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The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

December 17, 2016 19 comments

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. (1895) French title: L’Importance d’être constant.

Before visiting the Paris exhibit about Wilde and after reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales, I turned to The Importance of Being Earnest, another landmark in Wilde’s field of masterpieces. I loved this play and I wish I could see a stage version.

wilde_importanceI guess that a lot of readers know the story. Jack Worthing is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax. Her cousin is Algernon Moncrieff, who’s also Jack’s good friend. Jack created himself an alias for when he’s in town. When he’s in the country, he’s Jack, the serious guardian of Cecily Cardew. When he’s in town, he’s reckless Ernest who’s in love with Gwendolen. Algernon and Gwendolen both know him as Ernest. For his countryside family and friend, Ernest is Jack’s daredevil brother. Jack explains all this to Algernon who was about to get in the way of his marrying Gwendolen because he saw that Ernest’s cigarette case bore the inscription “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.”

Jack decides it’s time to kill fictional Ernest and goes to his country home. At the same time, Algernon is intrigued by Cecily and rushes to Jack’s country home to meet her and arrives before Jack. He worms himself into Jack’s house and Cecily’s heart under the pretense of being…Ernest.

The rest is a series of hilarious qui proquos mixed with witty lines while sending catty remarks to the London literary milieu and joyfully trampling over an institution, marriage. This is a gem of a play that thrives on irony and good words. It has this kind of biting humour I enjoy. It’s everywhere, even in the names of the characters: Jack chooses to call himself Ernest where he definitely does not behave earnestly. Algernon is actually Swinburne’s first name, something I would have never noticed without attending the exhibition. For me Algernon is a weird name that reminds me of Molière’s characters. (Like Argan or Arnolphe)

In appearance, the plot doesn’t lead into mentioning Victorian literature, literary critics or censorship. And yet Wilde manages to throw piques here and there in the dialogues. Here we have a clear reference to Victorian triple Deckers…

I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us.

Miss Prism. Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.

…and remember how Trollope and Wilde were on the same painting A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith? The plot itself with the revelation of one of the character’s identity through a mind-blowing series of coincidences reminded me of sensation novels or of early Thomas Hardy’s novels. After this little pat at successful novels, Wilde just dismisses their literary value around the corner of an offhand sentence:

Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

And after implying that people aren’t reading the good stuff because these books are not listed on the approved TBR recommendations, he throws a last punch to the literary milieu with this statement on literary criticism:

Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.

I bet these lines have made teeth grind. Then he’s playing darts with his words and targets another institution, marriage. It is shown as a nasty affair that has nothing to do with love. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell explains:

To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.

Jack’s intention to propose to Gwendolen doesn’t make Algernon gush. Congratulations are not the first thing that comes to his mind and his vision of marriage doesn’t rhyme with bliss:

I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.

He goes even farther when he talks about what we’d call today public display of affection. (Well, at least in English, there’s no French expression for that.)

That sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.

For Algernon, love and marriage don’t go together like a horse and carriage. Well, until Cecily comes along. Women are a bit foolish in Wilde’s play. Gwendolen and Cecily are both enamoured with the idea of loving someone named Ernest. This name is conductive to their love. Why Ernest? Apart from the wordplay with earnest, is there anything else behind the name?

I loved The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s so good it seemed like a giant quote from a fictional French playwright who’d be a fusion between Molière, Marivaux and Musset. Molière for the comedy, the humour and the criticism of society’s flaws and Marivaux and Musset for the tricks on identities and the play with sentiments. The tone of the play and the plot itself bring me back to French theatre but with sentences like I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them, don’t you feel like you’ve crossed the Channel?

A word about the French translation. I’ve read this in English but I’ve checked the French editions. The one in the Cahiers Rouges collection by Grasset sounds good. Ernest becomes Constant, which is the French translation of earnest. The wordplay is maintained in French, which is not always that easy to do. For readers who are either French and practising their English or English-speaking natives who want to practice their French, Flamarion has a bi-language edition of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Last but not least, I can’t resist sharing this last quote with you.

I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.

Some politicians have taken the matter in their own hands and put the fools out of the shelves to liberate us from all this annoying cleverness. Please guys, don’t bother on our account, we rather liked the intelligent ones.

The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde

December 13, 2016 13 comments

The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde (1888)

Before visiting the Oscar Wilde exhibition in Paris I killed two birds in one stone by reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales. I was immersing myself in a side of Wilde’s work I’d never read and I was progressing on my #TBR20 project. It is a collection of short stories composed of

  • The Happy Prince
  • The Nightingale and the Rose
  • The Selfish Giant
  • The Devoted Friend
  • The Remarkable Rocket

wilde_happy_princeThe Happy Prince is my favourite story. The Happy Prince is a statue of someone who was known for his sunny character. The statue is richly decorated and make the mayor and his clique very proud. Arrives a Swallow who’s stayed behind in Europe instead of flying to Egypt with his friends and family. He was in love with a Reed and was reluctant to leave her. The Happy Prince is no longer happy. He’s very sad because he realised that he had spent a happy life only because he was sheltered in his castle and had no idea of the poverty and misfortunes of common people outside his castle. He now feels terrible and convinces the Swallow to stay and help him right his wrongs.

The Nightingale and the Rose is the story of a Nightingale who sacrifices her life to make a red rose bloom so that a Student desperately in love can conquer the girl he fancies.

The Selfish Giant tells the story of a Giant who closed his garden to the neighbouring children who used it as a playground and as soon as he bans them from their paradise, Winter and his friends take possession of the place.

The Snow covered up the grass with her great white cloak, and the Frost painted all the trees silver. Then they invited the North Wind to stay with them, and he came.

The Devoted Friend is about selfish Hans and his so-called definition of friendship that makes him shamelessly take and take from his friend without never giving anything back in return.

