An unpublished letter from Oscar Wilde to Florence West

This article has been published in Notes & Queries, by Oxford University Press.
Marland, R. (2024) An unpublished letter from Oscar Wilde to Florence West, Notes & Queries, doi:10.1093/notesj/gjae059

Florence West as Mrs Cheveley in the first production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1895).

An unpublished letter from Oscar Wilde to the actor Florence West provides insight into the playwright’s engagement with the theatre after his release from prison in May 1897.Norfolk Record Office, BOL 4/39. With thanks to Merlin Holland for permitting the publication of the letter and assisting with transcription. The letter is part of the Bolingbroke collection, donated by the Bolingbroke family to Norwich Library in 1959. The collection was transferred to the Norwich Record Office in 1963. West created the role of Mrs Cheveley in Wilde’s third society comedy, An Ideal Husband, first produced in January 1895 at London’s Haymarket Theatre. Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the manager of the Haymarket, had previously produced Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance, as well as a provincial tour of that play starring West and her husband, Lewis Waller. In January 1895 Tree embarked on an American tour, leaving the Haymarket in the temporary charge of Waller. Waller produced An Ideal Husband and undertook the role of Sir Robert Chiltern.

A special matinee of A Woman of No Importance at the Coronet Theatre on 30 November 1899 appears to be the occasion of West’s writing to Wilde, who was then living in Paris. Wilde’s reply is the only letter to West that is included in the Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde.Oscar Wilde to Florence Waller, [?December 1899], in Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (eds), The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (London, 2000), 1168. Wilde congratulates West on her performance: ‘I heard from many of my friends how wonderfully the play went, and how really great you and your husband were in the last act.’ He also complains of ‘[t]he general silence of the papers’. A brief review in The Era had described West as ‘excellent’ and Waller as ‘admirable’, though it omitted mention of Wilde; The Standard did give Wilde’s name, but pronounced A Woman of No Importance ‘one of the most immoral examples of the series of marriage-problem plays which a few years ago obtained ephemeral popularity’.‘Coronet Theatre, Notting-Hill-Gate’, The Standard (London, UK), 1 December 1899, 5; The Era (London, UK), 2 December 1899, 8. Advertisements for the performance did not give Wilde’s name, referring only to ‘the celebrated play’. There was no review in The Morning Post, a newspaper Wilde is known to have read during his self-imposed exile.Complete Letters, 946, 976.

A hitherto unpublished letter from Wilde to West is held at the Norfolk Record Office, UK. Like Wilde’s other known letter to West, it is on stationery of the Grand Café at 14 Boulevard des Capucines. Wilde has inscribed his own address: ‘Hotel d’Alsace | Rue des Beaux-Arts | Paris’. Though undated, internal evidence suggests that it pre-dates Wilde’s other letter. It reads as follows:

My Dear Mrs. Cheveley –

I was very pleased to get your letter –

I am so overwhelmed with applications for plays just now – that I could not enter into any agreement with you at present – Later on I should like to see you and talk over things with you. Managers of theatres in London and in America spend fortunes in telegraphing to me for plays – it is a bore[.] They all come at the same time – “not single spies, but in battalions”Hamlet, IV. v. 74–5. – as if one could set about five plays at once! – I have decided nothing yet –

I hear your ‘Miladi’ was brilliant – and that you have been doing splendid work – I wish Waller was not in Tree’s (empty) pocket – He should never have pawned his life – it was a great error – Do write and tell me what you are acting –

I don’t think a continental tour of the ‘Mousquetaires’ would bring you any money – but there would be prestige, and pleasure – both of which things are delightful –

Brussels is not at all a bad town for English actors –

Are you going to Dublin with your Irish play? I hope so. You would have a great reception.

