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Writing and Language

Wilde announced at a breakfast in Paris in 1891 that “he was writing a play in French, ‘to be acted in the Français.’ He is ambitious of being a French Academician” (Hart-Davos, Rupert : Selected Letters of O. Wilde, p. 101; Satzinger 191). Wilde’s ambition would never be realized; indeed, far from earning him a place as an Immortel in the French Academy, his French in Salomé earned him much ridicule from some of his contemporaries. Ransome criticized it as “very simple in construction” with characters that “speak like children who have had a French nurse" (Ransome, Arthur; Satzinger 207) Paradoxically, others accused Wilde of having written the play in English, then turning it over to his French friends for translation.

These criticisms miss the point and, in the case of the second, are entirely false; however, they get at some of the key elements of Wilde’s French. After most accounts by contemporary Frenchmen who knew Wilde, he spoke very fluent French. Nevertheless, a play of this caliber still represented a sizeable feet for Wilde. His early drafts are “full of errors and corrections, which shows that Wilde must have worked longer and more laboriously on the play than he often pretended to” (Satzinger 204) He solicited the aide in correcting the manuscript of Pierre Louÿs, Adolphe Retté, and Stuart Merrill, who corrected his Anglicisms and grammatical faults.

Wilde, however, accepted these corrections with difficulty. He deliberately chose to retain some usages his French colleagues found incorrect, such as the frequent repetition of “Enfin!” at the start of speeches. The resulting cadences, fluidly French or no, became the hallmarks of the play. Stuart Merrill said: “It’s precisely the exotic nature of Wilde’s French which seems to me to be one of the attractions of the play”(Rette, Adolphe : « Salomé, » in MIKHAIL, EH, p. 190, in Satzinger 205). He continued a practice others had remarked in his spoken French, where though “he knew French admirably, [he] pretended to have to look for the words for which he meant his listeners to wait. He had almost no accent, or at most only what it pleased him to retain to give a new and strange aspect to his words”(Stokes, John, op. cit. p. 34 ; Satzinger 209).

That “new and strange aspect to his words” recalls the hunt for the “mot nouveau” of French symbolists such as Mallarmé with whom Wilde was acquainted. Indeed, it was their experimentation with language that may have attracted Wilde to the French for this work; according to Kevin Sullivan “Wilde deliberately sought the kind of hieratic cadence and monotonous simplicity most satisfactorily achieved in French symbolist poetry and drama” (The Pall Mall Budget (London), XL, 30 June 1892, in Mikhail, EH, p. 188, Satinger 208).

Wilde himself put his decision to write in French in these terms:
“My idea of writing the play was simply this: I have one instrument that I can command, and that is the English Language. There was another instrument to which I had listened all my life, and I wanted once to touch this new instrument to see whether I could make any beautiful thing out of it”(Ervine, St. John, Oscar Wilde, p. 13).

Writing in French was an exhibition of Wilde’s virtuosity, another declaration of his genius. Yet like that famous customs declaration, the decision was only in part grandstanding and in much larger part “a piece of calculation as deliberate as his antics in aesthetic clothes”(Satzinger, p. 184). This calculation called upon both the symbol of French in the English mindset, where it was seen as the language of a certain kind of decadence, sensualism, and luxury, and the exoticism of writing in a foreign tongue, creating a language that would be Biblical, “héraldique,” and “Byzantine.”

Writing and Language