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According to the bookseller’s insert, this is the 1899 edition of ‘Oscar Wilde’s Masterpiece and the whole world’s delight’, The Importance of Being Earnest, first staged in 1895.
This is number nine of the 12 luxurious presentation copies which were made of this first edition. Printed on Japanese Vellum, it has been signed by the author, and bound in full vellum gilt.
The covers appear to have warped slightly, and, perhaps because of their delicate-looking whiteness, a special box of equal luxuriance has been designed for the book. According to the bookseller’s note, this was ‘one of the very last by Mr. Page, Master craftsman at Sangorski & Sutcliffe, before he retired, having produced Masterpieces for Masterpieces at this wonderful bindery for more than forty years.’ It seems, indeed to have been treated as a collector’s item rather than a working text for the stage; we can tell it has never been read because many of the pages have been left in their uncut state.
The edition is dedicated to ‘Robert Baldwin Ross/In Appreciation/In affection’. Ross (1869-1918), a journalist and later gallery owner, proved to be one of Oscar Wilde’s few reliable friends through the period of his trial, imprisonment and release. In one example, he waited in a corridor to raise his hat to the imprisoned Wilde as he was being frogmarched to the further indignity of his bankruptcy hearing. Wilde appointed Ross his literary executor while he was in prison, and, after his release in 1897, Ross also acted as intermediary with Wilde’s estranged wife, Constance. Ross was present at Wilde’s deathbed in Paris on 30 November 1900, but it was not until 1905 that he would pay Wilde's creditors and annul the bankruptcy. In 1905 Ross published Wilde's tormented prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis, and in 1908 the fourteen-volume Collected Works of Oscar Wilde. When he himself died in 1918, he had left instructions for his remains to be cremated and placed in Wilde’s tomb at the Pere Lachaise cemetery, Paris.
‘Art for art’s sake’? Aestheticism and decadence shocked the Victorian establishment by challenging traditional values, foregrounding sensuality and promoting artistic, sexual and political experimentation. Dr Carolyn Burdett explores the key features of this unconventional artistic period.
The Importance of Being Earnest draws on elements of farce and melodrama in its depiction of a particular social world. Professor John Stokes considers how Oscar Wilde combined disparate influences into a brilliant satire which contained hidden, progressive sentiments.