Spirit, Wit, and Forgeries: The Beautiful Untrue Afterlife of Oscar Wilde
After ten years of detective work investigating Oscar Wilde forgeries, Beautiful Untrue Things author Gregory Mackie talks queer poets, roguish impostors, and the shifting reputation of everyone’s favourite Victorian gay icon.
Oscar Wilde is an instructive case study in how literary reputations can change drastically. When he died in 1900, in exile after his release from a prison sentence for the crime of “gross indecency” – the legal term for sex between men in Victorian Britain – he was a pariah. Over the course of the twentieth century, he has gone from being “unspeakable,” in the words of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice (1913), to being the ultimate gay icon, revered as a saint and martyr. (If you don’t believe me there, check out his lipstick-kissed tomb in Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery.) Wilde remains a haunting presence in literary history, which is why I frame my examination of multiple Wilde forgeries in terms of an “afterlife.” And indeed, in one chapter of Beautiful Untrue Things, I mean this idea quite literally: it explores what Wilde’s voluble spirit says about art and theatre from the great beyond, when channelled by zany 1920s spiritualist mediums. Without giving too many details away, I can say here that Wilde’s ghostly wit is characteristically devastating.
I have been working on this book for over a decade now, and during that time the topic of my research – literary forgeries of Oscar Wilde – has intrigued nearly everyone I have told about it. That such curiosity has survived my nerdy bibliographical enthusiasms is, I think, a testament to the topic’s appeal, although whether more fascination attaches to Oscar Wilde or to forgery I can’t say. For me, the process of assembling, orchestrating, and analyzing the obscure publications, archival bits and pieces, and outrageous, long-neglected stories that make up the book has been wonderful. And I mean that in the word’s literal sense: researching and writing Beautiful Untrue Things has kept me in a sustained state of wonder, which for an academic is a rare treat. What do I mean by wonder? I mean learning things that few people currently alive likely know or remember; reading books that no one else has touched for a century; following up obscure leads to unexpected revelations (not to mention the occasional disappointment); and finally putting together the pieces of an intricate puzzle. In some ways, working on forgery means thinking like a detective – and, sometimes, even like a forger – as much as a traditional literary scholar.
Following the leads of the mysterious and eccentric characters who populate the book – forgers that include the queer poet “Dorian Hope” and the roguish impostor Mrs. Chan-Toon – has meant that much of my sleuthing has been done in rare-books libraries. I visited archives, some of which have only recently been catalogued, across North America and Britain. Researching this book has also meant remaining attentive to information emanating from unexpected places. I continue to be amazed by the wealth of information about forgotten literary adventurers held by people working in the rare-book market, for instance. One of the most crucial sources for Beautiful Untrue Things is the private archive of a well-established London dealer – still in business today – contacted by “Dorian Hope” in 1921. These kinds of places represent a living repository of lore about book history and the book trade.
Of course, my research methods have also had to keep up with the times. Early in this project, I travelled to the British Library’s offsite newspaper archive in North London in search of an otherwise unobtainable interview with Mrs. Chan-Toon. I spent a full day trying to access one small news article. That library is now closed, as widespread digitization of historical newspapers has transformed the work and expense of a transatlantic journey into a matter of a few well-chosen clicks in an online database. And yet online research has also saved me from momentous mistakes. One of the book’s signature contributions is the uncovering of the real identity of “Dorian Hope” in New York and Paris, thereby solving a mystery that has puzzled literary researchers and librarians for decades. Quite late in the production process, as the book was nearly ready to go into print, I still believed that it was impossible to prove with certainty who “Hope” really was. If it hadn’t been for a chance database search on another project – a veritable tumble down the archival rabbit-hole – I wouldn’t have been able to connect the dots to arrive at the forger’s unmasking. With this new information in hand, the game is newly afoot: I hope to go back to the archives, to learn more about a certain Brett Holland (from Gastonia, North Carolina) who reinvented himself as the French fashion journalist and literary chronicler “Sylvestre Dorian” after the Wilde forgeries he peddled under the name “Dorian Hope” proved profitless. But that’s another story.
Gregory Mackie is an associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures at the University of British Columbia, and the author of Beautiful Untrue Things.