Sep292010

Tea with Oscar Wilde: Gail & M.K. & Impressions of America

In 1882, poet and raconteur Oscar Wilde spent a year touring the United States, delivering instructive lectures on art and dress reform and shocking straightlaced American suburbanites with his flamboyant style, charm, and wit. Lord Akeldama would undoubtedly have approved of the dashing figure he cut—one report describes him dressed in purple Hungarian smoking jacket with matching turban, knee breeches and black silk stockings, coat lined with lavender satin, everything laced and caped and topped with a sky blue cravat. He wore his hair in long curls, and was frequently observed carrying a sunflower or lily.

Upon completion of his American tour, Oscar returned to England where he successfully toured a new lecture called “Impressions of America.” In it, he gave us such timeless gems such as:

“America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.”
and:
“America has never quite forgiven Europe for having been discovered somewhat earlier in history than itself.”

As your proprietress Gail Carriger and author M.K. Hobson both write about the late 19th century (with Madame Carriger setting her tales in England, and Madame Hobson setting hers in the United States), they thought it might be amusing to have a look at Oscar’s “Impressions of America”—and provide some impressions of their own.

“The first thing that struck me on landing in America was that if the Americans are not the most well-dressed people in the world, they are the most comfortably dressed.”


M.K.: Oh, Oscar! You make it sound like everyone on this side of the pond was slopping around in stretch pants and t-shirts, a style which the majority of Americans would not adopt for another 100 years, corresponding to the rise in popularity of shops with “-Mart” in their name! In an era when the most sweltering of east coast summer days was not sufficient to make a gentleman shed his frock-coat, and women were subjected to bustles and corsets and layers upon layers of frilled undergarments, I find it hard to believe that anyone was comfortable, even comparatively.

G.C.: And yet there might be something in this observation, as whatever was worn then has given birth to what is being worn now. Have you seen the trousers on young men these days? (Or should I say “not quite on”?) Something must have caused it. I would suspect Mr. Wilde of alluding to American tailors. I understand that, without Bond Street’s influence, coats were cut shockingly lose on this side of the pond.

“In America the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience.”

M.K.: Those Americans, such brash and brazen creatures, so full of the ol’ lèse majesté. But surely you must agree, dear boy, that Americans of the time were still very insecure in their identity, and constantly looked to England and Europe for direction—and, failing that, for titles. Oh, how American millionaires craved English titles for their daughters! And, true to the American spirit of commerce, they were willing to pay cold hard cash for them. In the case of beautiful Jennie Jerome, however, one might argue that England eventually got as good as it gave, as the money-driven union between the heiress and Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874 ultimately produced a young man (named Winston) who went on to a very useful career within the British Civil Service.

G.C.: Being an American of inexperience I shall hold my tongue on this subject.

“The next thing particularly noticeable is that everybody seems in a hurry to catch a train. This is a state of things which is not favourable to poetry or romance.”

M.K.: Alas, Oscar, here we must part company. This is because I think trains are the most utterly romantic invention ever. I find the idea of rattling along at perilous speeds upwards of twenty miles per hour, behind a cinder-spewing coal-fired engine, quite exotic and interesting. I am glad, however, that you did not live to see the age of the automobile, which surely would have knocked the sunflower right out of your purple-satin boutonnière.

G.C.: Being firmly in the dirigible camp myself, which is reputedly even rougher on the wardrobe and hair, I cannot but agree with my compatriot on this matter. For all the brash crowing of public transport it has it’s advantages, but only if one can travel first class.

“In going to America one learns that poverty is not a necessary accompaniment to civilization.”

M.K.: Well, now we get down to classes, don’t we? What Oscar is clearly being too polite to say is that America was considered a writhing snake-pit of crass commercialism—a land of backstabbing ledger-book princes—while in England, one’s claim to class and sophistication had nothing to do with one’s bank balance. To this point, it is perhaps worth quoting a passage from the New York Times, which, in 1898, noted that the aging Queen Victoria would break with a fine, longstanding monarchical tradition and become “the first sovereign of England who ever had anything to leave … All of her predecessors upon the throne bequeated fine assortments of debts to their posterity, which Parliament was called upon to pay.” Clearly, the ideals of the new American nation were not lost on the grand old Empress.

G.C.: Ah, the Victorians: such dignity inherent in holding property without money, and such embarrassment in having money without property. It is interesting that as a result of our own glorification and obsession with property ownerships that we have, most recently, lost all of our money in pursuit of it. Perhaps we American’s are not so inured against Victorian standards as we believe?

And that, Gentle Reader, is your co-blog for the day!

I do hope you enjoyed it. Your co-host was M.K. Hobson. She is the author of The Native Star a delightful romp set slightly later in time than The Parasol Protectorate series and in, as you may have gathered, the heathen Americas. It features parochial upstart witch Emily Edwards and the deliciously named Dreadnaught Stanton. There is also an appearance, near the end of the novel, of a lady who might be Alexia, had she come into her majority in New York under a different supernatural climate and political environment. The Book Pushers have a very favorable review of The Native Star with Dreams and Speculation weighing in with a more reserved take.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It took me a little while to get into it and I had a few problems with info-dumps, but it takes A LOT for me to even finish a book these days, I don’t have the time. I not only finished this, I carved out time in order to do so. I adored the relationship between Emily and Dreadnaught, and I was absorbed by the skillful mixing of historical and magical details building a colorfully different and yet entirely plausible Old West. I mean, come on, zombie gold miners with a kill switch? Brilliant!

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New York Times Article on Memory and Books.

Quote of the Day:
“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”
~ Oscar Wilde

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