Here, just now, there is nothing but some delightful comedies – very farcical – but bright with wit – and Coquelin in ‘La Dame de Monsoreau’ – as the part of Chicot is comic, he thinks it genius to play it with tragic and dull seriousness – Polonius were not so tedious –

Your sincere friend and admirer,

Oscar Wilde

That Wilde addressed West using the name of her character in An Ideal Husband might be interpreted as his effort to assert himself as an artist, despite his reduced circumstances. Wilde had adopted the pseudonym ‘Sebastian Melmoth’ upon leaving prison,Matthew Sturgis, Oscar: A Life (London, 2018), 618. but if West was still Mrs Cheveley then perhaps Sebastian Melmoth was still the Oscar Wilde of old. Shortly after his release Wilde had written to Aurélien Lugné-Poë, who had portrayed Hérode in the first production of Wilde’s Salomé, addressing the actor as ‘le Tétrarque de Judée’.Oscar Wilde to A. M. Lugné-Poe, 24 May 1897, in Complete Letters, 846. Asking West to ‘write and tell me what you are acting’ is also characteristic. In June 1897 Wilde had replied to a letter from Fannie Bernard Beere, who had created Mrs Arbuthnot in A Woman of No Importance, asking her to ‘write to me, and tell me all about yourself, and your artistic plans. Have you any plays going?’Oscar Wilde to Mrs Bernard Beere, [c. 2 June 1897], in Complete Letters, 875.

Programme for the first production of An Ideal Husband.

Wilde’s unpublished letter to West references several theatrical productions: ‘Mousquetaires’, an unspecified ‘Irish play’, and La Dame de Monsoreau. Henry Hamilton’s adaptation of Dumas père’s Les Trois Mousquetaires began a fortnight’s run at the Metropole Theatre, Camberwell, on 12 September 1898. Reviews were positive, with Waller’s D’Artagnan and West’s Miladi particularly praised.‘Metropole Theatre’, The Times (London, UK), 13 September 1898, 9; ‘Theatre Metropole’, The Morning Post (London, UK), 13 September 1898, 5; ‘The Three Musketeers’, The Era, 17 September 1898, 13. But on 19 September Waller agreed to a two year extension to his contract with Tree and was soon advertised to appear in Sydney Grundy’s rival version of The Three Musketeers at Her Majesty’s Theatre.Daily News (London, UK), 24 September 1898, 3; ‘Theatrical Notes’, The Pall Mall Gazette (London, UK), 31 September 1898, 1. Before Grundy’s play opened Waller and West toured with Hamilton’s, enjoying a successful week at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre. The Freeman’s Journal affirmed that West’s ‘gifts must … place her in the very forefront of great living actresses, for she need fear no rivals’.‘The Gaiety Theatre’, The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Ireland), 4 October 1898, 5; ‘The Gaiety Theatre’, The Freeman’s Journal, 8 October 1898, 6. The play transferred to the Globe Theatre in London’s West End on 22 October. Waller was greeted with clamorous applause, though reviewers were split on West’s Miladi.‘Last Night’s Theatricals’, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, UK), 23 October 1898, 13; ‘Last Night’s Theatricals’, Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, UK), 23 October 1898, 8; ‘The Globe’, The Standard, 24 October 1898, 8; ‘“The Three Musketeers” at the Globe’, The Pall Mall Gazette, 24 October 1898, 2. Grundy’s version opened on 5 November. Tree played D’Artagnan while Waller was deputed to essay the Duke of Buckingham. This part suited Waller less well than that of the swashbuckling hero, and The Era found him ‘ill at ease and unsatisfactory’.‘The Musketeers’, The Era, 5 November 1898, 13. The play ran until April and was revived for a further three weeks at the end of the season. Hamilton’s version continued at the Globe with West as Miladi and E. V. Esmond as D’Artagnan until late December 1898, when it transferred to the Garrick; it was withdrawn in April 1899. In the autumn West toured the play again, with D’Artagnan played first by Robert Loraine and then by William Kittredge.‘Amusements in Dublin’, The Era, 7 October 1899, 7; ‘The Liverpool Theatres’, Liverpool Mercury (Liverpool, UK), 17 October 1899, 8; ‘Amusements in Glasgow’, The Era, 4 November 1899, 21.

