Beautiful and Impossible Things by Oscar Wilde

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Reviewed by Karen Langley

Beautiful and Impossible Things

There’s always the danger that when an author becomes more famous than his works, those works will become so eclipsed that we’ll end up with an inaccurate vision of their creator. Oscar Wilde is a strong case in point – the facts of his life have become so well known that the triumphs and the tragedies he experienced have tended to overshadow his actual writings. We do, of course, still remember his iconic works – The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Importance of Being Earnest – but it is his life that springs to mind when anyone mentions Oscar.

So the release of this lovely volume from Notting Hill Editions is a timely reminder that Oscar Wilde was more than just a wit, spouting aphorisms and ending up the subject of scandal and imprisonment. Beautiful and Impossible Things collects together a number of his essays and non-fiction writings, selected by, amongst others, his grandson Merlin and acknowledged Oscar-fan, Gyles Brandreth. It is Brandreth, in fact, who provides the excellent introduction to the volume, and he’s championed Wilde through his series of Oscar Wilde crime novels.

In New York, and even in Boston, a good model is so great a rarity that most of the artists are reduced to painting Niagara and millionaires.

I confess that I hadn’t really taken on board that Wilde was an essayist as well, imagining him as confined to fiction, plays and poetry. However, he really was a polymath, and this collection shows him tackling all manner of subjects. The shorter pieces are varied, from the recreation of his talk to US audiences, The House Beautiful, through a discussion of Shakespeare’s treatment of scenery, a consideration of London artists’ models, and taking in a wonderful piece on War and Peace where Wilde presents a thoughtful and sympathetic reading of the Russian novelist’s great work.

Central to the book, however, are two long essays: The Decay of Lying: An Observation and The Soul of Man Under Socialism. These show us a very different Wilde; in the former he discusses his artistic credo in depth, using the format of a dialogue between two young men bearing the name of Oscar’s sons, Cyril and Vivian (sic). This is a particularly fascinating work, as Wilde reveals his dislike of reality and his feeling that life should always imitate art and not the other way round. The Soul of Man…. continues in this more serious vein, revealing more of Wilde’s views on art, individualism and happiness; both of these works display Wilde’s talents as a writer to great effect.

The final piece in the book has a darker background; after Wilde’s fall from grace following his conviction for gross indecency, he published little (apart from De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol). However, he did send two letters to the Daily Chronicle, detailing some of his experiences in prison, and the first of these is reproduced here. In the letter, entitled The Case of Warder Martin: Some Cruelties of Prisoner Life, Wilde protests eloquently at the treatment of children held in prison, and the effect of the brutality and the lack of compassion with which they meet. It’s a powerful and moving piece, touching on Wilde’s personal experiences in gaol, and it reflects his great humanity that he can be concerned so strongly with the well-being of others, while suffering privations himself.

But of course, this being Oscar, there is plenty of wit on show; in fact, the trouble with a collection like this is that you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to pulling out quotes! Wilde was a funny, pithy commentator and certainly got to the nub of things with his writings. I found myself smiling constantly through so many of the essays and ruing the fact that there aren’t any modern Oscars writing nowadays. So often you come across a phrase or sentence which you know so well and hadn’t realised was an Oscar-ism – for example, ‘Have nothing in your house that is not useful or beautiful; if such a rule were followed out, you would be astonished at the amount of rubbish you would get rid of.’gf His views on home décor, women’s fashions and food are pithy and pertinent, with a review of a cookbook in particular reflecting what many a European visitor has said about English cooking:

The real difficulty, however, that we all have to face in life, is not so much the science of cookery, as the stupidity of cooks. And in this little handbook to practical Epicureanism, the tyrant of the English kitchen is shown in her proper light. Her entire ignorance of herbs, her passion for extracts and essences, her total inability to make a soup which is anything more than a combination of pepper and gravy, her inveterate habit of sending up bread-poultices with pheasants – all these sins, and many others, are ruthlessly unmasked by the author. Ruthlessly and rightly. For the British cook is a foolish woman, who should be turned, for her iniquities, into a pillar of salt which she never knows how to use.

I must commend also the actual physical book itself; Notting Hill Editions produce such lovely little cloth-bound hardbacks, printed on quality paper, that it’s a real joy to read and a wonderful advert for the printed book. They’ve done readers a great service by bringing this excellent collection of Wilde’s essays to the public; and they’ve also done much to help reinforce Wilde’s reputation as an author, reminding us that he was a great writer and a great humanist.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings.

Oscar Wilde, Beautiful and Impossible Things, (Notting Hill Editions, 2015). 9781910749067, 202pp, hardback.

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