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Early Food Influences — All in the Family

Issues related to food permeate the life and works of Oscar Wilde. Oscar grew up in the home of his famous father, Dr. William Wilde, a famous eye surgeon who opened and financed his own eye clinic. According to David Pritchard, the financing for the clinic as well as the familyís wealthy life-style was generated from the fortune Dr. Wilde made in the lucrative sugar trade (10). Another food substance besides sugar had an influence on Oscarís early life. Potatoes, or lack thereof, also figured closely in Wildeís early exposure to food issues. According to Hesketh Pearsonís Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit, "William conducted a statistical survey of the diseases that were afflicting the Irish population after years of the Great Potato Famine" (6).

Discussions regarding potatoes not only fascinated William, they were also a topic of interest to Oscarís mother, Jane Elgee, whose pen-name was Speranza. She met William during a political rally related to the lack of food, notably the effects of famine on the Irish peasantry (Pearson 9). She believed that English rule must be overthrown through rebellion. According to Pearson, Jane Elgee was one of the few members of the Young Ireland movement who was not deported. All others in the Young Ireland movement members were charged with treason and transported to Australia as convicts. Perhaps because she was female and had Anglo-Irish background, Jane was spared from her compatriotís fate and remained in Dublin without hindrance from the government. She married William Wilde, Oscarís father, in 1851 (Pearson 9).

Unlike Oscar whose sexual focus was split between one woman (his wife) as well as several men to satisfy his homosexual interests, his fatherís sexual preference was split between his wife and many mistresses. One of his fatherís stormy ex-lovers even included allusions to food in her diatribe against Williamís multiple illicit children:

Your Progeny is quite a pest
To those who hate such Ďcrittersí
Some sport Iíll have, or Iím blest
I'll fry the Wilde breed in the West
Then you can call them "Fritters.'" [Prichard 18]

Another behavioral trait which that distinguished his father from Oscar is that William was quite slovenly. According to Keane, Oscar's planned "disorderly manner," and "irregularity of plan" had little to do with any uncleanliness carelessly practiced by William (40). According to Pearson, William's offensive behavior also seeped into his unhygienic practices like tasting the soup at dinner parties with his dirty thumb (9). It seems that the shockingly brash behavior of his father permeated the dialogue of one of Oscar's characters in his play, A Woman of No Importance. The character states: "To get into the best society, nowadays, one has either to feed people, amuse people or shock people. A man who can dominate the London dinner-table can dominate the world" (Keyes 56).

Oscar's Travels and Food

Oscar sat at a variety of dinner tables, not the least of which was Walt Whitman's. While sharing a bottle of Whitman's "notoriously vile elderberry wine" (Pritchard 64), Whitman voiced his disagreement with Oscar's aesthetic philosophy, telling him, "It always seems to me that the fellow who makes a dead set at beauty by itself is in a bad way. My idea is that beauty is a result not an abstraction" (64). Leaving Whitman and the East cost, Wilde continued his lecture tour across the United States, sharing his aesthetic philosophy with packed houses. During one of his many stops along the route from New York to California, Oscar lectured in Colorado. While in the fabled Colorado's "Matchless" silver mine, Wilde dined underground with the miners. According to Prichard, in order to honor Oscar's appearance and willingness to eat "in the earth's bowels"(64), they opened a new mineshaft named "The Oscar" in his honor.

Across the Atlantic, during a period when Wilde lived in France, Oscar frequented cafes and restaurants popular with poets and artists, several of whom were English expatriates. The acquaintances Oscar made over wine, tea, and crumpets introduced him to the bohemian life of Montmartre. He found a ready market for his literary skills as a critic for fashionable journals like The Pall Mall Gazette and The Dramatic Review. As a literary critic, Oscar, who employed a wide-ranging and astute theoretical approach, often pressed the superiority of the French over the less daring English.

