Literary Daybook, Feb. 14

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published February 14, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 14, Cecily notes in her diary her engagement to Ernest (three months before she meets him).
-- "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1895)
by Oscar Wilde

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" opened in London. Wilde called his play a "Trivial Comedy for Serious People," and the opening night reviewers concurred: "There is no discordant note of seriousness. It is of nonsense all compact, and better nonsense, I think, our stage has not seen." The opening night audience applauded wildly, and expected their applause to bring the author out for a curtain call. When an actor went backstage to ask Wilde if he would do so, he demurred: "I don't think I shall take a call tonight. You see, I took one only last month at Haymarket, and one feels so much like a German band." In fact, though at the height of his success, Wilde's personal life had him in hiding from the man who could and soon would destroy him, the Marquis of Queensberry. Believing that Wilde was trying to entrap his youngest son, Alfred, in a homosexual affair, the Marquis had indeed tried to book a seat to the opening night performance, bent on making a public display with the "phallic bouquet" of carrots and turnips he wished to present to Wilde. The Marquis was denied entry by the theater staff, but three days later he appeared at Wilde's Albemarle Club with a witness and a calling card inscribed, "To Oscar Wilde posing as a sodomite." When Wilde was given the card some days later, he foolishly allowed Alfred to talk him into prosecuting for libel -- he knew he could deny the truth of their homosexuality, but he did not know that the Marquis would be able to frighten, cajole or bribe a number of male prostitutes into testifying against him. When convicted, Wilde refused to flee to France (the usual course of action), and he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol in May 1895, just three months after his triumph with lines like this from "The Importance of Being Earnest":

"I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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