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'Devil's servant' Wilde in news again at literary auction

Michelle Hoffman | October 28, 2004

Oscar Wilde
LONDON — From his lover's rancorous manuscript to a deathbed picture, Oscar Wilde's glory and shame as a homosexual Victorian dandy and one of his era's greatest celebrities are illuminated in a collection up for sale Friday in London.

One of the lots is a book manuscript by Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, lashing out at the Irish-born wit and writer as the devil's servant, a charge made years after Wilde's death in 1900 but never published.

"He was one of the most powerful forces for evil that has happened in Europe for the last 300 years," Douglas, nicknamed "Bosie", wrote in his The Wilde Myth of 1916.

"I do not know of any man who more truly and literally sold himself to the Devil than he did."

The manuscript is but one highlight of 104 lots being sold off by a British private collector, who is remaining anonymous, expected in total to fetch more than 600,000 pounds (850,000 euros, 1.1 million dollars) in total.

The sale marks this year's 150th anniversary of Wilde's birth.

Wilde's affair with the younger Bosie, son of the Marquess of Queensberry, began in 1891 and led within just a few years to his own public disgrace as a "sodomite" as well as divorce, jail and ruin.

Wilde disastrously brought a slander lawsuit in 1895 against the marquess, who had publicly accused him of being homosexual, then a crime.

The marquess was acquitted and, in turn, counter-sued, leading to Wilde's arrest on charges of indecency. He was condemned and given a two-year sentence of hard labor.

Reared in the refinery of high society and used to a dandy's life, Wilde never recovered from the travails of Reading Gaol, and after his release died an early death, crippled with debt, in a Paris hotel.

The collection on sale at Sotheby's auction house includes first editions, inscribed presentation copies and manuscripts of some of his most celebrated works, including The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome.

The author of The Importance of Being Earnest was an unequalled master of conversation, renowned as much for his pithy epigrams as his dramatic output.

Lot 69, consisting of a page of his famous epigrams crossed out and amended in his own hand, shows that his natural wit required hard work and editing.

"Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the superior attractiveness of others," Wilde wrote on the page.

"A really great romance is the privilege of the people who have absolutely nothing to do. That is one use of the idle class in the country," reads another, with "really" and "absolutely" tacked on as finishing touches.

Sotheby's expects the page to fetch 8,000 to 12,000 pounds.

Other memorabilia includes a first edition of A Woman of No Importance, inscribed to his mother, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, and valued at up to 40,000 pounds.

A faded picture of Wilde on his deathbed is another draw, valued at up to 10,000 pounds.

Two of the most compelling items on show capture him at his weakest, mired in the poignant end-of-life drama that has fueled his cult of fame.

A slim catalogue lists in painful detail all of Wilde's belongings at his home in London's Chelsea district, which were forcibly auctioned off there in 1895 as he festered in jail.

Only one of four remaining catalogues and expected to fetch 30,000-40,000 pounds, it includes mundane household details and and even, item 237, "a very large quantity of toys" kept from Wilde's childhood.

Bosie's unpublished rant is the other item, a manuscript so extreme it was not published due to fears it libelled then-prime minister Herbert Asquith.

The young aristocrat never got over Wilde. Bosie published Oscar Wilde and Myself in 1914 and another, more forgiving book on the subject in 1944.

But The Wilde Myth simply seethes with badly-written fury.

"The Wilde myth has devastated my life from every point of view," Bosie wrote. "It devastated my life when I was a victim to its illusions, and it has devastated my life ever since I escaped from those illusions."

The text was written several years after the release of Wilde's posthumous De Profundis, exposing Bosie as the writer's unintelligent and vain lover and leading to his divorce and public humiliation.

"Personally I think this whole self-pitying aspect of Douglas is unbearable, but others make the point that Wilde wouldn't (have achieved what he had) without him," said Peter Selley, an English literature specialist at Sotheby's.

The manuscript, at up to 50,000 pounds the second-most valuable item in the collection, "won't revolutionize Wilde studies, but it's really an example of the extreme nature of Douglas' feelings toward Wilde," Selley said.

The Wilde Myth is one of only two copies in existence, the other being accessible only to researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The most expensive item in the whole collection – estimated at 60,000 to 80,000 pounds – is a working manuscript of a chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray which includes controversial passages that were later removed, including Dorian's visit to an opium den. – Sapa-AFP

Related links stories
Fans pay tribute at Wilde's grave [30/11/2000]




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