Oscar's Criticisms and Food

His book and drama reviews were like himself, witty, opinionated and sometimes waspish. And like encounters that referred to his tastes, the subject matter of his reviews at times related to food. In a quote from Pritchard's Oscar Wilde, Wilde's enjoyment of a literary joke using allusions to food is evident in his review for The Chronicle of the Mites , which he wrote for The Pall Mall Gazette of 15 February 1888:

The Chronicle of the Mites is a mock-heroic poem about the inhabitants of a decaying cheese who speculate about the origin of their species and hold learned discussions upon the meaning of evolution and the Gospel according to Darwin. This cheese-epic is a rather unsavoury [sic] production and the style is so monstrous and so realistic that the author should be called the Gorgon-Zola of literature. [80]

Food References in Other Writing's by Wilde

References to food appear throughout his plays and novel from the "reckless extravagance" (358) of cucumber sandwiches in The Importance of Being Earnest to the play's famous quip: Jack assures Lady Bracknell "to partake of two luncheons in one day would not be liberty. It would be license" (408). Wilde also had Jack wittily explain, "When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am really in great trouble. . . I refuse everything except food and drink" (410). Another food-related quip that further demonstrates his characteristic rapier wit appears in The Picture of Dorian Gray: "She tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant" (22).

Lord Alfred Douglas [Bosie] and Food

Even his ill-fated relationship with his lover, Bosie [Lord Alfred Douglas], was punctuated with food issues. When Bosie returned from Egypt, he bombarded Oscar with requests to return to their former relationship, which Oscar initially refused to do. However, when Bosie threatened suicide, Oscar relented and went to Paris to rescue him. This relationship with Bosie that led to his eventual imprisonment. "De Profundis" was written while Oscar was in jail for having an homosexual relationship with Bosie, among others. It is through his amazingly descriptive details included in "De Profundis" that we learn about his arrival in Paris:

When I arrived in Paris, your tears, breaking out again and again all through the evening, and falling over your cheeks like rain as we sat, at dinner first at Voisin's., at supper at Paillard's afterwards.

It seems that many of Oscar's financial problems derived from his wining and dining "the petulant Bosie" (Prichard, 120-25). In a letter from Reading Prison included in Wilde's Complete Letters dated 8 March 1897, Oscar wrote to More Adey about the "three wasted summer months I spent on Bosie" (679).

Oscar's aesthetic philosophy, which rendered him sensitive and appreciative of art and beauty (including beautifully presented meals), coupled with his need to be socially correct and his desire to be pleasing in appearance, placed him in a precarious position in his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Oscar wrote:

My ordinary expenses with you [Bosie] for an ordinary day in London Ė for luncheon, dinner, supper, amusements, hansoms and the rest of it ranged from £12 to £20; ...for our three months at Goring my expenses (rent of course included) were £1,340. [128]

In fact, their penchant to eat together at Oscar's expense began the destruction of Wilde. When Bosie and Oscar returned together from Paris, in defiance of Douglas' father, the Marques of Queensberry's, who had ordered his son to stay away from Wilde, Queensberry caught them lunching together at Café Royal. Even though Oscar had apparently charmed the Marques, he still wrote one of his notorious bullying letters. Prichard includes that part of the letter, where he refers to his son and Oscar eating together: "With my own eyes I saw you both in the most loathsome and disgusting relationship as expressed by your manner and expression" (126). Queensbury did not stop harassing Oscar until there was a public scandal. In one incident the irate Marques turned up on the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest to disrupt the performance, but George Alexander, the theater manager, had received word of his plans and prevented him from entering the theatre. Here too, a food-related insult was left for Oscar. "He left a grotesque bouquet of vegetables for me!" Wilde wrote to Bosie, "This of course makes his conduct ridiculous, robs it of its dignity" (143). Food also played a role at his trial; the prosecutor revealed that Oscar had wined, dined, and given money to several working-class men. According to Pritchard, this lead to further questioning about his behavior with the men and ultimately lead to his conviction (143).

