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

Get Thee to a Research Partner

Waldorf: I wish Gene Kelly would teach me to Charleston.

Statler: I wish Gene Kelly would DRIVE you to Charleston!

Constance: I was recently interviewed for a blog post and was asked if I had advice for researchers who were just starting out. I had two pieces of advice. The first is to work on other scholars’ projects — it’s a great way to learn how to design a research project and to develop relationships with mentors. The training I got at Ryerson University’s Centre for Digital Humanities on The Yellow Nineties was the making of me.


My other piece of advice is get a research partner even if the discipline that represents the “H” in your DH practice disapproves of co-authored or collaborative work. It’s really motivating to have a partner who cares as much about a research project as you do. You can keep each other going when you face disappointments and setbacks and you can celebrate success together (when it comes to the minutia of budgets, flight cancelations, server outages, and metadata development, no one other than a research partner, not even your mother, will want to hear all your woes). Work together to develop projects that you love, ones that you would happily work on in the evenings or on weekends, even if they are never funded.

Of course, I especially recommend teaming up with Michelle Schwartz.

Michelle: Constance and I started our project, Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada, in the employee lunchroom at Ryerson. She was encoding The Yellow Book in XML-TEI, and I was volunteering at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. It was in our time eating lunch that we hatched the idea of using TEI to encode Don McLeod’s chronology of gay liberation history, Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology Volumes 1 and 2.

What we started using just email and a Dropbox account has morphed into a DH project that stretches across three university campuses. To keep the project running, we broke it into chunks that can function independently to build pieces of the eventual whole. Constance works with RAs at the University of British Columbia to turn our data into a graph database that can be queried from a web application. At Ryerson, RAs do the research necessary to fill in missing information about the people, places, publications, and organization of the gay liberation movement. An RA at Simon Fraser is putting together an ethics application that will allow us to create an online survey to collect even more biographical information from participants in the Canadian gay liberation movement. There is no way that any of this would now exist if either Constance or I had tried to build it alone. In DH, as in all things, every Statler needs a Waldorf.

Constance Crompton and Michelle Schwartz

Row Upon Row

Evergreen1I’m inputting identification codes and links to a spreadsheet. This is perhaps not the sexiest of tasks but very often the beginning of many DH projects. And staring down at the spreadsheet’s empty fields or struggling with descriptive ambiguities become the fodder for debates about what the project can and cannot aspire to.

In my case I’m trying to bring into alignment the protocols inherited from working on The Yellow Book (an English periodical from the 1890s published in thirteen volumes) and the Omeka site we established to document the lavish ornamentation of the The Evergreen (a Scottish periodical from the same period published in four volumes). On behalf of our team – wish us luck!

Reg Beatty