You get much more than you pay for these stories as they are free from multiple sources for your e-reader. Oscar Wilde’s wit lightens these comically sinister tales. In the title story, for instance, we get such lines as:
Early in life she had discovered the important truth that nothing looks so like innocence as an indiscretion; and by a series of reckless escapades, half of them quite harmless, she had acquired all the privileges of a personality.
The proper basis for marriage is a mutual misunderstanding.
No one cares about distant relatives nowadays. They went out of fashion years ago.
The story itself begins with a dinner party attended by Lord Arthur Savile. The hostess invites a fortune teller as entertainment.
“Oh, I see!” said the Duchess, feeling very much relieved; “he tells fortunes, I suppose?”
“And misfortunes, too,” answered Lady Windemere, “any amount of them. Next year, for instance, I am in great danger, both by land and sea, so I am going to live in a balloon, and draw up my dinner in a basket every evening. It is all written down on my little finger, or on the palm of my hand, I forget which.”
“But surely that is tempting Providence, Gladys.”
“My dear Duchess, surely Providence can resist temptation by this time. I think every one should have their hands told once a month, so as to know what not to do. Of course, one does it all the same, but it is so pleasant to be warned.”
Lord Arthur Savile has his palm read and is told of something dreadful in his future. To tell more is to spoil the many delightful twists along the way, but I will say that this amusing story puts in play issues of rationality, fate, and, an Oscar favorite, the power of secrets. This is the longest of the five stories and, perhaps, the best.
“The Canterville Ghost” is a twist on ghost stories that plays off British stereotypes (good and bad) of Americans. “The Sphinx without a Secret” is a miniature piece examining the seductive power of secrets. And the saccharine “The Model Millionaire” manages to engage despite being so terribly predictable to a 21st century audience.
I found most enjoyable, however, the final story: “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” My enjoyment came not only from Wilde’s barbs and the story’s plot, but from the fact that it seems a clear progenitor of Nabokov’s Pale Fire which is, perhaps, my favorite novel.
Wilde’s story revolves around the theory that the Mr. W.H. to whom Shakespeare’s Sonnets were dedicated was actually a boy actor named Willie Hughes who specialized in playing female actors. The theory is first brought into the circle of characters by Cyril Graham, a firm believer. His attempts to persuade his friend Erskine are initially futile due to a lack of historical evidence. The entire theory hangs on enigmatic lines in the Sonnets, such as puns on “will” and “hews”. When viewed in light of Cyril Graham’s theory:
“things that had seemed obscure, or evil, or exaggerated, became clear and rational, and of high artistic import, illustrating Shakespeare’s conception of the true relations between the art of the actor and the art of the dramatist.”
The fun in this story is reminiscent of Pale Fire, if less involved and less of an artistic achievement. “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” relies both on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and an actual theory (that of Thomas Tyrwhitt) regarding the identity of the dedicatee of those Sonnets. Nabokov wrote his own 999 word poem and turned his protagonist’s textual interpretations into a complete novel. But Nabokov clearly owes a debt to this work, I think:
“…the surname was, according to him, hidden in the seventh line of the 20th Sonnet, where Mr. W.H. is described as
A man in hew, all Hews in his controwling
“In the original edition of the Sonnets “Hews” is printed with a capital letter and in italics, and this, he claimed, showed clearly that a play on words was intended, his view receiving a good deal of corroboration from those sonnets in which curious puns are made on the words “use” and “usury.” Of course, I was converted at once and Willie Hughes became to me as real a person as Shakespeare. The only objection I made to the theory was that the name of Willie Hughes does not occur in the list of the actors of Shakespeare’s company as it is printed in the first folio. Cyril, however, pointed out that the absence of Willie Hughes’s name from this list really corroborated the theory.”
The comedy of these characters taking this theory so seriously, and taking absence of evidence as definitive proof, is wonderful, as is the traipsing through the Sonnets themselves. The story is interesting and the underlying themes serious, dealing as they do with secrets and mysteries and homo-eroticism (Shakespeare and Willie Hughes), all themes with which Oscar Wilde seems obsessed.
I lack the time and depth of recollection to undergo any deep comparison of Pale Fire and this work; though I think the hall-of-mirrors effect that would result from using textual analysis to prove that these two artistic works are related would be amusing. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe, the comedy of textual analysis was sufficiently obvious in 1950s literary society that Nabokov did not need his inspiration from this work. However, the fact that a few minutes of searching provides no confirmation of my theory tends only, in my mind, to solidify the truth of my conjecture…..
Wilde is, to me, a treasure. I may even have to read some plays as I am running out of his prose. This and a growing appetite for poetry? The debaucheries of literature may overwhelm me yet. But as for whether you should indulge the pleasures of Wilde, I have nothing to say.
It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.