Oscar Wilde’s assistants at The Woman’s World

Cover of the first issue of The Woman’s World.

Oscar Wilde is most famous today as the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. But, as well as being a novelist, playwright, and poet, he was a magazine editor. For two years in the late 1880s Wilde steered The Woman’s World to moderate critical (if not financial) success.

Despite his reputation for loucheness, Wilde worked hard at what was to be his only salaried position. At least, to begin with. He solicited material from practically every woman of rank and reputation he could think of (from his own mother to Queen Victoria), and was swamped with enough material to fill the magazine for almost the entirety of his tenure.

This meant that the really enjoyable part of the job was over almost immediately, and Wilde was obliged to undertake tasks of a more mundane nature. One such task was attending meetings with representatives of his publisher, Cassell, to justify the ‘too literary tendencies’ of the magazine.Holland, M. & Hart-Davis, R. (eds, 2000) The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, Fourth Estate, 337 Another was writing endless letters, an activity for which he professed to have ‘a great dislike’.Complete Letters, 422

Before long Wilde was reporting to his office only a couple of times a week, and less often if he could get away with it. At least, that is, according to his editorial assistant, Arthur Fish.

Fish wrote two brief memoirs of his time working under Wilde.Fish, A. (1913) ‘Oscar Wilde as Editor’, Harper’s Weekly, 58, 18–20; Fish, A. ‘Memories of Oscar Wilde’, Cassell’s Weekly, 2 May 1923, 215–16 Every major biographer of Wilde has relied on these memoirs when painting a picture of Wilde as editor. In one of them, Fish writes:

At first the work was taken quite seriously [by Wilde] and eleven o’clock on his appointed mornings saw the poet entering the dingy portals of ‘the Yard,’ [the informal name for La Belle Sauvage, a former coaching inn yard and the address of Cassell’s offices] but after a few months his arrival became later and his departure earlier until at times his visit was little more than a call.Fish (1913)

Enlightening as Fish’s memoirs undoubtedly are, they may not be as trustworthy as we have long assumed.

Scholars have known for many years that Fish drafted letters on Wilde’s behalf, with Wilde apparently dictating or otherwise instructing Fish about what to write. What had not been appreciated, though, until Wolfgang Maier-Sigrist and I published an article in the January 2023 issue of The Wildean,Marland, R. & Maier-Sigrist, W. (2023) Four unpublished Oscar Wilde letters drafted by assistants at The Woman’s World, The Wildean, 62, 19-44 is that some letters on stationery of The Woman’s World were drafted by someone other than Fish or Wilde.

Detail of letters from Oscar Wilde to Pauline Schletter. Above, 23 Feb. 1888, signed ‘Oscar Wilde per ECS’; below, 23 Apr. 1889, signed ‘Oscar Wilde per AF’. Images: Yale University Library (view full letters).

Wolfgang and I were able to show that Wilde’s letters are in two hands: those of Fish and of someone else whose initials are ‘ECS’. The identify of this person is unknown but he (or perhaps she) is responsible for drafting six of the sixteen known letters in the hands of Wilde’s assistants. All of the rest that Wolfgang and I were able to consult were drafted by Fish.

Perhaps more interesting is that the ECS-drafted letters are the six earliest, dating from 9 November 1887 to 5 April 1888. All of the remaining letters are drafted by Fish, with the earliest dating to 17 April 1888 and the latest to 23 April 1889.

This rather suggests that ECS was Wilde’s first assistant and that, for reasons unknown, Fish took over ECS’s duties in April 1888. This was more than half a year after Wilde began working on the magazine. Fish’s ‘memories’ of the first months of Wilde’s editorship are therefore less likely to be his own than was previously thought.

Since our paper was published, Wolfgang and I have learnt of another letter in the hand of one of Wilde’s assistants. This letter, addressed to Mrs Henrietta Barnett, belongs to the Wilde collector Jeremy Mason. It was drafted by Fish and is dated 10 January 1889: it therefore falls within the window we would expect for a Fish-drafted letter given the other letters we know about.

