Essay From The Archive: Oscar Wilde in Belfast - part 3
Writing in The Linen Hall Review in 1988, Wesley McCann explores Wilde's visit of 1884
Wilde's second lecture was given at the same time on the following day, Wednesday January 2, and once again the Newsletter's reporter sets the scene for us.
"The subject of the lecture was 'Personal Impressions of America' and was founded upon topics suggested by a year's travel in the United States and Canada. Such a theme treated by an everyday commonplace lecturer is usually of an interesting character, but dealt with by one who must be regarded as a most perfect and unique specimen of the order, caused something approaching actual excitement.
"For some time previous to the raising of the curtain each part of the house gave evidence that those present were as anxious to see the lecturer as hear the lecture and when precisely at half past two, he emerged from behind the scenes and walked to the small table in the middle of the stage with an elegance that would have filled with admiration the most enthusiastic devotee of the calisthenic art all eyes were centred upon him.
"Having carelessly yet gracefully placed his gloves on the silver salver which had previously borne the indispensable tumbler of water, he assumed a graceful attitude slightly suggestive of the now well-known character sketches in Punch and for an hour and a half, with a flow of language that, perhaps, only once faltered, kept complete hold of the attention of the all-through delighted and frequently highly-amused auditors."
If the newspaper man's tone seems somewhat mocking one senses that by the end of the lecture which he recorded at great length (as again did the Northern Whig) he too was completely won over by Wilde's dazzling display of wit and sharp observation.
It is clear from both newspaper accounts, which are surprisingly similar and a testament to the shorthand skills of both reporters, that Wilde set out to enjoy himself and amuse his audience from start to finish.
He began by assuring his audience that 'he was slightly afraid that he would not be able to give them any useful information about America ... he had not the slightest idea of what its exports and imports were, and for that matter he was not sure whether or not he cared to know'.
He began instead by commenting on the appearance of Americans and the fact that they were always rushing from one place to the next: 'in America catching trains was a sort of national amusement'. America's beauty, he declared, lay not in her cities but in her modern machinery, 'the great engines and the marvellous water wheels'.
America's landscape was so varied and everything was on such a large scale that he would not attempt to describe it. The light, he felt, was unsympathetic to art, and for that reason America had produced no landscape painter of note.
Wilde had however gone to Niagara and he delighted his audience with the observation that 'every young American when he got married went and spent part of the honeymoon at Niagara, where he found that the great waterfall proved to be the first disappointment in American married life'.
Even viewing the Falls was tiresome with the need to dress up in 'a suit of yellow oilskins, a most unbecoming texture', but someone whom Wilde greatly admired had overcome the horrors of the place.
'One of the most charming women of modern times - Madame Sarah Bernhardt - had, however, got photographed in it, with Niagara as a sort of unpretentious background.' (That 'unpretentious' is Wilde at his most wicked.)
He moved on to describe some of America's many peoples, the native Indians and the Chinese of San Francisco whom he clearly admired. He was less complimentary about the Mormons of Salt Lake City and amused his audience highly at their expense.
"As a rule, however, the whole of a Mormon household lived under one roof, the only difference being that each wife has a right to a separate hall door, and so, as one drives through Salt Lake City, most of the houses were nothing but hall doors.
"Each wife, again, insisted on painting her hall door a different colour from everybody else's. On the whole the influence of polygamy or architecture could hardly be said to be refining."
The miners of Leadville, however, were more to his liking as is clear in his account of them.
"He was first at a loss to know upon what subject to address the miners, in order to interest them. Eventually he chose as his subject the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, whose character seemed so much to attract the Leadville miners that at the close of the lecture some of them came to him and asked why he had not brought him with him.
"He (Mr Wilde) explained that he had been dead for some time, and they said, 'dear me, who shot him'?' apparently incapable of conceiving any other method of terminating life. (Laughter) At the end of the apartment was placed a piano, at which a typical pianist sat.
"Over the instrument was a printed notice, which said, 'Please do not shoot at the pianist; he is doing the best he can.' (Applause and laughter) That was the kind of musical criticism in those parts that might make its way over to this country."
Willing as he had been to travel widely and lecture all sorts and conditions he had refused to do so in the case of Griggsville. 'That combination of the Anglo-Saxon "Griggs" with the French "Ville" was contrary to all philosophical and musical laws. He considered he had very good reason for refusing to lecture in such a town.'
Wilde was critical of American children commenting that 'one never knew the chains of absolute tyranny, at least the young American did not, until he was taught it by the young lady of his country.'
Men, however, 'had very little boyhood. They leave school at thirteen or fourteen; college, perhaps, at fifteen; and at twenty had two or three successive bankruptcies, and at twenty-one were millionaires'.
He concluded his lecture with a tribute to American democracy which won enthusiastic applause from his audience.
"What was really the greatness of America? Well, the greatness had nothing to do with science or Niagara, or anything of that kind. The people were brought up in a country where no-one is debarred from reaching the highest possible office without regard to birth or parentage.
"They could point to such men as Abraham Lincoln, one of the best and purest-minded men the world has ever seen - (applause) - men who sprang from the people. This gave them a splendid ambition in life - one of America's chief characteristics.
"He could not but think that when anyone leaves America he has a better knowledge of the meaning of the word Freedom, and the value of the thing Liberty. (Loud applause.)"
So ended Wilde's visit to Belfast. It would be interesting to know more of what he did during the remainder of his stay, and here Forrest Reid no less may provide a clue. In his autobiograph Apostate he describes how as a child he was sitting one afternoon in the Linen Hall Library. The Library was then still in its original home in the White Linen Hall where today the City Hall stands.
"And here, one summer afternoon, just outside the tall iron gates, I beheld my first celebrity. Not that I knew him to be celebrated, but I could see for myself his appearance was remarkable.
"I had been taught that it was rude to stare but on this occasion, though l was with my mother, I could not help staring, and even feeling I was intended to do so.
"He was my mother told me, a Mr Oscar Wilde; and she added, by way of explanation I suppose, that he was aesthetic, like Bunthorne, in Patience. At the time I saw him, he was the guest of a Mrs Thompson of College Gardens."
Reid was born in 1875 so would have been eight at the time of Wilde's visit and this fits in with the period in his life he is describing at this point in his autobiography. He writes however 'one summer afternoon' which may be a trick of memory or may indeed refer to another visit.
The Thompsons lived at 13 College Gardens and Mr Thomas Thompson is described as a Linen Merchant, possibly a partner in a firm in Donegall Square South. The Thompson's link with Wilde is as yet unexplained but, oh! to have been at their dinner table on the nights of January 1 and 2 1884.
I am grateful to Mr Hugh Russell of Belfast Public Libraries for his help in the preparation of this article.