Background to Oscar Wilde
After publishing Edgar Allan Poe, Martin Secker urged Ransome to write more books of literary criticism. Ransome wasn’t totally satisfied with Poe, but he was even less happy with his ability to write stories. He was also “playing about” with his ideas on the theory of writing, which further encouraged him to agree to Secker’s request. They had more trouble agreeing a subject: Ransome wanted to write about Hazlitt, but Secker wasn’t keen. They agreed on Robert Louis Stevenson, only for Secker to change his – and Ransome’s – mind in favour of a book on Oscar Wilde.
It proved to be a fateful change. Ransome researched his book thoroughly, reading Wilde’s works at Lanehead and interviewing his executor, Robert Ross. He wrote the book between March and December, 1911, before correcting the proofs with Ross’s assistance in early 1912.
The libel case
But storm clouds were already gathering. Ransome had problems obtaining permissions from Wilde’s publishers, which delayed his manuscript and thus publication. Worse came as soon as the book was published. First Constance Wilde’s brother objected to Ransome’s depiction of his sister, then Lord Alfred Douglas brought a libel suit against Ransome, Secker, his printers and the Times Book Club (who had distributed copies to their members). Ransome was able to settle the first dispute with an apology and an offer to correct the second edition. The Alfred Douglas complaints could only be settled in court. Ransome had to live through “thirteen months of wretchedness” for the case to be heard in April, 1913, made worse by the gradual realisation that both he and his book had wandered innocently into a bitter feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross.
The jury found in Ransome’s favour at the end of the five day hearing. Ransome left the court resolved “at all costs to write no more books that could by any conceivable mischance involve me again in such misfortune.”
And problems with the publisher
Nor did the libel case represent Ransome’s only problem with Oscar Wilde. He also found himself in difficulties with his publishers. In mid-1911 Ransome met Charles Granville, a “remarkable man… whose escapades influenced ther fortunes of many besides myself.” Granville was an ambitious but mysterious personality, who had set himself up as the publisher Stephen Swift and begun to attract writers to his list. He proposed an arrangement to Ransome whereby he would take the rights to all Ransome’s books, past, present and future, in exchange for paying Ransome a steady income on account of royalties. This was an attractive offer and, in March 1912 Secker and Ransome reached an agreement whereby Secker ceded the rights in Edgar Allan Poe, The Hoofmarks of the Fawn and Oscar Wilde back to Ransome for £60. Ransome then transferred these titles and Bohemia in London to Stephen Swift.
By October, 1912, Ransome had completed the text for Portraits and Speculations, the first of the books of essays he was due to write for Stephen Swift. Swift’s autumn list advertised bith this and another title, The Philosophy of the Grotesque, that Ransome had not yet completed. It was then that “suddenly, unexpectedly, a new blow fell”, when Granville fled the country with his secretary to escape a charge of bigamy. His firm was liquidated, leaving Ransome “in danger of losing every asset I had.” Showing considerable fortitude, Ransome managed to regain control of Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe and Portraits and Speculations almost immediately, and his other works after only a short delay.
Published by Martin Secker in February, 1912.
- Out of Print
It is only fair to say that I do not think that Secker, when he commissioned the book, had any idea that he was inviting me to put my foot into a hornet’s nest.
Also in Literary Criticism
- A History of Story-Telling
- Edgar Allan Poe
- Oscar Wilde
- Portraits and Speculations
- Before a Peak in Darien
- Robert Louis Stevenson