The ‘Irish play’ is The Rebels, set during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which opened on 4 September 1899 at the Metropole. The Era remarked that James B. Fagan’s script was rather better than the average Irish melodrama, but lacking in sensationalism: ‘It has a fairly interesting story, and its incidents are genuinely dramatic; but it contains nothing to send an audience into ecstacies [sic] such as used to be created by the “cave scene” in [Dion Boucicault’s] The Colleen Bawn’. West sustained her role as the romantic heroine ‘with care’, but it was ‘not exactly suited to her style’.‘The Rebels’, The Era, 9 September 1899, 13. Her The Three Musketeers company returned to Dublin for a week in early October, and several times gave The Rebels. The reception was somewhat better than in London, and The Freeman’s Journal reviewer differed from The Era in declaring that West’s part suited her better than Miladi: ‘she here comes out bright and beautiful and sympathetically identified with a really charming part, and throughout she comports herself with exceptional grace and artistic power.’‘The Gaiety Theatre’, The Freeman’s Journal, 3 October 1899, 5. Meanwhile, Waller was at Her Majesty’s in Tree’s production of King John. As Philip Faulconbridge he received mixed reviews. One critic praised his oratory while another noted his propensity to shout and laugh unnaturally, and another still his apparent fear to ‘let himself go’.‘Her Majesty’s Theatre’, The Morning Post, 21 September 1899, 3; ‘“King John,” at Her Majesty’s’, The Pall Mall Gazette, 21 September 1899, 1–2; ‘“King John”’, The Era, 23 September 1899, 13.

A revival of Dumas père’s La Dame de Monsoreau opened at the Porte Sainte Martin on 9 October 1899.‘Courrier des Théâtres’, Le Journal (Paris, France), 8 October 1899, 4. The Paris correspondent of The Era judged Benoît-Constant Coquelin’s portrayal of the jester Chicot as ‘not one of his best efforts’ but ‘a fine performance’.‘The Drama in Paris’, The Era, 14 October 1899, 9. The play ran until 3 December.‘Tablettes Théatricales’, Le Matin (Paris, France), 3 December 1899, 4.

Lewis Waller as Sir Robert Chiltern (left), Charles Hawtrey as Lord Goring, and Julia Neilson as Lady Chiltern in the first production of An Ideal Husband.

Wilde’s references to these three plays allow us to date the correspondence and reconstruct the content of West’s letter. Although West and Waller worked together in the late 1890s, their marital relationship had ended some time previously.Complete Letters, 1168, n. 1. West had likely complained to Wilde that Waller had extended his contract with Tree, and that her husband’s unavailability had necessitated the recasting of D’Artagnan with a string of lesser-known actors. She must also have tired of touring the play in the UK, where audiences were overexposed to The Three Musketeers.By the time West brought her company to Glasgow in November 1899, she had been preceded to the city by five other adaptations (‘Amusements in Glasgow’, The Era, 4 November 1899, 21). Wilde published An Ideal Husband in July 1899 and, although there is no evidence that he sent a copy to West, she must have been aware of the publication.Wilde had requested that a copy be sent to Waller (Complete Letters, 1158, n. 1). This, and her desire for a novel vehicle, presumably led her to request a play from Wilde. Wilde’s suggestion that West take The Rebels to Dublin may be explained by her having mentioned how well her Miladi had been received there. Or perhaps Wilde was recalling the 1860 visit of Boucicault to Dublin, where the dramatist and actor had socialised with Wilde’s parents, met the young Oscar, and performed in The Colleen Bawn before packed houses.Richard Fawkes, Dion Boucicault: A Biography (London, 1979), 125–6. Wilde was five years old at the time. Boucicault would later recall having known Wilde since he was ‘a child at my knee’, and would serve as a mentor for the budding playwright in the early 1880s (‘Boucicault at Home’, The Sunday Herald (Boston, MA), 29 January 1882, 2). Wilde’s letter must have been written after La Dame de Monsoreau had opened and thus after West had taken The Rebels to Dublin. This indicates that West had not mentioned her plan to visit Dublin, and perhaps suggests an earlier date for Wilde’s letter than its terminus ante quem – the closing date of La Dame de Monsoreau in early December.

