A hundred and twenty five years ago, Oscar Wilde edited a fashion magazine, his first and only office job. We have yet to learn from the experience.
FOLLOWING THE HAYMARKET affair of 1886, where seven police officers and four civilians were killed in Chicago during a labour rally, Oscar Wilde signed a petition which supported the anarchists who were claimed to have placed the fatal bombs in the area. Less than six months after signing this petition, which was prepared by George Bernard Shaw and endorsed by Friedrich Engels, among others, Wilde began working for a fashion magazine, comparable to today's Vogue.
Inconsistent? Paradoxical? Strange? For those who believe in the dissident portrayal of Wilde, the seeker of The Soul of Man under Socialism, the former act is an earnest, sincere expression of his real sympathies, while the latter one is a result of pressing material needs (two years previously he had been married to Constance Lloyd, with whom he’d had two sons), if not of outright desperation. But a closer look at the volumes of his magazine, The Woman’s World, which is available to read through Google’s digitalization program complicates this simple opposition between Wilde the dissident and Wilde the sell-out. Under his editorship, the magazine had little patience for gossip and superficiality, instead focusing on the commodification of Victorian life: its potentials, its downfalls, and the role of feminism in it.
Wilde's magazine is a serious venture, a stark contrast to the glossy titles of our era. How lucky were those editors, one thinks, working in a cultural milieu where commodification could be a magazine's subject, and not its lifeblood. That The Woman’s World seemed more interested in reconfiguring the idea of femininity (Wilde pressed his publisher to revise the original title, The Lady’s World, calling it not “womanly”) attests to its intellectual status. Upmarket, highbrow and prestigious, Wilde's magazine could almost be described as dissident in its frequent advocacy of the New Woman, a politically empowered, radical re-appropriation of Victorian femininity.
My interest in this phase of Wilde's life is not confined to his editorship — what he wrote, commissioned, and deconstructed at the magazine — but extends to the impact this experience had on his “real” literary work outside the office.
For those interested in, or like me obsessed with, anniversaries: this summer marks the quasquicentennial of Oscar Wilde’s first ever office job (fifty years to go before the dodransbicentennial and a century before the sestercentennial). Admittedly, the significance of the event pales in comparison with the centennial of the sinking of Titanic or the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth, but Wilde’s experience in the office provides that curious anniversary where the writer, who wants the best of both worlds as a journalist and a serious author, can see in practice whether such a thing is possible or desirable.
When he was 33 years old, Wilde began working for the publishing firm Cassell & Company for the duration of more than two years. His best non-fiction and fic...read more