After Oscar went to prison, he complained to Bosie that his "interests were merely in your meals and moods" (687) and not in which Wilde's playwriting, which he frequently and consistently disrupted. Oscar reminded him that he would drive up to St. James Place where he was trying to write An Ideal Husband. In another letter, Oscar recounts what occurred each day over a period of three months:

At twelve o'clock you drove up, smoking and chattering till 1:30, when I had to take you out to luncheon at the Café Royal or the Berkley. Luncheon with its liqueurs lasted usually till 3:30. For an hour you retired to White's. At tea-time you appeared again, and stayed till it was time to dress for dinner. You dined with me either at the Savoy or at Tite Street. We did not separate as a rule till after midnight, as supper at Willis's had to wind up the entrancing day. [686]

In another letter, he blamed his bankruptcy on Bosie's demands, which mostly included "the pleasures of eating drinking, and the like" for which he spent "more than £5000 in actual money" (688). In a letter to Bosie from Reading Jail, Oscar recalled

One of the most delightful dinners I remember ever having had is one Robbie and I had together in a little Soho cafť, which cost about as many shillings as my dinners to you used to cost pounds. Out of my dinner with Robbie came the first and best of all my dialogues. Idea, title, treatment, mode, everything was struck out at a 3 franc 50 c. table-d'hŰte. Out of the reckless dinners with you nothing remains but the memory that too much was eaten and too much was drunk. [688]

It should be noted that Wilde relates more of his relationship with other men, especially Robbie, in "The Decay of Lying."

Food Issues in Wilde's Children's Stories

Nine years before Oscar was incarcerated in Her Majesty's prisons, he wrote children's fairy tales that also had food-related issues. The title of his second volume of fairy tales, The House of Pomegranates (1888) obviously relates to food. The thought of publishing in the popular Victorian genre of children's fairy tales appealed to his aesthetic tastes because the children's volumes were often beautifully bound and quite fashionable. According Wilde's introduction to his volume of A House of Pomegranates, he intended many of his children's stories to appeal equally to adults (vii). The stories are allegorical or satirical, and reflect Oscar's aesthetic obsession with the importance of Beauty; however, I find that the strongest quality is the sadness that runs through so many of the tales.

One of the stories that dwells on suffering and redemption is "The Happy Prince," which, like several of his stories, ends in sorrow and death rather than "And they lived happily ever after." "The Happy Prince," is a statue in the palace of St. Souci, and the prince stares out over the city, seeing its suffering poor. He asks the swallow to take his ruby sword pommel, his sapphire eyes and his gold leaf to give to the hungry people in the streets below (3-24). When the statue of the little prince lost all of its decorative qualities, the Town Counselors said that he had become "shabby" (22) and "little better than a beggar!" (22). The statue, who removed his adornment, becomes the image of the hungry people he is trying to feed. However, the townspeople can only see that since the statue "is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful" (23).

I think that Wilde here makes two seemingly disparate arguments, one leading to the conclusion that beauty and value are equal. The second argument has intimations of socialistic theory because in addition to the statue being reduced in temporal value, the sparrow, who helped him share his good fortune and ease the hunger of the poor, dies for lack of sustenance. This sad end reflects Wilde's thinking in his essay, "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," since the aim of the prince born of privilege was to enlist the sparrow to help him feed those whose station was far below his own. Wilde saw this behavior equivalent to a means that would only perpetuate the bleak future of those who are poor. Since the story's protagonist is only a statue who has some life-like qualities, and the character who dies is not a human but a sparrow, the story is effective as a children's story, but with a subtle message to the adult reader regarding abundance and poverty.

"The Devoted Friend," a story within a story that teaches a Water-rat the meaning of being a true friend, also cconcerns the hunger. The Linnet tells of little Hans who gave his productive vegetable garden to his admiring neighbor, a wealthy Miller; however, Miller did not reciprocate his friendship. Hans "suffered a good deal from cold and hunger, and often had to go to bed without any supper but a few dried pears or some hard nuts" (64). Even though the Miller's youngest son wanted to "give him [Hans] half [of his] porridge" (65), the Miller admonished his son and told him that "if little Hans came up here, and saw . . . our good supper, and our great cask of red wine, he might get envious, and envy is a most terrible thing, and would spoil anybody's nature" (65). Wilde included a point that there was a moral to the story being told to the greedy Water-rat; however, the moral was implied, rather than blatantly stated.

