Reading Oscar Wilde‘s essays can be a trap, for he is first and foremost an hedonist and an aesthete. He loves fiction and romantic narratives, so when accounting for real events he can’t avoid putting his spin on the facts. He quotes without referencing and so on. In general, a nightmare for an investigator who needs to find a source for his appropriations. While reading his essay on Thomas Griffiths Wainewright – Pen, Pencil and Poison: a Study in Green – one can’t help but doubt his words.
Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847) lived half his life close to the centre of the Romantic revolution, half in exile and disgrace. His grandfather-guardian was the founder of the Monthly Review, England’s original “literary magazine”; he was educated by the great Classical scholar Charles Burney; he studied under two of the best-known artists of the day, John Linnell and Thomas Phillips; he painted Byron’s portrait, and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy during the early 1820s; he was good friends with Henry Fuseli, William Blake and Charles Lamb; he knew John Clare, William Hazlitt, Thomas de Quincey, Barry Cornwall and John Keats; he wrote art criticism for the London Magazine in its heyday; he was famously “amiable,” “kind” and “good-hearted” — silver-tongued, and a tremendous dandy. excerpt of a review of Wainewright the Poisoner: The Confession of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, by ANDREW MOTION, published in the NYT.
In Wilde’s essay, he quotes Wainewright to argument that he was not a doctrinaire in his assessment of art. The quote is as follows: “I hold that no work of art can be tried otherwise than by laws deduced from itself: whether or not it be consistent with itself is the question.” Impressively, after tracking down the original quote – in Essays and Criticisms: Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, by W. Caeew Hazlitt (1880) – I’m surprised that Wilde had only changed one word: he traded ability for art. Is this relevant? It is, for it says something about the author and his coherence in mastering the art he preaches – the art of lying.
What drives Wilde to write this essay about Wainewright is less the ability he had as a painter and a writer, and more his mastering of the art of killing. Wainewright was, among all the other things, a killer, a poisoner to be more accurate, and it seems that Wilde was fascinated by the fact that a person considered to be of great sincerity and integrity could also be a cruel and heartless villain whose motives for killing were driven by materiality and, if you can imagine, aesthetics. So Wilde, again, quotes him as giving the following answer when asked about the murder of a young lady called Helen Abercrombie: “Yes; it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles.” Does a killing need a better motive?