THE OSCHOLARS: Special Teleny issue





John McRae


It started off, as so many nice things do in Italy, over a splendid dinner in the Giubileo Hotel high in the hills above the city of Potenza, in Basilicata, with the small cohort of academics working in the new earthquake-relief funded University of Basilicata. We will pass over what happened to practically all the other funds destined for earthquake relief, but the first University in the poorest province of Italy was one worthy outcome.

A colleague who was teaching French, Philippe Théveny, brought up the subject of ‘Oscar Wilde’s gay novel’ and whether I thought it really was by Oscar himself. Some perplexity round the table – few knew of its existence, but then again, French critics have always been better disposed to the novel, prime among them Philippe Jullian, whose biography of Wilde is still one of the finest.

Like London buses and Godots, two come along at the same time: the very next week Gay’s the Word, the excellent and still surviving gay bookshop in Marchmont Street in London was closed down by the authorities on charges of selling obscene material – the material in question being the Gay Sunshine Press in San Francisco’s new edition of Teleny, edited by Winston Leyland.

At the time I was reading some things for Gay Men’s Press in London and, again over dinner, I seem to remember, we talked about this worrisome state of things, and the idea evolved that an academic edition, published in UK, would put several cats among the prosecuting pigeons.

Quite amazingly, Gay Men’s Press paid me an advance (a princely rather than queenly £250, I recall) to buy some time to work in the British Library Reading Room on the original texts and put together an edition, with a serious introduction, textual notes, and an apparatus which might be defined as scholarly.

The texts were of course kept under lock and key, and one was clearly judged every single day by every single British Library keeper of the flame; one felt one perhaps had to keep one’s hands visible above the table, just in case.

However, with the help of these good people and a few friends to drag me out for lunch and coffees (the poet and writer Greg Woods, who was soon also to move to Nottingham,  among them) we got an edition together and into print in super-quick time. The texts needed a lot more collating and annotating than we had ever imagined – things like the name of Brunetto Latini had become submerged in misprints and misreadings carried through seven or eight wildly differing editions of the text (pun intended). And the punctuation was all over the place. I speak as one of nature’s less adept at punctuation. A Note on the Text was called for – how else would I have ever been able to write a sentence containing the glorious words ‘anther’ ‘brandle’ ‘estival’ and ‘tweake’?

I had to call in a wondrous range of friends to elucidate many things from Parisian local geography to Biblical allusions – had I any idea who Jehu was? I do now. There was no internet then to Google things. We don’t know the range of our friends’ expertise till we try them. And we left no textual query unanswered.

Imagine then, the general delight when we managed to publish the book two days before the prosecution was due in court.

Whereupon the case was quietly dropped. We made noise. And Teleny began to reach a wider public, especially in the USA. Now there is even a Wordsworth edition, but keeping on the dubious tradition of misreadings and mistakes.

Richard Ellmann had been working on his biography at the time (the one with the photo of someone else entirely which he claimed was Oscar as Salome). His close friend Barbara Hardy told me at the time that Richard would never accept that (I quote) ‘something like Teleny’ was Oscar’s work. But she was pleased with my claim that I thought the very least we could say was that Oscar had a hand in it. Strange that a George Eliot scholar should have so much more of a sense of humour than a Wilde scholar.

Academic opprobrium did not descend upon me. Rather unexpectedly, the edition was greeted positively (where it was not ignored), and even reprinted, although the Ellmann biography then did rather overshadow us for a time. Invitations, especially to the USA, began to come in to talk about this, rather than my other recognised academic specialisations – I even ended up teaching courses on it, a tradition I am pleased to see is continuing to the present day in some enlightened places.

It is very pleasing that the issue of authorship cannot be settled definitively. I would not be so rash as to be definitive. People might agree. Or even disagree. As Oscar himself must have said, ‘Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.’



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