Printer Friendly

Eve plays her Wilde card and makes the straight flush.

In her two published novels, the Prior Prize-winning The Pea Pickers (1942), and its sequel White Topee (1954), Eve Langley engaged in subversive gender games and resignifications, including cross-dressing and picaresque adventures that could still be accommodated within the mainstream of relatively conventional narratives. However the manuscript of Langley's third, and potentially finest novel, Wild Australia, when submitted in 1953, utterly disconcerted the Angus and Robertson Readers, unaccustomed as they were to public speaking/writing that radically disrupted normative textual and biological boundaries by outrageously transgressive and parodic multiple shifts of gender, sex, time and space. "The thread of the MS (it can certainly not be called a story or plot) is a ride taken by 'Steve' in 1929 over the Australian Alps from Bruthen to join her sister Blue who is hop-picking. The first 200 pages describe the ride, the places stopped at, the people met with and, most of all, the landscape and the yearnings and--not to mince matters--the completely irrelevant thoughts it often calls forth in her. At all times the reader has difficulty in following Steve's leaps in time and space. One is given so few clues to her thought processes . . . it is so undisciplined, so, in parts, overwritten, and so, one might say, chaotic . . ."(1) Nan McDonald's annotation on this Report also expresses concern and mystification about "the author's idea of having been Oscar Wilde, mixed up with some peculiar ideas of changing sexes . . .".(2)

The pun in the title of Wild Australia hints at these shifts; Langley redeploys Oscar Wilde as Steve/Eve's reincarnated Other/Self to explore identity inversions and temporal, spatial, and sexual dislocations that make the gender politics of Orlando seem by comparison about as radical as those of Peter Pan. The parodic and ironic juxtapositions, destabilisations, and reappropriations of Langley's innovative narrative strategies wreak havoc with hegemonies, decades before Monique Wittig's deconstructions and reconstructions of heterosexual configurations and normative identities. Langley charted her own rites of passage to textual, psychic, personal, and political spaces, creating extraordinary narratives that make it tempting to affix such labels as Premature Postmodernist, were it not for the fact that Eve and Oscar have surely suffered enough from categorisations, specifically those reserved for the asocial and eccentric, the "bad" and the "mad".

Both writers are similarly plagued by their novels being interpreted overliterally in the context of their lives, instead of in fictive contexts which extend beyond personal encodings which may or may not be discovered in their evasive, shifting and multilayered textual realities. It is said that labels derive from distrust of truly radical difference in the other, and Wilde himself ironically observed that "from a label there is no escape."(3) Wilde and Langley were subjected to inevitable and varying degrees of textual and material diminishment as an outcome of that ultimate means of controlling the different other, incarceration: one was deprived of liberty in Reading Gaol, the other in the Auckland Mental Hospital.

Langley's labels have been predictable enough; madwoman in the Australian literary attic; repressed lesbian, or maybe even "clinical transvestite"; victim of a conservative critical and publishing establishment; abject object in reclusive death in that isolated hut on the outskirts of Katoomba--the images proliferate and coalesce, refracted through other realities and agendas which invariably distort and diminish the woman and the writer. The comments of Vyvyan Holland, writing of his father, hold an analogous relevance; "As people recede further and further into the past, they are apt to assume the aspect of effigies from which all humanity has departed; and when other people write about them they hack them about to make them fit into a pattern of their own making until no flesh and blood remains. This is especially true of Oscar Wilde."(4) It is also true of Eve Langley.

In a recent article, Lucy Frost interprets Hal Porter's description of Langley as representing "the site of madness", stating that "Porter writes Oscar Wilde as the trope which signifies Langley's movement across the border of sanity",(5) but it is significant that Frost quotes, out of context, only those passages of Porter that suit her construct of the latter. Far from Hal Porter creating "vividly, memorably, the body of a crazy woman", he presents an impressionistic image of Langley as a brilliant eccentric, operating with full knowledge of the figure she cut, and the games she played. He may have been dismissive, as were many others, of her lack of inhibition and some of the childlike behaviours that she manifested, but' he unequivocally regarded the Oscar Wilde aspect as a "foible". If anything, Langley's unconventionalities delighted Porter, accustomed as he was in the Bairnsdale Library to "gerbera-growing widows, wives of superannuated bank managers or ex-graziers, spinsters living prudently on their savings or legacies, among roses, cats and hedges of wormwood",(6) and he leaves us in no doubt as to whose company he prefers. Other contemporaries of Langley, including Douglas Stewart and Gloria Rawlinson, remained similarly unequivocal in their perception of her as a brilliant eccentric, "punished" for being ahead of her time, and Ruth Park contends that "She was the sanest, the most stable person I ever knew. She was, I believe, born into the wrong age."(7)