Another letter we were unable to consult before our paper went to press was one that Matthew Sturgis, Wilde’s most recent cradle-to-grave biographer, turned up amongst the papers of Charlotte Stopes, a campaigner for women’s rights. This letter, in which Stopes is requested to correct her article for The Woman’s World on frozen meat, is attributed to Wilde by Sturgis.Sturgis, M. (2018) Oscar: A Life, 367 It is dated 26 September 1889, which is the month that Wilde left the magazine: the October issue was not edited by him.Seeney, M. (2023) Oscar Wilde as Editor: An Index to Woman’s World, Rivendale Press, 14-15 Stopes’ article would not be published until the March 1890 issue,Seeney, M. (2023) Oscar Wilde as Editor: An Index to Woman’s World, Rivendale Press, 116 long after Wilde had been replaced by an anonymous editor.

There has been much speculation about who this editor might have been. H. Montgomery Hyde thought it was Fish who took over Wilde’s duties; Richard Ellmann claimed that the replacement was ‘the Cassell functionary [John] Williams’ and Sturgis has turned up a contemporary report in The Pall Mall Gazette supporting that conclusion.Hyde, H. M. (1976) Oscar Wilde, Eyre Methuen, 115; Ellmann, R. (1987) Oscar Wilde, Hamish Hamilton, 276, 278; Sturgis, 810, n. 34

Earlier this month I ventured to the British Library to take a look at Stopes’ papers for myself. I found that her correspondence about the magazine was more copious than I had anticipated. Stopes appears to have first expressed an interest in writing for The Woman’s World in early 1888. Wilde’s wife Constance wrote to Stopes at about that time to reassure her that Oscar was aware she wished to write for his magazine, but that he already had enough material for some months to come.British Library; Add MS 58454 [Stopes papers]; f.2 Stopes must have been persistent, as a year later Constance had to tell her: ‘I have nothing to do with the editing of the Woman’s World and did not know that my husband had returned manuscripts of yours!’Stopes papers, f.22

Wilde no doubt sent these manuscripts back with a covering letter. If he did, his letter has not survived. But there are other letters amongst the Stopes papers that somebody – presumably a librarian or a former owner - has marked in pencil as having originated from Oscar Wilde. Many, but not all, of these letters are in the familiar hand of Arthur Fish.

However, all of the letters drafted by Fish to Stopes are signed ‘The Editor’. Almost all of his known letters for Wilde are signed ‘Oscar Wilde, per AF’. This, and the fact that all the Stopes letters date from after Wilde left the magazine (the earliest is dated 26 September 1889), indicate that none are from Wilde.

What they do suggest, though, is that Hyde was probably right that Fish succeeded Wilde as editor. Or they would if not for the fact that there are several letters to Stopes in yet another unknown hand, also on stationery of The Woman’s World and also signed ‘The Editor’. The implication is that Fish and this unidentified person (Williams?) acted as co-editors until, a year after Wilde’s departure, the magazine folded.

Stopes had evidently seen the writing on the wall some time earlier. She must have complained to the editor (or one of them) about the dumbing down that had taken place since Wilde left. In a letter dated 15 January 1890 the anonymous editor wrote to her:

I take note of what you say about the magazine, and hope that as time goes on you will find it holds the balance pretty evenly between the higher and the lower. What we want to do is justify its title, which is neither the “Intellectual Woman’s World” or the “Frivolous Woman’s World” but the “Woman’s World”. If we do that I am sure you will be the last to blame us.Stopes papers, f.39

Stopes, a Shakespeare scholar, must have missed the literary character of the magazine as it was under Wilde’s editorship, as the new editors filled its pages with more and more fashion news. Nevertheless, her papers show that she continued to submit her work to The Woman’s World, including paragraphs on meetings of the Rational Dress Society and on Shakespeare and Shelley. The Shakespeare article was refused on the grounds that it arrived too late to coincide with the memorial of the dramatist’s birth,Stopes papers, f.54 and the piece on Shelley because it was ‘too profound for the class of readers we are now aiming at.’Stopes papers, f.35

Fish and his co-editor aimed and missed. The Woman’s World published its last issue in October 1890.