Be Fair, Oscar


I have always found Oscar Wilde a fascinating character. I don’t know why; I might well have disliked him in person. Flamboyant, arrogant, extravagant, weak-willed, self-indulgent, pretentious, Oxford-educated art snobs aren’t always exactly my cup of tea.

But today we don’t have to interact with the flawed human being that his friends and acquaintances had to deal with, do we? Our encounters are with the record of his sparkling wit, his wry paradoxes, his brilliant writing, his ingenious stage plays … and the mystery of how a man could crash so swiftly and inexorably: from the triumph of Earnest to the despair of De Profundis in less than two years.

I keep a shelf of books on Wilde, and from one of them, the Complete Letters,* I recently learned (to my disappointment if not my surprise) that Wilde was an unenlightened and hypocritical prescriptivist. Unenlightened because he alleges a grammatical sin that was never sinful; hypocritical because if it were, Wilde would himself be a sinner.

The Pall Mall Gazette on January 15, 1886, used the headline “HALF HOURS WITH THE WORST AUTHORS” over a long letter by Wilde (under the pseudonym “Oxoniensis”; the editors of the Complete Letters are confident it was from his pen) which rants about the language of an essay by George Saintsbury.

Wilde has good reasons to condemn Saintsbury’s writing. Saintsbury had recently (in 1885) published a historical survey of English prose style, but his own seems dire. Wilde quotes 14 clear instances of faults like blundering sentence construction (“‘The Romany Rye’ did not appear for six years, that is to say, in 1857″), semantic incoherence (“constantly right in general”), and outright ungrammaticality (“a place which Kingsley, or Mr. Ruskin, or some other master of our decorative school, have described”).

Sadly, though, Wilde overreaches. He undercuts the authority of his critique by thoughtlessly repeating the oldest and silliest prescriptivist bugaboo, the hoary superstition about stranding prepositions. He calls Saintsbury “a writer who seems quite ignorant of the commonest laws both of grammar and of literary expression, who has … as little hesitation in ending the clause of a sentence with a preposition, as he has in inserting a parenthesis between a preposition and its object, a mistake of which the most ordinary schoolboy would be ashamed.”

Really, Oscar. Berating Saintsbury for stranding prepositions? Be serious. In your only novel—and probably your most ostentatiously artistic work—you end clauses with prepositions: As any reader can verify, not just the dialogue but also the narration in The Picture of Dorian Gray contains sentences like “With his beautiful face, and his beautiful soul, he was a thing to wonder at,” and “He was too clever and too cynical to be really fond of.” That was almost five years after you berated Saintsbury.

Nor did your later work eschew stranding. The most imperiously pedantic upper-class matriarch you ever created, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), ends clauses with prepositions whenever she pleases (“A very good age to be married at”; “I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to”; “What did he die of?”).

Don’t pretend that preposition-stranding is a stick you can beat Saintsbury with, Oscar; it’s dishonest.

And as for parenthetical interruptions between preposition and object, why should this be thought reprehensible? I haven’t found any examples in your writing, but it wasn’t hard for me to find interrupted preposition phrases in a fine epistolary novel by a contemporary of yours, and fellow alumnus of Trinity College Dublin, Bram Stoker. In Dracula (1897) we find phrases like these:

  • with, on the far side, one long granite wall stretching out into the sea
  • on, or rather after, a particular occasion
  • the way that waking thoughts become merged in, or continued in, dreams

What’s supposed to be wrong with these? Some kind of argument is needed if you are going to pick on such phrases as the kind of writing “of which the most ordinary schoolboy would be ashamed.” You can’t just select syntactic possibilities at random and accuse them of being puerile or shameful or barbarous. Grammar isn’t a matter of mere personal taste or high dudgeon.

I’m just as opposed to bad writing as you are; but you’re treating perfectly ordinary preposition phrases as evidence of grammatical error or stylistic ineptitude. That’s not on. English has always allowed prepositions to be separated from their objects, either by preposing (What did he die of ___) or parenthetical interruption (in, or continued in, dreams). These are not grammatical errors today; nor were they in the late 19th century. Be fair, Oscar.

* The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (Henry Holt, 2000); see pp. 274-275.

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