Frost quotes Porter's description of Langley speaking to the intellectually handicapped child of the owner of Bancroft House, which she was revisiting; "'Oh, Oscar,' she cries out, but gently, happily, transfixed, 'I knew you'd be here. Dear Oscar.'" It is of interest that Frost, in her critical construction of Hal Porter, fails to include his later comments on "how right she [Langley] is to pick up the resemblance between the child's face and Oscar Wilde's. Bland, blank, jowly, loose-lipped, long-nosed, dissipated-looking, with dark waves of hair falling onto the temples from a central parting, the little girl's face is the man's."(8) A few days later, as Porter and Langley pose outside the Bairnsdale Library for a photograph, Porter catches sight of "a gawking country child" who has stopped to stare, and Porter is himself profoundly disconcerted to recognise that the onlooker has "the coarse and petulant features of . . .". As he identifies the likeness to Oscar Wilde, so do "other eyes, green, with the whitest of whites. 'Oh, there are Oscar Wildes ev-er-y-where!'" says Eve "as though she were, not scornfully, but with a touch of playful ridicule, a full awareness of her vagaries, mocking Eve Langley."(9) To borrow Frost's own trope of criminal investigation, care must be taken that selective use of sources does not result in a critical verballing.

Frost's argument that the taint of "madness" is the reason that Langley's novels have been "immured in the vault", as she somewhat gothically images it, would appear to lack substance when one considers that White Topee was written, accepted, and published by Angus and Robertson after Langley's seven year incarceration in the Auckland Mental Hospital and well after her labelling as "schizophrenic". Frost's reference to the "gatekeepers" at Angus and Robertson suggests that there was some kind of conspiracy to silence and suppress Langley's novels. How then, did White Topee slip through, and why did Beatrice Davis and Nan McDonald continue so actively to support and to encourage Langley, both in editorial and personal terms?(10) Why did both editors, Nan McDonald in particular, articulate such bitter disappointment and frustration that Langley's subsequent novels reflected what they perceived as only flashes of her original sustained brilliance?

A reading of the MSS of her unpublished novels reveals that there is a plethora of reasons ranging from commercial viability--after all, White Topee had hardly been the runaway success of its predecessor--to massive editorial constraints and problems in relation to such transgressive and radically unorthodox writings. Both of Langley's published novels had been given extensive reworking; what Joy Thwaite delicately describes as the exhaustive "seamless editing" of Beatrice Davis and Nan McDonald. The later MSS presented far more serious editorial difficulties; whilst brilliant and arcane, they become progressively uneven, presenting what the Editors and Readers considered to be problems which, if not necessarily insurmountable (as is evidenced by the careful consideration of possible publication of the MS of Bancroft House), were nonetheless regarded as being of a magnitude which made publication at the time unviable. Wild Australia would have required extensive revision and editing, "a long and arduous task for the most sympathetic and understanding editor";(11) Nan McDonald doubted "whether even the most drastic editing could make this into a satisfactory book, and certainly no one could spare the time to try it at present."(12) On 8 April 1954, McDonald wrote to Langley, advising her that "the Oscar Wilde theme . . . would be altogether too strange for the majority of readers . . . Please don't think that we want you to write down to the lowest level of the intelligence of the reading public, but with production costs as high as they are we can't afford to limit the circle of potential readers too drastically."(13) To some degree, censorious and circular judgments were being made about and on behalf of the reading public, and about what then constituted "a satisfactory book" for publication by a conservative mainstream publishing house; this was compounded by hardnosed economic realities, and these factors, rather than any persecutory attempts at silencing or marginalisation because of some "taint" of psychosis, were primarily influencing editorial decisions at Angus and Robertson.

Just as Wilde himself was heavily allusive in much of his own writing, to the extent where, particularly with the poems, he was accused of being imitative and derivative, in Wild Australia Langley integrates not only obscure and esoteric biographical references to Wilde, but also quotation, extensive both in frequency and length, from his works. Further difficulties are presented, for Langley's attitude to quotation was notoriously cavalier, involving unannotated textual interspersions and substitutions, so that the Readers at Angus and Robertson complained of her frequent "inaccuracies in quotations and literary allusions".(14) The latter were sometimes quite deliberate and perpetrated for parodic effect, but other extended passages of quotation are less simple to explain.

If the nature and use of recurrent Wildean references provided a main stumbling block to publication, it is apparent why the Readers indicated that such consistently integrated and layered intertextuality would be difficult to remove, and why the heavily edited second version of the MS was an artistic shell of what it had been, with the original flesh and muscle cut out by a reluctant Langley. The unifying thematic and structural motif of the Oscar Wilde reincarnation had provided her with ample scope to sport with gender and sexuality, an opportunity that she did not deny herself. Some of the resulting subtle and not so subtle parodic references and episodes may well have contributed to the Angus and Robertson Reader's perception that this novel was "unsuitable for the general reading public", especially when one recalls Hal Porter's description of his clientele at the Bairnsdale Public Library. Such transgressive allusions are sustained throughout the novel, and range across textual terrains from gently undulating irony to wildwoods of anarchic farce.

