Oscar Wilde’s authorship has always been somewhat contested. During his life, he was sometimes accused of plagiarism, and in the time since his death numerous volumes have been mistakenly or fraudulently assigned his name. A tawdry short story, “The Priest and the Acolyte,” was sometimes wrongly assumed to be his, and the description of homosexuality as “the love that dare not speak its name”–taken from a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas, but quoted at Wilde’s trial–is commonly misattributed to him as well.
After Wilde went to prison, his name was removed from published editions of his plays; The Ballad of Reading Gaol appeared only with his cell number, C33. And there remains a mysterious and intriguing pornographic novel, Teleny, in whose composition he may or may not have had a hand.
Gregory Mackie’s new book Beautiful Untrue Things is a careful examination of the Wilde forgeries that proliferated during the 1920s, with profiles both of the con artists responsible and of Wilde’s self-appointed guardians and gate-keepers.
Mackie takes an intellectual and aesthetic interest in these artifacts and their background; his writing is refreshingly free from concern for the ethical and legal questions their production and distribution might raise. Instead, he openly admires the research that went into the fakes, and is impressed by the expertise required.
To successfully pass off a false manuscript, it is not enough to imitate the style and the penmanship of its purported author. Mackie details that one must also fabricate an entire history of said document, assume the role of a character who could plausibly possess such a thing, and implicitly alter the biography of the author so as to fit this new evidence. Such frauds were in fact complex works of art in their own right, and Mackie treats them with the respect they deserve, though naturally some were better than others.
In Beautiful Untrue Things there is sometimes an admiration of the artistry of the counterfeit work; more often, there is respect for the sheer audacity and theatricality of the performances surrounding the artifacts themselves. Among the forgers Mackie portrays are a heavyweight boxer and Futurist poet, a horror novelist and proto-fascist, and a medium who claimed contact with Wilde’s spirit, transcribing a posthumous play titled, teasingly, Is it a Forgery? (“Say the author himself is debating the question,” the ghost advised.)
Opposite this assortment of rogues –equally erudite, though hardly as extravagant– were a group of literary detectives, headed by Robbie Ross, Wilde’s literary executor, and Stuart Mason, his authoritative bibliographer. They and several other disciples tirelessly labored to authenticate the true Wilde manuscripts and expose the fakes.
The stakes of these scholarly contests of fact versus forgery and detection against deception exceeded the obvious financial and legal consequences implicit in the concept of fraud, not to mention the purely literary concerns. Ross and Mason understood that they were not merely preserving a proper canon, but were simultaneously constructing a specific image of the author as a means of rescuing him from the disgrace of his later years.
The Wilde they conjure, Mackie explains, “is Wilde the writer, scholar, and saint, rather than the symbol of sexual infamy.” For those like Ross, who knew Wilde intimately, that made the issue personal; and for the homosexual subculture of which this circle was a part, it was inevitably political as well.
Homosexuality is close to the center of the forgeries and their debunkers alike, though in very different ways. Wilde’s sexuality created a sense of mystery that the forgers could exploit. As Mackie puts it: “His association with extra-literary legend and homosexual scandal rendered him uniquely vulnerable to a set of market conditions that fostered spurious texts published under his name.”
As for the circle of devoted debunkers, it seems to have been composed entirely of gay men, whose sexuality put them at odds with dominant morality and the law. Their defense of Wilde’s canon implicitly declared it an object of value, something not only defensible but worth defending. In establishing and protecting this canon, they used the body of Wilde’s work as a kind of monument to the man and transformed Wilde’s image from, in Mackie’s words, that of “reviled sexual outlaw to saint.”
By making Wilde respectable, his heirs hoped also to make homosexuality respectable. Their efforts depended on foregrounding the public and literary side of his life, while suppressing the criminal and underground side and forcing the sense of scandal as far as possible into the background. From this perspective, the rash of fraudulent works threatened to spoil the game.
The forgers relied on the air of secrecy and scandal surrounding Wilde’s memory to lend credence to the suggestion that there may yet remain secrets undiscovered. The forgeries became a reminder of Wilde’s illicit life, jeopardizing the image of the misunderstood and persecuted genius. Just as he had lived a double life, Wilde was destined to a double afterlife.
In a sense, the question of forgery is one of identity: is the author of this newly-discovered manuscript the same as the author of Dorian Gray? In Wilde’s case especially, the question is tied to another sort of identity: in fashioning an image of Wilde, forgers and curators alike were, whether they realized it or not, shaping the prototypical homosexual image.
Given the historical importance of Wilde’s trial in emerging legal discourse on sexuality (and homosexuality in particular), Wilde assumed a central position in the creation of “the homosexual” as a figure and type. In this context, the conflict over the authenticity of his purported work, and thus the question of the real Wilde, takes on a rather different color.
There are several layers of irony at work here, which are not lost on Mackie. The colorful and often outlandish characters who produced the Wilde fakes were in their own way no less devoted to Wilde’s memory than were their more staid counterparts in the Ross-Mason set. As much as the charlatans may have been motivated by money, Mackie argues, they were also driven by “a fannish desire to contribute to the Wilde legend by producing ‘new’ relics of a venerated martyr.”
Wilde himself often played with the relationship between image and reality, legend and truth. Between his fantastical imitators and his purist defenders, it is hard to know which camp would have received the larger share of his sympathies. I suppose that depends on which Wilde we’re talking about – or rather, whose.
Kristian Williams is the author of Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell (AK Press, 2017) and “Resist Everything Except Temptation”: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde (AK Press, forthcoming).