Oscar Wilde’s “The Decorative Arts”

This is another one of Wilde’s American tour essays.  According to the essay’s introduction, this was actually the first essay he gave, and he did “The House Beautiful” only when he was in the same city for two nights.  The anthology I’m using oddly puts it second, but perhaps that’s because it’s a but more dry and contains a bunch of plagiarism in its original form, which was called “The English Renaissance,” before Wilde revised it.  According to Merlin Holland, Wilde bored his audience to tears, so he revised it using ancedotes from his American travels.

Between “The House Beautiful” and “The Decorative Arts” I’ve gotten my first noticeable taste of Wilde’s famed self-plagiarism, when he tells the same story of the sailor who drinks from a delicate teacup and compares it to the ugly cups he was served in his hotel room.

Here it is in “The Decorative Arts”:

“I saw rough Chinese navvies, who did work that the ordinary Californian rightly might be disgusted with and refuse to do, sitting there drinking their tea out of tiny porcelain cups, which might be mistaken for the petals of a white rose, and handling them with care, fully appreciating the influence of their beauty; whereas in all the grand hotels of the land, where thousands of dollars have been lavished on great gilt mirrors and gaudy columns, I have been given my chocolate in the morning and my coffee in the evening in the common delft cups about an inch-and-a-half thick.” (935)

Here it is again in “The House Beautiful”:

“…in a restaurant in San Francisco I saw a Chinese navvy drinking his tea out of a most beautiful cup as delicate as the petal of a flower, while I had to drink, at one of the first-class hotels in which thousands were spent on gaudy colours and gilding, out of a cup which was an inch-and-a-half thick….” (921)

And, as a bonus, here it is again in Wilde’s reflective, “Personal Impressions of America”:

“In the Chinese restaurants, where these navvies meet to have supper in the evening, I found them drinking out of china cups as delicate as the petals of a rose-leaf, whereas at the gaudy hotels I was supplied with a delft cup an inch and a half thick.” (940)

I get the impression that Wilde was one of those people who, if you knew him long enough, would tell you the same story about twenty times.  I had a boss like that once, and it finally got to the point where whenever he started to say, “Have I told you about the time I…” I had to say, “yes, you have” and scurry away.

The interesting thing about these retellings is that they are slightly different each time.  In the first, there are multiple navvies, in the second there’s just one, and in the third their plural again.  Likewise varying in quantity, the hotels are plural in the first, singular in the second, and back to plural in the third.  This could have to do with the tone and audience of “The House Beautiful.”  The essay seems more intimately written, as if for a group of women.  In fact the direction of the essay from the first sentence is very much for women, telling women how to beautify their homes.  This didn’t occur to me at first, since interior decorators can be men or women today, but as I read it again, yup, he’s actually pandering quite a bit to a female audience (“women have natural art instincts…”).  So, the second retelling, in making the character of the sailor singular and the hotel singular, it sounds more anecdotal in a drawing-room sort of way, perhaps even very much replicating this speech, rather than a broad sweeping generalization or reflection, which requires plurals and which would be more appropriate for an academic tone.

I’ll have to see if this same story pops up in any future writings.  In this computer-age of cut-and-paste, I wonder if these stories would have been more similar, had Wilde composed the essays on a Word processor….?

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