Editorial Introduction to Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (1891) by Oscar Wilde

[Because brief biographies of Oscar Wilde are so readily available—including in the COVE edition of Wilde’s poem “The Harlot’s House—this introduction will forgo discussion of Wilde’s life beyond those elements specifically pertinent to this COVE edition.]

For the casual reader of literature, Oscar Wilde may be as well known for his life as for his literary works. He is perhaps known for his novella The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891) or for the four society comedies that culminated with The Importance of Being Ernest (1895). But he is equally well known for his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and for his 1895 conviction on charges of gross indency. To be sure, scholars of Wilde know that Wilde was a serious artist, even when his tone was comic. But readers less familiar with his work are often surprised to find serious engagement with ethics and aesthetics in Wilde’s witty works. (That Wilde is also discussed in the context late-century literary decadence also misleads casual readers into expecting Wilde to be decadent in the colloquial sense: self-indulgent and morally deficient.)

This annotated critical edition of Oscar Wilde’s Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (1891) aims to correct these misperceptions by not only annotating an under-read volume of stories but also providing the social and cultural contexts that demonstrate Wilde’s engagement with the issues of his day.

This edition has its origins in a graduate course project. Early class discussions gave equal weight to the content of the texts on the syllabus and to their editorial apparatuses. We used a mix of Broadview Editions and annotated Oxford World Classics so that we would have various examples of annotations, introductions, and contextualizations; our discussions of these texts addressed both Victorian culture and the ways we receive it in the twenty-first century academy.

Using our collective responses to different examples of editorial curation (which ranged beyond printed editions to include e-resources like the Olive Schreiner Letters Online and Liz Stanley’s essay about the challenges of editing this collection), the class members set forward the following ideas about their audience and goals for the edition:

We intend this edition primarily as a teaching text for undergraduates. We would hope that it would be adopted by university professors, for either a Victorian literature class or a survey of British literature. While it might also be appropriate for a genre course on the short story, or a course on Irish literature, our team did not bring out those elements of the text in its editorial work. The editorial team also thought that this annotated edition would be useful to graduate students like themselves, who are reading the novella either on their own to increase their knowledge or in the context of a course.

We chose this short story collection for several reasons. Most importantly, it presents, in a classroom-friendly short-text format, a side of Oscar Wilde with which students are less familiar. The stories are not only fun to read, but they also engage significant elements of Victorian culture—something the editors highlight in their contextual appendices. Published in 1891, the year when Oscar Wilde’s career as a writer began to flourish, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories further provides important points of contact with other texts that Wilde collected and published that year, most especially Intentions. These short stories illustrate the literary-critical and aesthetic theories that the essays in Intentions lay out. The appendices also provide excerpts from Wilde’s critical works so that teachers and students can explore the ways that Wilde integrated theory and practice.

We specifically chose the 1891 edition of these stories rather than the stories as individually published (each in 1887: “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” and “The Canterville Ghost” in The Court and Society Review and “The Sphinx without a Secret” and “The Model Millionaire” in The World) or as collected in the 1908 edition of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories, which adds “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” to the collection. Our rationale was that this volume presented a specific year in Wilde’s writing life (1887) as well as his own revisions of that year’s work in 1891. In 1891, Wilde chose to include only four stories, and the class decided to respect Wilde’s decision. (The 1908 edition that includes “Mr. W.H.” is, of course, posthumous.) Wilde made some changes to the magazine versions—the primary difference is the subtitles he added—but, because they were so minor, and because our editorial mandate was more cultural than textual, the editorial team did not focus on changes between magazine and collected versions.

The annotators used the standard COVE tags, with one exception. We added a “geographical” tag for information about a location that does not fit the “historical” category. We used the “linguistic” tag for both translating foreign language text and defining unfamiliar phrases. Students avoided annotations for words that could be looked up in a standard dictionary but included them for words/phrases specific to the period or resistant to standard definitions.

During our discussions, students had a strong bias for “objective” annotation, objecting to what they saw as overly intrusive interpretations in texts that we studied. We learned, however, that total objectivity can be an ideal but not a practice; when annotating the texts, students discovered that nearly every annotation implicitly suggests an interpretation, even when it does not advocate for one. Nonetheless, students kept explicitly interpretive annotations to a minimum, preferring to let readers draw their own conclusions.

The appendices, which provide cultural context from contemporary texts, are also only implicitly interpretive. To be sure, their very presence implies an interpretive schema, but their editorial apparatus is designed to allow readers to draw connections between Wilde’s stories and these supplementary texts.

The essays, however, provide examples of how a reader could use the contextual material by doing the interpretive work of drawing connections between the appendices and the stories.