She was poor but she was honest

Nothing divided the late-Victorian literary world like Oscar Wilde’s conviction for “gross indecency”. Conservatives like WE Henley applauded the verdict; but others, perhaps fearing prosecution themselves, kept silent or fled the country. Women writers, too, reacted in a variety of ways. Ada Leverson, whom Wilde called “Sphinx”, famously came to his aid while he was awaiting trial in 1895, and again, two years later, on his release from prison. Mrs. Humphry Ward, author of the bestselling Robert Elsmere (1888), and the Catholic poet Alice Meynell were notoriously unsympathetic. Few other women writers’ responses are recorded, but that doesn’t mean they stood idly by. The queer writer “Vernon Lee” (Violet Paget) smuggled her support for Wilde into the pages of the Yellow Book (July 1896) by means of a historical fantasy called “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady”. The story’s relationship to Wilde’s situation was ambiguous enough not to alarm its nervous publisher, John Lane, who ran the Bodley Head and had already withdrawn all Wilde’s publications from sale.

Mary Chavelita Dunne (1859–1945) prided herself on saying what others wouldn’t. Under the pseudonym “George Egerton”, she had already enjoyed success with a volume of feminist short stories, Keynotes, published by the Bodley Head in 1893, embraced by the “New Woman” movement—and denied elsewhere. Like Wilde, she was Irish and grew up in Dublin. Unlike him, she came from a poor Catholic background. mutual, she invited identification with him, having used a line from A Woman of No Importance (“The book of life begins with a man and a woman in a garden and ends – with Revelations”) as the epigraph to one of the stories in Keynotes. The association was not lost on the press. When Punch mocked her, in 1894, in a parody by Owen Seaman (“She-Notes”), it had the sexually liberated female protagonist proclaim, “I like WILDE; he shocks the middle classes. Only the middle classes are so easily shocked.”

By the time Egerton sent the manuscript of Fantasias, her fourth volume of short fiction, to the Bodley Head in spring 1897, sales of her work had declined. This put a strain on relations with her publisher, and Wilde’s downfall only made matters worse. It was the glamorous poet Richard Le Gallienne, the reader at the Bodley Head, who first accepted Keynotes. Egerton and Wilde both had flirtations with Le Gallienne (Fantasias is dedicated to him), but he’d moved on. His replacements at the firm, the novelist John Buchan and GS Street – a member of Henley’s circle who had already satirized Wilde in The Autobiography of a Boy (1894) – were unimpressed by Egerton’s efforts in genres new to her: allegory and fantasy. Their readers’ reports (now in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas) show doubts about the stories in general, though both expressed interest in “The Prince Obsessed”, which was clearly about Wilde.

Fantasias was published in late 1897 (although the title page says 1898) with a plain binding, no illustrations, no fanfare and no “The Prince Obsessed”. What happened? No doubt Lane’s caution got the better of him. The reputation of his business had already been damaged in 1895 by the testimony in court of Edward Shelley, a young clerk at the Bodley Head, who began a sexual relationship with Wilde soon after they met on the firm’s Vigo Street premises. For Lane, Wilde was taboo. Even so, another story that did make it into the published volume, “The Mandrake Venus”, contained obvious borrowings from Salomé.

After its excision from Fantasias“The Prince Obsessed” all but disappeared from the record, hidden among the papers given to the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University by George Egerton’s cousin, the novelist and critic Terence de Vere White, who wrote the first book about Egerton (A Leaf from the Yellow Book, 1958), as well as another about Oscar Wilde’s parents. The story was catalogued, but misattributed to White.

We have been deprived of a notable document: a highly individual appreciation of Wilde by an Irish woman contemporary, produced just as he was about to leave prison. Much of the world wanted to forget his existence, but Egerton was determined not to let that happen. She makes no concerted defense of Wilde’s sexuality (likened to a destructive “beast”). Instead, she pays tribute to his genius – in literature, wordplay, taste, and even interior design, as a proponent of the House Beautiful. Most of all, “The Prince Obsessed” indicts a common enemy: the hypocritical, materialistic British middle classes, ever unable to accept challenge and change.

We would like to thank the staff at both the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, for making the story available to us, and the Harry Ransom Center, for providing access to the John Lane papers, where we found the readers’ reports alerting us to the existence of the story

Margaret D. Stetz is the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities at the University of Delaware. Alex Murray is a Senior Lecturer in Modern Literature at Queen’s University Belfast


‘The Prince Obsessed’

Once upon a time when pigs were swine and turkeys chewed tobacco, and swallows built their nests in old men’s beards, and the streets were paved with sugar candy and the houses thatched with pancakes, and little pigs ran about the streets with knives and forks stuck in their backs crying, “Who’ll eat pork?”, as the fairy tales began in our golden childhood, there was a prince.

He was not actually a hereditary prince, not even the reigning Princelet of a German principality, the Almanach of Gotha knew him not, yet his right to the title was universally conceded, even by his enemies.

This poor prince was born of the union of fancy with an earth worm, and although he had to go clad in the hidden gray of the middle-class which comprises most of the population of the nation to which he belonged, he was really a Prince in disguise, for he had come into an inheritance of poesy & the wizardry of words. His scepter was a pen fashioned from a feather dropped from the wing of a golden eagle in its flight from the clouds over the valley of struggling shadows, that men call – the world. He reigned in undisputed sway over cohorts of words, no one knew better how to concentrate their forces, combine them to the quintessence of subtleness, or mate them to quaintest paradox than he.

He saw possible beauty in all the common things of life & with a shower of epithets that fell as the golden rain from a rocket against the sky on a dark night he taught others to see them as well. If he took a toad in his hand and spoke of it in the curiously attired words he was so fond of using everyone immediately saw the jewel in its heart. In fact he possessed a quality of hyalescence that enabled dullards to see the network of beauty underneath.

Unfortunately the Prince was obsessed by a beast that gnawed unceasingly at the best in his nature. Perhaps as one sat and listened to the charming phrasing and enchanting play of fancy that stole like a shimmer of moonlight across the golden curls of a sleeping child, to words that cut cleanly & sharply like the meeting of kissing rapiers, or rippled melodiously like a laughter in the woods in summertime, the poor Prince would be seized suddenly by the horned beast that obsessed him, and an inconsequent sentence would drop out, making one shudder as at a word in a slang dictionary that expresses the lurid wit of a foul humanity and the devilish ingenuity of its obscurities. It was some time before people found this out, only at such moments the tender maids would shrink (indeed unspoiled women with their primitive protective instincts intact always did) away abashed, and lads’ eyes lost the look that proclaimed them the sons of good mothers . The Prince was conscious himself of the beast that lurked in his soul. Sometimes when he passed a homestead on the wayside and saw Hodge returning from the plow with a toddling flaxen haired thing at his knees, the wife leaning over the half door smiling as she waited; his eyes would fill with tears & a little lyric fresh as bubbling springs would burst through his lips – yet all the while he would be waiting with a fearsome expectation for the flair of the beast & the grip of its talons, knowing himself to be in its power.

The Prince happened to live in a singular kingdom for although it boasted of quite the oldest aristocracy, & the National coffers were well filled, it was governed entirely by the middle classes for the lower were little better than dumb beasts slaving in sweating dens. Now there was an extraordinarily powerful class devotedly attached to mediocrity – magenta rep.

The Prince was the first who had dared to hold a mirror to them in which he showed them: their lack of beauty, form, or that sense of the inward fitness of things, which are the first letters in the alphabet of art. Being a wise prince as well as a witty one he knew well that any crusade waged seriously against this impossible & densely stupid body would result in defeat unless he used stratagems. As one tosses up a golden ball & draws the attention of a child when one wishes to photograph it, or blows a tin whistle when one wishes the crowd to witness the national marriage play of Punch & Judy, he employed a flower as a badge – and instructed them in the use of elementary symbols. Knowing well how the dead level of their monotonous respectability really bored them he taught them how to laugh, being quite sure that they were too self sufficient to see how often the laugh was directed against themselves. The result was astounding, he was not alone enriched the language by a new range of telling epithets & witty epigrams but he heralded a revolution in the furniture world. It was comical to see vanloads of magenta & purple rep upholstery, miles of profusely gilded mirrors, wax flowers & glass shades being carted daily from suburban residences. Wardour Street took a new lease of life, all the dyers of the kingdom lay awake at nights evolving delicate colors in lieu of the aniline tints no longer in vogue. For years he leavened the stodginess of the National dough – & had a school of followers – but he forgot that a sense of art & beauty not being ingrained in the inhabitants of the kingdom as was their sense of commerce, but rather a growth of exotic nature was bound to wear off in the wear & tear of the market place; that jealousy is a prerogative of meaner souls and a legitimate excuse for ingratitude is a boon to humanity. Meanwhile the grip of the beast grew tenser every day, it tore at his vitals & rent his soul, so that soon the marks of it became visible to the casual eye; Many of his followers dropped away taking all they had learned from him to market & selling it at a good profit.

So it came to pass that when the Prince walked down the streets of the city the doors of the houses he had helped to make beautiful closed as of one accord. No one had the courage to approach & tackle the beast in him for they were afraid it might be said, they were actuated by unclean motives, & so the beast became paramount & the prince was shunned by all those who had been his friends or companions . It was discovered that it threatened to become a national obsession, names were bandied to & fro in whispers in the marts of the city, so the elders marched out one day & seized the Prince; having placed him in the pillory and stoned him they consigned him to solitude and the waters of oblivion rolled over him.

Mediocrity rose in a body for it had long chafed at his supremacy, and having filched some principles of art from his teaching they speedily erased his name from the annals of the state so as to have their winnings.

The beast still lurks in the hidden glades of the groves of stone & mortar, for the earth worm never dies in the souls of men, but it needs to obsess the body of genius before the nation troubles to wage war on its ravages.

Few ever speak of the Prince, fewer still remember the silver seeds of wit, beauty & glamor of word he sowed, for all reap of them, but here & there a critic sighs regretfully over the sheafs of commonplace he has to garner in his search for a golden ear in the over sown field of letters, and a woman whispers a thought that is perilously near a prayer when she thinks of the prince obsessed.

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