Wilde’s inspiration for the child role in Vera; or, The Nihilists

This article has been published in Notes & Queries, by Oxford University Press, as Unnoted sources in Oscar Wilde’s Vera. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjab146. Thanks to Wolfgang Maier-Sigrist for his kind assistance.

Oscar Wilde’s first acting edition of his play Vera; or, The Nihilists, printed in 1880, has the play in four acts. Wilde drafted an additional prologue in March 1882.1 In Volume XI, Plays 4 in the Oxford English Texts edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde,2 Josephine Guy incorporates in her attempted reconstruction of the 1883 performance text of Vera a manuscript fragment (referred to as F1) that relates to a scene in the prologue.3 The scene features a conversation between Vera and a child, Nicholas. Wilde’s intentions with this scene appear to have been to engender sympathy for Vera and to introduce some levity before the prologue’s violent climax. Two of the scene’s exchanges draw on sources unnoted by Guy. The first exchange:

nicholas: [...] Oh! Vera are those your flowers?
vera: Yes you little rogue.
nicholas: Your own flowers?
vera: Yes.
nicholas: How rich you are.
vera: (looks over at michael and smiles and then kisses nicholas) That is quite true. Everybody who has a flower is rich: You are rich now. (Gives him a flower.)4

And the second:

nicholas: Vera does everything in the world belong to somebody.
vera: Now-a-days, yes.
nicholas: Then who owns the robins?5

In an interview from September 1882 that has previously gone unnoticed by Wilde scholarship,6 Wilde told a representative of the New York Tribune that

the most interesting reading that he had seen in the newspapers lately had been the letters in The Tribune describing the excursions of the Fresh Air Children. He quoted from several of the letters the sayings of the children, and said in that connection: ‘The best thing that has been said about flowers I believe since Christ talked about the lilies,7 was said to me by a child in the streets of London. I was going along with a whole armful of flowers, when a street Arab playing in the gutter looked up and exclaimed in astonishment: “Lord! how rich you must be.”’8

Illustration by Windsor McKay. Image: Tribune Fresh Air Fund Annual Report, 1925.

The Fresh Air Fund was founded in 1877 to allow poor children of New York City to take vacations in the countryside. In 1881 the New York Tribune began supporting the fund. The following year the paper raised $21,530 and, between 5 July and 19 September, sent 5,580 children to rural locations in upstate New York and neighbouring states.9 Long articles about the children’s activities were printed daily in the Tribune. These articles would include letters from readers who had acted as hosts, and the children’s amusing sayings were frequently reported. Wilde’s interviewer did not record the sayings quoted by Wilde. As Wilde was reminded of flowers, perhaps he quoted the article in which one child was described pointing to a patch of daisies and asking his host: ‘What did you pay for that field of flowers?’10 Another letter that Wilde may have quoted but had certainly read described a boy from a Brooklyn tenement who, on his first morning in Northampton, MA, inquired: ‘Who owns all the robins?’11 This letter was signed ‘Nicholas’. Evidently the line about the robins was one that Wilde found amusing and memorable. His own story about the ‘street Arab’ was also a favourite. He later told it to his friend Charles Ricketts, who recorded it in his reminiscences:

Wilde had gone to Covent Garden to purchase some Jersey lilies to give to Mrs. [Lillie] Langtry and was waiting for a hansom when a street arab, fascinated by the strange orange flowers, exclaimed ‘How rich you are!’ This little episode enchanted his old friend [John] Ruskin.12

A re-imagining of the “how rich you must be” story. Art: Danica Brine. Script and lettering: Rob Marland.

That these stories appear to have been on Wilde’s mind when he was interviewed in September 1882 might imply that he was already engaged in drafting the ‘Nicholas’ scene, which incorporated elements of both. This is unlikely. Less than a week after Wilde was interviewed, the manager of his American lecture tour, Colonel W. F. Morse, told a reporter that Wilde was ‘now busily engaged in revising his play, “Vera,” which he hopes to produce in America the present season.’13 Wilde finished his revisions shortly thereafter and the 1882 acting edition was printed (in late September or early October Wilde wrote to Morse to ask him to send copies to various theatre managers).14 The 1882 edition includes the prologue, but without Vera’s conversation with Nicholas. In a letter that probably dates to 22 April 1883, Marie Prescott, the producer of the play and creator of the role of Vera, asked Wilde to ‘please confine the lines that you give the children—(if you give them any lines you do not say) to one child.’15 Wilde must have finished writing the material that appears in F1 after he received Prescott’s letter, at the end of April at the earliest (she was in New York; he was in Paris), because Nicholas is the only child in the scene, or, indeed, the whole play.

