Lost in Transmission: Oscar Wilde’s Reported Speech

In addition to its more practical applications, TEI markup can prove to be very enlightening regarding semantic dimensions of texts that we otherwise might not appreciate. In regards to the Texting Wilde Project, one thing we are interested in the origins and transmission of biographical anecdotes about Wilde, and TEI can often reveal how the process of transmission can remove the purported origin of a event concerning Wilde with the textual record we have of it.

An interesting case in point is The Private Diaries of the Rt. Hon. Sir Algernon West, G.C.B. (1922), edited by Horace G. Hutchinson. This publication, as can be inferred by the title, contains transcriptions from West’s diaries (edited transcriptions, so already we are one remove from the original source). A transcribed entry from 19 April 1893 describes a dinner party at which West was present where the conversation turned to the question of whether Oscar Wilde (who was not present) was truly witty (a question that may seem odd to us today, given Wilde’s popular status as perhaps the most witty person ever).

Boyd1The TWP used the TEI <said> element to mark up reported speech, direct and indirect, in part because many of the stories we have about Wilde are concerned with things that he said, as a wit, raconteur, and court examinee. This reveals many interesting things about how Wilde reported speech, its credibility, and its variation across texts, but the interest aspect that is reveal in the except above is the distance from the event and this record of it. West is recording in his diary a dinner table conversation in which he is audience to Augustine Birrel’s story about his (Birrel’s) exchange with Oscar Wilde (of indeterminate date). Wilde’s reported speech come to us through West’s written record of Birrel’s oral recapitulation. The <said> tags let us see that Wilde’s supposedly direct speech is actually with another person’s (also supposedly) direct speech, and that both come to us from a third person’s record of them.

The dinner party conversation recorded by West took place in 1893, but did not see print until 1922, a year after West’s death. However, in 1903, ten years after the dinner party conversation, a memoir by ‘Sigma,’ Personalia, provides a different version of the story:

Boyd2It’s curious to speculate how a conversation at a private dinner party became part of a common store of stories about Wilde (Sigma clearly states he never met Wilde). But more interesting is how the story loses its mediated context, getting rid of Birrell, and making Wilde deliver his zinger to the poet in person—the version that has persisted, despite West’s account being likely the original one.

Jason Boyd

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *