Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wilde - The Complete Short Stories

The first play I remember being taken to see was Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, one of the first classics I remember buying (rather than pinching from my mother) was ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. I went through my teenage years happy to declare nothing but my genius and then mostly grew out of it (although I still have a love of silk pyjamas fostered by Oscar Wilde and Peter Whimsy in equal parts, and green carnations which are pure Wilde). I even had a birthday drinking champagne in the Cadogan Hotel (where Wilde was arrested) – a day of Sloane Square fantasy away from the reality of work. I was there as a chaperone for my mother who was being entertained by a wealthy American who had designs on her virtue. She foiled him with me – as his manners on that occasion were impeccable he gracefully gave in, plied us with champagne and dinner and watched us leave – a clearly frustrated man. I would feel sorry for him if it hadn’t been such a good birthday and I like to think Oscar would have found the situation amusing.

I had a missed parcel note in the post a few days ago which was intriguing because a surprise, when I went down to collect it the parcel turned out to be a copy of the complete short stories kindly and unexpectedly sent by Oxford University Press. I read these as a child, and periodically since, but haven’t seen them for a few years. Reading them again over lunch hours made me realise how deeply embedded some of these stories are in my imagination. ‘The Happy Prince’, ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, ‘The Selfish Giant’ ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ and ‘The Star Child’ especially are all better remembered than I expected and yet have lost none of their impact. Nearly all of them will make me feel unreasonably emotional (and when not in the staff canteen are more than able to bring a tear to the eye).

They are wonderful children’s stories, full of beauty, cruelty and injustice – good things for the young to understand if they are to grow up well. They are also simply wonderful stories. Adult reading convinces me that Wilde is at his best just here; the plays are wonderfully elegant and fragile confections, very amusing but not really stirring. I’ve enjoyed the stories so much that I’ve got out both the copies I now own with the express intention of running a bath, filling it with something decadent in the way of unguents and reading through both introductions. If I ever was to make a list of books not to be without Wilde’s short stories would most certainly be on it.

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