Langley clearly chose to identify with (an)other punished for difference, one to whom she could relate, in life as well as in art. Her public and indeed legal adoption of "Oscar Wilde" as alter ego, although intense and dramatic, coincided largely with that period in 1953-54 when she wrote and submitted, and had the initial draft MS of Wild Australia rejected by Angus and Robertson, this decision devastating her. Before and after this period, references to Wilde are relatively infrequent in her diaries and notebooks. Whilst Langley's personality was such that she would have been attracted by Wilde's ironic wit, textual and sexual iconoclasm, and parodic humour, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine cause and effect in the assumption of the Oscar Wilde persona. To what extent were attitudes, tastes, behaviours, other characteristics, reflections of Langley's own personality, and to what extent had these been consciously modelled upon those of Oscar Wilde? And to what extent was this ultimately yet another of the enigmatic and eccentric Langley's games? Shortly after her change of name by deed poll to Oscar Wilde, in a letter to Nan McDonald at Angus and Robertson, Langley describes the hilarity she shared with Mr Colgan, the Associate Librarian at Auckland Public Library, where she then worked, when she "autographed", and thus added inestimably to the worth of his copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. In the same letter she warns McDonald not to take her too seriously, "to please remember forever about me that I am a born humorist"; that "life is an eternal jest."(15)

It is evident that from the point at which Langley decided on incorporating the Oscar Wilde theme into her novel(s), she carefully set about researching fuller background from a range of sources, including those available in the Auckland Public Library. She immersed herself in Wilde's writings and the available published memoirs and biographies, from which she was able to extract a mass of detail to add greater "authenticity" and new dimensions, both to the fictive persona of Steve, and to novelistic events, as faces, names and incidents triggered iconic and echoic "memories" in Steve. Langley created surrealistic spatial and temporal shifts between past and present to produce parodic, antirationalist narratives that transgress accepted social and gender orders and realities, include overt and covert intertextualities, and engage in tripartite satirisation of author, narrator, and character.

Langley's notebook entitled "Random Notes 1884" includes biographical detail on Wilde, some written on used 1953 Auckland Public Library borrowing slips, and indicates that her research on Wilde was careful and comprehensive.(16) As a measure of her authorial purpose and detachment, it is significant that her notes always use the third person pronoun "he" to refer to Wilde, and their nature indicates the researcher's controlled, objective and systematic detachment in the compilation of material. This notebook contains frequent references to, and excerpts from, the writing of Lord Alfred Douglas. Some references are copied in full, these generally being those examples of Wildean wit which particularly appealed to Langley who was clearly engaged in an intensive reading or re-reading of the Wildean canon as well.

In the final chapter of White Topee, Langley had first introduced the reincarnation theme, adding further dimensions to interreality with her characteristic intertextual gameplay. In a "form of picture-show flash above my head", Steve/Oscar saw "a very large old leather portmanteau. Even at that awful moment it gave a touch of comedy to the entire scene. Had it borne the label of 'Victoria; The Brighton Line' I am sure I should have been capable of exclaiming 'The handbag!'"(17) Even the most literal of readers can surely see that Langley is not in earnest, with Steve/Oscar's "last first memory" being that of leaving London and falling into the buggy in the bush. The climax to the aesthete Oscar's horror is his realisation that a radical redefinition of his former sybaritic lifestyle is imminent: "I saw the white ribbons fluttering from a baby's bonnet, and staring at them, saw a baby siring on the woman's knee. The ribbons appeared to me to be waving out against a cold chill windy afternoon, and I exclaimed with the most dreadful despair and horror possible, 'Heavens! I'm the baby!'"(18) Understandably enough, with his world of verbal and sensual pleasures so instantaneously and irrevocably diminished, the "infant" "at once collapsed into deepest unconsciousness." Langley's satiric intent is evident throughout this, her initial foray into the imaginative and creative possibilities opened up by the narrative strategy of reincarnation. The concept, as she had written to McDonald, allowed her "a large field, a big scope";(19) she clearly recognised that episodes in the picaresque adventures of Steve and Blue in The Pea Pickers were becoming reiterative and wearing thin in White Topee. Langley's was a controlled and conscious literary and artistic decision, and one which, after apparent tacit "approval" from Beatrice Davis and Nan McDonald in the correspondence concerning White Topee, she was to exploit to the full in Wild Australia.

An example of such authorial exploitation occurs in the scene in this novel where Langley parodies Basil Hallward's painting of Dorian Gray, as Steve is painted by Mrs McConnel as a classical nude study.(20) Mrs McConnel observes; "You've got the face of some man writer I've seen in a book somewhere or other. I forget his name." "O, you're thinking of Oscar Wilde," said Blue impatiently. O everyone says that. We're used to that at home. Everyone we meet always says Steve's the image of Oscar Wilde. My mother says she IS Oscar Wilde. She knew all about the matter; she could tell you about it, if she wanted to . . . but you know what the average person is. They'd look down on us." Mrs McConnel is a pragmatist at heart, with her interest in the immortalisation of the subject stopping at the level of oil and canvas, and she merely instructs "Well, help her, him, it off with the clothes Blue, and lets [sic] see if I can do a nude study."

Steve protests feebly and ineffectually against "this queer procedure", and in her "snow white flesh" in a room of "soft and light crimson roses and great palettes of shadows" in a farmhouse in the middle of the dry, desolate Australian bush, she reclines supine, whilst the other two women "looked down on me with admiring eyes", with "their deep ardent interested gaze." The reader's breath quickens. Was it, then, a sapphic menage a trois that made Angus and Robertson reject this novel as "unsuitable for the general reader"? After all, Blue has already confided to Mrs McConnel that Steve has "a glorious body", and the artist herself was "strangely enchanted by my male outline in the Oxford bags and silken shirt and tie."

