Wilde's brilliant career is a modern myth; the sparkling life, the love lavished on the beautiful but unworthy Alfred Douglas, the downfall and years of hard labour in gaol. This large, handsome collection of letters, dressed in strikingly bright purple livery, is an appropriate monument to its subject. The editor, Merlin Holland, building on Rupert Hart-Davies' 1960 first edition of Wilde's correspondence, has done an immaculate job; the annotation is copious and helpful, the letters embellished with many of Wilde's original sketches and doodles, and the whole thing is an addictive pleasure to read. One rationale for the volume is that, as Holland puts it, "it is in his letters that we come closest to the legendary verbal, conversational wit of Wilde". He himself claimed that he put his genius into his life not his work, and these letters are certainly closer to his life and his suave ad-libbing than his other published work. Actually, in practice this is true only for part of the volume: necessarily, a large proportion of these letters is mundane business and day-to-day communication ("Dear Aleck. I beg to acknowledge with thanks your cheque for £50 on account of fees for my play", and so on). But there are hundreds of more delightful, sparkling and hilarious letters too.
The jewel in the crown of this collection is undoubtedly the cleanest text in print of the lengthy letter Wilde wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas from Reading Gaol in early 1897. It was this letter that was published in 1905 as De Profundis, although that version constituted less than half the original text. Holland and Hart-Davies present the whole thing, reedited from manuscript. Reading this extraordinary and moving letter in its entirety (it takes up nearly 100 pages), while being able to compare it with the usual tenor of Wilde's letter writing, is breath-taking. Most striking is the transition from the heartfelt but rather cloying earlier letters to the Douglas ("my dear boy ... It is really absurd. I can't live without you. You are so dear, so wonderful"), to the depth of expression from Reading Gaol: "Most people live for love and admiration. But it is by love and admiration that we should live. If any love is shown us we should recognise that we are quite unworthy of it. Nobody is worthy to be loved". But one thing--Wilde's sheer style--was unaffected by his downfall. "Everything about my tragedy has been hideous", he wrote from prison, "mean, repellent, lacking in style. Our very dress sense makes us grotesques. We are the zanies of sorrow". The most tragic aspect of the collection is the wilderness of rather undignified begging letters with which it ends ("Will you now send me £10? Please do this"; "Can you wire me £5 on account tomorrow?"), as Wilde lives out his last years in France. More immediate and vivid than even Ellman's classic Oscar Wilde, this is a wonderful book. --Adam Roberts [via]