Oscar Wilde on the husbands of beautiful women

This article has been published in Notes & Queries, by Oxford University Press.
Marland, R. (2021) Oscar Wilde on the husbands of beautiful women, Notes & Queries, 68, 331–2, doi:10.1093/notesj/gjab117

Lillie Langtry in 1882, by Napoleon Sarony. Image: LOC.

Oscar Wilde often reused epigrams or even longer passages that had already been published in his earlier works. Although this practice may be explained in part by his simultaneously working on multiple drafts, with the result that he lost track of which material was new and which was old,Josephine M. Guy, ‘Oscar Wilde’s “self-plagiarism”: some new manuscript evidence’, N&Q, lii (2005), 485-8. he was also aware that he had a tendency to self-plagiarise—during the Queensberry libel trial he was cross-examined on his Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young and noted that ‘several of them have appeared in my plays.’‘Alleged Libel of Mr. Oscar Wilde’, The Daily Telegraph (London, UK), 4 April 1895, 8. He kept pages of his epigrams in draft form,Matthew Sturgis (ed.), Wildeana (London, 2020), viii. and must have referred back to them while writing. Epigrams may appear in more than one work because Wilde forgot he had used them before, because he thought they were too good to deploy only once, or because he repeated them so often in conversation that they were perpetually on the tip of his pen as well as his tongue.

Richfield Springs, about twenty years after Wilde’s visit. Image: LOC

Wilde’s acquaintances maintained that his speech outshone his writings. AndrĂ© Gide thought that ‘[t]he best of his writing is but a pale reflection of his brilliant conversations. Those who have heard him speak find it disappointing to read him’;E. H. Mikhail, Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections (London, 1979), I, 191. and W. B. Yeats that ‘[o]nly when he spoke, or when his writing was the mirror of his speech ... had he words exact enough to hold a subtle ear.’E. H. Mikhail, Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections (London, 1979), I, 147. The best record of Wilde’s conversation is in the many interviews he gave, mostly while touring America in 1882. One such interview, previously unnoticed by Wilde scholarship,This interview is not listed among the 107 known interviews with Wilde in Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst, Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews (Urbana and Chicago, 2010), 183-6. took place in August 1882 on the piazza of the Spring House hotel in Richfield Springs, a resort in upstate New York. At that time Wilde’s friend Lillie Langtry had just started out on her theatrical career. She was expected to make her American stage debut in the autumn, and Wilde was regularly quizzed about her. He told Boston’s Sunday Herald correspondent that he thought her beauty eternal, saying that ‘I shall write sonnets to Mrs. Langtry when she is 95.’ The interviewer asked how Mr. Langtry took that. Wilde replied:

He takes it philosophically. Perhaps he feels, somehow, that he is an intruder, because—No, little boy, I don’t want to buy one of your sunflowers. Run away now and sell them to somebody else. Heavens! the idea of picking that gorgeous flower! The sunflower ought never to be picked. It is splendid on the stem, but preposterous in a vase or a girl’s corsage. That is quite like marrying a beautiful woman. I have fallen into the habit of thinking that the husbands of beautiful women belong to the criminal classes. They have committed sacrilege and robbery in attempting to monopolize what belongs to all mankind. They are fit candidates for the penitentiary. What if somebody should lock up the air and sunshine?‘Sizing Us Up’, The Sunday Herald (Boston, MA), 20 August 1882, 12.

A cartoon from Puck, 1882. Wilde was associated in his aesthetic phase with sunflowers and inspired a craze for the flower. Image: LOC

To my knowledge this is the first recorded instance of Wilde’s use of his line about the husbands of beautiful women. He would later put it to paper in a notebook he kept around 1890: ‘The husbands of beautiful women belong to the criminal classes: the husbands of plain women have married into them.’Ian Small, Oscar Wilde Revalued (Greensboro, NC, 1993), 145. He included a shorter version of the epigram in the 1891 revised edition of his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘“The husbands of very beautiful women belong to the criminal classes,” said Lord Henry, sipping his wine.’Joseph Bristow (ed.), The Picture of Dorian Gray, The 1890 and 1891 Texts, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Oxford, 2005), III, 317.

As Wilde had been praising Langtry’s beauty for over three years, it is unlikely that this was the first time he had found an excuse to utter the epigram in conversation and to connect it to her husband, and it is plausible that he had had Mr. Langtry in mind when he devised it. Lillie would remember in her (admittedly unreliable) memoirs that, while writing The New Helen, an 1879 poem in tribute to her beauty, Wilde would walk around outside the Langtrys’ house: ‘one night he curled up to sleep on my doorstep, and Mr. Langtry, returning unusually late, put an end to his poetic dreams by tripping over him.’E. H. Mikhail, Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections (London, 1979), II, 263.

It is easy to see how Wilde might have developed the idea that it was he who was the true devotee of beauty, while Mr. Langtry was simply a criminal with a key, a man who locked up and monopolised the most beautiful of women.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Robert Whelan for his kind assistance.