However, Mrs McConnel's subsequent observations prove disappointingly clinical: "Yes, in the nude, the body is like a man's, and yet it isn't. I've never seen such wild rose flesh before." Langley shamelessly places the pun in the mouth of this motherly Irish Basil Hallward of the Bush, playing in turn with one of the most famous and off-quoted phrases which helped to discredit the Frank Harris "biographical" travesty, in which Harris erroneously described the scene in the Central Criminal Court, by having the Judge vituperatively pass sentence, at which point, according to Harris, "Wilde rose." The phrase has been cited again and again in Wildean sources to discredit Harris, as the accused rises, of course, before sentencing; Langley, whose careful utilisation of an eclectic range of biographical detail in Wild Australia indicated her close knowledge of such sources, artfully integrates the phrase to create her own subtexts. Mrs McConnel wonders at the anatomy of her reluctant sitter: "It's not the body of any human being I've ever seen. When I saw it under the clothes, I thought, 'It's a man, all male.' And now when I see it naked, I still think it looks like the body of a man. But it's not a complete man's body." Steve, tinged crimson as much by embarrassment as by the light filtering into the "scarlet windowed room" "felt glad for all our sakes that it wasn't", with Langley's characteristic short sentence undercutting all that has been so carefully constructed before.

Nevertheless the nudity serves as a motif linking Steve and Oscar, past and present, for even if the reader has been denied a dip in a lonely well in the Australian bush south of Buckland, there follows an erotic remembrance of things past, set specifically, and of all places, in a secluded spot in the Marquis of Queensberry's garden, where Oscar and Lord Alfred Douglas are somewhat imprudently sunbathing au naturel against a tall brick wall which, had the redoutable father and sportsman spotted them, may well have become the traditional site of execution, thus denying the world at the very least De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Langley, having established her mise en scene, symbolically introduces "bunches of grapes pinned to the wall" and "peaches crucified to the crimson bricks" with "their hot cheeks ripening there above us"; a somewhat indelicate analogy to the sun-drenched state of the lovers' buttocks. It is a veritable Garden of Eden, as the artless Alfred and the innocuous Oscar sit in Arcadian bliss, "with our arms around each other's waist and innocently enjoyed nudity under the sun."(21)

That earnest and sober readers could construe this, and other subversive and wickedly witty episodes in the MS as "evidence" of Langley's "identity crisis", or a "delusion" involving an inner struggle with madness, would suggest not a lack of imagination on their part, but an excess of it. Langley's subtly and not-so-subtly integrated ironies and tensions in both tone and treatment of subject; her love of game-playing and masquerade, both textual and material; her sly iconoclasm and satirisation of both self and reader; and the pervasive Menippean influences evidenced throughout her novels, including that of unusual or abnormal psychic states, all point to a writer who is exercising an extremely sophisticated authorial control.

Although the Oscar Wilde theme, as fleshed out in Wild Australia, disconcerted the Readers at Angus and Robertson, Langley just as clearly considered it to be integral to her authorial intent, focus and preoccupations. Wilde's sexual and textual unconventionality, and his fascination with playacting and roleplaying, obviously appealed strongly to Langley. Andre Gide commented that Wilde, "clever at duping the makers of worldly celebrity, knew how to project, beyond his real character, an amusing phantom, which he played most spiritedly."(22) Gide might equally have been describing Langley when he stated that "Before others . . . Wilde wore a showy mask, designed to astonish, amuse, or, at times, exasperate."(23) William Welsford Ward delineated Wilde as having "made his mind a stage on which incongruous scenes continually shifted, across which strange characters, each the protagonist of the moment, passed and repassed in a carnival of mad confusion, while he himself sat, as he fondly thought, a passive spectator in the stalls and watched the play proceed."(24)

Langley would have related well to that description, and her order placed with the New Zealand booksellers, Whitcombe and Tombs, for the book in which it appeared, Son of Oscar Wilde, would indicate that she had certainly read it.(25) Like Wilde, she loved to exploit the transgressive potential and possibilities of costume and cross-dressing, Steve and Blue's escapades forming part of a long tradition of females donning male clothes in order to obtain work and/or pursue a more adventurous and unfettered lifestyle. Langley undoubtedly would also have agreed with Wilde's observation that "Actors are so fortunate. They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or in comedy, whether they will suffer or make merry, laugh or shed tears. But in real life it is different. Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualifications . . . The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."(26)

This irrepressible and uninhibited zest for masquerade and game playing is an ingrained feature of the personalities of both authors. Joy Thwaite notes "that costume was of the utmost importance to Langley",(27) with the theatricality of her wardrobe enabling her to range freely and creatively among multiple personalities, times and spaces.(28) Douglas Stewart perceptively observed that "eccentrics like to draw attention to their eccentricity and surely this means that they are enjoying it and that they are playacting . . . [Langley's behaviour] was an act . . . it was a challenge to convention . . . essentially it wasn't much more than the writer saying 'I'm different', as writers have so often felt obliged to proclaim."(29) Robert Sherard provides an interesting observation that "For some part of his life Oscar Wilde masqueraded in defiance of society, and then later on society made him masquerade in defiance of

himself."(30) Did Langley likewise keep up appearances in public, because the role of costumed eccentric artist had become expected of her? Certainly, "offstage" in her private life, she appears not to have maintained the performance.

