At the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections, in the Reading Room and down in the archives, we often find amazing things when we least expect to.
I was definitely not expecting to find a note from Oscar Wilde to Bram Stoker.
It did not occur to me that an object of Wilde’s would end up with us, but of course it did. One of the most exciting things that the Trust houses, at least in my opinion, is the Lyceum Collection where one will find letters, drawings, invitations, and notes - all sorts of ephemera once belonging to Bram Stoker and Henry Irving. And that is exactly what this object is.
The letter is not dated. The only clue we have as to when it was written or sent is that Wilde mentions towards the end, the 26th, though not the month or the year. Presumably, this meant he expected the letter to arrive with Stoker quickly, perhaps within the same day. The note also comes with a small envelope that has no stamp, meaning it could have been delivered in person by Wilde himself or by a servant.
Then, there is what the letter actually says. It begins with ‘My Dear Bram - ’ and explains that Wilde’s wife, Constance Lloyd, is ‘not very well and has gone to Brighton for Ten days rest.’ She was therefore not able to attend a supper with Stoker, but Wilde himself was.
It is a very simple note and this simplicity is what intrigues me the most. If it were a note between any other two people, it may not be of immediate importance, but half an exchange between two of the most famous writers of the nineteenth century is enigmatic to say the least… and yet it is merely about supper.
So, what does the letter tell us? I would argue that this letter is a tiny but important fragment of queer history as well as literary history. I would also argue that it is a significant marker between the before and after of Wilde’s 1895 trial.
Stoker and Wilde – Literary Friends
A little background, first - both Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, and Oscar Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, were Irish, and their families mixed in the same social circles as they grew up. The fact that they knew each other enough to have supper together suggests an acquaintance between them as adults at the very least. It is possible they were even friends.
Of course, we also have their reputations. Oscar Wilde is an incredibly famous, and infamous, historical queer figure. He wrote about his sexuality through his De Profundis essay and explored it through his fiction. His life influenced the laws against homosexuality for a significant time after his trial. Oppositely, though there are biographies about Bram Stoker, less is known about him personally, and next to nothing is known about his sexuality.
Fun fact - Wilde proposed to Florence Balcombe before he proposed to his soon-to-be wife, Constance Lloyd. Florence refused him and would go on to marry Bram Stoker.
The Trial of Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was tried for gross indecency in 1895 by his childhood friend and famous lawyer in his own lifetime, Charles Carson. The trial would have changed the relationship between Wilde and Stoker entirely, if not cut it off. No more friendly encounters, no more invitations to supper. Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour and released in 1897, dying in 1900 in Paris from extremely poor health. By this time, Stoker had done something very interesting - he had had a portion of his personal papers destroyed.
The trial ruined Wilde’s health, his reputation, and his relationships with many people including his family. It left queer people in the art world and beyond very afraid. Many left for countries like France and Italy, as Wilde also did, where the laws against homosexuality were not as severe. Many also had their personal papers destroyed, such as diaries or letters, especially if anything was particularly incriminating. The fact that Bram Stoker did the same at around the same time may well be a complete coincidence…
There are other tantalising pieces of ‘evidence’ regarding Bram’s potential sexuality - when Bram was a young man, he wrote emphatically to famous gay poet Walt Whitman, something that Wilde also did. In what is possibly my favourite letter ever written, a young Bram wrote about wanting to meet Whitman in person and proceeded to describe his own appearance in great detail, worrying that Whitman would think him plain or ugly.
Please, please search for the letter. It is delightful.
However, this is still not enough to make any concrete statements about Stoker’s sexuality. Unless it is made explicit how he felt in some newly discovered document, or if time travel is invented, I doubt we will ever be able to say for certain. There is just one more thing I want to talk about though.
Bram Stoker died in 1912, but before he did, he published an essay titled The Censorship of Fiction in the September 1908 issue of ‘The Nineteenth Century and After: A Monthly Review’. I could quote it endlessly, but the general message is that artists have a responsibility to censor their work and their thoughts in order to prevent the moral corruption of their audience. Ironically, Stoker even quotes Walt Whitman. This pivot in tone from Dracula to Censorship is quite extreme. Censorship suggests, to me, a great amount of fear and anxiety that lingering on from 1895 as it did with many people. One can infer all sorts from this alone but, yet again, nothing is certain.
From a single note about dinner, I was able to take a logical route through history, jumping from idea to idea, or one document to the next. I think the process itself is a good reminder of how important context is, and how interconnected people and history are. Even more connections could be made - the fact that the late 19th century and early 20th saw a spike in public calls for censorship and abstinence, the obscenity laws that the increased in severity at the beginning of the 19th century by becoming more vague, the way that Lord Alfred Douglas also changed drastically after Wilde died, and more.
All of this is to say that context, attention to details, and casual dinner notes, are incredibly important. As a Reader Services Assistant, exploring and searching for these objects is always exciting. Witnessing our readers make discoveries too is one of the best parts of working in the Collections.
On the subject of Bram Stoker, the Lyceum Collection is currently closed for digitisation, but this does mean that it will become available online via Adam Matthews Digital! It should be noted that this is behind a paywall if you wish to view it this way. Alternatively you could visit us at the Reading Room, where you can read a copy of the letter using the microfiche viewer.
Now, to get going on that time machine…
Find out how you can access the SBT collection here.