cover image The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde

The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde. Henry Holt & Company, $45 (1270pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-5915-1

On November 30, 1900, Wilde, 46, died in self-exile in Paris. This centenary volume of his correspondence, edited by Wilde's grandson (Holland) and the late editor of earlier volumes of Wilde's letters, includes many Hart-Davis omitted from previous volumes, explaining that they were ""often to unidentified people, of no literary, biographical, or other interest."" This book furnishes all of these and more. Of the 200 that appear for the first time, the most moving may be a brief letter to Scottish writer-adventurer R.B. Cunninghame Graham, to whom Wilde writes of ""the many prisons of lifeDprisons of stone, prisons of passion, prisons of intellect, prisons of morality, and the rest."" (By 1898 he had experienced them all.) Printed in full are also some letters previously available only as extracts. The most significant and amusing may be Wilde's original scenario for The Importance of Being Earnest, sent, when desperate for cash, to actor-manager George Alexander. Almost everything in it but the governess, Miss Prism, and the rivalry between estranged brothers, fails to survive in the play as performed. Wilde's wit, charm and genius for paradox often surface, but the letters of his postprison years, from 1897 to 1900, expose a pathetic and paranoid derelict unwilling or unable to control his bent for self-destruction. The correspondence, including letters to Wilde from his adoring, then estranged, wife and several literary colleagues, compels in the way one is drawn to the sinking of the Titanic or the crash of the Hindenburg. This title may see a sales bump if shelved or displayed with Barbara Belford's forthcoming biography (Forecasts, Oct. 2) and with the classic Richard Ellmann bio. Illus. not seen by PW. (Nov. 30)