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Doyle and Wilde

Literary enthusiasts are marking the anniversary of one the most curious coincidences in English literature. Martin Hickes reports.

 

There can hardly be two more contrasting figures in the literary world – the stolid, statesman-like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the genius, aesthetic Oscar Wilde.

 

Enthusiasts of the pair worldwide are preparing to mark one of the most celebrated literary coincidences this autumn.

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, recently remade as the film Dorian Gray, has its curious beginnings in a chance meeting with author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in a tale almost worthy of a Holmes mystery.

 

Luminaries from the world of politics, literature and academia will be honouring the meeting with a special plaque ceremony this autumn in London.

 

Doyle and Wilde, whose 150th and 155th birthdays respectively are being marked this year, - Wilde’s in October - were both young men in their 30s in 1889.

 

Wilde’s classic late gothic horror – the story of a fashionable young man’s descent into decadence, and a self-destructive lifestyle with Faustian overtones – was vilified by many Victorians at the time.

 

But it’s some now say it’s arguable that neither Wilde, Dorian Gray, nor his fellow literary Victorian giant Doyle would have been propelled to such public fame (and infamy) were it not for their now-celebrated chance meeting at a fashionable London hotel.

 

In the late summer of 120 years ago, Philadelphia publisher Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, invited a few guests to dinner at the elegant Langham Hotel in London, the subsequent venue of many a Holmes story.
 
Among them were two promising emerging writers: Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde.
 
Stoddart was considering an English publication of Lippincott's with a British editor and British contributors.
 

Doyle in his autobiography called the meeting ‘a golden evening’ and despite their differences both he, Stoddart and especially Wilde got along famously.

 
As a result of that evening, Doyle contributed to Lippincott's his second Sherlock Holmes story, "The Sign of Four", and fame was later guaranteed.
 
He would later go on to write his masterwork The Hound of the Baskervilles.
 

Wilde published his first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the magazine's July 1890 issue, just months after the meeting.

 
But unlike Doyle’s work which was largely lionised, initial response to Wilde's ‘debauched’ novel was both vehement and negative.
 
The St. James Gazette of June 20, 1890, referred to what it called the "garbage of the French Décadents" and the "prosy rigmaroles" of the story.  The Daily Chronicle called it a "poisonous book."
 
Wilde responded to the criticism of his work with numerous letters to editors and added a preface to the book version that came out in the spring of 1891.
 
He also extensively revised Lippincott's version, adding six new chapters softening the homoerotic references.
 
Contrary to reviewers charges that the novel was immoral, Wilde was concerned that the novel was too moral, that it was morally instructional in its portrayal of a man who succumbs to vice.  

Both Wilde and Doyle - never out of fashion - are enjoying something of a revival in this, a major anniversary year.

The Sherlock Holmes Society of London, in collaboration with the Oscar Wilde Society, the Langham Hotel and the City of Westminster, has commissioned a plaque to commemorate the remarkable event.

It will be unveiled at the Langham on 19 November by Gyles Brandreth, whose ‘Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries’ have been enthusiastically reviewed world-wide.

2009 will see the release of Guy Ritchie's film Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr (winter 2009) and a good deal more besides.

The Valley of Fear will feature in Gyles Brandreth's series (in BBC 1's The One Show) on places which have inspired works of fiction.

The Hound of the Baskervilles will feature in John Sergeant's Tourist
Trail, an ITV 1 series, in which Sergeant accompanies overseas visitors to Britain.

STV is preparing a documentary, The Search for Sherlock Holmes, to be
presented by David Hayman, and a series The Greatest Scot, which will include Arthur Conan Doyle.

All these programmes will have some input from members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.

Gyles Brandreth, speaking to the YP, said:

“Since I was a boy, I have been an avid admirer of both the works of Oscar Wilde and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

“For the first ten years of my life I lived a stone’s throw from the London home of Sherlock Holmes. When I was ten, my family moved to Baker Street and we lived on the block that includes 221B.

“About ten years ago, in the late 1990s, by chance, I picked up a copy of Memories and Adventures, the autobiography of Arthur Conan Doyle, published in 1924, and discovered, on page 94, that Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde were friends. I was amazed. It would be hard to imagine an odder couple.

“Famously, Oscar Wilde was a brilliant conversationalist. He was, also, by every account, a careful listener and an acute observer. And he had a poet’s eye. He observed; he listened; he reflected: and then—with his extraordinary gifts of imagination and intellect—he saw the truth.

“And just as Holmes had his weakness for cocaine, Wilde has his weaknesses, too. What makes Wilde particularly attractive as a character to write about is that he was such an original and engaging human being.”

Crime writer Peter Robinson, originally from Leeds, now Canada, and author of the Inspector Banks series of novels, says:

I think The Picture of Dorian Gray has been an influence in the way writers have dealt with the whole idea of man being split into opposing parts, along with the way Robert Louis Stevenson expressed a similar idea in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekll and Mr. Hyde.

“It's an intriguing idea, this battle between the good and the evil aspects of man's nature and it hasn't ceased to exert its grip on both writers and readers.

“Holmes was more a collection of mannerisms and props than a realistic character. But the themes of many of the stories continue to have relevance today, and though forensic science has progressed a great deal since the nineteenth century, when many of the Holmes tales were written, Holmes's use of it and his faith in science generally are reflected in the myriad books, movies and TV programmes that feature the criminalist as hero or heroine.

“Even a popular medical series such as House clearly imitates Holmes--and I doubt that the similarity between a "house" and "homes/Holmes" is unintentional.

“It must have been a remarkable meeting between the extraordinary pair.
 
Professor Francis O’Gorman, Head of School of English at the University of Leeds, says:

‘We must not forget that Conan Doyle was also a writer of lively Gothic tales.  There is a wonderful story of a séance in which a unicorn appears, and a tale about an ancient Egyptian who lives into the nineteenth century.  Wilde, on the other hand, was not averse to writing something like the detective story.

“His ‘The Portrait of Mr W.H.’ is a detective story-like tale about the discovery of the person about whom Shakespeare wrote his sonnets.  The cross-overs between these two writers is more than one might think.’”

ENDS

  • The British edition of The Sign of Four originally sold for one shilling and the American for 25 c. Surviving copies are now worth several thousand $s.
  • Guy Ritchie’s movie stars Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr Watson and is scheduled for release at Christmas.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray is sometimes mistakenly referring to as the Portrait of Dorian Gray.
  • The Price of Love, Peter Robinson’s latest work is published by Hodder in the UK and in the US by Morrow. He divides his time between Canada and North Yorkshire.
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