October 21, 2014
Rebellious French cross-dresser played an overlooked role in shaping Oscar Wilde's legacy, Stanford scholar says
An archival discovery by Stanford literary scholar Petra Dierkes-Thrun reveals how Wilde's close ties to a gender-bending Parisian publisher and her transnational network of queer artists helped ensure his posthumous fame.
By Ian P. Beacock
Irish writer Oscar Wilde is still famous today, but as Stanford lecturer Petra Dierkes-Thrun points out, he owed a great deal to a now-obscure Parisian woman called Rachilde. (Napoleon Sarony)
Known today for his biting stage satires as well as novels like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde is recognized as one of the greatest wits of all time.
Wilde is no less a legend in the queer community – after all, it was his homosexuality that cost him his career. One hundred and twenty years after he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, he is one of a handful of gay heroes with a plaque on San Francisco's historic Castro Street.
But according to Petra Dierkes-Thrun, a lecturer in Stanford's Department of Comparative Literature, the Oscar Wilde we know today wouldn't exist without a sensational Parisian publisher, salon hostess, and cross-dresser named Rachilde.
A scholar of European modernism, Dierkes-Thrun says that it was Rachilde who introduced Wilde to important figures in the Parisian literary world and helped define Wilde's legacy after his death in 1900.
At a time when Wilde was little more than a punch line, Rachilde wrote articles defending homosexual love, reviewed Wilde's work and commissioned new translations of his novels and plays.
"We've completely overlooked the circle around Rachilde and the role it played in channelling his intellectual impact for future generations," Dierkes-Thrun said.
Dierkes-Thrun – whose research interests span literature, art, film, opera and dance in Britain, France and the Atlantic world – observed that Wilde is mostly studied by scholars of English and Irish literature, which could explain why his crucial connection to Rachilde has been overlooked.
Wilde's career took many international twists and turns: he was an Irish playwright living in Britain connected with literary circles in France.
Trained as a scholar of comparative literature, Dierkes-Thrun looks for connections across time and space: "It lets me zoom out and see other contexts and wonder about how that could change the current picture of Oscar Wilde that we have."
Dierkes-Thrun said she hopes her project, which is the first to explore this particular transnational aspect of Wilde's career and legacy, can demonstrate that "Oscar Wilde should not just be taught in English departments."
Wilde's queer circle
Wilde's luminous career was destroyed in 1895 when he was convicted of "acts of gross indecency" – that is, homosexuality –and sent to prison. "He literally died in poverty," Dierkes-Thrun said.
There was no guarantee that anyone would read such a disgraced author ever again. Yet while working on an article about Rachilde, Dierkes-Thrun found that the Parisian author and her colleagues played a major role in keeping Wilde's legacy alive.
Without Rachilde, Dierkes-Thrun said, Wilde's legacy would look very different. "We tend to think that he did all of this by himself, but I think she was one of the crucial conduits for Wilde's reception in France and beyond, and she was a woman," Dierkes-Thrun said. "The conduit has been erased, historically speaking, like so many 19th-century female literary figures. And it's important to bring that back."
The relationship with Rachilde is important, Dierkes-Thrun said, because it shows that Wilde was not a solitary genius: rather, he was deeply embedded in a transnational community of queer artists.
"He's such a wit and people think of him as this outstanding person, which he was," Dierkes-Thrun observed. "But there's also that other social side of him. It's not just Oscar Wilde, but Oscar Wilde in his queer circle."
The startling revelation about Rachilde came to light after Dierkes-Thrun made a discovery at the Clark Library at the University of California, Los Angeles: she came across a copy of Wilde's 1898 work The Ballad of Reading Gaol, inscribed by the Irish playwright to the French cross-dresser.
The signed book was a major gesture. Wilde was flat broke at the time, and he had only a handful of copies of his new book to distribute to close friends and supporters. One of them, as Dierkes-Thrun discovered, went to Rachilde.
"I knew immediately that this was really significant," Dierkes-Thrun recalled. "It was one of those moments where you realize there's an intellectual puzzle to solve."
Rachilde – "Man of Letters"
At the peak of his career in the early 1890s, Wilde routinely traveled to the City of Light to attend literary salons and meet other writers and artists. "Paris was his favorite city," Dierkes-Thrun said, "and he was really immersed in the circle there."
At the time, there was nowhere in Europe more dynamic and thrilling than Paris, and no Parisian more sensational than Rachilde. Also known as Marguerite Eymery-Vallette, she wrote scandalous novels: racy accounts of forbidden love, cross-dressing and sadomasochism that earned her praise and scorn in equal measure, including an obscenity trial in French-speaking Belgium.
She also hosted one of the city's premiere avant-garde salons – the place to see and be seen for cutting-edge writers – and edited one of Europe's most influential literary journals, the "Mercure de France." Bisexual, irreverent and independent, her visiting cards read: "Rachilde – Man of Letters."
Combing through letters, journals and manuscripts, Dierkes-Thrun determined that these salons were Wilde's entry point to the queer literary world.
Dierkes-Thrun said that Rachilde helped Wilde meet Henry Davray, the man who would translate his works into French. Rachilde may also have connected Wilde to other figures he revered, men and women who happened to be her personal friends: actress Sarah Bernhardt, anarchist Félix Fénéon and symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé.
Even before he met Rachilde, Wilde knew and admired her writing. He read her controversial 1884 novel Monsieur Vénus while on his honeymoon, raving to friends about the work and its daring depictions of sex and violence.
And Dierkes-Thrun revealed that Wilde also explicitly referred to Rachilde's novel in his private drafts of Dorian Gray. In a typescript version at the Clark Library, Dierkes-Thrun found that Dorian's butler was originally named Jacques: one of the protagonists in Monsieur Vénus.
She also noticed that the mysterious book which influences Dorian had once been titled Le secret de Raoul, pointing to another Rachilde character. Both references were dropped before publication.
Dierkes-Thrun teaches about Wilde and Rachilde as part of Stanford's Program in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (FemGen). And she said that students love the two writers.
"I think most people just love the wit of it," Dierkes-Thrun said of Wilde's work, "the paradox, the stylistic playfulness, the brilliance, the sparkle."
But, she said, students also respond to Rachilde's sexual rebelliousness, finding in her shocking novels something deeply relevant to their 21st-century lives. Dierkes-Thrun said that this cross-dressing, transgressive writer often sparks lively discussions about transgenderism, sexuality and identity.
"I don't think I'll ever get bored teaching her," Dierkes-Thrun said, laughing.
Ian P. Beacock is a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.