Once upon a time, I wrote a story set in 1890s London. And I couldn’t resist putting a few familiar faces in the tale. Perhaps the most challenging dialogue in the whole book was that involving Oscar Wilde. The man had a rapier wit and a very particular way with his words. They say he’d scribble clever aphorisms on scraps of paper and keep them stuffed in his pocket so he could roll them trippingly off his tongue at dinner parties and seem terribly adroit. I think I captured at least a little of the man’s larger-than-life spirit in the following excerpt.
The Wildes of London
“Aren’t you a dashing devil with that flaming red hair!”
My head snapped around in time to see a large man with heavy jowls sauntering casually toward me. He had full, pouting lips and a tousled mop of chestnut hair that curled down to his collar. He wore a fashionable checkered suit with a green carnation pinned to the lapel. I saw nothing in his expression to indicate that he actually thought I was a devil, so I allowed myself to relax, just a fraction.
“I beg your pardon?” I asked.
“You’ll forgive my sudden intrusion on your solitary reverie,” he began, leaning jauntily on his walking stick. “But the moment I saw you, I just had to come over and introduce myself. First of all, rarely, outside of my native Ireland, have I had the pleasure of looking upon hair so red and fine. Second of all, I am compelled to speak with any man who shares my admiration for good drapes. The curtains here at the Savoy have always been favorites of mine,” he said, smiling expansively. “Unlike the curtains at the Alhambra which, in my humble opinion, are excruciatingly plain.”
I dropped the tassel and just stared for several moments.
“I’m not quite sure I know what to say,” I responded carefully.
At this, his smile widened ever further.
“Then say nothing,” he advised with an elegant gesture of one hand, “And people will believe that you are thinking everything.”
I laughed despite myself and stood, extending my hand to him. His large-knuckled fingers nearly dwarfed my own.
“I’m professor Matthew Warren,” I said automatically. I wondered if that had been a good idea, but the words were already out.
“A professor?” he inquired archly, briefly squeezing my hand. “I’m a great fan of men of letters. They usually say terrible things about my plays, thus getting the common people to go see them.”
He chuckled at this, eyes sparkling.
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, sir,” I admitted. “I still haven’t caught your name.”
He settled his big-boned frame into the oxblood chair across from mine and motioned for me to be seated again.
“The world calls me Oscar, and you may do the same,” he said expansively.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Oscar,” I responded.
There was a buoyancy of mood to him that was contagious. I found myself feeling better for his company.
“I assure you, the pleasure is all mine,” Oscar replied. He daintily crossed his legs, folding his hands on the top of his cane. “I have a sincere admiration for men who define their own fashion, and I find your hair quite stunning. How long has it taken you to grow it to that length? I’ve only seen women with such a long braid, and I’ve never dared ask those sphinxes their secrets.”
“Well, I’ve never cut it, if that’s what you’re asking,” I replied, adding a smile to take the edge off this evasion.
Oscar nodded sagely.
“You say you’re a professor?” he pursued. “What’s your area of expertise?”
“Really? I have a great love for the Greeks,” he said wistfully. “I often wish I’d been born in those antique days when you might pass a god walking along the street. That was an age big enough for a man like me. But instead, I’m confined to this small world of even smaller men.”
He glanced out the window and sniffed disdainfully.
“I’ve been doing that all day,” I said. “Looking out the window at them, wondering if their world has any room for me in it.”
“Of course it doesn’t,” he replied glibly. “That’s why we define our own space in spite of them, like modern Samsons, knocking the pillars of the temple down if that’s what it takes to be free.”
His eyes met mine, and there was a promise there that lifted the pall from an otherwise dreary afternoon.
“Thank you,” I told him. “I think I needed to have this conversation.”
“Then would you like to continue it?” he asked, eyes alight. “I was just seeing a friend off a moment ago and was on my way to dine when I caught sight of your beautiful hair. I’d love for you to join me at dinner. I have a private room at the Solferino already waiting.”
“I’m not sure I’m ready to go out just yet,” I demurred. “The city has been very distracting.”
“Well, Matthew, I would love to be distracted with you, if only you would allow me to show you around.” With an elegant wave of one hand he said, “Come. We will go and be Titans together. London will be the new Greece, and we will reinstate the worship of all beautiful things.”
“I can hardly say no to that,” I said, laughing.
“Of course you can’t,” he replied, and heaved himself to his feet. “Come along, the wine is waiting!”