WILDE (OSCAR) The Importance of Being Earnest. A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, NUMBER 13 OF 100 LARGE PAPER COPIES SIGNED BY THE AUTHOR, PRESENTATION COPY FROM WILDE TO MAJOR JAMES NELSON, inscribed on the verso of the half-title "To Major Nelson: from the author. A trivial recognition of great and noble kindness. Feb: 99",, Leonard Smithers, 1899
Lot 187
WILDE (OSCAR)
The Importance of Being Earnest. A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, NUMBER 13 OF 100 LARGE PAPER COPIES SIGNED BY THE AUTHOR, PRESENTATION COPY FROM WILDE TO MAJOR JAMES NELSON, inscribed on the verso of the half-title "To Major Nelson: from the author. A trivial recognition of great and noble kindness. Feb: 99",, Leonard Smithers, 1899
Sold for £55,000 (US$ 91,203) inc. premium
Lot Details
The Property of a Collector
WILDE (OSCAR)
The Importance of Being Earnest. A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, NUMBER 13 OF 100 LARGE PAPER COPIES SIGNED BY THE AUTHOR, PRESENTATION COPY FROM WILDE TO MAJOR JAMES NELSON, inscribed on the verso of the half-title "To Major Nelson: from the author. A trivial recognition of great and noble kindness. Feb: 99",, light pencil note (dated 1930) about Nelson on front paste-down, publisher's mauve cloth gilt, age soiled, 2 corners slightly bumped, preserved in cloth chemise and morocco-backed slipcase [Mason 382], 4to, Leonard Smithers, 1899

Footnotes

  • "A TRIVIAL RECOGNITION OF GREAT AND NOBLE KINDNESS". AN EXTRAORDINARY PRESENTATION COPY INSCRIBED TO THE GOVERNOR OF READING GAOL.

    Found guilty of charges of indecency in May 1895, Wilde was imprisoned in Pentonville and then Wandsworth before his transfer (during which, handcuffed on Clapham Junction platform, he was jeered and spat upon) to Reading prison in November. Under the strict regime of Henry Isaacson, the Governor on his arrival, Wilde was denied access to all writing materials, forbidden to talk, and soon lost weight and good health. However in July 1896 Isaacson was replaced as Governor by Major James Nelson, an event which had a profound effect on Wilde, both during the remainder of his stay in prison and his subsequent life and reputation. "One of Nelson's first acts was to go up to Wilde and say, 'The Home Office has allowed you some books. Perhaps you would like to read this one. I have just been reading it myself.' Wilde melted into tears" (Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 1987, p.476). He also permitted Wilde access to pen and ink all the time, allowing him to write creatively again. The result was De Profundis, written in the form of an episodic letter to Alfred Douglas (over a three month period). Published posthumously it was "an extraordinary record of a man hurled from the pinnacle of literary success to the uttermost public degradation, and of the spiritual means by which he turned away from despair. Wilde fixed his mind on Christ, first as a person, then (in The Ballad of Reading Gaol) as a redeeming god" (ODNB).

    Nelson actively encouraged Wilde, relaxing prison rules, which demanded that each day written material must be handed in to be retained by the Governor, and instead allowing Wilde to review parts of the manuscript which he had completed on earlier days. Before Wilde left Reading, on 18 May, he was handed the entire manuscript by the warden. Whilst Wilde described Isaacson as having "the soul of a rat", he would "afterwards praise Nelson as 'the most Christlike man I ever met'" (Ellmann, p.476). The presentation inscription in our copy of The Importance of Being Earnest, dated the month of publication, adds poignant testimony to the importance that Nelson still held for Wilde towards the end of his life. A copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol inscribed by Wilde to Nelson ("Major Nelson from the Author. in recognition of many acts of kindness, and gentleness Feby. 98") is held at the Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

    Wilde's last play, The Importance of being Earnest, had opened at the St James's on 14 February 1895. It "won critical unanimity of applause... and the twentieth century in general, when permitted to view it, hailed it as the greatest English comedy of all time" (ODNB). Due to his imprisonment it was not published until February 1899.

    Provenance: Major James Osmond Nelson (1859–1914), presentation inscription from the author; Ida Bond, loosely inserted note (dated 1930), recording that "This inscribed copy of the Importance of Being Earnest was given to my brother Arnold Percy by the widow of Major Nelson after his death. It came into my possession when my brother died in 1918".
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