Oscar Wilde’s short stories for children are magnificent, especially ‘The Happy Prince’, ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, and ‘The Selfish Giant’. Equally, his plays have a sparkling brilliance unmatched, I think, by any other British playwright. What could be wittier than ‘The Importance of being Earnest’? And his one novel, A Picture of Dorian Gray, is a chilling masterpiece.
This short story, for me, was therefore a little disappointing. It lacked the sparkling wit of Wilde’s comedies, the foreboding horror of Dorian Gray, and the pathos and charm of the best of Wilde’s other short stories. As a piece of Oscar Wilde, it is not up to scratch; but, as a piece of literature, it is still fairly enjoyable.
Lady Windermere’s pet cheiromantist (a hand reader) starts telling fortunes at a gathering of London’s elites. When he looks at the hand of Lord Arthur Saville, the cheiromantist blanches and gives a faltering and elusive answer. Only in a later, private interview, bribed to the tune of £100, will the cheiromantist reveal what he saw: murder. Lord Arthur Saville is of the practical type and, once he has recovered from his horror, he thinks he had better get the business over before his marriage to the sweet Sybil Merton. Thus resolved, all that remains is to select a suitable victim and an effective means of murder. Wilde follows Lord Arthur through the trials and tribulations that a dutiful and naive Victorian gentleman faces, when attempting to execute his calling to murder.
There are some amusing passages in this, and it is just sufficiently unpredictable to keep the reader in suspense. For me, however, the highlight of this short story were passages of Wilde’s exceptional prose. Often I don’t agree with his viewpoint; but, how wonderfully he puts it across!
‘Actors are so fortunate. They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or in comedy, whether they will suffer or make merry, laugh or shed tears. But in real life it is different. Most men and women are forced to play parts for which they have no qualifications. Our Guildensterns play Hamlet for us, and our Hamlets have to jest like Prince Hal. The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.’
‘And yet it was not the mystery, but the comedy of suffering that struck him; its absolute uselessness, its grotesque want of meaning.’
‘A London free from the sin of night and the smoke of day, a pallid, ghost-like city, a desolate town of tombs! He wondered what they thought of it, and whether they knew anything of its splendour and its shame, of its fierce, fiery-coloured joys, and its horrible hunger, of all it makes and mars from morn to eve.’
I also learnt a new word (I love learning new words!): ‘eld’, meaning ‘old age’, ‘former times’, ‘the past’. Isn’t it an evocative term!
All in all, this story didn’t topple my favourites Wilde pieces from their pedestals; but it was definitely worth 80p!