AUGUST 12, 2012
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 fiction work was produced during the time he spent in the office at Ludgate Hill, near Fleet Street. In between May 18, 1887, when he signed the contract with Thomas Wemyss Reid, who was general manager of the company, and October 1889, when he was handed his notice, Wilde managed to write the most brilliant and lengthy of his essays, including “The Critic as Artist,” “The Decay of Lying,” “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” and “The Portrait of Mr W. H.,” a speculation on Shakespeare’s Sonnets (which later became a favourite of Borges), not to mention The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is often considered Wilde’s best work and the defining text of the late-Victorian age.
It is difficult to imagine a serious author of our day performing a similar feat. Could Jonathan Franzen, that great enemy of superficial twittering, have written The Corrections while editing GQ, spending his weekdays in its offices? While numerous contemporary authors prefer unplugging the network cable from their laptops while writing, Wilde did the opposite thing and tried to have as many connections as possible, which he thought would contribute to his competence and inventiveness as an author.
Having toured the United States and parts of England during the early 1880s for a series of lectures about decoration, fashion, and applied arts, Wilde had amused American and British audiences with his personality and oratorical skills. When this great tour came to an end, he immediately looked for fame in prestigious literary magazines and newspapers where he could review books and publish essays about his favourite subjects. In the course of a year he reviewed dozens of books, some of which he confessed to not reading in their entirety (“I never read a book I must review,” he wrote, “it prejudices you so.”) Building for himself a credible byline which he hoped would open new opportunities for him, Wilde inhabited a freelancer’s existence for a few years. This period was central to his growth as an independent thinker.
Following his graduation from Oxford, Wilde had scarcely spent time in an office and perhaps considered it an unlikely place to work as an author with literary ambitions: His intellectual idols, John Ruskin and Walter Pater, were both Oxford professors. But despite his academic achievements, Wilde had little interest in becoming a university lecturer, despite the fact that his failure to find money to support his luxurious life is well documented in his correspondence from those years. In early 1886, when Constance was pregnant and the flow of money he received for his popular lecture series came to an end, Wilde had applied for the position of the secretaryship of the Beaumont Trust. In his application letter, he provided his credentials, which he thought (erroneously, it turned out) would bring him the post.
During my university career I obtained two First Classes, the Newdigate Prize, and other honours, and since taking my degree, in 1878, I have devoted myself partly to literature and partly to the spreading of art-knowledge and art-appreciation among the people […] Should the trustees of the Beaumont Scheme consider me worthy to hold the post of Secretary, I would be able to devote all my time to the fulfilment of the necessary duties and the furtherance of the proposed movement, as I have no formal profession but that of literature and art-culture.
An energetic and insistent letter writer, Wilde wrote not only to ask for financial rewards but in order to realize his literary projects as well. Having published “The Canterville Ghost” in Court & Society Review, he pitched many ideas to its editor. Typically, he would seek to arrange a meeting where he could demonstrate his sophistication both as an author and a fashionable gentleman. But he gradually discovered that the life of a freelance critic and essay writer was financially incompatible with that of a married man.
It was in those days, in May 1887, when he desperately struggled to find work and money, that Wilde was first approached by Thomas Wemyss Reid, who offered him the job of editor and sent along old numbers of the magazine. Wilde gladly accepted the offer, saying how happy he would be “to join with you in the work of editing and to some extent reconstructing” The Lady’s World, which was then the title of Reid’s publication. He proposed to “take a wider range, as well as a high standpoint, and deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel.”
The magazine, Wilde wrote, “should be made the recognised organ for the expression of women’s opinions on all subjects of literature, art, and modern life, and yet it should be a magazine that men could read with pleasure, and consider it a privilege to contribute to.” The idea of editing a high market magazine inspired bright prospects, which he quickly acted to realize. Immediately preparing a list of possible contributors, he made known his knowledge and expertise of the literary market, which he sought to conquer in this new editorial role.
Having described the type of articles they should commission, Wilde thought to approach female authors who might provide interesting material for the magazine. “Though many of our charming women have not had much literary experience,” he wrote, “they could write for us accounts of great collections of family pictures and the like.” As for the pages that cover literary issues, he volunteered to write a column on books and authors. This column, he proposed, should include literary criticism “done in the form of paragraphs” that express sharp judgements of books. They should be written “not from the standpoint of the scholar or the pedant, but from the standpoint of what is pleasant to read. […] If a book is dull let us say nothing about it, if it is bright let us review it.”
