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Oscar Wilde's Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery.

Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell. Oscar Wilde's Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv+470. 16 B&W illustrations. $50.

This monumental, revisionist, hybrid volume--at once archival, literary historical, speculative, and interpretive--warrants the attention of scholars interested in Romanticism's canon and history, Oscar Wilde's relation to Romanticism, and forgery's relevance to aesthetic creation. It does considerably more than meticulously present in an appendix an authoritative annotated transcription of Wilde's lengthy notebook from the mid-1880s concerning Thomas Chatterton, held by the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA. Besides transcribing the notebook (with corrections to an earlier transcription by another scholar) and Wilde's notes on D. G. Rossetti's Ballads and Sonnets, the authors present, in an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion, extensive background regarding Chatterton's place in the history of Romanticism (emphasizing Victorian attitudes) and interpret the notebook's relevance for Wilde's later writings. The book exhibits an exceptionally wide range of reference, knowledge, and insight regarding poetry of the long nineteenth century and critical debates about Wilde.

Although Wilde is primary, Chatterton and Romanticism are integral to the discussions throughout in ways that provide an extended reminder of Chatterton's importance in Romanticism's history, especially among the Victorians, some of whom were enthusiastic about him. The authors describe Rossetti's admiration for Chatterton and suggest, based on mixed evidence, Swinburne's positive view. Wilde's high regard for Rossetti influenced his engagement with Chatterton. Bristow and Mitchell are the first to take significant interpretive advantage of Wilde's reliance in his notebook on the views that Rossetti's close friend Theodore Watts expressed in his introduction to the Chatterton segment of Thomas Humphrey Ward's The English Poets (four volumes, 1880), the first major anthology of British poetry. Watts's essay poses challenges to views of poetic creation and value that emphasize originality and play down impersonal, masked expression and the thorny matter of forgery. The authors contrast Victorian attention to Chatterton with his current all but invisibility in major North American anthologies of British literature (Broadview, Longman, Norton). The authors slip in a small way when they claim that Chatterton has never appeared in the Norton Anthology, whose current version includes "An Excelente Balade of Charitie" in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century rather than the Romantic Period. The period placement supports their point that Chatterton has virtually disappeared from the Romantic canon, despite the admiration of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Rossetti. His forgery and dramatic masking appear to pose an insurmountable obstacle at the moment to treating him as more than an anomalous footnote to Romanticism.

Wilde's notebook warrants the revisionist treatment that the authors compellingly and thoroughly pursue by challenging the dominant scholarly view that it exhibits Wilde's would-be plagiarizing tendencies. The charge of plagiarism against Wilde, which has never died down entirely, originated in response to the highly derivative quality of the book of poems that he published in 1881. The notebook consists of pasted-in pages from two biographies of Chatterton with here and there Wilde's stylistic revisions (that the authors suggest are his habitual copyediting) and also additional sentences and phrases in Wilde's hand. Rather than copying the pages by hand or making extracts or summaries, Wilde produced a kind of scrapbook. Earlier scholars and collectors have assumed that it is closely related to the lectures that Wilde delivered on Chatterton in London and Bristol in 1886 and 1888 but never published or to a projected article on Chatterton that never appeared. Bristow and Mitchell argue effectively instead that the notebook bears an unclear relation to the lecture and article, and that it is evidence of Wilde's research on Chatterton, not of plagiarism. In their well-sustained argument, the notebook records information and attitudes that resonate with aspects of Wilde's later writing. Part of the argument against plagiarism rests on their identifying portions of the handwritten material usually attributed solely to Wilde as coming from or inspired by Watts's essay. The notebook, then, has three published sources, not just the two biographies. As a consequence, the handwritten portions are not Wilde's attempt to link the biographers' work for public presentation as his own. The authors have not settled absolutely the matter of plagiarism with regard to the notebook, but they have shaken the positions taken by earlier commentators.

