Welcome to British Isles Friday! British Isles Friday is a weekly event for sharing all things British and Irish — reviews, photos, opinions, trip reports, guides, links, resources, personal stories, interviews, and research posts. Join us each Friday to link your British and Irish themed content and to see what others have to share. The link list is at the bottom of this post. Pour a cup of tea or lift a pint and join our link party!
Last week, I reviewed Season 3 of the new version of All Creatures Great and Small and was particularly fascinated by the start of World War II. Tina enjoyed the book 84, Charing Cross Road and more shows featuring Sanjeev Bhaskar. Heather liked A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall and Paris Daillencourt Is About to Crumble by the same author.
Book: Oscar Wilde in St. Louis by John Wyse Jackson
Publisher: Missouri Botanical Garden and the University of Missouri–St. Louis
Publication date: 2012
Source: Purchased at the Missouri Botanical Garden Gate Shop
On February 25, 1882, Oscar Wilde was 27 and had only published one book-length volume of work — a collection of poems called Intentions. The volume was “widely denounced for being immoral, decadent, and, for good measure, unoriginal.” It sold well. Apparently, then as now, books will sell just because people want to see what all the fuss is about.
At that time, Oscar Wilde was more well-known as being a member of the aesthetic movement in England, a philosophy that art is for art’s sake and not meant to serve the morality of the Victorian Age.
Americans at that time were mostly oblivious to art movements in Europe. One person wanted that corrected for commercial reasons: Richard D’Oyly Carte, the producer and promoter of the Gilbert and Sullivan light operas.
H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance had proven successful in the United States. The latest Gilbert and Sullivan show, Patience, was a satire of the Aesthetic Movement. The jokes in Patience fell flat with American audiences due to their lack of exposure to the object being satirized, the aesthete.
Richard D’Oyly Carte’s solution was to hire Oscar Wilde to travel around the United States delivering public lectures about the Aesthetic Movement. This lecture tour was covered by newspapers, locally, nationally, and internationally. Wilde’s two days in St. Louis are well-documented.
Thoughts: I attended John Wyse Jackson’s presentation about Oscar Wilde’s American lecture tour at the Missouri Botanical Garden in February 2012, writing about it when I reviewed Stories for Children by Oscar Wilde. At the time, I was also reading Dubliners by James Joyce, using the version that was annotated by John Wyse Jackson.
I was one of many people who said to John Wyse Jackson after the lecture, “You should write a book about that.” Some of the other people who had that reaction were much better positioned to facilitate that venture, including his brother, Peter Wyse Jackson, the president of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
I bought the book from MBG’s gift shop when it was published, but it’s been sitting on my shelf, unread. Since I mostly use the library for my reading, these days, my collection of unread books is pretty small, and I intend for it to get smaller in 2023. The opportunity to publish this post on the eve of the anniversary of the 1882 visit gave me the impetus to finally read Oscar Wilde in St. Louis.
Oscar Wilde’s lecture at the Mercantile Library auditorium was, unfortunately, disrupted by unruly audience members, speared on by the parodies that had appeared in local newspapers. Wilde describe the audience as villainous and the worst he’d yet encountered in America.
Fortunately, a couple of post-lecture receptions were more welcoming. It was a late night, but Oscar Wilde was a young man. He recovered sufficiently to enjoy several of St. Louis’s finest offerings the following day.
One of his adventures was a drive out to what was then the countryside to visit Henry Shaw and the Missouri Botanical Garden. The archivist of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who I once worked for as a contractor and volunteer, was present at the lecture in 2012 to show us all the page where Oscar Wilde signed the Visitor’s Book at Henry Shaw’s house.
Appeal: This is a delightful story about two days in the life of a person who would one day create greater triumphs than an American lecture tour and experience greater tragedies than being made fun of in US newspapers. The book does a good job of putting us in the time and place of those two days, a very particular look at history that illuminates in ways that broader views miss.
Challenges: I’m going to call this my Travel book for the 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. St. Louis isn’t a travel destination for me, but it definitely was for Oscar Wilde.
Have you read this book? What did you think?