  1. Oscar Wilde to Richard D’Oyly Carte, 16 March 1882, in Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (eds.), The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (London, 2000), 150-1; Oscar Wilde to Richard D’Oyly Carte, [March 1882], Complete Letters, 151.
  2. Josephine M. Guy (ed), Plays IV, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. 11 (Oxford, 2021)
  3. The variant pages are at W6721M2 V473, Oscar Wilde and his Literary Circle Collection: Manuscripts and Miscellaneous Materials, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles.
  4. Guy, 111.105-13
  5. Guy, 112.119-24
  6. 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.
  7. ‘And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:’ Matthew 6:28
  8. ‘Oscar Wilde on Children and Flowers’, New York Tribune, 11 September 1882, 8 (view source)
  9. ‘The Fresh Air Fund’, New York Tribune, 20 September 1882, 8 (view source)
  10. ‘At Their Summer Homes’, New York Tribune, 11 July 1882, 2 (view source). Another article reports the following conversation between a pair of ‘Fresh Air’ children: ‘One little fellow with a crooked nose assumed a comical position and tapped the boy next him with a flower, as he drawled out: “I’m Othcar Wilde, I am; and I’ll stwike you with a daithy.” “Who’s Othcar Wilde?” asked his companion. “Why,” he replied, with the utmost contempt for his questioner’s ignorance, “Othcar is the crazy duck as goes ’round pokin’ sunflowers at folks he’s mad at.”’ ‘Enjoying Country Life’, New York Tribune, 22 July 1882, 5 (view source).
  11. ‘Fresh Air in the Country’, New York Tribune, 3 August 1882, 2 (view source)
  12. Charles Ricketts, Recollections of Oscar Wilde (London, 1932), 29
  13. ‘Theatrical World’, Truth (New York, NY), 17 September 1882, 5
  14. Oscar Wilde to Colonel W. F. Morse, [late September 1882], Complete Letters, 183
  15. This long letter is transcribed in Stuart Mason, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (London, 1914), 259-65. Guy (62, n. 192) has some difficulty in dating it precisely. She suggests that Mason’s date of 9 January 1883 is incorrect and notes that comparing the letter with others from Prescott to Wilde, also in Mason, indicates that it probably dates ‘from early April’. The original of Prescott’s letter, in the Berg Collection, clearly shows that Prescott herself—not Mason—dates the letter ‘Boston – Mass – January 9th 1883’ (she appeared with actor Tommaso Salvini’s company in Boston between 1 and 13 January 1883). Toward the end of the letter Prescott states that her season with Salvini is over (she broke with Salvini in mid-April but returned to his company in May). She refers to an article ‘[i]n today’s Truth [...] about some dispute of copyright’ and asks Wilde to ‘[s]ee what today’s paper says of you & [the photographer Napoleon] Sarony.’ These articles are ‘Theatrical World’, Truth (New York, NY), 22 April 1883, 5 (about the claim of Frank Parker Hulette, a journalist from Dunkirk, NY, that he owned the copyright in Vera), and ‘Oscar Wilde’s Photograph’, Truth (New York, NY), 22 April 1883, 6 (about Sarony’s legal case against a lithographic company that had reproduced one of his photographs of Wilde without permission). Therefore the letter must be a composite document, written partly on 9 January and partly on 22 April. There are multiple instances of a new sentence beginning on a new page, so it is not possible to state with confidence where the earlier fragment ends and the later fragment begins, but the reference to the children probably belongs to the later fragment. The reference is on a page that undoubtedly follows the page on which Prescott informs Wilde that she has already ordered the Nihilists’ costumes based on his designs, which she could not have received by 9 January as Wilde only arrived in Liverpool from New York on 6 January.