In another tale in The Happy Prince and Other Stories, which combines hunger and self aggrandizement, "The Remarkable Rocket" bragged to the Duck that he was "made for public life"; however, once that was said, the Duck said, "Ah! The higher things of life, how fine they are! And that reminds me how hungry I feel" at which point the Duck abandoned the Rocket and "swam away down the stream" (113).

In another food reference in one of Wilde's children's fairy tales found in the collection entitled A House of Pomegranates, The Birthday of the Infanta juxtaposes a beautiful child celebrating her birthday with her beautiful friends and a lovely birthday cake against a little Dwarf who thinks that a beautiful white rose thrown to him by the Infanta meant that she had affection for him. To further illustrate that dichotomy between the Infanta and the Dwarf, while the selfish Infanta eats cake unto which "her initials [were] worked all over it in painted sugar" (43), the Dwarf generously shares his black bread with the birds and hungry wolves (47).

Similarlly, "The Fisherman and his Soul," included in A House of Pomegranates, relates a story of a fisherman who used the singing of a Mermaid to lure fish into his net (67). When the fisherman went to the temple to seek an audience with the god who might remedy his dilemma, it wasn't until sweet wine and feasting were mentioned by the fisherman that the priest decided to take him to see the god (93).

Wilde makes a point of listing all the foods various merchants brings to a bazaar such as wine sellers with wine in "great black skins on their shoulders" and

"the market-place stand of the fruit sellers, who sell all kinds of fruit: ripe figs, ... melons, ...citrons and rose apples and cluster of white grapes, round red-gold oranges, and oval lemons of green gold" (99-100).

It was at the stall of "a seller of dates" (102) that the fisherman finally was given his chance of seeing the Emperor.

In a more dramatic setting, "The Star-Child," another story in A House of Pomegranates, the protagonist is taken to a dungeon where his is given "mouldy [sic] bread on a trencher . . . and some brackish water in a cup" (147), which the Star-Child was forced to eat and drink. Later in the story, the child does not fulfill the requirements of his quest and once again he is given the trencher and the cup, this time by the Magician, but each is empty (151). The story ends on a hopeful note, hinting at "plenty in the land" (158) after "the evil Magician [was] banished" (158).

According to the evidence found in Keyes's Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde: A Treasury of Quotations , Oscar spent his last days as a "shabby absinthe drinker in French cafes" (13) and was outrageous to the end — sipping champagne on his deathbed, remarking that he was "dying beyond his means" (13). In conclusion, food played a strong role in many aspects of Wilde's life and his writing. Unfortunately, that appreciation for splendid dining emphasized in "De Profundis" had a clearly detrimental effect on him.

Works Cited

Keyes, Ralph. Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde: A Treasury of Quotations, Anecdotes, and Repartee. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996.

Pearson, Hesketh. Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946.

Pritchard, David. Oscar Wilde. New Lanark, Scotland: David Dale House, 2001.

Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Holland, Merlin & Rupert Hart-Davis, Ed. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000.

Wilde, Oscar. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow, Scotland: HarperCollins, 2003.

Wilde, Oscar. The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A House of Pomegranates. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977.

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. London: Methuen and Co., 1957.

Wilde, Oscar. Literary Criticism of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Stanley Weintraub. Lincoln, Nebraska: U of Nebraska Press, 1968.

Additional Wilde Bibliography

Aldington, Richard, Ed. The Portable Oscar Wilde: The Epitome of a Brilliant and Tortured Wit, Seventh Edition. New York: The Viking Press, 1959.

Hart-Davis, Rupert, Ed. More Letters of Oscar Wilde. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1985.

Jackson, John Wyse, Ed. The Uncollected Oscar Wilde. London: Fourth Estate, 1991.

Leach, Maria, Ed. The Importance of Being a Wit: The Insults of Oscar Wilde. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1997.

Wilde, Oscar. A House of Pomegranates. London: James R. Osgood McIlvaine, 1891.

Wilde, Oscar. Intentions: The Decay of Lying, Pen Pencil and Poison, The Critic as Artist, The Truth of Masks. New York: Brentano's, 1905.


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Last modified 11 July 2009