Wilde Meant that Letterally: An Analysis of the Correspondence of Oscar Wilde

In an age when technology often dominates social discourse, letters can often be overlooked as a means of exploring literature. However, there is a rich history of letters revealing fascinating details about a text, insight into the author’s intent, and the authors perspective on the world in which they exist. Letters being regularly discovered can invigorate new scholarship. As Liz Stanley explains of her experience editing the Olive Schreiner’s “Letters Online,” viewing Schreiner’s letters as a whole immediately dispels the myth of her insecurity and authorial laziness (60). Utilizing Oscar Wilde’s letters can provide scholars with a new dimension to support their reading of Oscar Wilde’s works. Analysis of Wilde’s letters aids scholars in seeing how the various personas Wilde cultivated, be they private, professional, public, or authorial, conflict, coalesce, and inform one another.

But analyzing letters is not as simple a task as it sounds. Even though there is a published collection of Wilde’s letters, the scholar must be always conscious that the correspondence of any author, and Wilde in particular, will be incomplete. Wilde’s very public trial resulted in many of his letters being destroyed, either out of fear that they would be used for evidence against Wilde or fear that the owner of such correspondence could be implicated in crime as well. Further complicating matters, the estate sale conducted after Wilde’s bankruptcy saw the wide dispersal of Wilde’s surviving letters in order to settle his accounts and help provide for his wife and children. There is also the conscious efforts of Wilde’s family to cultivate his image after his death. As an example, there is a good deal of evidence, both in direct reference in other letters and circumstantially as Wilde was a voracious correspondent, to suggest that Oscar Wilde regularly wrote to his wife. Yet there are only three surviving letters to Constance, the others presumably being prevented from release to the public or destroyed. Because of these complications in collecting a comprehensive collection of Wilde’s letters, the tides ebb revealing new details of the landscape regularly.

When taking up the task of researching Wilde’s letters, or any author for that matter, it is incumbent upon the scholar to read the Introduction to determine what the editors’ goals were in selecting those letters as well as learning what their limitations were. Rather than narrowing their focus to a specific time period, a dimension of Wilde’s personality, or a particular portrayal of Wilde Holland and Hart-Davis’s The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde encourage the reader to adopt, they attempted to create a comprehensive volume of Wilde’s correspondence. In doing so, they provide the scholar with an opportunity to control the manner in which they read the text, but always with the knowledge that regardless of how comprehensive the collection may be, it will always be missing some letters.

For the purpose of this essay, we will limit our focus as best as possible to letters written around the publication of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories. In 1891, Wilde was emerging as one of the prominent authors in Britain. Wilde struggled with the weight of his new expanded sphere of influence. His new celebrity brought with it new problems and concerns. Wilde had an unabashed, public lifestyle, regularly attending plays, parties, social clubs, and galas and doing so with the dramatic flair Wilde has become so well known for. This, coupled with having to support a wide and two children on the fluctuating salary of a writer, put a great deal of strain on his finances. As a result, many of his letters are to publishers trying to sell his works or stage plays. In April of 1887, he wrote to Whitelaw Reid, editor of the New York Tribune, asking for remittance of payment for publication of “The Canterville Ghost,” subtly suggesting Reid republished the story in his magazine without the intention of paying him for the service. His tenure as editor of Woman’s World is heavily represented with letters to various writers asking for their contributions to the journal.[1] After becoming romantically involved with Lord Alfred Douglas, he had to admonish Bosie, as he called him, for not giving Wilde payment for a sonnet he wrote for Bosie’s publication (Wilde 545-6). These letters illustrate a savvy professional persona making the most of his written work and, at times, clashing with Wilde’s other personas, like his private persona in discussing payment with Douglas.

Living publication to publication informed a great deal of Wilde’s attitudes about money. This discussion that takes place in a post-Marx society provides a forum where the reader can explore not only what value is in currency, but how that value comes to be. In “The Model Millionaire,” Wilde provides a brief vignette involving a man rich in charm but poor in money. The poor man’s fortunes are reversed when he displays his generosity to a man he perceives to be a beggar, creating an interplay between perception and wealth. The reader is reminded that money is itself an invention of man; the pound, the dollar, the yen, only have a value that we collectively agree upon. It is unsurprising that Wilde would often harangue his publishers and the literary community to pay their debts to him while at the same time saying to a friend, “Bankruptcy is always in store for those who pay their debts. It is their punishment” (994). This fluidity in value and the etiquette society enforces on the equilibrium of financial transactions is regularly addressed by Wilde. By applying the artist’s lens to the financial straits he was in, it can be argued that he generated an economic system that supersedes the capital of money in relation to the capital of the aesthetic, aestheticism, and, most importantly of all, the aesthete. The dynamite maker in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” refuses payment for his services, seeing the criminal act as an art. Savile, not grasping the power of perception, pays the man anyway. In a moment that slightly disturbs Savile, the chiromantist, Mr. Podgers, asks for his payment in guineas rather than pounds, thus demanding the wages of an artist. The lack of financial imagination parallels Savile’s other struggles in navigating reality and the perception of reality. The manner in which Wilde integrates the use and power money possesses, or more appropriately doesn’t possess, in his works mirrors the methods he employs to navigate his financial obligations in his own life.

