When Oscar Wilde died in 1900, the few obituaries that appeared were miserable: The Times concluded that death had brought an end to ‘what must have been a life of wretchedness and unavailing regret’, while The Sunday Times thought ‘no sadder record of a life wilfully blighted can be found… ’ And yet—more than a century later—Wilde’s star burns brighter than ever, and as Matthew Sturgis writes in his new biography (Oscar: A Life) ‘the position he holds is an extraordinary one; it spans high and popular culture, it bridges the past and the present’.
Wilde himself never made it to Asia (although he was fascinated by the Chinese art and calligraphy that he discovered in San Francisco’s Chinatown during his mammoth 1882 American lecture tour), but last week the British Library brought a little bit of Oscar to Hong Kong in the latest phase of our HM Treasury-funded ‘British Library in China: Connecting through Culture and Learning’ project.
British Library Curator Alexandra Ault and myself took part in a sold-out panel at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, alongside renowned theatre directors Dominic Dromgoole (formerly Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe), Tang Shu-wing (multi-award winning Hong Kong director and educator), and University of Hong Kong Law academic and writer Marco Wan.
Our panel on Wilde explored his life and legacy across some of the key themes of this year’s Festival, which included feminism, LGBTQ+, and travel. The panel considered Wilde’s position in Victorian society—and subsequently his inspiration to others—as a gay man; while legal scholar Marco Wan shared fascinating perspectives on the trial(s) of Wilde as a clash between two conceptions of literature, as well as two conceptions of society.
What made the discussion so singular was being able to structure our discussion around specially digitised images of original manuscripts from the British Library Wilde collection, displayed to impressive effect on the theatre’s massive screen. Seeing some of the most iconic and significant manuscripts in literary history—Wilde’s famous letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, on headed notepaper from Reading Gaol; or the first handwritten workings-out of one of the most famous plays in theatre history, The Importance of Being Earnest—blown up several metres high on the screen produced an inspiring, and rather moving, effect, and gave the conversation a special resonance.
To coincide with the panel, we were also able to announce that we have shared our Wilde manuscripts online via our Discovering Literature platform, specially created in traditional and simplified Chinese as part of our project. This content includes digital access to the complete canon of Wilde’s theatrical manuscripts, as well as a number of lively articles relating to Wilde commissioned from leading experts in China and the UK.
The British Library’s mission includes the ambition to make our collections accessible to everyone ‘for research, inspiration, and enjoyment’; and of these three fantastically motivating ambitions, the aim to use our collections to inspire others’ creativity is paramount. With this in mind, we partnered with the Hong Kong-based new media arts creative team, Dimension Plus, and challenged them to respond to both the text and the materiality of our Oscar Wilde collections. The result—a prototype of which we launched at breakfast event for Library supporters in Hong Kong—is a wonderful new creative digital piece called ‘Landscapes of Oscar Wilde’ that builds a three-dimensional mapping of Wilde’s work. Even Wilde himself—a man never short of a bon mot, nor without an aphorism for any occasion—might be momentarily lost for words to see how new technologies can be applied to his words to create such distinctive new creative response…all of a piece with the way his work continues to speak to ever more people, in all walks of life, across the world.
Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning, British Library