Saturday, March 19, 2016

It was quite unbearable - an Oscar Wilde ghost and some other stuff

Alongside whatever else I have been doing, I have been reading Oscar Wilde, both The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde and The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, but in snatches, as the mood strikes me, so the books never seem to move to my “Currently Reading” list.  I read a book review or a couple of months of letters and set the books aside.  The pace seems to suit the subject.

I am at October 1888, roughly, a strange period for my received idea of Wilde.  He is married, has two infant children at home, and is the editor of a magazine titled Woman’s World.  Most of his letters are requests for contributions – how about 4,000 words on Concord, Massachusetts, with photos, or 2,500 on Goethe’s house, with photos?  Woman’s World sounds terrific.

Wilde’s wife, Constance Lloyd, sounds terrific, too.  “[A] grave, slight, violet-eyed little Artemis, with great coils of heavy brown hair which make her flower-like head droop like a flower, and wonderful ivory hands which draw music from the piano so sweet that the birds stop singing to listen to her” (Letter to Lillie Langtry, Jan. 22, 1884).

Just before the possibility of the editorship arose, Wilde had begin publishing comic fiction, just four stories that I know of.  All were originally published in 1887 but not collected into a book until 1891 as Lord Savile’s Crime & Other Stories, I presume as a quick cash-in on the success of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).  The two shortest stories seemed like trivia, but “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is a good bit of vicious fun, and “The Canterville Ghost” is something more than that, a parody of ghost stories so forceful and thorough that I am surprised people still continued to write them.

This is Lady Windermere, a minor character in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime.”  “She looked wonderfully beautiful with her grand ivory throat, her large blue forget-me-not-eyes, and her heavy coils of golden hair.”  Kinda funny given that letter.  Great artists are masters of recycling.

In “The Canterville Ghost,” an American minister and his family move into an English haunted house.  The Americans are either firm in their beliefs, or gross materialists, or both.  The first encounter with a haunting, a recurring blood-stain:

‘This is all nonsense,’ cried Washington Otis; ‘Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent will clean it up in no time,’ and before the terrified housekeeper could interfere he had fallen upon his knees, and was rapidly scouring the floor with a small stick of what looked like a black cosmetic.  In a few moments, no trace of the blood-stain could be seen.

‘I knew Pinkerton would do it,’ he exclaimed triumphantly…

Cold Comfort Farm owes a lot to “The Canterville Ghost.”  The great moment in the story, though, is when the point of view switches from the Americans to the poor, confounded ghost, who first feels “grossly insulted,” then frustrated, and finally openly terrified of these horrible modern people.  The ghost is an artist; the descriptions of his greatest hauntings are high points of the story:

With the enthusiastic egotism of the true artist he went over his most celebrated performances, and smiled bitterly to himself as he recalled to mind his last appearance as ‘Red Reuben, or the Strangled Babe,’ his début as ‘Gaunt Gibeon, the Blood-sucker of Bexley Moor,’ and the furore he had excited one lovely June evening merely by playing ninepins with his own bones upon the lawn-tennis ground.  And after all this, some wretched modern Americans were to come and offer him the Rising Sun Lubricator, and throw pillows at his head!  It was quite unbearable.

I wish I had read “The Canterville Ghost” twenty-five years ago and feel resentment towards every short story anthologist who failed to include it in whatever short story anthologies I happened to read.


  1. I *love* The Canterville Ghost - if Oscar had written nothing else but this it would have made him unforgettable! It manages to be clever, funny and sad all at the same time.


  2. The thing about the Canterville ghost is he's a nice - if dead and artistic - chap. If he'd been a Jamesian ghost the story would have gone very differently: with Henry the family's hidden secrets would have emerged and they would have gone mad with horror at what they learned about themselves; with M.R. he'd simply have torn them limb from limb.

  3. I must reread The Canterville Ghost. It had slipped my memory and I wasn't sure I had read it until the Pinkerton's stain remover reared its head. I have one of those 'Complete Works' books that seem like a good idea but are so damn unwieldy that they remain on the shelf almost blocking you from returning to their author.

  4. Such a likable story. Clever, funny, sad, yes.

    Roger's distinctions are accurate, although in the context of "The Canterville Ghost" it seems that the ghost can only do what it is allowed to do. So those James & James characters had it coming, I guess.

    I have also turned against giant "Complete Works" volumes. Such is the wisdom of age and experience.

  5. I haven't read "The Canterville Ghost" since high school, I think. What I remember better is the 1944 film version with Charles Laughton as the ghost. I should see what Wilde we have on the shelves at home. Not a lot, but maybe a collection with "Ghost."

  6. Updated to World War II! All right, sure, why not.

  7. Of course they made a film of "The Canterville Ghost." Why didn't I even think of that? It is my favourite Wilde short story by a good measure. I'm pleased it is raining so I can find this film this afternoon.

  8. Feel free to report back with a movie review.