The book's compelling strategy is to shift attention from the charge of plagiarism in two directions: to Chatterton's significance in Victorian attitudes toward Romanticism and to his importance in Wilde's thinking and writing. As I suggest briefly below, some of the argument's details have implications unexplored in the book for understanding Wilde's type of Romanticism in relation to the modernism that follows it. The authors argue with good evidence and salutary interpretive results that Wilde's research into Chatterton marks a turning point in his career and that significant echoes from the notebook occur prominently in Wilde's work from that point on. Chapters One and Two historicize the notebook by sketching Chatterton's standing in the 1880s through a reception history of his poetry. Chapter One presents Chatterton as an example of Walter Pater's conception of aesthetic poetry. Chapter Two focuses on Victorian tributes to Chatterton and adaptations of his work, including an unrealized memorial to him in Bristol that Wilde supported. The chapter implicitly raises the question of the contradictory myth of Chatterton, which involves forgery that is recognized to be highly original, a masquerade that is not what it claims explicitly to be but that paradoxically is experienced as a valuable, inspiring performance. The conclusion of Chapter Two, emphasizing Wilde's view that Chatterton was not just "an icon of the Romantics" but "their major poetic ancestor" (108), opens onto Chapter Three's concern with "Wilde's interest in the canonization of Chatterton within the literary history of Romanticism" (108). This highly textured and nuanced chapter presents the heart of the matter with regard to Wilde's conception of Romanticism and his relation to it that emerged from his engagement with Chatterton. The authors suggest that Wilde recognized that the history of Romanticism is a construction for which alternatives are possible. They bring out Wilde's allegiance to Keats and the way in which Watts's introduction gave him a productive way to understand both the connection between Chatterton and Keats and the link to Rossetti as a new Romantic development with an origin in Chatterton.

The three remaining chapters focus more on Wilde than on the Romantic tradition. Chapter Four deftly turns back the charge of plagiarism while suggesting the notebook's important conceptual role in making it possible for Wilde to include forgery as a mode of invention within aesthetic creativity. For the most part, the authors are tactful about describing the notebook as a hinge in Wilde's thinking rather than evidence in itself for what emerges in the later published works. Occasionally they use language, such as "testing ground" (213), implying mildly that the transformation is already visible, but typically they do not go beyond the more compelling claim that the notebook is constituted by carefully selected raw material showing rich potential when viewed retrospectively. Chapter Five goes into considerable detail regarding Wilde's published commitment to forgery as invention in his essay, "Pen, Pencil and Poison," concerning the forger, painter, and poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewnght. The essay's relevance to the notebook is evident, as is Wilde's commitment to lying as invention in "The Decay of Lying." More tenuously relevant are the aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray and some of Wilde's short stories also treated in the chapter.

The reading in Chapter Six of the posthumously published version of "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." (longer than the one published during Wilde's lifetime) is a tour de force. It presents a remarkable recursive reading of the story that historicizes it by situating it in a sequence of Shakespearean forgeries from Chatterton's time through Wilde's. The chapter argues effectively for the relevance of Chatterton (mentioned in the narrative) and the history of Romanticism to the narrative, when the young actor as love interest of Shakespeare, Mr. W.H., is presented as the origin of the Romantic Movement. The authors take advantage of the double meaning of forge in the story to imply both creation and lying. The conclusion rightly adds The Importance of Being Earnest to Wilde's works fruitfully influenced by his discovery in Chatterton of "consummate art that strove to invent, not imitate, reality" (303), a discovery that this groundbreaking book thoroughly establishes and memorably interprets.

Although important for its readings of Wilde based on a revisionist interpretation of the notebook, the book also raises significant issues implicitly concerning the history and canon of Romanticism and the rise of literary modernism in the wake of Wilde's engagement with Chatterton. Forgery, plagiarism, and Chatterton have received attention from Nick Groom and others, but Chatterton remains a marginal figure in Romantic studies whose place deserves reinterpretation. The relevance of forgery and borrowing to literary creativity also points forward from Chatterton and Wilde to modernism, especially with regard to impersonality, masking, and paradoxical, recursive elements, all of which come up significantly in Oscar Wilde's Chatterton. Yeats's conception of the mask aligns him with Wilde and the thread of impersonality that Wilde responded to in Romanticism. Eliot admired Keats as an exception to his disdain for the Romantics, and his views about borrowing and creativity follow Wilde. When Joyce closes A Portrait of the Artist with a sentence that includes the verb forge and mentions genuine forgeries in Ulysses, the resonance with Wilde, Chatterton, and a Romanticism that includes Chatterton as one of its origins invites our recognition.

John Paul Riquelme

Boston University
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Author:Riquelme, John Paul
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Date:Sep 22, 2018
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