Letters to the Sphinx by Oscar Wilde

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Reviewed by Simon

Letters to the Sphinx Wilde

This is the reason that small reprint publishers exist. Who else would print this attractive slim volume – only 63 pages – and bring back into print a collection that was previously only available for extortionate prices in the rare books market? Any fan of Oscar Wilde should throw garlands at the feet of Michael Walmer.

Let’s set the record straight from the off, though. This 1930 book isn’t (for the most part) either letters or by Oscar Wilde. The exchange between Wilde and the ‘sphinx’ (real name Ada Leverson, remembered mostly for her novel sequence The Little Ottleys) takes up only the last handful of pages in the book, and he seems wholeheartedly believed that brevity is the soul of wit. The shortest reads simply ‘Do write.’ The longest is still rather less than a page. Most seem simply to be arranging or confirming details of meetings – which lends weight to Leverson’s repeated assertion that his conversation was wittier than his writing.

Yet there are still things in these letters for the Wilde fan (and the Wilde scholar) to enjoy. ‘Have you see The Yellow Book? It is horrid, and not yellow at all’, for instance, or ‘It is such a bore about journalists, they are so very clever!’

The bulk of the book was of more interest to me, though; it comprises (after an introduction – sorry, an ‘explanation’ – by Robert Ross) three essays by Leverson about Wilde. One is about his nature in general, one is about the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, and the third discusses the time when – as the subject of a national scandal – he was ostracised by many, and moved into Leverson’s house for a while.

The first section offers perhaps the least distinct view of Wilde, as it is one shared by many and the bulk of his reputation today: that of the decadent and epigrammatic wit:

Quicker in repartee and conversation than in his writing, he constantly made use in his work, afterwards, of things he had improvised.

At a certain party I remember a serious young man, who, with others, was waiting his turn to speak to Oscar, asking him questions. The poet used several of these replies in his book Intentions.

“Will you very kindly tell me, Mr Wilde, in your own words, your viewpoint of George Meredith?”

“George Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.”

“Thank you. His style?”

“Chaos, illumined by flashes of lightning.”

“And what do you think of Verlaine?”

“Verlaine is in the gutter, but he writes poetry on the pavement.”

And so on! We can find this version of Wilde in many books, but what is less commonly discovered is an account of the first night of his most famous play – and (which I had never before considered) the shock that came when The Importance of Being Earnest was so different from his previous plays: ‘There is not a mot, not a paradox in the play, but the unexpectedness of this method pleased all the more’. Then, finally and most sombrely, she writes of Wilde post-disgrace. The 1930s was not yet a time for writing entirely overtly, and Leverson leaves much codified, but it is still a touching and honest depiction of friendship – an angle that few writers ever, and no writers now, could possibly give in relation to Wilde. Leverson may claim that her account is intended to be dispassionate, to recount events rather than appraise a person, but is quite clear that she was a devoted friend and admired him both as person and artist.

It would have been such a shame if Letters to the Sphinx had remained the reserve of the rich (or read only in university libraries). Thanks are heartily due to the publishing house Michael Walmer for bringing another gem back into the light of day.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and shares Oscar Wilde’s alma mater of Magdalen College. Only Simon wasn’t kicked out.

Oscar Wilde, Letters to the Sphinx (South Australia: Michael Walmer, 2015). 978-0994430601, 63pp., hardback.

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