A consummate irony of Langley's costuming herself as "Oscar Wilde" was that Wilde, in turn, had costumed himself as Honore de Balzac. Langley's famous and ubiquitous ankle length fur coat was modelled on those of Wilde, but Wilde himself "was then in a period of imitation" of Balzac "for whom his admiration increased with each year of his life."(31) Wilde's extravagant walking stick, which accessory or prop Langley also affected in her Wildean phase, and which figures prominently in the studio portrait she had taken at Angus and Robertson's request, was in fact an echo of Wilde's replica of 'La Canne de Monsieur de Balzac'. Langley alludes to Balzac in her notebooks, and her research of Wilde was so thorough that it was very likely that she was aware of this doppel-doppel-ganger and savoured it to the full.

Langley's entry in the Diary which covers the period from 26 September to 21 November 1969, provides telling evidence of her at least partial concealment of identity in her "public writings". She expresses relief that in her diaries at least she is free to be her "true" self, for here: "No one can either see or hear my writings and my thoughts; doesn't that give me, really, infinite freedom to think and write as I like."(32) Langley and Wilde are both scintillating but ultimately elusive textual selves--"the fish's tail flicks, flashes, and disappears", as the interpretative net is east too soon, too late. Wilde's comment to Andre Gide, "J'ai mis mon genie dans ma vie, je n'ai mis que mon talent dans rues oeuvres",(33) ironically reflects a self-conscious authorial split and distancing, and recognition of an ultimate prioritising of realities, that was shared by Langley. It is well to remember that even where one textual veil is lifted from Langley, there are invariably a half-dozen more remaining. As Langley's entry in the Scotch College Diary inscribed "Bancroft House, Metung, Gippsland" and dated 31 January 1931 intimates: "I am hated by those who know me most intimately, loved by those who know me little. Therefore I give you only splashes of bright arresting colour, in which you shall know me only as the black symbol, 'I'."(34)

The Irish connection evoked by Wilde recurs throughout Wild Australia. In the first chapter, when Steve rests at Tambo in her aunt's hotel, she asks her homosexual cousin Tommy to play a song about Burke, the Irish patriot, which "they were always singing . . . at the Wilde's [sic] in Merrion Square, and it was Gavan Duffy's favourite."(35) Langley has clearly familiarised herself with details of Jane Francesca Elgee (who on her marriage became Lady Wilde), and her early and courageous political activism. Her grandson, Vyvyan Holland, Wilde's younger son, writes "when she was twenty-three she was writing political articles and patriotic poems for Charles Gavan Duffy's paper, the Nation, signing them first John Fernshaw Ellis and later Speranza, a name which she took from the motto she adopted for herself of Fidanza, Constanza, Speranza. She was a fiery champion of nationalism and her writings were wildly inflammatory."(36) Gavan Duffy was later convicted and transported, which afforded Langley a neat link between Ireland and Australia, past and present.

The biographies of Wilde are somewhat reiterative, possibly because they are so prolific, but Langley also appears to have used Hesketh Pearson's 1946 biography, The Life of Oscar Wilde quite consistently. In Wild Australia, Steve's love for her sister is expressed with unusually excessive flights of feeling; "I loved Blue, I think, more than anyone else on earth. From the beginning to the end, I loved her. I loved her as a man loves his ideal goddess. I worshipped at the pure feet of her, year after year, and made poetry for her sake." When one recalls the laconic relationship of the sisters in The Pea Pickers, this avowal seems somewhat surprising until Langley's newfound thematic and structural purpose becomes clear: "No one had ever surged through darker seas of deepest death than I, and it was towards this altro Isola that I had perilously and painfully and in sad agony forged my way."(37) Isola, Wilde's adored sister, who was three years his junior, died in 1867 at the age of nine, and the family doctor recorded that Oscar's "lonely and inconsolable grief found its outward expression in long and frequent visits to his sister's grave in the village cemetery."(38) Blue therefore has become Isola reincarnate, "rising in dream from the dry salt and blue waste of the Irish seas, haunted by silver sedge wind and mournful marsh, and the heron flying as white as Chinese poetry over the fir-sounding shores of Erne."(39) The contrasting landscape is used to suggest Blue's new existence as she now lay "amongst roundleaved gum leaves, blue red veined and pelican haunted and fox and dingo tracked to the wide Pacific seas." On other occasions Steve is to refer to "this Isola of the Antipodes, so like the other that there was scarcely any difference between them."(40)

