Oscar and Lillie Langtry exit the Royal Academy (click here for Google streetview) and stroll down Piccadilly arm in arm. The fact that the Royal Academy is on Piccadilly is a pleasant coincidence, as it allowed Danica to bring to life this (possibly metaphorical) refrain from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Patience:
in the high aesthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily
in your medieval hand.
Patience was a satire of the youth culture du jour, Aestheticism. Wilde, who had positioned himself as a chief proponent of the creed of "art for art's sake", was lampooned in the operetta in the character of Bunthorne, the Fleshly poet.
|George Grossmith as Bunthorne|
Wilde was rumoured to present a single lily to Langtry every day, as a token of his love. But the act was seen very much as a performance, with Oscar mincing through London, the lone bloom grasped in his lavender-gloved hand. In America he was asked if there was any substance to this story. Wilde replied that his genius was not in having done it, but in making people believe that he had. Print the legend, indeed.
The line “Talent borrows, genius steals” is attributed to Wilde, but may have originated with another. Which I suppose, for a manifesto of plagiarism, is kind of the point. The aphorism would be reinterpreted in the next century by Picasso and Morrissey. The point I wanted to make is that even Wilde, the greatest wit of all time, was not some superhuman comeback-artist. Like the rest of us mere mortals, he comes up with the best put down only once it is too late. This is a Wilde whose powers are not yet at full strength.
In this page we also establish that Langtry is, at this point in their careers and arguably for the remainder of Wilde's life, the more famous of the two. Wilde's lust for recognition will be what sets him off on his all-advised tour of America. We also discover that Wilde is known mostly for his undergraduate antics. He is not yet the author of The Importance of Being Earnest, or The Picture of Dorian Gray, or even A House of Pomegranates. Instead, all Oscar has to his name is a book of self-published poems, an unproduced (and awful) play, and a few epigrams from his Oxford days.
The line that the two guttersnipes chortle over was attributed to Wilde when he was still a student at Magdalen. An avid collector of blue and white china, he was once overheard sighing that he could never live up to the contents of his display cabinet. This was the moment that Oscar Wilde as a public persona was born. Oscar was very happy to be the most frivolous man on campus, a university celebrity. But, four years later, it is easy to imagine that he might wish to escape from under the shadow of this single instance of undergraduate humour. Once an epigram has filtered down to the great unwashed, it is probably high time to disown it.
Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and my comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com