Beautiful Untrue Things: Forging Oscar Wilde’s Extraordinary Afterlife
Borrowing its title from Oscar Wilde’s essay "The Decay of Lying," this study engages questions of fraudulent authorship in the literary afterlife of Oscar Wilde. The unique cultural moment of Wilde’s early-twentieth-century afterlife, Gregory Mackie argues, afforded a space for marginal and transgressive forms of literary production that, ironically enough, Wilde himself would have endorsed. Beautiful Untrue Things recovers the careers of several forgers who successfully inhabited the persona of the Victorian era’s most infamous homosexual and arguably its most successful dramatist.
More broadly, this study tells a larger story about Oscar Wilde’s continued cultural impact at a moment when he had fallen out of favour with the literary establishment. It probes the activities of a series of eccentric and often outrageous figures who inhabited Oscar Wilde’s much-mythologized authorial persona – in forging him, they effectively wrote as Wilde – in order to argue that literary forgery can be reimagined as a form of performance. But to forge Wilde and generate "beautiful untrue things" in his name is not only an exercise in role-playing – it is also crucially a form of imaginative world-making, resembling what we describe today as fan fiction.
- Division: Scholarly Publishing
- World Rights
- Page Count: 296 pages
- Dimensions: 6.0in x 1.0in x 9.0in
Author InformationGregory Mackie is an assistant professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures at the University of British Columbia.
Table of contents
List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Truth of Fakes
1. The Importance of Being Authentic
2. The Picture of Dorian Hope
3. Pen, Pencil, and Planchette
4. The Devoted Fraud
Conclusion: The Teacher of Fandom
Read An Excerpt
The Truth of Fakes
Executed on a scrap of a Sotheby’s auction catalogue, a pencil sketch of a standing male figure in Renaissance dress, measuring about one inch by two inches, is as close, in material terms, to the true portrait of Mr. W.H. that we may ever get (figure 1). In his own hand, the artist, Charles Ricketts, designates it “‘Mr. W.H.’ drawn by C. Ricketts 22 Nov. 1912.” Otherwise known as Will or Willie Hughes, Mr. W.H. is the imaginary Shakespearean boy-actor whose portrait – crucially, a forgery – is at the centre of Oscar Wilde’s story “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” (, 1921). As that portrait does in Wilde’s story, this sketch records desire and loss. It is a pale substitute for a sumptuous painting in oil that Wilde had commissioned Ricketts to contrive in 1889, a reproduction of which was to serve as a frontispiece to a projected (but uncompleted) book version of Wilde’s story about Shakespearean fandom. Lost in 1895, in the tumultuous wake of the Wilde trials, the Ricketts painting nonetheless endured in memory and legend, for Wilde’s admirers, disciples, and fans tried to track it down. One such fan was Walter Ledger (1862–1931), a dedicated and assiduous collector of Wilde’s writings during the first three decades of the twentieth century. In his methodical way Ledger contacted Ricketts in 1912 to inquire if the artist had any knowledge of the painting’s fate, to which Ricketts tersely replied: “It is now 23 years ago that I painted Mr. W. H. for Oscar Wilde. I have no sketch of it & no photograph.” Despite his exasperation at Ledger’s painstaking thoroughness, Ricketts was impelled to forge the artefact afresh, and Ledger felt that as part of Wilde’s legacy this scrap of “Mr. W.H.” – however meagre – merited preservation. The sketch seemed to have radiated enough aura for Ledger that he made it a precious keepsake, and it is for this reason that the sketch still exists today.
In pursuing the Ricketts painting, Ledger uncannily repeats, in part, the course of desire described in Wilde’s tale of literary sleuthing and forgery. His actions seem to take Wilde’s own depiction of Shakespearean enthusiasm as a model: Ledger and the bibliographer Christopher Millard (1872–1927) were followers of Wilde whose obsessive devotion to the writer’s memory replicates the fascination and mystique exercised by Shakespeare over the characters in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” But whereas the characters in Wilde’s story channel, through a forged portrait, their passion for Mr. W.H. into an ingenious explication of Shakespeare’s sonnets to assert the existence of a young actor whom Shakespeare apparently adored, these men were passionate compilers of archives relating to Wilde’s literary career and cultural afterlife. In both instances, one imagined and one real, the paradox of an original forgery – a portrait of Mr W.H. – enchants. Treasured by Ledger as if it were a relic, this elusive sketch of Mr W.H. by Ricketts thus exemplifies, in miniature, the larger circuits of Wildean fandom, forgery, and archive making that I explore throughout Beautiful Untrue Things.
For admirers and fans of Wilde like Ledger and Millard, such loving and careful acts of archival labour are expressions of devotion and enthusiasm. These men spent, for instance, more than a decade collecting and recording information about their literary hero for inclusion in the magisterial Bibliography of Oscar Wilde that Millard, under the pseudonym Stuart Mason, published in 1914. The primary fruit of their efforts, then, was the publication of reference books about Wilde, and these efforts – and the affiliations of the men who undertook them – are the subject of this book’s next chapter. One of my central arguments is that the information made newly accessible in these books also enabled the labours of a more dubious set of Wilde fans who were operating in the 1920s in Dublin, London, New York, and Paris. Without the information recorded in them, these fans – “Dorian Hope,” Hester Travers Smith, and Mrs Chan-Toon – would not have had the materials required to forge (in that term’s most capacious, creative, and often criminal sense) novel myths about Wilde. In the bulk of Beautiful Untrue Things I elaborate the audacious, amusing, and sometimes desperate careers of these literary forgers. In their writings, impostures, scams, and dodges they forged, collectively, an extraordinary afterlife for Mr O.W.
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