The Short Version: Packaged in an attractive little volume, Harper Perennial gathered together nearly all of Oscar Wilde’s short stories – some for adults, some for children, all in that distinctive conversational tone that could only be Wilde.
The Review: For starters, I never knew Oscar Wilde wrote for children. When one thinks of Wilde, we think of his flamboyance and wit, his decidedly “adult” works like Dorian Gray or The Importance of Being Earnest – but it shouldn’t surprise me that Wilde had a kind and gentle touch for the younger set as well. Many of these stories, mostly those in the back half, are writ for children and they contain a surprising amount of… I suppose moralizing is the right word?
In fact, that was more surprising than the idea of Wilde writing for children – I was surprised at how (pardon the pun) earnest many of these stories were. There was a decided moral to all of them, a sense of right and wrong made very plain at the end of each – usually with a religious bent. I don’t know why I assumed Wilde was an atheist or at least not a terribly religious person, but in this collection, characters die and go off to Heaven where angels and God are present to welcome them for being good souls. Stories like “The Happy Prince” make it clear: be good in this world and you will go to Heaven in the end.
And, strangely enough, I found many of those stories a little boring. Call it a black mark on my soul for saying so – or maybe I’m just not going to heaven – but Wilde’s wit felt curtailed in many of these stories. The collection doesn’t start out that way, though! The first two stories, “The Sphinx Without a Secret” and “The Model Millionaire”, both feel much more akin to Wilde’s writing-for-grownups. We get high society, flippant humor, well-spoken and similarly well-tailored characters – and they’re over in nearly a flash. The rest of the collection is set out of the upper echelons of Victorian London and, as it turns out, Wilde isn’t tremendous at painting a scene: “The Birthday of the Infanta” is the only story that does even a little bit of description work, most of the rest of the tales just giving you a little as it relates to the main drive of the story.
Thing is, because so many of those tales were written for children, they don’t need that much description – and they all spring quite vividly into one’s mind. It’s an impressive feat. Similarly, recalling again the “Infanta” story, I’m impressed at Wilde’s ability to turn on a dime and change the story and it’s tone. That tale, originally following the young princess on her birthday, spins off to follow a dwarf who was brought for her entertainment. The story goes from frivolous to heartrending in a paragraph and Wilde’s ease at the turn is admirable. It’s hard not to be impressed – but, at the end of the day, these shorts dissipated almost before they were done.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Wilde’s writing is as smooth as ever and there are some great bon mots to be found in these pages, even a few great stories overall. But I can’t help but feel strangely let down by the collection. I wanted raucous wit and instead got a fair amount of “remember children, always be good and you too will go to heaven.” Not to say the wit isn’t there, it’s just overwhelmed at times. I can’t imagine any tales beyond perhaps the first two or “The Selfish Giant” (thanks probably to the Damon Albarn song that took its name) will stay with me in the way that Wilde’s novel and plays have done.