The Remarkable Rocket is the story of a delusional and snooty rocket. He’s part of a fireworks team and he thinks he’s the most beautiful and impressive of the lot until he screws things up. But he’s so full of himself …

“I am not going to stop talking to him merely because he pays no attention. I like hearing myself talk.  It is one of my greatest pleasures. I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

…that he never realises that people around him see him differently.

I really enjoyed these stories and this is a side of Wilde I didn’t know. There’s an immediate and simple story suitable for children and underlying meanings and comments for adults.

“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. “It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other Swallows; “she has no money, and far too many relations”; and indeed the river was quite full of Reeds. Then, when the autumn came they all flew away.

Isn’t it both poetic and ironic? Since a lot of animals are involved in these tales, a lot of personifications happen. And my native language, French, has genders for everything. And in case of personification, I tend to imagine the animal or the object according to its grammatical gender, even when I’m reading in English. So, for me a Reed or a Nightingale is a He, not a She. A Swallow or Hail is a She, not a He. It is strange the first time I hear about a reed referred to as a she and then I get used to it. If you’re a reader fluent in several languages, does it happen to you too?

I had a great time reading these tales. I didn’t know what to expect but I thought that Wilde showed a gentle caring soul in these tales. In the exhibition about him in Paris, they said he used to read stories to his children when he was there.

After this I started The Importance of Being Earnest.

Literary escapade: Born to be Wilde

December 10, 2016 30 comments

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. (Oscar Wilde)

It totally agree with that. In Paris, there’s currently an exhibition about Oscar Wilde’s life and work. It is at the Petit Palais, a beautiful building near the Champs Elysées. The Petit Palais was built for the 1900 World Fair and incidentally, 1900 is also the year Wilde died in Paris. The title of this exhibition is Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu. (Oscar Wilde, the ultimate impertinent). It is the first time such an exhibition is organized in Paris and it is well worth visiting.

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It explains very well Wilde’s education and role models, his taste for art, his admiration for Ruskin and his work as an art critic. A room is dedicated to the conferences he did in America. It is on the occasion of this tour that he said his famous phrase:

We have really everything in common in America nowadays, except, of course, language.

He was like a rock star and had his picture taken like a supermodel by the famous photographer Napoleon Sarony. You needed someone named Napoleon Sarony to immortalize the emperor of irony. For the anecdote: these pictures were so famous that they were used without Sarony’s authorization by various publicists. Sarony went to court and his case reached the Supreme Court who judged that photographs should be included in the scope of the copyright law. (1884)

The exhibition describes Wilde as an intellectual well introduced in London’s high society.

frith_a_private_view

This is A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith. (1881) The painter is on the painting with Trollope, Gladstone, Browning, Millais and Wilde. Can you see him on the centre-right, near the lady with the pink dress? Wilde was also well introduced into the Parisian beau monde. But the exhibition does not focus to much on his life as a dandy. His affairs with men are mentioned but so is his marriage to Constance Llyod. Wilde as a husband and a father are displayed. Unfortunately, after Constance’s death, her family destroyed all the letters Oscar Wilde had written to her, so we’re missing out information on their relationship.

His personal life takes a good place in the exhibition but his work is celebrated as well, especially The Happy Prince and Other Tales, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salomé. It was interesting to read about the reception of these works when they were published, see excerpts of their film version or discover the illustrations of the first editions. (*)

Of course, his trial and subsequent conviction to two years’ hard labour took a significant place. I was surprised to read that Wilde was condemned in 1895 for gross indecency and that it was based on a law that was only voted in 1885. I always assumed it was a very old law that had been unearthed for the occasion. I’m shocked to read such a law was passed so late in the 19thC. That’s the Victorian Era for you, I suppose. No wonder that French prostitutes saw so many British customers that some had calling cards in English.

His detention was very hard, at least at the beginning at the Newgate Prison in London. He did hard labour, was not allowed to read anything but the Bible and it was forbidden to talk to fellow prisoners. Eventually, he was transferred to the Reading Gaol, near London. Isn’t that ironic to put a writer in a prison named Reading Gaol? The absolute silence imposed in the Victorian prisons must have been a personal form of torture to the brilliant conversationalist that Wilde was.

This section of the exhibition ends with a videoed interview of Robert Badinter. He’s a famous French attorney and he was the minister of Justice in 1981. He fought for the abolition of death penalty in France in 1981 and he remains well-known for that. 1981 is also the year the French Parliament voted that homosexuality was no longer a crime.

In this interview, Badinter explains that he studied closely the Wilde trial for a series of conference about law and Justice. He used this example and the one of all the women burnt for sorcery to demonstrate that Justice is relative. It depends on the time and place. Wilde was condemned to two years’ hard work for something that is no longer a crime. According to Badinter, since Justice is relative, it mustn’t pronounce death sentences. The State doesn’t have the right to take the life of people for crimes that might not be crimes in the future or somewhere else. Thought provoking, isn’t it?

This fantastic exhibition ended with a video of Wilde’s grand-son. He speaks French very well and had kind words to say about his grand-father and his work, even if he never knew him. Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu gave a moving portrait of Wilde. It went beyond the funny aphorisms and the dandy costumes to show an intelligent and multifaceted man. I liked that his family life was shown as well, a part of him often ignored. (The French Wikipedia page about him doesn’t even mention that he was married) I thought that the different angles helped discovering this fascinating artist.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

You were definitely pointing at the stars, Mr Wilde. Some imbeciles might have stared at your finger pointing the stars instead of stargazing with you.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan

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(*) I read The Picture of Dorian Gray when I when a teenager and read The Happy Prince and Other Tales and The Importance of Being Earnest before attending this exhibition, so more about this in the coming week.

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