This use of perception is not localized to his financial prospects. There are other elements where Wilde’s life and how he perceives it overlaps with the text. “The Sphinx Without a Secret” renders a narrative around the recounting of a tale over dinner. The story is of a mysterious woman, Lady Alroy, with whom Lord Murchison falls madly in love. However, as the story continues, the mysterious nature does not resolve itself and Murchison develops suspicions which ultimately dissolve the relationship. Significantly, the moments when the mystery unfolds just enough to fool the reader into believing the mystery will be resolved (the reader’s curiosity is never fully satisfied) are precipitated by the use of letters. Indeed, the precipitating event that causes this disruption in the reader’s expectations of a resolved narrative is Murchison refusing delivery of Lady Alroy’s final letter to him. This leaves not only Murchison perturbed, but also the reader, who will never fully understand the motivations of Lady Alroy and who must instead populate the place where those details should reside with unending speculation. Analyzing Wilde’s correspondence in conjunction with the story helps to unfold these details.

Wilde himself seemed embroiled in his own love affair with mystery. He had a particular appreciation for the Sphinx, the enigmatic mythical beast of the Classical world; many of his letters and other works make mention of the fabled Sphinx. He regularly used nicknames when chatting privately with his very close friends, many of which were of his own invention.[2] One of his closest confidants, Ada Leverson, he called “the Sphinx of Modern Life” (568) often participating in literary games hidden in the pages of various publications (593), unknown to any readers but themselves. The discovery of these letters and propensity for these secret jokes written into unattributed texts published publicly seems to directly parallel the deliberately created mystery of Lady Alroy.

In truth, Wilde is himself a mystery, often due to the conflicts in Wilde’s cultivated personas and enhanced by misreadings of his texts. Public perception of him, even today, is often rife with misconception. Famously, Wilde, in his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, wrote that “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book” (Wilde, Gray 3). This emphasis on readers and their ability to discern the meaning of a text ended up being a complex issue that was even brought up in Wilde’s trial.[3] Edward Carson, the defense attorney in Wilde’s doomed libel case against Queensberry, read excerpts from stories aloud, leading to Wilde lashing out with his acerbic wit at the court for deliberately applying a critical function to his works that he expressly warned the reader not to do.

[Carson reads a passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray.]

Carson: Do you mean to say that that passage describes the natural feeling of one man towards another?

Wilde: It would be the influence produced by a beautiful personality.

C: A beautiful person?

W: I said a "beautiful personality." You can describe it as you like. Dorian Gray's was a most remarkable personality.

C: May I take it that you, as an artist, have never known the feeling described here?

W: I have never allowed any personality to dominate my art.

C: Then you have never known the feeling you described?

W: No. It is a work of fiction. (Linder)

Not only was Wilde’s work subject to these specious critical analyses, but his life was as well. Even after his death, a great deal of speculation was performed to attempt to contextualize Wilde.[4] Of specific interest was Wilde’s homosexuality. His contemporary critics, like Carson, paint a picture of a hedonist taking advantage of young men. But his letters paint a very different picture.

Traditionally, scholars have made the case that Wilde came to recognize his homosexuality later in life. However, in a letter to William Ward dated 6 August 1876, Wilde explains a peculiar incident where he interrupts two young men, fellow schoolmates of Wilde and Ward, in an empty theater. The tone of the letter implies that the two were involved in something that Wilde believes would be rather embarrassing if it were made public. There is also an indication that Ward and Wilde have had a similar experience because of the way Wilde confides in Ward.

