Adding To Ellmann
by Donald Mead
When Richard Ellmann's biography of Wilde appeared in 1987 it was hailed as a masterpiece of the biographer's art. Written with enormous love of his subject and the product of many years' research, it was widely praised as the equal of his celebrated biography of James Joyce and a near-perfect masterpiece of affectionate and discriminating understanding. 'The witty subject has found a witty biographer who is distinguished for his erudition and humanity.' (Claire Tomalin). 'It is a portrait that will not quickly grow old.' (Michael Bloch).
It has indeed proved a most popular, respected and durable biography. It is closely written, full of anecdote and interest, with insights on every page - a book to be savoured a chapter at a time, perhaps, rather than read through from cover to cover.
Anthony Burgess wrote that Ellmann 'brought American commonsense and a European sensibility to his teaching and a clarity of exposition and an unfailing humour when expounding his literary insights. ... he wrote nothing that was dull, inelegant or lacking in profound humanity.' However, the biography was completed under the shadow of Ellmann's final illness, and he was not able to complete all his work of checking and verification. Burgess's biographer, Roger Lewis, gives us a glimpse of Ellmann at work in 1985: 'Burgess abruptly asked Ellmann about progress on the Wilde opus. "I'm inserting extra chapters, incorporating notes from box files. There are a few hundred books I need to go through," responded the professor, who'd be fiddling and fussing to this day, had he not leamed that he faced the most morbid of deadlines. The corrected proofs were found by his bed when he died.'
In 1989, in the first edition of his Additions and Corrections to Richard Ellmann's 'Oscar Wilde', Horst Schroeder welcomed the biography, especially for its superabundance of detail, but identified 'occasional shortcomings'. In his book he set out some two hundred and twenty additions and corrections to be used as a supplement to Ellmann. Compiling these was a formidable task. He had to retrace Ellmann's steps, verify his references and bring in documents Ellmann did not use. The quotations from Wilde's writings were checked against the texts in the Collins Collected edition, but these had all to be cross-checked because of that edition's 'oftentimes great unreliability'. As he remarked, quoting a German proverb, 'It is in the detail that the devil hides.' Many of the errors are in minor points of detail, but it is important that any book regarded as an authoritative work of reference should be reliably factually correct with exact dates and references.
Since 1989 research has revealed many new details of Wilde's life which add to or correct Ellmann's account. The most celebrated such 'correction' concerns a photograph of 'Wilde in costume as Salome' which was used as an illustration, but to which there is no reference in Ellmann's text. In 1994 Merlin Holland showed conclusively that it was a picture of the Hungarian diva Alice Guszalewicz.
This is just one of the additional corrections which, with a considerable number of items of new information assembled from research by many scholars, often published only in specialist periodicals, are included in the very welcome new edition of Additions and Corrections. Schroeder has gone over Ellmann with a fine-tooth comb and there are now over one thousand annotations. These are all very clearly set out. The book is well printed and bound so that it will stay open on the desk when it is being used in conjunction with Ellmann.
Schroeder's work is a labour of love, which has taken him many years to complete, or rather, as he says, to reach the point where 'you have to draw a line somewhere'. It has clearly been an arduous task. His original aim was to prepare the ground for a future revised version of Ellmann's biography, but there now seems no prospect that any such new edition will ever be brought out. Nevertheless, it remains the dominant biography and is generally still to be found in the bookshops: the Penguin Books edition is, in content and illustrations (and errors), identical to the original English edition.
Newer biographies take different views of Wilde's personality and 'identity' and reinterpret the story of his life, particularly in relation to his homosexuality. However, none of these matches Ellmann in breadth and authority, and the passage of fifteen years has not diminished the pleasure to be found in reading him.Horst Schroeder's 'critical companion' is a valuable supplement which adds much illuminating detail to Ellmann's narrative.
The WILDEAN, July 2003
published by the Oscar Wilde Society