An image of Oscar Wilde.
Oscar Wilde in 1889, around the time he was publishing the short stories now featured in Nicholas Frankel's “The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde: An Annotated Selection.” (Getty Images)

VCU English professor edits new collection of nine classic Oscar Wilde short stories

The collection is the “perfect distillation of one of the Victorian era’s most remarkable writers.”

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Virginia Commonwealth University professor and Oscar Wilde biographer and scholar Nicholas Frankel, Ph.D., has edited a new collection of short stories by Wilde that reflects the legendary Irish author, poet and playwright’s storytelling mastery.

The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde: An Annotated Selection,” published by Harvard University Press, features nine short stories published between 1887 and 1891 that highlight “Wilde’s trademark wit, style, and sharp social criticism,” according to the publisher, which adds that they are “the perfect distillation of one of the Victorian era’s most remarkable writers.”

Frankel, a professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is also the author or editor of five previous volumes related to Wilde, including “The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde,” “Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition.” Frankel recently discussed his latest collection with VCU News.

Wilde is best known for “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” For readers who aren't as familiar with his other works, what do you hope they get from this collection of short stories?

First and foremost that Wilde was an extremely gifted storyteller. He had to work hard at playwriting, which he came to relatively late in his short life. (Wilde’s greatest plays were actually commissions.) Storytelling, by contrast, came naturally to him, possibly because of his upbringing in the oral traditions of his native Ireland. He first told many of his stories impromptu and aloud, with no expectations of a financial reward, to open-mouthed listeners who never forgot the experience. Only later was he persuaded to write down his stories and publish them. Consequently, many of his stories have the easygoing conversational style and incisive verbal wit we associate with Wilde himself.

Nicholas Frankel.
Nicholas Frankel, Ph.D

But I want my readers also to see that Wilde took his fiction very seriously too. He brought great artistry to his short stories. They contain some of the most beautiful prose he ever wrote, and he had great ambitions for them, using them as a means of articulating his often caustic criticism of the crude mercantilism and injustice of Victorian Britain. Years before his groundbreaking novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” we can see Wilde utilizing his fiction, subtly and very carefully, as a vehicle for expressing his social and sexual dissidence.

How influential have these stories been alongside some of his other works? Are they overlooked by modern readers?

They have certainly been overlooked by adult readers, who have been quick to label as “children’s literature” stories that have long proven popular with children and young adults, such as “The Happy Prince” and “The Selfish Giant.”

But Wilde — who was schooled in the folklore of Ireland, where he was born and grew up — insisted that such stories were written “not for children, but for childlike people from 18 to 80” and that they would appeal to “all those who have kept the childlike faculty of wonder and joy.” In fact, as my VCU students could tell you, there are some decidedly adult themes in these stories, and some early reviewers argued that they aren’t appropriate for children at all.

Moreover, stories such as “The Model Millionaire” and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” (the latter a comic dress rehearsal for “The Picture of Dorian Gray”) are clearly aimed at adult readers: they are filled with mischief and have strong veins of social satire and conversational wit, much like “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Wilde’s other plays.

In what format were the stories in this collection stories originally published? Who was the intended audience?

Five of the nine stories in this collection were first published in popular magazines aimed at highly literate, adult readerships — two of them with North American circulation as well as British — usually with a “society” component. In some ways, their publication was analogous to that of short fiction in The New Yorker today. Wilde published frequently in these magazines, he knew their editors and readerships well, and he was himself a magazine editor for much of the period (1887-91) when he published this fiction.

The other four stories in the collection were published in exquisitely produced books, now cherished by book historians and bibliophiles, illustrated by book artists such as Walter Crane and Charles Ricketts, who are now seen as influential forerunners of art nouveau. (The best of Crane’s and Ricketts’ illustrations are reproduced in my collection, along with contemporary photographs.) Wilde always took the design of his books very seriously — he hand-picked Ricketts as his personal illustrator, calling him “the subtle and fantastic decorator” of his books — and again early reviewers weren’t sure whether the resulting books were aimed at adults or children. We now know that some of the stories were originally intended for popular magazines for adults as well.

The stories in the collection were published between 1887 and 1891. What was happening in Wilde's life at the time? Do you see reflections of that period of his life in these stories?

This is the period shortly before Wilde found great success writing plays and just before his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” which represents the culmination of his career as a fiction writer. For much of this period, Wilde earned his living as a magazine editor and journalist, writing witty reviews and press articles, and in many ways he found his literary voice in magazines rather than in book publications or in writing for the stage.

The book cover of “The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde: An Annotated Selection" with a drawing depiction of Oscar Wilde and the text "Edited by Nicholas Frankel."
“The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde: An Annotated Selection.”

More personally, he had not been long married and had recently become the father of two small boys, which may help explain the critical engagement with Hans Christian Andersen’s writings that’s detectable in some of Wilde’s stories. (While he admired Andersen’s storytelling and fantasy, he despised Andersen’s sentimental and over-optimistic endings).

As important, Wilde had recently begun his first documented affair with another man — a two-year affair with Robert Ross, later his literary executor, who remained a steadfast friend right up to Wilde’s death in 1900 and whose ashes are encased in Wilde’s tomb alongside his own remains. Among other things, Wilde’s affair with Ross made him a sexual outlaw, forcing him into a life of secrecy and dissent at which he chafed more and more with each passing year. (After openly challenging in court the insulting accusation that he was a “sodomite,” Wilde was eventually convicted, imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor in 1895, for what the British called “gross indecency”).

All of these strains of Wilde’s life are palpable in his short stories. We hear him finding his voice as a writer, finding new delight in the act of tale-telling, but we also see him confronting the cruel obstacles placed in the way of true love and admiring the quiet heroism of those forced to take a stand on their own. And we feel his affinity for the dispossessed and the disenfranchised in a world ruled, often thoughtlessly, by the rich and powerful.

Anything else you'd like to share about the collection?

It’s a book that I believe Wilde himself would have been proud of — not merely because it represents a carefully curated collection of stories that were close to his heart, but also because it prints them with the care and craftsmanship that he always insisted should be put into his book publications. Harvard University Press has given a lot of thought to the book’s design and illustrations, and this would have gratified Wilde immensely. “The artist is the creator of beautiful things,” he famously proclaimed.