[…] to my surprise [I] saw Todd and young Ward [unrelated] the quire boy in a private box together, Todd very much in the background. He saw me so I went round to speak to him for a few minutes. […] I wonder what young Ward was doing with him. […] You are the only one I would tell about it, as you have a philosophical mind, but don’t tell anyone about it like a good boy - it would do neither us nor Todd any good. He (Todd) looked awfully nervous and uncomfortable. (Wilde, Letters 28-9)

Given Wilde’s penchant for using coded language and our present understanding of sexuality, it seems reasonable to presume Wilde’s sexual and romantic appetites were well known to him as a young man and that he even perhaps sated those appetites from time to time. It is also reasonable that Wilde confided these appetites to William Ward as the letter contains queer-coded language similar in tone, if not a less sophisticated manner, to his later letters that discussed his homosexual activities.

But his identity as a homosexual is perhaps a bit overstated. While there are few surviving letters to and from Constance Wilde, those that do remain portray a very loving marriage. Wilde is quite infatuated with Constance, describing her as having violet eyes (224). This trope dates back to Medieval literature, where violet eyes denoted great beauty and grace. It is also telling that Sybil Merton, the love interest of “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” also has violet eyes. These parallels cannot be ignored out of a desire to simplify how we think of Wilde. Indeed, the Split Attraction model, while making matters more complicated, will best suit an analysis of Wilde and his works.[5] Wilde clearly had both homosexual and homoromantic desires, but to ignore other aspects of his personality, in this case his sexuality and aestheticism, is detrimental to any expressivist and mimetic reading of his texts. Based on the letters, we can not only determine that Wilde had heterosexual and heteroromantic desires, but also homo- and hetero-aesthetic attraction. These dimensions of his character are displayed in his work, but queer coded into the literature in such a way that someone unfamiliar with the correspondence of Wilde might easily overlook them.

Many of these misconceptions stem from a misreading of the texts that are buttressed by the persona Wilde created for his public life. Each new letter discovered helps lift the veil of mystery that Wilde, deliberately or unwittingly, cloaked himself in. As an example of how that veil is reinforced to meet the needs of the situation, look no further than the green carnation. W. Graham Robertson is one of Wilde’s friends well-known for telling a story about Wilde using green carnations as a secret symbol for homosexuality. That story turned out to be just that, a fiction (Beckson 387). But this is not the only time Robertson relates a story about Wilde’s blending of fiction and reality. In an interview, Robertson explains how Wilde was a natural storyteller, detailing how during one of Wilde’s yarns he pretended to know a man who was deeply perturbed by a Palmist. That story would later be turned into “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” (Robertson 210). On another occasion, Wilde tells Robertson’s mother about his Aunt Jane and dramatizes her death. There never was any Aunt Jane, though; Wilde invented her to evoke a response from Robertson’s mother (211).

What is truly unique about these stories that Robertson tells us is that there is absolutely no corroboration of them, and in several cases, they are contradicted by other, more reasonably believed facts that we see in the letters. But that seems in keeping with Wilde himself, a true application of Wilde’s artistic aestheticism. Robertson explained it by saying, “when committed to paper, his tales lost much of their charm” (211). Wilde was, by Robertson’s account, far better at living a fictionalized life than at writing fiction itself, living a life where the various personas he crafted created differing accounts. Whereas these accounts provide a microcosm of Wilde’s existence, the letters give the scholar an opportunity to navigate the conflicting areas of these personas to develop a macro-view of Oscar Wilde.  But, perhaps, given Wilde’s appreciation for altering our world by adjusting our perception of it, Oscar Wilde might approve of how collectively we have created a fictional clout around both him and his works. Wilde’s last, best joke.

- Keith Derrick

Works Cited

Beckson, Karl. “Oscar Wilde and the Green Carnation.” English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 387-97. EBSCOhost.

Linder, Douglas O. The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. UMKC School of Law, www.famous-trials.com/wilde.

Marks, Benjamin. “‘Sick, Dead, or Lying:’ A Critical Textual Analysis of Asexuality in Popular Culture.” Spring 2017. University of Iowa, Honors Thesis.

Robertson, W. Graham. “Of Oscar Wilde.” Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, edited by E. H. Mikhail,  Harper & Row Publishers, vol. 1, 1979, pp. 208-14.

Wilde, Oscar. The Preface. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin, 2008, pp. 3-4.

—. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, Henry Holt and Co., 2000.

Annotated Bibliography

Beckson, Karl. “Oscar Wilde and the Green Carnation.” English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 387-97. EBSCOhost.

In this article, Beckson analyzes the significance of the green carnation, starting with an examination of its origin as a secret symbol of homosexuality. The essay is a good example of the interplay between fiction and reality that Wilde often espoused. This is just one of many points where our idea of Wilde as a living person is intersects with the myth of Wilde and Wilde’s works.

Guy, Josephine M. and Ian Small. Oscar Wilde’s Profession: Writing and the Culture Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century. Oxford U. P., 2000.