The letter to West provides further evidence for Wilde’s continued interest in the theatre during his final years, both as a writer and consumer of plays. While living in London Wilde had been an inveterate first-nighter and much of his social life centred on the theatre. His collected correspondence for the years 1897 to 1900 shows that he remained engaged. He requested copies of plays by Ibsen, Maeterlinck, and Strindberg, and ten days after his release from prison got into a heated argument about Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman.Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, 6 April [1897], in Complete Letters, 786–93, 792; Robert Ross, ‘Несколько воспоминаний об Оскаре Уайльде’ [‘Some Memories of Oscar Wilde’], Утра России [Morning of Russia], (Moscow, Russia), 8 September 1913, 2. He kept up with news about the London stage by reading English newspapers. When George Alexander, the actor-manager behind the first productions of Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, put on The Prisoner of Zenda Wilde wished he could have seen it, but thought Alexander’s next vehicle, R. C. Carton’s The Tree of Knowledge, seemed ‘a rubbishy thing’, and there is more than a touch of schadenfreude in his assertion that ‘[t]he horizon of the English stage seems dark with [Robert] Hichens’, whose The Daughters of Babylon was then running at the Lyric.Oscar Wilde to Edward Rose, [29 May 1897], in Complete Letters, 863–4, 864; Oscar Wilde to Reginald Turner, [3 August 1897], in Complete Letters, 921; Oscar Wilde to Reginald Turner, [30 October 1897], in Complete Letters, 976–7, 976. Hichens’s novel The Green Carnation (1894), with its unflattering portrayal of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, had damaged both men’s reputations (Sturgis, 520–3). But he seldom attended the theatre, and when he did his seats were paid for by a friend or by someone involved with the production.André Antoine gave Wilde a box for his production of Les Tisserands at the Théâtre Libre (Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, 31 May [1898], in Complete Letters, 1078–9); Georgette Leblanc sent him seats at the Opéra Comique for Sapho, in which she was appearing (Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, [early June 1898], in Complete Letters, 1082–3, 1082); and Harold Mellor took him to see Sarah Bernhardt in La Tosca (Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, 2 January 1899, in Complete Letters, 1116). Wilde had enjoyed Coquelin’s performances in London in 1887 and in 1891 met with the actor in Paris to discuss the possibility of a French translation of Lady Windermere’s Fan.Oscar Wilde to Violet Fane, 17 November 1887, in Complete Letters, 334–5; Oscar Wilde to Constant-Benoît Coquelin, 6 November 1891, in Complete Letters, 493; Oscar Wilde to HSH the Princess of Monaco, [?late November 1891], in Complete Letters, 495. Coquelin may have given Wilde a seat for La Dame de Monsoreau. In a letter that Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis tentatively date to March 1900 Wilde informed Charles Wyndham that he had been re-reading La Dame de Monsoreau, evidently with a view to adapting it for Wyndham’s theatre, but had concluded that it was unsuitable.Oscar Wilde to Charles Wyndham, [?March 1900], in Complete Letters, 1176.

Shortly before his release from prison Wilde had observed that there was money to be made from plays,Oscar Wilde to A. D. Hansell, 12 April 1897, in Complete Letters, 798–800, 799. He also told a friend: ‘I hope to write a play soon, and then if I can get it produced I shall have money – far too much I dare say’ (Oscar Wilde to Carlos Blacker, 12 July 1897, in Complete Letters, 911–12, 912). and over the following months he often claimed that he had just started work – or was about to start work – on an historical or biblical drama or a modern comedy.E.g. Complete Letters, 876, 934, 947, 950, 958, 961, 976. Alexander, Lugné-Poë, Kyrle Bellew, and Augustin Daly all put in requests.Sturgis, 640, 697; Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, [?2 June 1897], in Complete Letters, 872–4, 873; Oscar Wilde to Augustin Daly, 22 August 1897, in Complete Letters, 928–9; Oscar Wilde to Kyrle Bellew, [7 May 1899], in Complete Letters, 1143; Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, [6 June 1899], in Complete Letters, 1152. But Wilde was incapable of sustained work on anything but The Ballad of Reading Gaol and correcting the proofs of The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband. By the time he received West’s letter he had sold to multiple parties the rights to a new marriage problem play that he would never write.Complete Letters, 1170, n. 1; 1189, n. 3; Sturgis, 689, 697, 705, 707, 708–9. ‘Love is Law’ would be written by Frank Harris and produced in London in 1900 as Mr and Mrs Daventry. The idea that Wilde was still being solicited for plays in late 1899 is therefore not entirely fanciful. He does, however, appear to have exaggerated the level of interest, which was not as great as it had been two years earlier.