Langley also deftly transposes other characters and incidents from Wilde's life into Steve's reveries and strange memories, including the remarkable James Whistler's somewhat uneven relationship with Wilde, characterised by mutual admiration one minute and mutual insult-trading the next, which provides a wealth of satirical opportunity for Langley. In all her Wildean allusions, Langley displays not only a close working knowledge of her material, but also her characteristically disconcerting multiple ironies integrated into the adoption and adaptation of such sources. Langley's allusions are dense and often difficult to decode, as her textual and subtextual references to actual episodes in the life of Wilde are integrated into surrealistic streams of past consciousness, which are then rechannelled and filtered through Steve's perceptions. Like Menippean authors, Langley introduces a signification which opposes the other's word, requiring of her readers a close familiarity with the original work or subject being derided. The author demands such an esoteric and detailed knowledge of Wilde that it is no wonder that the Angus and Robertson Readers found such passages to be baffling and incomprehensible--the parodic subtexts are certainly there, but they are largely inaccessible to the uninitiated.

The comedic is perhaps more accessible in such episodes as that of Langley's dressing James Whistler in "a fine tulle or thin lawn shirt, almost transparent, with a long black tie", placing him supine "on a low bed of yellow satin brocade, thickly embossed with gold metal thread against an exotic midnight blue wall covered with green peacocks."(41) The homoerotic overtones are less than subtle, and given Whistler's temperament, appearance, and fiercely heterosexual predisposition and proclivities, even if he did have fan and peacock feather decorations in his studio, the scene becomes wickedly parodic, both of Wilde's homosexuality and Whistler's homophobia. But then Langley reverts, in a characteristically oblique and cryptic word or phrase, such as "water colours yellow like the walls of his home", to disconcertingly abstruse biographical detail, the latter reference being to Whistler's private exhibition, "Arrangement in Yellow and White" held at the Fine Art Society's Rooms on 17 February 1883, where the yellow-and-white decoration was carried on to the flowers, pots, chairs, assistants' neckties and Whistler's socks, all of which were yellow."(42)

Langley thus continually reveals intensive research into, and subsequently extensive knowledge of, the subject she has fictively "appropriated". Steve has a "recollection" of "the most awful faux pas" of "a buttonhole of carnations in a conservative lapel" which Wilde wore at the first public performance of Lady Windermere's Fan. Wilde had issued instructions that the actor Ben Webster, who was playing the part of Cecil Graham, should wear one on stage. With his characteristic delight in on- and off-stage theatricals, which, incidentally, was shared by Langley, Wilde also wanted a lot of men in the audience to wear them, as this would "annoy" the public which, Wilde considered, "likes to be annoyed." He explained: "A young man on the stage will wear a green carnation; people will stare at it and wonder. Then they will look round the house and see here and there more and more specks of mystic green. 'This must be some secret symbol,' they will say; 'What on earth can it mean?" Graham Robertson asked Wilde what it did mean. 'Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess."(43) Langley likewise demonstrated, again and again, in her writing and in her life, that same sense of fun for its own sake, not a playing to the gallery, but a playing with the gallery, this affording her a source of wicked delight as she deliberately misled and mystified her audience, a trait which Norman Lindsay perceptively recognised in his review of her first novel.(44)

A further example of the esoteric subtlety of Langley's allusions occurs when she places in Steve's mouth the ironic observation: "Here am I standing right in Australia, fully clothed and in my right mind; clad in male clothes of a cut and grace and classic beauty that Max Nordau could never have foreseen or even dreamt of."(45) To appreciate the satirical subtext, yet again a close knowledge of original sources is necessary. Max Nordau was a German sociologist in whose work Entartung [the 1895 English translation being entitled Degeneration] Wilde was the critical and clinical subject of discussion in the chapter entitled "Decadents and Aesthetes", Book Three, "Egomania". George Bernard Shaw attacked the book in the American anarchist paper Liberty on 27 July 1895,(46) but this did not deter Wilde from incorporating Nordau's "findings" into his petition to the Home Secretary from Reading Prison, dated 2 July 1896. Wilde cited Nordau's arguments, stating that his offences were "forms of sexual madness and are recognised as such not merely by modern pathological science but by much modern legislation . . . on the ground that they are diseases to be cured by a physician, rather than crimes to be punished by a judge. In the work of eminent men of science, such as Lombroso and Nordau, to take merely two instances out of many, this is specially insisted upon with reference to the intimate connection between madness and the artistic and literary temperament, Professor Nordau in his book . . . having devoted an entire chapter to the petitioner as a specially typical example of this fatal flaw."(47) Langley's layers of self-reflexive and ironic reference only begin to emerge from such brief and casually integrated allusion when the reader is aware of such esoteric detail, and the associations implicit in it; her use of material such as this reveals just how thorough and painstaking was her research on, and use of Wildean sources.

