his painting of Sappho and Alcaeus, but wasn't confident enough to pen his own copy. Wilde obliged, writing "It is always a pleasure for me to work on any Greek subject, and a double pleasure to do so for anyone whose work mirrors so exquisitely and rightly, as yours does, that beautiful old Greek world." Quite.

Ruskin's rather more forthright opinion of Alma-Tadema's work is taken from his Oxford lectures. The earlier work that he describes here as "exactly like a microscopic view of a small detachment of black beetles in search of a dead rat" is A Pyrrhic Dance -- click here to see it and let me know if you agree with Ruskin!


Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Friday, 23 May 2014

Sample page #3

The third sample page from my Oscar Wilde Comics project and the first close up of our hero. (Click for full size). The painting Wilde and Miss Trip are discussing is Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Sappho and Alcaeus, which was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1881. In fact, you can see John Millais and another man inspecting in on the far right of Frith's A Private View, a recreation of the event.

The lines Wilde is quoting are taken from a poem by one of his idols, Charles Algernon Swinburne. The poem is Anactoria, named for one of Sappho's Lesbian lovers (the capitalisation of Lesbian is intentional; Sappho was not only lesbian in the sense we would understand today, but because she hailed from the Greek island of Lesbos).

The rather unsavoury chap who wishes to thrash Wilde is the journalist G. A. Sala. You can see him scowling behind Wilde in Frith's picture. Miss Trip is the woman in the green aesthetic dress in the foreground of the picture. In reality, Jenny Trip didn't attend the Royal Academy viewing. She was a professional model whom Frith paid to pose in his apartments, so he could be sure of representing the aesthetic fashion correctly. The account Frith presents of Trip in his autobiography is hardly flattering. He describes her as "a trial", says she was always late and that "her conversational powers were nil". Perhaps it's a good job that she's paired here with one of the greatest conversationalists in history!


Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Sample page #2

The second sample page for my Oscar Wilde comics project. (Click for full size)

This scene is a recreation of William Frith's A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, which stands as a pictorial record of Oscar Wilde's arrival on the London cultural scene. It also showcases the competing women's fashions of the day: the standard fashion, with tight corsets and large bustles, and the new aesthetic style championed by Wilde, characterised by loose gowns that hang from the shoulders. I've tagged all the famous guests. All except Wilde. You can probably find him without my help ;)


Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Sample page #1

When you're querying a comics project, you need great sample art. That's why I reached out to artist extraordinaire, Danica Brine, who produced some tremendous pages for me. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting the first seven pages of Oscar Wilde Conquers America. And here's page #1! (Click for full size)

The painting we are seeing here is Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Sappho and Alcaeus. As Wilde (off panel) explains, Sappho is the woman on the left at the lectern and Alcaeus is her (maybe) lover on the right with the lyre. Sappho is famous as the woman who gave us the word Lesbian (she hailed from the island of Lesbos and was likely attracted to other women). Here she eyes up a man, which you might think unusual for a gay woman. But Wilde, who many today regard as the most famous gay Victorian, was also attracted to the opposite sex. As we will see in the following pages...

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Wilde in America

You wait 80 years for a new book about Oscar Wilde's 1882 American lecture tour, and two are published within a couple of years!

In 1936, Lewis and Smith published a door stopper of a book, Oscar Wilde Discovers America: 1882. It's a fun read, although it's now considered wildly inaccurate. But, then again, Wilde was no fan of the truth himself. What he might have considered less forgiveable was Lewis and Smith's tendency to veer from one topic to another, like a drunk uncle at a wedding. They include a lot of details that most Wilde aficionados could happily live without (e.g. the popularity of lawn tennis among late 19th century Americans).

Roy Morris Jr.'s 2013 book on Wilde's American Tour, Declaring his Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America
This is why Roy Morris Jr.'s Declaring his Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America, a slimmed down version of the story, was so welcome. Given how much Wilde crammed into that one year, it's surprising that it took his biographers so long to mine this rich seam. After all, a quick perusal of the Amazon catalogue shows that virtually every other aspect of his life has been raked over, told, and retold by generations of writers.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that another book on Wilde's America tour is due to be published this autumn!

David M. Friedman's Wilde in America, forthcoming from Norton.
While the Morris book, published by Harvard University Press, appeared to be targeted at hardcore Wilde fans, Friedman's seems intended for a wider audience. According to the April edition of the Oscar Wilde Society's newsletter, Friedman structures his book "around nine lasting principles of fame creation, devised by Wilde". Although Wilde never, to my knowledge, set down any rules for achieving notoriety, after living a year in the intense glare of the media -- and being interrogated by the ubiquitous American interviewer on more than 100 occasions -- he had certainly learned how difficult and rewarding fame could be.

As one who has been immersed in Wilde's American adventure for over two years now, I am probably looking forward to Friedman's book more than most. But you should pre order a copy too. Go on, go Wilde!


Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

"Severely commonplace": Audience and press responses to Wilde's early lectures

In early February 1882, Oscar Wilde's lecture tour of North America was just getting under way. His rather dry address on The English Renaissance had drawn a big crowd to his debut performance in New York. However, elsewhere in the north east, Oscar was not exactly setting opera houses and music halls ablaze with enthusiasm.

Wilde in early 1882, during his lecture tour of the American north east.


A wordy rag bag assortment of Goethe, Keats, Japanese wickerwork and philosophical musings harvested from books by Pater, Ruskin and Morris, Wilde's first lecture failed to impress audiences in Baltimore, Boston or Brooklyn. The New York Times (4th Feb 1882) reported that Wilde's reception in Brooklyn was "not a warm one". The audience soon grew restless, finding the lecture "incomprehensible". Some young men in the circle took to clapping at inappropriate moments, or sniggering whenever Wilde touched the tails of his coat, which appeared to be an unconscious tic. In Washington, yawning ladies and bored gentlemen left before Wilde was done, drowning out the speaker's voice.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle's man found special fault with Wilde's delivery: "He read in a dull monotone, failing of emphasis, neglectful of his periods and drawling altogether as if he had ... caught a bad cold" (4th Feb 1882). The New York Times thought that Wilde's "pronunciation was at times indistinct ... The only manner of emphasis adopted by the lecturer was that of oscillating his head. There was scarcely a change in the expression of his face during the hour he was on the stage." Although Wilde would in later years be hailed as one of the greatest talkers who ever lived, at this early stage his oratory was unpractised. He only had a fortnight's lecturing under his belt, and before arriving in America his public speaking was limited to a single after dinner speech at a supper club.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music at 176 Montague Street, where Wilde gave his English Renaissance lecture on 3rd Feb 1882.  


Nevertheless, as the man who would later write "there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about", Wilde must have been pleased by these endless column inches. He claimed to savour bad press, comparing "the reading of a good vigorous attack" to eating "a dish of caviar". What must have stung, though, was many reporters' indifference. "As a lecturer his performance is severely commonplace," said the Waco Daily Examiner (4th Feb 1882) of the Washington lecture. Accurately identifying the sources of Wilde's second hand ideas in Ruskin and Swinburn (sic), the reporter pronounced Oscar's "diluted" pronouncements "perfectly harmless". Ouch!

Wilde complained publicly over his treatment in the press, but was optimistic. "'If I survive, I shall go West,'" he told the New York Times. "'I want to be in California when the flowers are in bloom.'" Wilde would eventually reach California. Before he would descend the Sierra Nevadas into that "very Italy without its art", however, there stretched before him two long, hard months of lecturing to mostly unappreciative audiences. Whether he would survive remained to be seen.




Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com