Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Exploring a Small Library

My regular library is closed for renovation, so I've been going to a different one.  It's quite small - only one room - but as Jane Rule says, every library has its treasures, and I found some entertainment just by checking a few shelves.

I found a Diana Wynne Jones book I had never read before (wonder if I should add it to the Super DWJ List on my old blog) and a novel by one Gyles Brandreth, featuring Oscar Wilde as a detective.  It's always enjoyable to read about one of my favorite historical eras, and I have no doubt that Mr Brandreth adores the late 19th century as much as I do.  However, he and I don't always see eye to eye.  I don't really like Wilde as a person (so I suppose it's my own fault if I dislike a book about him.)  He was intelligent but Brandreth has turned him into another Sherlock Holmes, all observant and logical and stuff.  I don't really see the point of that. 

Ironically, Arthur Conan Doyle also appears in the book - he and Wilde are portrayed as friends, which again I'm not sure is historically accurate.  They met at least once, and in fact The Picture of Dorian Gray would have appeared in the same magazine as Conan Doyle's second Holmes story if Wilde had been interested in making the deadline, which he wasn't.  Brandreth crams as many unusual Victorians into the book as he can.  Sometimes he exaggerates their eccentricities, as when he describes Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper as a pair of cross-dressers.  It's true that they were lovers, sometimes addressed each other with male nicknames, and wrote together under the name of Michael Field, but their biographer Emma Donoghue does not mention that they did any literal, as opposed to spiritual, cross-dressing.

Brandreth also brings another interesting fellow into the story:  Ernest Hornung.  He married Conan Doyle's sister, and in what appears to be a spirit of friendly rivalry, set out to surpass the popularity of Sherlock Holmes by creating the character of master thief A.J. Raffles.  Raffles has his Watson - a bumbling accomplice - and the Raffles stories are definitely fun to read.  They're also more homoerotic than I remember Holmes and Watson being, although I started reading them when I was fairly young and oblivious.  Watson is protected by his heterosexuality, as demonstrated in frequent references to his wife (or wives - Sherlockians disagree on how many there were) and Holmes is too cerebral to be interested in sex.  Raffles "seduces" his old school chum (always referred to by his school nickname, "Bunny") into a life of crime . . . but I don't actually believe that Hornung put a double meaning into those passages.  They sound suspicious to a biased ear, but not like they were written by someone with something to hide.

This brings up the oddest thing about Brandreth's Oscar Wilde mystery novels.  I gather he's written several of them by now and never does more than hint at Wilde's homosexual tendencies.  Lord Alfred Douglas appears frequently - so does Wilde's wife Constance - and Wilde spends a lot of time proclaiming his love for his wife, and not coming home at night because he's off gallivanting with Lord Alfred.  What are we to think?  Maybe it's meant to be a realistic portrait of Victorian life.  But there is a certain lack of honesty in it, which I believe would have appealed to Wilde, and seems to appeal to Brandreth, but is no longer fashionable in the 21st century.

Incidentally, the back cover of this book informs us that Brandreth wrote "a much-admired biography of Oscar Wilde," but I cannot find this biography listed on Amazon or anywhere else.  He did, however, write a play about The Trials of Oscar Wilde, in which Tom Baker (of Doctor Who fame) played the lead in 1974.  That would have been something to see.

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