by Oscar Wilde
“Intended neither for the British child nor the British public.”
A House of Pomegranates consists of four fairy tales written by Oscar Wilde and released in 1891 as a sequel to the collection, The Happy Prince and Other Tales.
This anthology was printed in the same year as the complete, uncensored version of Wilde’s barely disguised homoerotic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was unleashed on a scandalised British readership to strident accusations of effeminacy and moral depravity. The critics savaged his plot in which a young man’s portrait is painted by an artist infatuated by his beauty – the protagonist making a Faustian bargain with the devil in order to ensure the picture, rather than he, will age and decline with the passing of time.
At this juncture, Wilde was living with his wife and two sons on Chelsea’s fashionable Tite Street, and regularly wrote fantasy fiction for magazines. He was a famous man about town, but also visited Paris, where he was received as a respected writer at the salons littéraires. It was in this already hectic year that he was first introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas (known as Bosie), a handsome but somewhat spoilt young fellow who famously became the older man’s lover, close companion and the catalyst to his eventual ruination.
Wilde’s short stories, which were marketed as children’s fiction, have inevitably been overshadowed by his clever and amusing plays. They are lyrically beguiling allegories, but in much the same way Grimm’s Fairy Tales could never be described as ‘happy ever after’ narratives, the tales in A House of Pomegranates tend to be pessimistic, devoid of solace and typically non judgemental. One wonders if they were in fact written with youngsters in mind.
This collection (there were three all told), is dedicated to his wife, Constance, and contains: The Young King, The Birthday of the Infanta, The Fisherman and his Soul, and The Star-Child. They are whimsical, poignant and a touch satirical – more Gothic suspense than juvenile literature – but nevertheless a real delight for this adult.
“My roses are redder than the great fans of coral that wave and wave in the ocean-cavern.”
Having just read ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ and ruminating on rereading ‘Dorian Gray’ I found not only this review interesting but raising questions.
First, Wilde’s literary fairytales do have that melancholy air about them, fables that suggest that life is rarely, as it were, fair. Stevenson’s fables (which were collected up with J&H soon after RLS’s death) also have the same, almost cynical, melancholy, albeit most are quite short.
Secondly, I’ve seen it suggested that Hyde’s unspeakable crimes, never detailed, might have been homosexual in nature. I’ve no idea if this is so, but I wonder what bearing this might have on Wilde, whose closet life seems to have been an open secret and who then published a similarly themed novel just a few years later.
This is really interesting, Chris. I’ve never really considered fairy tales to be sweet little tales for children. In fact, if you look at the original German/Eastern European versions of those adapted by the Brothers Grimm so as not to offend 19th century sensibilities, they can be quite horrific. However, the form certainly enabled writers to slip in all kinds of subtle messages.
I read Jekyll and Hyde fairly recently and, although I hadn’t previously considered a possible homosexual subtext (I’m not sure why I didn’t, actually), it’s definitely possible. I can absolutely see why this has been suggested. In that era, all was intimation and innuendo for those who wished (or were able) to understand.
I haven’t read Stevenson’s fables, but really should.
Even though the Grimm tales were published as Children’s and Household Tales, I agree that in their original unedited form they were often not the sweet little tales that Victorian and later sentimentality considered them. The Italian collections of Wonder Tales were, as you say, quite horrific, quite like the German morality tales of Struwelpeter. A bit of this survives in Stevenson’s fables (which I hope to review soon) .
I look forward to reading that, Chris.
The Happy Prince always has me in tears- and the Selfish Giant is also equally moving. Now that I think of it, his children’s stories (since they are classified as that) are in some ways so much more “powerful” than his adult ones. I don’t remember (or may be haven’t read) the stories in this collection but I do have a complete works of OW which must have these-must read them.
It’s hard not to see the plot of The Selfish Giant as prefiguring Wilde’s own fate, rejected by polite society, bounded by the walls of Reading Gaol and yet admired for his innate genius. I too cry whenever I read this tale.
I agree, Chris. My heart always goes out to Wilde when reading Reading Gaol, which was in some ways his masterpiece.
Yes, do try reading them when you have the opportunity. Whatever the underlying subtleties of Wilde’s stories, they are beautifully written.
I do love Oscar. The Canterville Ghost always gets me, for some reason!
I have The Canterville Ghost on my Kindle but haven’t yet read it. Must do so very soon!
This book sounds pretty neat. I’m going to make a note to look for it and read it. I can’t remember the last time I read anything by Wilde. Must be decades ago.
Take care —
Thanks for your comment, Neil. Hope you enjoy it. 😊
I’m a huge fan Of A Picture of Dorian Grey and have been meaning to pick up more work by Wilde. Thanks for putting this on my radar, I’m looking forward to picking this up next time I’m at the bookstore.
Thank you, Libby. I’m glad my review piqued your interest. 😊