Literary daybook, Oct. 16

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published October 16, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On Oct. 16, Mortimer Cropper and Hildebrande Ash rob a grave and are caught.
-- "Possession" (1990)
by A.S. Byatt

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 1854, Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin. Though we may not have or want any conventional explanation for Oscar Wilde's personality, it seems cut from his parents' (or perhaps just his mother's) cloth. Lady Wilde was a poet who took license in many things. She was "Francesca Speranza Wilde" or just "Speranza" in letters to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the like -- "Francesca" from her given Frances; "Speranza" (i.e., hope) from the motto on her stationery. She reduced her age by five years whenever convenient, and complied cheerily whenever Oscar reduced his. As host of a regular Saturday afternoon salon party attended by hundreds, she dressed to be noticed -- bizarre jewelry, often a headdress though she was almost 6 feet tall -- and spoke to match. When asked to receive a young, "respectable" woman she replied, "You must never employ that description in this house. It is only tradespeople who are respectable. We are above respectability." When forced to relocate to London after her husband's death, she felt "the agony and loss of all that made life endurable, and my singing robes are trailed in London clay." She was related to Dante and an eagle in a previous life.

Wilde's first extant writing is a 13-year-old's letter home to his mother from Portora Royal School in Enniskillen: "The flannel shirts you sent in the hamper are both Willie's, mine are one quite scarlet and the other lilac ..." Later in life, in rejoinder to a comment on his name, Wilde said, "How ridiculous of you to suppose that anyone, least of all my dear mother, would christen me 'plain Oscar' ... I started as Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. All but two of the five names have already been thrown overboard. Soon I shall discard another and be known simply as 'The Wilde' or 'The Oscar.'" At Portora, Wilde was already a dandy and a Hellenist and a target, though he did more than pose. When he won the Carpenter Prize for Greek Testament, the headmaster used all five of his names when calling him to the stage, and all the boys laughed. When he won one of three scholarships to Trinity College the following year, his name -- the reduced version -- was entered in gilt letters upon the Portora honor board, Wilde's first marquee. In 1895, when star pupil had become "C.3.3" in Reading Gaol, the gold lettering was painted out at Portora, and the headmaster scraped away the "O.W." he found carved into a windowsill. As a final turn in this two-step, Portora had Wilde's name regilded years later.

Richard Ellman, from whose biography most of the above is taken, wrote that, "Like his mother, Wilde undercut his grandiosities with a smile." His humiliations too. In order to avoid detectives hired by the Marquis of Queensbury, or jeering strangers, Wilde's last years in France were spent as "Sebastian Melmoth" -- the name taken from Melmoth the Wanderer, written by one of Speranza's ancestors. When money allowed, Melmoth would have a villa and valet; when it didn't, and charity arrived to pay the debt to his cheap hotel, he would buy a nickel-plated bicycle for his newest lover.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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