Welcome, St Oscar! A new canonisation for the Millennium? As we approach the centenary of Oscar Wilde’s death, there will be many books, lectures and exhibitions to sharpen our focus on this brilliant playwright and failed poet, now emerging as a magus. A good introduction to his philosophy might be Table Talk, edited by Thomas Wright, a marvellous collection of Wilde’s after-dinner stories, only some of them familiar. A lovely book, this – thoughtfully and intelligently assembled by Thomas Wright, who has put these fabled impromptus into context, describing both the style of delivery and the setting for each tale. Granted that reading such stories can produce only a ghost of their original effect, this book gives as close an impression as we can hope to enjoy of the famous ‘golden voice’.
The effect of the stories was ‘extraordinary’. Many listeners ‘wept openly’. Others described Wilde as ‘emitting rays’ while he talked. Someone screamed when she saw a halo around his head. There seems to have been an aura of magic about him which defied rational explanation. His boyhood holidays spent in Illaunroe in western Ireland gave him intuitions of a mystic, Celtic consciousness, in which one could ‘hear things the ear cannot hear and see invisible things’. Yeats recognised in Wilde the ‘half-civilised blood’ that ran in his own veins, too. Like his mother, Oscar believed in fate and the evil eye, and never hailed a hansom drawn by a white horse. This superstitiousness is central to his life, and probably explains his refusal to escape prosecution and go abroad in 1895, as he had many opportunities to do. It was not his destiny to escape.
Barbara Belford’s biography Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius devotes considerable space to Wilde’s childhood and early influences, which is new and interesting and gives greater balance to his later life. Lady Wilde’s formidable personality springs from the pages, and one realises that Oscar’s fabled conversation was as much inherited as