Wilde next demanded a redesign of the cover, and a re-think on illustrations, which he found too numerous and lacking in quality. “With the new cover we should start our new names, and try and give the magazine a cachet at once,” he wrote, “let dress have the end of the magazine; literature, art, travel and social studies the beginning. Music in a magazine is somewhat dull, no one wants it; a children’s column would be much more popular.” He soon convinced Reid that these were good ideas. The Woman’s World was ready to launch and its Oxfordian editor, eager to conquer Fleet Street, had unknowingly started a new period in his literary life that would eventually and decisively define the subjects of his literary works and constitute his new, hybrid literary style.
Wilde was bold in his approach towards both royals and royalties. During his editorship he wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, whom he considered an ideal contributor. The Queen was rumoured to write verse in her spare time and Wilde wanted to be allowed to use one of her poems. “Really, what will people not say and invent,” came the reply, “Never could the Queen in her whole life write one line of poetry serious or comic or make a rhyme even. This is therefore all invention and myth.” But one of Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting later reported to Wilde that the Queen had liked the magazine immensely. She might not have contributed to it but Victoria was a fan of The Woman’s World.
Royals were satisfied and so was Wilde, now, in terms of royalties. Even before formally accepting Reid’s offer, he was clear about his interest in, and need for, the money. In fact, Wilde was so eager to be paid that he protested against the date of the agreement offered to him. He submitted that his “preliminary salary” should begin from May 1, rather than June 1, as Reid proposed. “It is absolutely necessary to start at once,” he wrote, “and I have already devoted a great deal of time to devising the scheme, and having interviews with people of position and importance.”
Socializing was thus transformed into a means of making money as well as establishing literary, and fashionable, connections. He spent an afternoon that month with Mrs. Jeune, a prospective contributor to the magazine; together they drew a list of names they could use in future issues. This was considered work in the world of journalism, Wilde happily discovered, and he would shortly be paid for it. He then went to Oxford “to arrange about the Lady Margaret’s article, and to meet some women of ability.”
Wilde’s strategy as a full-time editor was nothing if not clever. He not only avoided alienating his respectable and intellectual Oxford circle but also wanted to win their blessing and support. He insisted: “we must have the Universities on our side.” If he couldn’t become a new Ruskin, Wilde could at least commission a piece from him. Writers would thereby look up to him, wondering about his judgement of their work in his columns, and so would the ladies and feminists who constituted an important part of England’s reading public.
Wilde’s commissioning style was unorthodox. Asking his contributor to choose her “own aspect” of the matter at hand, he gave them liberty and was generous with his fees. Treating his contributors the same way Nineteenth Century, the prestigious literary magazine of late-Victorian age, did its own writers, Wilde was proud to provide a cultural space to fellow writers who could exploit it for their needs. When he ordered “about eight pages of printed matter in length” from a contributor, Wilde triumphantly offered “the honorarium a guinea a page, which is the same as the Nineteenth Century pays, and more than most of the magazines.”
He wanted the commissioned pieces to be relevant and related to contemporary issues. When he asked a contributor to review a historical book, The Family of Augustus, Wilde instructed her to give the essay a modern twist in order to make it more readable. “The poets and artists in their relation to the court of Augustus should be noticed and something said about the influence of the personality of Cleopatra — but all lightly touched as the French, who are so good on the Roman Empire, have done,” he wrote.
Once the first issue was out and he was paid (six pounds a week, an important sum compared to royalties he received from “The Portrait of Mr W. H.,” though that took far more time and effort than drawing a list of contributors with lady friends), Wilde’s enthusiasm seems to have waned. In a letter to Helena Sickert that year, Wilde took ironic distance from his earlier devotion. “Dear Miss Nellie, I am going to become an Editor (for my sins or my virtues?) and want you to write me an article,” he wrote. Appearing unenthusiastic was part of his upbringing, and once his financial and editorial demands were met by the publishers, Wilde no longer needed to hustle ideas. He could instead take a gentlemanly distance from his work to realize his literary ambitions beneath the veil of a Fleet Street editor, which, for better or worse, had now come to define him for the literary world at large.
One great problem with his new job was that Wilde was not allowed to smoke in the office. This was profoundly irritating for the man who stated that “a cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied.” But there was nothing against spending a day conversing with authors in a comfortable office chair. He seemed to have enjoyed his privileged position immensely, at least in the beginning.
Richard Ellmann beautifully described Wilde’s morning routine in this period when he had not yet travelled everywhere by hansom:
He took the tube from Sloane Square to Charing Cross, then walked up the Strand and Fleet Street to his office on Ludgate Hill, at the Belle Sauvage Yard. He was the best-dressed man in Cassell’s. Arthur Fish says that in bad weather Wilde was often depressed, a fact he would register by his step as he approached. But in a good mood, especially in springtime, he would answer letters energetically, consider the makeup of the magazine, and sit chatting in an armchair for a long time. He disliked Cassell’s rule against smoking, and the duration of his stay was governed by his ability to survive without a cigarette.
