Opinion
3 min

Wilde in the north

The oft-ignored Canadian leg of Oscar Wilde’s North American lecture tour

In Toronto, Oscar Wilde watched a lacrosse match from the lieutenant governor’s private box. Later, he told the Toronto Globe that he enjoyed the game and especially a “tall, finely built defence man.” Credit: Jori Bolton

When Oscar Wilde arrived in New York City on Jan 3, 1882, he supposedly said to a customs officer, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” While Wilde would chat with every journalist possible during his 11-month lecture tour of North America, nobody heard him make that particular remark, but it’s so much like the witty things he did say that I prefer to think it true.

Wilde had achieved little by the time he turned 27 but was still considered the face of the Aesthetic Movement. In late-Victorian England, his satin knee britches, frilly lace collars and penchant for sunflowers made him ripe for parody, and so Gilbert and Sullivan pressed him into service as the silly character of Reginald Bunthorne in their comic opera Patience. Wilde embraced the caricature, and when the opera’s producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte, decided it would be a great marketing gimmick to bring the real-life Bunthorne to North America, Wilde consented.

Following a glamorous NYC society debut, Wilde toured the United States from coast to coast, lecturing on aesthetics everywhere from Washington, DC, to California and back to NYC again before heading to Canada for two weeks. In Washington, he met cautiously closeted author Henry James, who was wary of Wilde’s flamboyance (even though Wilde himself was not out at this point). He also had two visits with another closeted homosexual, Walt Whitman, and later said to a friend in confidence, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.”

Wilde’s first Canadian lecture was in Montreal. Some papers welcomed him, but La Patrie said that the only people likely to attend his lectures were “all the people of disordered brains, the hysterical women, the coxcombs, the beggared population.” The lecture was well-attended but got, as one paper put it, “only a splutter of cheering.” While his matinee lecture did better, he managed to upset the locals by saying, “[I] went up the hill behind your lovely city.” The Montreal Star sulked, “It was not nice to hear our cherished mountain reduced to a hill.”

He annoyed the people of Ottawa by criticizing the fauna and flora and a miasmic lumber mill. His lecture was sparsely attended, possibly because many locals were at either the University of Ottawa’s annual sports banquet or the closing session of Parliament. After his lecture, Wilde, too, visited Parliament, and during the closing debates he perched in the seat next to the speaker’s chair. His black-velvet coat and knee britches so thoroughly distracted a Vancouver MP that the Ottawa Daily Citizen said the politician “forgot for a time the burning wrongs of British Columbia.” Governor General the Marquess of Lorne, rumoured to be homosexual, refrained from attending Wilde’s lecture or meeting with him privately, probably to avoid providing fodder for gossip.

While in Ottawa, Wilde met local artist Frances Richards. Five years later, as she painted a portrait of him in London, he would joke that it was unfortunate that while his picture would never age, he would. He later said this remark was his inspiration for The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In Toronto, when he watched a lacrosse match from the lieutenant governor’s private box, other attendees spent as much time craning their necks to see him in his black sombrero and (most likely) signature bottle-green overcoat with fur trim as they did watching the match. Later, he told the Toronto Globe that he enjoyed the game and especially a “tall, finely built defence man.” Both his Toronto lectures were packed, and he provoked much laughter by condemning “very strenuously” the red table cloth adorning his speaking table. Overall, Wilde considered Toronto “a bright little town.”

He left Canada to tour the American south, but before returning to England he visited the Canadian Maritimes. After Wilde’s time in Quebec and Toronto, D’Oyly Carte’s representative, Colonel Morse, said Canada was “the most enjoyable part of [Wilde’s] tour,” but it’s hard to imagine he left Canada the second time thinking kind thoughts, given how the YMCA in Moncton — the final Canadian city on his tour — nearly had him arrested for a mix-up over lecture bookings.