A double parodic purpose is sometimes evident, as when Langley satirises aspects of Wilde's essay, entitled "The Relation of Dress to Art", with sly inversion, as men's clothes are described with erotic sensuality: "The cool provocative grace of male clothes; the smart cut of cuffs of trousers, the evasive swing from the knee of the trousers; the sensuous lines of side pockets, mere masked slits, and the cold slide of passionless shirts over male backs, and the sculptured angle of a sock showing above a wellcut shoe, and the eternal youth given by the expensive Scotch College tie, and the inscrutable beauty of a tailored modern collar." The erotic descriptions of sensual female attire in literature are at once invoked and inverted. Steve declares: "I only lived and dressed towards one ideal; that within twenty or thirty years to

come, I might develop into a fully formed male again, almost." The reader may wonder what that somewhat quizzical final qualifier indicates, but Steve by then has reverted to her romantic and evasive stratagem of becoming instead "a pure and godlike creature, living for the intellect alone; a thing of snowy limbs and snowy soul."(48)

An amazing (in)version of a Mad Hatter's Tea Party occurs when Steve, crossdressed as she is, but also confusingly crossing back and forth to and from her Wildean identity, catches sight at a social gathering of an intense young man casting yearning glances in her direction: "I stared back . . . and smiled . . . I hitched up my exquisite trousers so that my equally exquisite socks showed delicately cream against the grey. I forgot Mack. Oscar was getting ready for the proposal."(49) Langley is playing with the notion that whilst Wilde's homosexual ardour has been aroused, so equally has Steve's passionate heterosexual response, and there is a clear focus on bisexuality. That Langley also drifted between "infidelities", as she toyed with Mackinnon Howlett and a host of other suitors, adds a whole new dimension to an already sexually subversive subtext.

Another character from the past introduced into the narrative is Warder Martin. Sometimes the situations whereby Langley contrives to create the opportunity for flashbacks are often undeveloped and artificial, presenting one of the recurring problems of structural disunity to which the Angus and Robertson Readers objected, such criticism being valid at least in terms of their expectations of realistic narrative. In one instance, Langley uses as a crude linking device some hop pickers from Putney named Smith, who introduce their visiting nephew George Martin to Steve, who is at once transported into a Reading Gaol and Warder Martin reverie, the details of which nevertheless reflect Langley's usual careful sourcing.

George Martin, doubtless spurred on by unconscious past psychic affinities, is instantaneously and passionately attracted to Steve: "It was love at first sight." Martin, like the steady procession of other characters who are confused and unsettled by Steve's "likeness" to Oscar, and by her ambiguous responses, asks anxiously "'But you're not a man, are you?' He stared at me, appealingly. I laughed and laughed. I repeated within my mind all those strange cliches in French that bring about catastrophe and death and change, and said gladly, that I was not a man. Not a man at all. Only a woman . . . a woman of no importance."(50) If Martin appears to miss the less than subtle allusion, the reader does not, but George is nonetheless mightily relieved that Steve is only a woman as "for a moment, I felt that you were someone clever." Martin embraces Steve with "a swift terrible dark hungry all possessive love . . . full of haste", proposing marriage, but this represents the ultimate millstone and encumbrance to Steve, whose maxim: "He travels fastest who travels alone",(51) results in her rejection of yet another sad suitor, with much transgressive comedy occurring in the process.

In a further inventively parodic encounter, Langley has Wilde arguing from the dock that he is more female than male, and that he and Douglas when in Cairo and Algiers "made efforts to find a specialist who could operate on me and bring about a normal female body for my tortured mind, so that Lord Alfred and I could get married."(52) Algiers was a popular vacation destination for male homosexuals,(53) and elsewhere Langley composes a slyly satiric parody of one of the nightly excursions of Wilde and Douglas to a mysterious Arabian cafe where the exotic young male musicians arouse more than a passion for music. Here Langley is playing quite deliberately with the fascinating and detailed accounts of such activities given by a fellow tourist in search of erotic difference--Andre Gide, in his 1951 recollections entitled Oscar Wilde. Whatever Wilde and Douglas sought in Algiers, it was hardly the clinical expertise of local plastic surgeons, urologists, and endocrinologists. However Langley's "Wilde" is nothing if not consistent in his "evidence": "The East is full of doctors who perform specialised operations. At Stamboul, they can turn you into anything; at Cairo, they can turn you back again from what they did at Stamboul; and at Algiers, top you off, finely."(54) One can imagine the male members of the bar flinching at Wilde's testimony, but the account of this pathological evidence and outrageous punning had a similar effect, it would seem, on at least some of the Angus and Robertson Readers.

The MS of Wild Australia contains a single-spaced typed page inserted between pages 318-19. These notes do not form part of the MS of the novel proper, but make generalised comments upon its composition. Langley writes "regarding the jays [sic] eternal cry of 'For the best; for the best; for the best'. . . This comes from the Fourth Letter and originates in the most tortured part of the brain." This would indicate that Langley was using the small and rare book of Wilde's works written whilst he was in prison, Oscar Wilde: Poems in Prose and Private Letters, published in 1919, with "An Intimate Preface by his Biographer Frank Harris", as this contains four letters, to one of which Langley alludes, quoting from Wilde's letter to Robert Ross of 6 April 1897: "I must say candidly that I am getting gradually to a state of mind when I think that everything that happens is for the best." This phrase forms a motif in The Pea Pickers and would suggest that Langley's fascination with Wilde was long-term; she had however, hitherto, on her sister's advice, suppressed overt allusion to it in her writing until she received the apparent "approval" from Beatrice Davis and Nan McDonald for that late addition to White Topee. It could be hypothesised from Langley's extended quoted interpolations and cross-referencing in the latter sections of Wild Australia that her increasing use of such material may have represented as much an authorial dependence as a fictive strategy. It may be that she was losing some of her earlier creative impetus, (though Wilde himself was often accused of a far more serious lack of originality). To suggest that Langley's inclusions represented this added reflection of the Wilde persona is perhaps oversubtle, but then again, when one considers the extraordinary and often brilliant textual resonances of this woman and this writer, perhaps not. In her adoption and integration of the Wilde persona into her writing more than forty years ago, Eve Langley was blazing trails and exploring and pioneering textual terrains far removed from the safe ubiquities and conventions of those neatly bordered and stone-hedged rationalist, androcentric, and monocentric discourses of gender specificity and psychic constructs and representations of the self.


