Wilde Adventures in Cataloging

Published: October 24, 2012

As anyone who has worked in the Clark’s Oscar Wilde collection knows, there is a lot of room for discovery.  One of these spaces for discovery is in the correspondence collection, where there are a large number of correspondents simply labeled as “unknown person.”  Sometimes, signatures on these letters are illegible (or seemed so to the original cataloger), while others are signed only with a first name, or with a confusing set of initials.

After this summer’s Oscar Wilde-themed NEH seminar, several scholars submitted corrections for items in the Wilde collection, including the identification of several letters written from Hungarian illustrator Willy Pogany to Ada Leverson.  These letters, written in both French and English, had been signed simply “Willy” and so were cataloged under “unknown person.”  In her search for letters related to French writer Rachilde, Petra Dierkes-Thrun came across these missives, and was able to positively identify Pogany as their author.

With this as inspiration, I recently went through many of the letters cataloged as being from “unknown persons” and realized that many names and signatures are actually completely legible (at least to my eyes!).  Moreover, the advent of the internet has made it much easier to confirm the identities of these “unknowns” — something that would have been almost impossible in the 1950s and 1960s when many of these letters were first cataloged.

This letter, written to Oscar Wilde from John Haden Badley, is perhaps the most egregious cataloging oversight.  Not only is Badley’s signature legible, but the letter is written on letterhead marked “Bedales,” the name of the famous coeducational school he founded in 1893.  Wilde’s older son Cyril was a student at Bedales in 1894, when this letter was written.  In it, Badley tells Wilde he “fully agree[s]” that “the power of reading and writing English” are of “far more importance than the mere acquirement of information,” but that 9-year-old Cyril was “full young yet to read the ‘Odyssey’ with appreciation” and that the question of starting Cyril on violin lessons should perhaps wait until it becomes clear whether or not he has any musical aptitude.  Badley does agree, though, that Wilde’s “Canadian canoe” would be a welcome addition to the school, but suggests that it perhaps should not arrive until the spring, when the water will be warmer.

J.H. Badley’s signature

Other newly identified letters include actress Emily Thorne asking Wilde to consider her for one of the old lady parts in his newest play (Box 67/Folder 66); Dublin solicitor John Doherty negotiating with Wilde terms of a lease or sale of the Wilde family hunting lodge, Illaunroe (Box 14/Folder 43); and a Wilde fan named Bertha Gent-Wood writing Robbie Ross in 1907 about the beauty of his friendship with Wilde (Box 28/Folder 59), among several others.  The descriptions for these letters have been added to our online finding aid to the correspondence in our Oscar Wilde and his Literary Circle Collection.  A full list of newly identified letters is below.


GT Atkinson to AJA Symons, 23 May 1931, Box 2/Folder 57
John Haden Badley to Oscar Wilde, 15 Sept 1894, Box 3/Folder 29
Thomas Balston to AJA Symons, 66 Apr 1926, Box 3/Folder 30
John Doherty to Oscar Wilde, 10 Dec 1883, Box 14/Folder 43
Bertha A Gent-Wood to Robert Baldwin Ross, 5 Feb 1907, Box 28 Fld 59
Willy Pogany to Ada Leverson, 1907 (3 letters), Box 51/Folder 47
Paul A. Rubens to Ada Leverson, 26 Feb 1912, Box 59/Folder 18
Emily Thorne  to Oscar Wilde, 19 Jan 1893, Box 67/Folder 66

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