Wilde was lucky to have a sub-editor in the office who helped him with arranging commissions and editing pieces, which gradually became a nuisance for him. Arthur Fish was 27 years old when he became Wilde’s assistant in 1887. While his boss gradually became a fascinating figure in London literary circles, Fish was left with the difficult job of running after capricious contributors and editing their sentences. When his boss would leave the office to spend his afternoon at cafes, it was Fish who would cover for him. Barbara Belford, who wrote one of the more recent biographies of Wilde, described their relationship in affectionate terms:
Fish made excuses for his boss’s absences. By the sound of Wilde’s step, Fish determined whether he would get to work or postpone everything. On a bad day, Wilde sighed heavily and asked, ‘Is it necessary to settle anything today?’ If not, he put on his hat and left. In the spring, Fish found him more cheerful, entering the office ‘with epigrammatic brightness’ to illuminate a dull room.
But what exactly was Wilde doing at the Café Royal? From the impressive literary output of this period, it is evident that he was writing essays, and fiction, for his personal use. But it is equally clear that Wilde was working with a similar determination for his literary column in The Woman’s World. He hadn’t made a choice between journalism and what was considered highbrow writing: rather than picking sides, he converged them.
In “A Fascinating Book,” a review of Ernest Lefebure’s Embroidery and Lace: Their Manufacture and History from the Remotest Antiquity to the Present Day, which was published in the November 1888 issue of the magazine, Wilde seemed to have found an ideal way of treating his subject matter which was, in this case, a book on dress. He took critical and ironic distance from the subject at hand but also identified with it, meticulously detailing its qualities, as if his subject matter, the text, was itself a piece of fashion sent for his inspection.
Wilde’s review of the book removed the boundaries between the highbrow criticism of his literary essays and his more or less hackneyed reviews of other authors’ work. Rather than making a choice between the discourses of journalism and serious literature, Wilde unsettled their distinctness and turned a fashion magazine into a literary venture. In doing this he turned literature on its head, making it a suitable medium where the author could talk at length about fashion and dress.
This new authorial voice, which he no doubt had discovered thanks to his editorship, was employed in The Picture of Dorian Gray when the narrator gives an account of the experiences of the book’s eponymous hero. Generations of Wildean scholars happily pointed to the author’s self-plagiarism: Wilde made extensive use of his Woman’s World essay in Dorian Gray.
If Wilde could take verbatim from his review passages that describe Lefebure’s book, then there was little sense in distinguishing the sphere of journalism, at least its respectable forms, from that of fiction. But the larger issue, Wilde now discovered, was that the production and consumption of a fashion magazine resembled the experience of a character influenced by the world around him. Like most readers of a fashion magazine, the modern individual was easily impressionable. As Dorian found out, sensual, cultural, and political influences had immense power on changing lives. This was enough proof for Wilde’s discovery that life imitates art as it does fashion. Editing a fashion magazine showed him that journalism and fiction were forms of representation, and having mastered both spheres, Wilde gained a particular advantage over his contemporaries.
Upon his discoveries, Wilde lost interest in the work of editing completely. He might have failed at working with the Queen, but she was now familiar with his name (it was mostly for Wilde’s natural talent for networking that James Joyce would later call him a “court jester”). He had asked both his wife Constance and his mother to write for the magazine, offers which they happily accepted. But at the end of 1889, following decreasing sales and interest in content, Wilde was forced to resign from his post. The magazine then turned to its original format (though it retained its title) while Wilde returned to freelance.
But the experience had irreversibly altered him. When he published The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lippincott’s Monthly months after his resignation, Wilde had already mastered the authorial voice that he would effectively use in the remainder of his literary career, though that too tragically proved to come to an end after a few years.
It would be mere speculation to imagine what kind of an author Wilde would have become had he not worked at the offices of a woman’s magazine. But with the benefit of hindsight, one can see that authorial plurality proved to be a strength for Wilde, rather than a weakness. He didn’t take refuge in silence nor did he devote all his energies to journalism; the real political act was to be able to work and fight in both worlds. What Gramsci has defined as the war of position, where the dissident penetrates a hegemonic culture to change it from within, was the centerpiece of Wilde’s authorial strategy: it remains relevant and applicable for us as well. In our day, dozens of authors who signed the Occupy Writers petition work for big publishing firms, a situation we find perfectly normal. And if we don’t often distinguish the sphere of proper fiction from that of journalism it is partly thanks to late Victorian authors like Wilde, who let their experiences in the literary marketplace redefine their authorship — and willingly immerse other discourses in their work. Day after day, at our own Café Royal (or Starbucks) sessions, we try to prove wrong the claims for an authentic authorship that is neatly divorced from other discourses, a Sisyphean task which behind it has a long and “Wilde” history.