Rolling Heads and Wild(e) Imaginings

A letter left within a book may have been put there for any number of reasons. A forgotten bookmark perhaps, or, was the letter kept with the book as both were linked in some way?

Such a letter tucked into a limited edition of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé would almost certainly fall into the latter category. This play (based on the Biblical story of Salomé, stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, who requests the head of John the Baptist as a reward for her erotic dance) brings together under one cover some of the leading lights of the late Victorian ‘Decadent Movement’.

Salome Title Page

Title page of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salomé’

Oscar (Fingal O’Flahertie Wills) Wilde (1854-1900) requires little introduction. Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (1870-1945) was his partner in the ‘amour fatale’ that would lead to Wilde’s absolute ruin. Like Wilde, but under quite different circumstances, Douglas also spent time in prison; in 1924 he was detained for six months in Wormwood Scrubs for a criminal libel against Winston Churchill!

The handwritten letter is from Douglas, who translated Salomé from the French to the book’s former owner A.J.A. Symons. Symons (1900-1941) was a writer, bibliographer and book collector. Outside of the literary area, he was associated with the foundation of the ‘Saintsbury Club’, a forerunner of the ‘International Wine & Food Society’. According to his biographer “Symons lived a financially precarious life to the full and, in his own phrase, ‘no one so poor has lived so well'”.

 

The letter’s contents are routine – they refer back to a previous business correspondence, a cheque received and a meeting ‘for tea’ the following day. The cheque to Douglas may have been in payment for the book – it was a very limited edition and Symons may only have been able to get a copy from Douglas. That would put Bosie as a former owner as well as Symons. £5 – 5s (i.e. five guineas) would have been a likely price (and a very good one) in 1925.

Bosie's Letter

Bosie’s letter to Symons

Also with the play is a typed critique of the Beardsley illustrations signed by Symons. Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898).was tasked with producing an illustrated edition of Salomé but argued with Wilde and Douglas, not over the drawings, but over the translation. He concluded that it would be dishonest to put Douglas’s name on the title page when the translation had been so much altered by Wilde. No translator is actually credited in the book.

Beardsley was an extraordinary character: He is quoted as saying

‘I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing.’

Wilde said he had ‘a face like a silver hatchet and grass green hair’. His illustrations might indeed occasionally be labeled as grotesque.

Incidentally, Douglas, Beardsley and Wilde all converted to Catholicism in later life; Wilde, allegedly, on his deathbed.

Genius, tragedy, betrayal and eccentricity, good food and wine, and a final movement from Decadence to Catholicism: many indeed are the associations of this very special copy of Wilde’s play.

 


References

Wilde, Oscar, 1854-1900 (1894). Salomé: a tragedy in one act / translated from the French of Oscar Wilde; pictured by Aubrey Beardsley. London: Copeland & Day.
UCD Special Collections (42.T.20)

Ellmann, R. (1987). Oscar Wilde. New York: Vintage Books.

Drabble, M. (1985). The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barber, G. ( 2004). “Symons, Alphonse James Albert (1900–1941).” Giles Barber in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kingston, A. (2008). Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan.

 

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