Book: Stories for Children by Oscar Wilde, illustrated by P.J. Lynch
Genre: Children’s book
Publisher: Macmillan Publishing Company
Publication date: 1990
Summary: This book contains six of Oscar Wilde’s stories for children, drawn from two separate collections he published when his two sons were small (a fact I learned from Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Centenary Edition — nothing so boring as biographical data is present in this volume). This is a large format book with pictures of various sizes. Most two page spreads have at least one picture, but there are a few that are only words. The full page illustrations are lovely, but I was entranced by the long columnar illustrations such as one that conveys a great sense of distance with undulating hills, sheep and a herder, a rocky crag and further mountains.
Thoughts: I read this book in preparation for an event at the Missouri Botanical Garden this past Friday: Something Sensational: A Tribute to Oscar Wilde on the 130th Anniversary of His Visit to the Missouri Botanical Garden. Oscar Wilde visited St. Louis during his American speaking tour of 1882. The speaker for our lecture was John Wyse Jackson, older brother to the current director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson. John Wyse Jackson is a bookseller and scholar of Irish literature — I’m currently reading his annotated version of James Joyce’s Dubliners.
As part of the lecture, John Wyse Jackson gave us a quick biography of Oscar Wilde’s life, mentioning the children’s stories at the time when Oscar Wilde was having children and publishing stories for them, in the years following his American tour. I didn’t recall that Oscar Wilde had written stories for children until I saw this book when I was looking for something quick to read. Several of the commenters on my Wondrous Words Wednesday post last week also expressed surprise when I used this book as my source for new words. John Wyse Jackson mentioned that “The Happy Prince” was a favorite of many and that was also my favorite from this collection.
Aside from some of the words being difficult for the modern reader, I also thought the violence would give some parents and grandparents cause to hesitate before reading these to children. I’ve read Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment and understand that a child’s mind perhaps needs more violent images than modern adults are fully comfortable providing. Still, I would worry about this gruesome passage at the beginning of “The Young King” describing what happened after a son was born of a princess and her unsuitable lover. Her baby was stolen in the night to be delivered to a childless peasant and then…
Grief, or the plague, as the court physician stated, or, as some suggested, a swift Italian poison administered in a cup of spiced wine, slew, within an hour of her wakening the white girl who had given him birth, and as the trusty messenger who bore the child across his saddle-bow, stopped from his weary horse and knocked at the rude door of the goatherd’s hut, the body of the Princess was being lowered into an open grave that had been dug in a deserted churchyard, beyond the city gates, a grave where, it was said, another body was also lying, that of a young man of marvellous and foreign beauty, whose hands were tied behind him with a knotted cord, and whose breast was stabbed with many red wounds. p. 74
There are other gruesome scenes in that story. On the other hand, that is a finely crafted sentence with perfectly chosen words and some underlying humor. Fortunately, “The Happy Prince” and some of the other stories have fewer passages that would illicit squeamishness in modern readers.
Oscar Wilde is hardly known for his nature writing but John Wyse Jackson was able to find quite a few bits and pieces to please his audience at the Missouri Botanical Garden. The ability to write about nature is present in this collection of stories. I particularly liked the beginning of “The Happy Prince” where a swallow falls in love with a reed.
His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind, for he was in love with the most beautiful Reed. He had met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her.
“Shall I love you?” said the Swallow, who liked to come to the point at once, and the Reed made him a low bow. So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples. This was his courtship, and it lasted all through the summer.
John Wyse Jackson quoted a letter written while Wilde was in Reading Prison to Robert Ross, his executor. In this quote, Wilde uses nature as a symbol for a matter more dear to his heart, artistic expression:
I need not remind you that mere expression is to an artist the supreme and only mode of life. It is by utterance that we live. Of the many, many things for which I have to thank the Governor there is none for which I am more grateful than for his permission to write fully and at as great a length as I desire. For nearly two years I had within a growing burden of bitterness, of much of which I have now got rid. On the other side of the prison wall there are some poor black soot-besmirched trees that are just breaking out into buds of an almost shrill green. I know quite well what they are going through. They are finding expression.
Appeal: This book is an easy introduction to Wilde’s prose, wit, and wisdom. Any adult reader will find much that is delightful. Use your own judgement about whether it is equally appropriate for the younger people in your life.
Challenges: This is the first of the four books I intend to read for the 2012 Ireland Reading Challenge.
Have you read this book? What did you think?