Little Parcels of Guilt: rereading Oscar Wilde

Sophie Macdonald 25 September 2021
Image credit: Creative Commons

‘All her bright golden hair

Tarnished with rust,

She that was young and fair

Fallen to dust’

In 2014, a notebook belonging to Oscar Wilde was discovered at the Free Library of Pennsylvania. Filled sometime between 1871 and 1874, the notebook revealed both Wilde’s deep love for his sister Isola and his feelings of responsibility for her death. Isola died from a fever in the spring of 1867; she was nine, and Oscar was twelve.

The playwright and poet kept an envelope containing ‘My Isola’s Hair’ throughout his lifetime. The envelope was adorned with biblical symbols and inscriptions. After her death, his father William would recount, Oscar was transformed into ‘a mourner for life’. Wilde would keep a piece of his guilt with him, for life.

The 2014 notebook also included a previously unknown draft of Wilde’s poem ‘Requiescat’ (circa 1873), containing an additional, lamenting stanza:

‘Had we not loved so well

Not loved at all

None would have tolled the bell

None born the pall’

Wilde’s envelope for Isola figures in ‘Requiescat’ as a kind of metaphorical casket.  While rereading his other works, I noticed that envelopes are scattered around Wilde’s oeuvre like so many little parcels of guilt. In ‘An Ideal Husband’ (1893), one contains Sir Chiltern’s letter proving his illegal involvement in Baron Arnheim’s Suez Canal deal; another, Lady Chiltern’s  compromising love note to Lord Goring. Each letter threatens scandal: the destruction of the Chilterns’ marriage, the revelation of Mrs Cheveley’s intentions, the ruin of Sir Chiltern’s and Lord Goring’s friendship. Whoever is in possession of the letter is in possession of the power to destroy – as Wilde’s own life would later confirm.

Likewise, in ‘A Woman of No Importance’ (1894), Lord Illingworth’s recognition of Mrs Arbuthnot’s handwriting on an envelope seals the fate of those around her. In both plays, at a symbolic level, it’s as if a single fine-edged envelope encloses the great lumpen mass of Victorian hypocrisy and repression.

Those scholars who keep a gossipy envelope file on autobiographical traces in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ will like the maddening effect of Sibyl Vane’s letter on Dorian – fixed in the reader’s memory by Wilde’s image of a shattered mirror. ‘Youth had spoiled him’ – Dorian, like Isola, is frozen in a state of perpetual youth and beauty; a curse that corrupts and torments him, as it tormented Wilde.

An envelope would also form the basis of Wilde’s libel trial, changing the course of his own life. Accused of being gay in a letter from The Marquess of Queensbury, Wilde – egged on by his lover Bosie – sued him, only for Queensbury’s lawyers to prove that the accusation was true. Convicted of gross indecency, Wilde’s reputation collapsed instantly.

During the trial, the morality of Wilde’s works, and their potential to corrupt, were quizzed. His plays, in their depiction of a world of furtive double-dealing, would come back to haunt him. Along with passionate letters written to Bosie during the trial, they provided part of the evidence for Queensbury’s defence.

Interned in Reading Gaol, Wilde had one more letter left in him. ‘De Profundis’, a 50,000-word letter to Bosie, charged Wilde’s shallow and selfish lover with complicity in his downfall. It’s a magnificent piece of writing. Bosie would later claim that he destroyed his copy without ever reading it. Letters, long and short, in words and in envelopes, are where real writing lives. Oscar Wilde was sentenced to his sentences, which set him free.