Ellmann's Errors & Omissions
by Karl Beckson
Brooklyn College, CUNY
HAVING ISSUED A MODEST soft-covered booklet of 82 pages, privately printed in 1989, Horst Schroeder has now issued a handsome hard-covered second edition, revised and enlarged, running to an astounding 311 pages. The "ultimate objective of the booklet," writes Schroeder, was to "inspire Ellmann's publishers to bring out a second, revised edition of his biography," but Ellmann's death in 1987 was an understandable deterrent. Despite the result that Ellmann's "portrait of Wilde looks even more dated than it did in 1987," Ellmann remains, as most scholars concede, the starting-point for new biographies on Wilde. Therefore, to eliminate repetitions of errors, Schroeder has increased the number of 220 annotations in the 1989 booklet to more than a thousand in the second edition, the result of his probing in Ellmann's biography over many years.
The arrangement of material follows the 1989 edition - that is, the book parallels the overall structure of Ellmann's biography: passages requiring annotations are set in bold face, followed by Schroeder's commentaries in ordinary type. An important feature added in the second edition is that the page numbers of passages from the American edition (Knopf, 1988) now complement the British page numbers, which are given first in square brackets. Although there is no index to Schroeder's book (an addition that would increase its length enormously), readers can consult the Ellmann index to trace persons, places, titles, etc.
The passages that Schroeder cites for correction or addition sometimes require lengthy discussions although often only require a word or two, as in the case of Coulson Kernahan, who reports Lady Wilde's rebuke to a friend of his: "You, and other poets, are content to express only your little soul in poetry." For "your little soul" - Schroeder advises - read "your own little soul." More serious is a false attribution concerning Lady Wilde, who allegedly was inspired by the birth of Oscar's brother, Willie, to write: "Alas! The Fates are cruel. / Behold Speranza making gruel." Writes Schroeder: "The doggerel was not of Speranza's making, but was the brain-child of some visitor who saw her over her saucepans in the nursery" (source: Joy Melville's biography of Lady Wilde, 1994).
A passage omitted from Schroeder's volume appears in Ellmann, quoting Max Beerbohm on Willie Wilde. The passage, however, contains some errors in the British and American texts:
Quel monstre! Dark, oily, suspect yet awfully like Oscar: he has Oscar's coy, carnal and fatuous giggle & not a little of Oscar's esprit. But he is awful - a veritable tragedy of family likeness. [121/126]
Ellmann cites the source of this passage as Max Beerbohm, Letters to Reggie Turner, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (1964), p. 63, but the passage does not appear there; it appears in David Cecil's Max: A Biography (1964), p. 85. Yet Cecil and Ellmann introduce some changes. The more accurate transcription of Max's letter appears in Max and Will: Max Beerbohm and William Rothenstein, Their Friendship and Letters, 1893 to 1945, eds., Mary M. Lago and Karl Beckson (1975), p. 21, which differs from Ellmann's version:
Quel monstre! Dark, oily, suspecte yet awfully like Oscar: he has Oscar's coy, carnal smile & fatuous giggle & not a little of Oscar's esprit. But he is awful - a veritable tragedy of family-likeness.
The seemingly minor errors indicate Ellmann's difficulty in maintaining precision in quotations.
Ellmann was "convinced" that Wilde had contracted syphilis "reportedly from a woman prostitute," but later medical opinion (based on evaluations of symptoms, or the lack of them, at the time of Wilde's death) does not confirm Ellmann's belief (especially since Wilde's friends were the source of the conviction). For assistance, Schroeder turns to John Stokes, who remarks: "For quite long stretches Ellmann himself seems to overlook his own early insistence that the disease is 'central to my conception of Wilde's character and my interpretation of many things in later'" (source: Yeats Annual, 7 ). Late in his biography, Ellmann states on pages 545 / 579: "Wilde's final illness was almost certainly syphilitic in origin." Cautiously, Schroeder remarks on the contentious nature of Ellmann's belief: "Even if Wilde had suffered from syphilis, which is still open to debate, his death was certainly due to cerebral meningitis."
Despite the greatest care in proofreading, slips of the eye and pen are inevitable (especially when an author is suffering, as Ellmann was in his final days). Although Schroeder is a remarkable proofreader, a slip manages to escape his eye: in a passage on pages 389 / 413, he corrects Ellmann's error in Gertrude Chiltern's name in An Ideal Husband, but he misses the error in the play's title, which Ellmann renders as The Ideal Husband. Throughout his volume, however, Schroeder gives the title correctly! Obviously, anyone wishing to write on Wilde, particularly his biography, would be foolhardy not to consult carefully Schroeder's volume.
English Literature in Transition 1880 - 1920, vol. 46, no. 4 (2003),
pp. 435 - 437