1. Mitchell Library MSS 3269/135, SLNSW; Angus and Robertson Correspondence File; Reader's Report dated 30/9/53.

2. ibid.

3. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in The Complete Illustrated Stories, Plays and Poems of Oscar Wilde (London; Chancellor Press, 1991): 131.

4. Vyvyan Holland, Son of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987): 198.

5. Lucy Frost, "Body in the Vault: The Unpublished Novels of Eve Langley" Australian Literary Studies 16[1](1993): 53.

6. Hal Porter, The Extra (Melbourne; Nelson, 1975): 142.

7. Ruth Park, "Some Notes on My Personal Association with the Writer Eve Langley, 1940-42, Auckland, New Zealand" in Ruth Park Papers, Mitchell Library MSS 3128/6, SLNSW.

8. Porter, 149.

9. ibid, 150.

10. Mitchell Library MSS 3269, SLNSW; Angus and Robertson Correspondence File

11. Mitchell Library MSS 3269/135, SLNSW; Angus and Robertson Correspondence File; Reader's Report dated 30/9/53.

12. Mitchell Library MSS 3269/135, SLNSW; Angus and Robertson Correspondence File; Written comment on original Reader's Report.

13. Mitchell Library MSS 3269/295, SLNSW; Angus and Robertson Correspondence File.

14. Mitchell Library MSS 3269/191, SLNSW; Angus and Robertson Correspondence File.

15. Mitchell Library MSS 3269/311, SLNSW; Angus and Robertson Correspondence File; Letter to Nan McDonald dated 24/5/54.

16. Mitchell Library MSS 4188/6, SLNSW; Item 3.

17. Eve Langley, White Topee (Sydney; Angus and Robertson, 1954): 243.

18. ibid, 244.

19. Mitchell Library MSS 3269, SLNSW; Angus and Robertson Correspondence File.

20. Mitchell Library MSS 4188/1, SLNSW; Wild Australia, 368-370.

21. ibid, 370.

22. Andre Gide, Oscar Wilde (London; William Kimber, 1951): 15.

23. ibid, 17.

24. qtd. in Holland, 253.

25. Mitchell Library MSS 4188/6, SLNSW; Item 12.

26. Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime in The Complete Illustrated Stories, Plays, and Poems of Oscar Wilde (London: Chancellor Press, 1991): 303

27. Thwaite, The Importance of Being Eve Langley (Sydney; Angus and Robertson, 1989): 5.

28. ibid, 285.

29. Meg Stewart, "The Shadows are Different: An Appreciation of Eve Langley", Audiotape; ABC Drama Features Transcript, 1975.

30. Sherard, The Life of Oscar Wilde (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1906): 160.

31. ibid, 232.

32. Mitchell Library MSS 4188/4, SLNSW; Item 5.

33. Gide, 14.

34. Mitchell Library MSS 4188/2, SLNSW; Item 1.

35. Mitchell Library MSS 4188/1, SLNSW, Wild Australia; 276.

36. Holland, 19.

37. Mitchell Library MSS 4188/1, SLNSW, Wild Australia; 276.

38. qtd. in Hesketh Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde (London; Methuen, 1946): 31.

39. Mitchell Library MSS 4188/1, SLNSW, Wild Australia; 276.

40. ibid, 279.

41. ibid, 241.

42. Oscar Wilde, The Letters of Oscar Wilde ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (London; Rupert Hart-Davis, 1962): 135.

43. qtd. in Pearson, 223.

44. Norman Lindsay, "The Pea Pickers" in the Bulletin, 3 June 1942; 2.

45. Mitchell Library MSS 4188/1, SLNSW, Wild Australia; 295.

46. Oscar Wilde, The Letters of Oscar Wilde, 402.

47. ibid.

48. Mitchell Library MSS 4188/1, SLNSW, Wild Australia; 295.

49. ibid, 320.

50. ibid, 323.

51. ibid, 336.

52. ibid, 323.

53. Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde (London; Hamish Hamilton, 1987): 301.

54. Mitchell Library MSS 4188/1, SLNSW, Wild Australia, 321.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Hecate Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:author Eve Langley's transgressive works reminiscent of Oscar Wilde
Author:Colwill, Robyn
Date:May 1, 1994
Previous Article:Wheelflower.
Next Article:Brae city.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters