Interview with the Secretary of The Oscar Wilde Society
– Vanessa Heron
Conducted By Louise (Lou)
Oscar Wilde, a playwright so many have heard of, created and watched his plays and films inspired by his works. I myself have enjoyed The Importance of Being Ernest in play and film. I have also learnt a lot and very much liked De Profundis, a one-man play by Simon Callow about the later part of Oscar Wilde’s life, who is said to have a passion for Oscar Wilde’s works, to name but a few.
A great opportunity presented itself after coming across the society that gave me the idea to ask Vanessa Heron, the Secretary of the Oscar Wilde Society, to interview her. Thankfully she agreed to answer my 5 questions.
There is a book about Constance Wilde’s autograph book, available soon. The interview leads to this after a bit about the Oscar Wilde Society, how it began and how Vanessa Heron became involved. You will also discover how to join the society and what the secretary’s favourite Oscar Wilde play is. I am delighted to reveal many photos, some with some very well-known people, who the society have had the good fortune and pleasure to rub shoulders with, and also the website. This isn’t a group that always sits or stands still. They go places and they do things.
Thanks first to Vanessa Heron for agreeing to the interview and for providing such fascinating answers. Without further ado, meet the society and discover that there’s more to them that meets the eye in the fascinating, insightful and sometimes humorous answers.
Vanessa Heron – Society Secretary and the Madame Tussaud’s Oscar Wilde model
at a Birthday Dinner at the Cadogan Hotel soon after she joined.
1. How and when did the Oscar Wilde Society come into existence?
The Oscar Wilde Society was founded in September 1990, by a small group of enthusiasts for Wilde and his works, gathered in the Queensberry Room at the Cafe Royal. This was a very appropriate venue. Here Oscar often entertained his guests, including his lover ‘Bosie’ – Lord Alfred Douglas -and here Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, objected violently to his son’s association with Wilde.
The original plan was to hold an Oscar Wilde Costume Ball, which never happened.
The Society evolved and today we have members in the U.K., Europe, America and Canada, and as far afield as Australia and South Africa. Our members range from general readers and enthusiasts those who’ve just discovered Wilde to actors, book collectors, students, writers and academics. Anyone interested in Oscar Wilde is welcome to join. We are chatty and friendly at events if you’re lucky enough to be able to come to them, and everyone has a different interest in Oscar and his world, whether it’s his poetry, the Society plays, the picture of Dorian Gray, the fairy stories or the fashion, books and literature of the 1890s more generally.
Some members of the society.
To the right, honorary patron – Stephen Fry
The Cadogan Hotel, London.
It’s a hotel with a past and many stories to tell. It is also rather apt for a meeting place on occassion. It was quite the playground for socialites and bohemians like Oscar Wilde.
2. What sparked your interest in Oscar Wilde and how did you become involved as the Secretary?
Looking back I had read the fairy stories in a paperback from a jumble sale when I was a small child. I also envied the other English set at School who read the Importance of Being Earnest. We were reading something rather dull, and this sounded much more fun. But it was at University when I fell in love with a tall dark handsome Rupert Everett look alike who was a fan of Freddie Mercury and used to quote Oscar Wilde in the pub when he was drunk. To try to impress him, I borrowed books from the library to read and to find out more about this Oscar Wilde chap. Of course the chap, Phill turned out to be gay, but I got to read Oscar Wilde’s letters and just fell in love with that voice on the page. The letters are the nearest we will get to hearing Oscar’s voice. Whether he’s being chatty, business-like, self indulgent or charming and kind to his friends, he was a Lord of language eloquent and to the point with flowery interludes and I was hooked. I can’t recommend his letters enough.
I found a mention of the Oscar Wilde Society in the Evening Standard in about 1994 (or it might have been 1996.) I joined straight away and my first event was an AGM at Chelsea Arts Club a couple of months later. I was welcomed by Don Mead, a perfect gentleman who’s still the Chairman and I helped him to put out chairs in the garden for the meeting. I loved the people, the chat and the atmosphere at events. I’d found my friends, indeed my people and have been involved ever since.
Don Mead conned me into joining the committee very quickly and I ended up at various times being Secretary and Treasurer. It was joked early in the history of the Society that we had ‘an illiterate Secretary and an innumerate Treasurer. I’m saying nothing about which I was or who was meant.
About 10 years later I was handed the job of Secretary for a second stint and Don Mead conned me yet again (in the nicest possible way) into editing Intentions, our more trivial journal. Don had decided, in his eighties, that editing both journals was a bit much and it was time for a rest so I got the job. Intentions comes out four times a year and features Society events, reviews, articles, notices of new books and a fair smattering of trivia. Basically anything Wilde which might be of interest to our members. I enjoy following up articles, blogs and people I read on Twitter and persuading them to write articles for Intentions. Choosing the pictures for the cover is one of my not so secret guilty pleasures and I’m very proud of it. It’s an excellent read if I say so myself.
We also have an academic peer reviewed journal edited by theatre historian Robert Whelan which is published and sent out to members twice a year, and an e-newsletter with no limit on space, edited by Aaron Eames. Previous editions of The Wildean are available on Jstor, (the digital academic library) for academics, researchers and students to access.
3. Do you have a favourite play by Oscar Wilde and why?
Out of the plays ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ never stales. How can you beat gossip, secret lives, bitching girls, silliness and cucumber sandwiches? I’ve seen rather a lot of productions and the script is so well written they all have something worth seeing.
I confess, though that I have a particular liking for and interest in one man and one woman shows based on Wilde characters, both real and fictional. Society Patron and friend Neil Titley performed as Oscar in his play ‘Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes’ for 40 years, which was a class act performed to the Society in a London pub years ago, and more recently Gerard Logan performed a wonderful take on Oscar in ’Wilde Without the Boy.’
Lexie Wolfe does a dramatic and sad show as Constance Wilde in ‘Mrs Oscar Wilde.’ There are also shows about the whole Wilde story including ‘Vengeance’ a recent musical about Oscar’s downfall, by John and Danielle Merrigan which will hopefully be touring again soon. There’s even a play where Lady Bracknell tells her story, written and played by Paul Doust called ‘Lady Bracknell’s Confinement, which was so entertaining I tracked down and interviewed Paul Doust, the writer and actor and made his Lady Bracknell my cover girl.
4. There is a very special book – Constance Wilde’s autograph book that you will be publishing this autumn. How did you discover this? What stand-out names and information can people expect from it? Where can people buy the book?
There are still some people who are surprised that Oscar Wilde was married, and who have only heard about his scandalous affair with Lord Alfred Douglas and his trials and imprisonment for gross indecency. But Oscar was many things apart from a lover of men, including a critic, a poet, a women’s magazine editor, and a socialist and Irish Nationalist. He was also a husband and father of two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan.
Constance Wilde, his wife was a fascinating woman. Irish, beautiful, interested in Liberal politics, dress reform and the occult and they lived in Chelsea in the ‘House Beautiful’ in Tite Street. Constance Wilde kept a visitors book which was signed by celebrities of the day who she admired, including writers, actors such as Henry Irving, Sarah Bernhardt, artists such as Ricketts and Shannon, who drew pictures and a poem to Constance from her husband. Other signatories include Walter Pater, Robert Browning, George Meredith, James McNeill, George Grossmith, G. F. Watts, Mark Twain, Marie Corelli, John Ruskin and Vernon Lee. The book is in the British Library and we hope it will be of interest to everyone interested in the late Victorians.
Our Society Patron, author Eleanor Fitzsimons who wrote a book called ‘Wilde’s Women’ has written about it in her usual eloquent style and I’m not a writer, I’m an art teacher, so I shall simply quote her:
‘What an absolute joy it is to have Constance Wilde’s fascinating autograph book available to us all in such a lovely, wonderfully curated edition. In his introductory essay, Dr Devon Cox does a magnificent job of illuminating and contextualizing Constance’s intriguing life, lifting her free of her husband’s orbit. She is revealed as a progressive woman with a keen interest in literature and music, and a curiosity about the occult. Anyone who is fascinated by Oscar Wilde will welcome this extensively annotated reproduction, which gives us a fascinating portal into the lives of this extraordinary couple and their vibrant circle. Comprehensive profiles of each signatory, and details of the circumstances in which they added their contributions, make it accessible to scholars and interested readers alike. A beautiful book, a wonderful gift, it breathes new life into Constance Wilde’s friendships, interests and accomplishments. An enthralling and valuable resource, it will be treasured for generations to come. ‘
The book will be available for pre-order on the Oscar Wilde Society website soon, and we look forward to launching it in the autumn with a special event for members.
5. How do people join the Oscar Wilde Society and what stand-out features can people expect when they do join up?
You can join the Society on our website at https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk/membership/ Many members particularly those outside the U.K. simply read the journals and interact with us on Facebook and Twitter and you can expect a warm welcome from our membership Secretary Veronika Binoeder. Other members, including some from France, Switzerland, Belgium and even Australia come to events including our annual Birthday Dinner in London and the Summer Magdalen College Lunch, which is sold out for this year. We also have smaller scale more intimate events such authors lunches, lectures and talks and a recent visit to Bedford to look for the aesthetic ‘Patience’ teapot and to hear about aesthetic art and design from an Art historian member, Dr Anne Anderson. Members were thrilled recently to visit the ground floor flat in Tite Street which was part of Oscar and Constance Wilde’s house and to read prose and poetry in what was Oscar’s study where he wrote many of his works. We go to lovely places and do lovely things.
We have delightful Society Patrons, and our President – Gyles Brandreth is both supportive and involved. If I have wetted your appetite to learn more I recommend you read ‘Oscar’ by Matthew Sturgis which is a beautifully researched biography which reads like a novel. Or of course you could join the Society.
The committee and our President meet
a very special guest who knows her Wilde.
You can expect lots of friendly chat at events from all sorts of members and the ‘congenial appreciation of Oscar Wilde’ mentioned on the website generally extends to a pub or bar after an event for a more informal chat and a drink. We like to think Oscar Wilde would approve and we look forward to welcoming new members.
You can contact me or any of the other committee members via our Website and I’d be delighted to answer questions from any prospective members.