Oscar Wilde’s Profession attempts to dispel several myths surrounding Oscar Wilde through an examination of his finances and authorship as a vocation. Their analysis of the income from his plays illustrates that he was far less financially successful than many believed. The contextual frame that is provided by a capitalist commodification of Wilde’s art is required reading to understand how Wilde approached his work as both art and labor.

Holland Merlin. The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde: The First Uncensored Transcript of the Trial of Oscar Wilde vs. John Douglas, Marquess of Queensberry, 1895. Fourth Estate, 2003.

Merlin Holland’s collection and analysis of these transcripts is an essential tool document when discussing the legal woes of Oscar Wilde. Most of the transcripts were lost and accounts had to be reconstructed for years through accounts in newspapers that were writing about the highly publicized trial. Holland makes great efforts to create as accurate a relation of the trial as is possible using the partial remains of the transcripts as well as the contemporary accounts. Perhaps most fascinating about these documents is the way in which much of the trial became an analysis of Wilde’s literature and his perception of artistry.

Holland, Merlin and Rupert Hart-Davis, editors. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Henry Holt and Co., 2000.

No analysis of Oscar Wilde’s letters would be truly complete without using Holland’s and Hart-Davis’s definitive collection. When preparing a collection of letters, it must always be on the editor’s mind that a “complete” edition is not “complete” in the sense that an anthology of poetry might be considered complete. Letters are often destroyed or go missing. Creating a definitive collection of letters must always be prefaced by an explanation of where the letters were found and alerting the reader to the limitations of the collection. Holland and Hart-Davis do just this. The collection contains thousands of letters written by Wilde, but the editors never let us forget that many of the letters were destroyed to protect Wilde and the recipients from prosecution. Each letter is meticulously annotated, with each footnote offering unique insight into the world Wilde existed. The volume is as much a study of fin-de-siècle literati as it is Wilde.

Mikhail, E. H., editor. Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections. Harper & Row Publishers, 1979. 2 vols.

This two volume collection of interviews provides first-hand accounts of Wilde from those that knew him. The value of this text as a primary source cannot be understated. Much of what we know about Wilde’s personal life is based on unsubstantiated gossip surround his trial and public humiliation. An inspection of the private life of Wilde through the lens of his friends and confidants provides researchers with a unique, although still somewhat biased, look into the world Wilde existed in.

Stanley, Liz. “The Reader, the Text, and the Editor: On the Making of Olive Schreiner’s ‘Letters Online’ and ‘The World’s Great Question’.” English in Africa, vol. 42, no. 1, May 2015, pp. 59-76. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26359446.

In this article, Stanley recounts her efforts in cataloguing the letter of Olive Schreiner. By walking her reader through the process, Stanley provides a defense of the use of letters in the study of literature. The careful examination of Schreiner’s correspondence helps dispel several myths about Schreiner, specifically about her being lazy and unproductive. There is also a great deal of exploration of the role the editor takes in collecting these types of works. Her experience is very informative in the process of collecting letters and the benefits that going through that process bestows on the researcher.


[1] See: To Wemyss Reid, April 1887, 18 May 1887, Late May 1887, 5 September 1887; To Oscar Browning, ? Summer 1887; To Helena Sickert, 27 May 1887; To Louise Chandler Moulton, ? June 1887; To Minnie Simpson, ? June 1887; among others.

[2] This predilection for nicknames dates back to his days at Magdalene where everyone had a nickname. William Ward went by Bouncer, Reginald Harding was known as Kitten, and Wilde was nicknamed Hosky. He also regularly called Lord Alfred Douglas by his boyhood nickname coined by his mother, Bosie. The playful nomenclature was rarely without some kind of meaning and acted as a early form of the coded language Wilde would then employ in his correspondence to conceal his sexual and romantic activities with men.

[3] For further examination of Wilde’s various legal troubles, see: The Trial of Oscar Wilde, anonymously published in 1906, Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, a website run by the UMKC School of Law, and The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde: The First Uncensored Transcript of the Trial of Oscar Wilde vs. John Douglas, Marquess of Queensberry, 1895, published in 2003 by Wilde scholar Merlin Holland.

[4] See “’The love that dare not speak its name’: Understanding Wilde’s Tumultuous Publishing History” in this edition for more details about the manner in which Wilde’s public perception was influenced by the manner in which he was published.

[5] The Split Attraction Model was first postulated by a pioneer of gay rights, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. As an immediate predecessor to Wilde, Ulrichs argued that sexual attraction and romantic attraction are not fundamentally the same thing or even directly linked to one another.