London Stories and Tips

Prelude: Oscar and Me

Oscar Wilde once wrote, "One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead." This, regrettably, is true for me, as I suspect it is for many others. Time’s wingéd chariot rushes by as we resignedly wait on hold for the next available customer representative or watch the bumper directly in front of us move a few inches forward on a Friday afternoon. One could argue that an active fantasy life, not to mention the dream of exotic travel, is the best defense against despair in such circumstances. One could argue with equal persuasion, I suppose, that such mental escapism indicates a certain laxity of character. When I encounter people whom I suspect of holding the latter view, I get even by casting them as villains in my recurrent fantasy, which is played out in London during the 1890's.

This fantasy is fueled by plenty of period reading, such as E.F. Benson’s As We Were: A Victorian Peep-Show. His account of gatherings at the houses of famed London hostesses such as Lady de Grey are a particularly rich source for my reveries. In my favorite scenario, I am bidden to one of Lady de Grey’s delightfully Bohemian evenings, along with Alick York, Edoard and Jean de Reszke, Rejane, Melba, the Duke of Cambridge, and, of course, Oscar Wilde. Those unfamiliar with my imaginary contributions to the evening's entertainment have, I regret to say, missed some of the wittiest conversation ever to grace a drawing room.

I generally attend these soirees while I am trying to find all my overdue library books, waiting for my son to finish his homework, or any time something particularly unpleasant, like scrubbing the bathtub, presents itself. I especially like to hail a cab from Mayfair and say, "The Countess de Grey's. Step on it!" when I cannot find any clean T-shirts and realize the laundry has not been done all week. Opening the refrigerator and finding we have run out of milk, the cab turns the corner of Bruton Street and out I hop, light as a thistle, in my fashionable evening gown and completely unconscious of the stains on yesterday's T-shirt.

A footman announces me as I ladle low-fat powdered cream substitute into my coffee, and I stride imperiously into the room, leaving a few splashes on the linoleum in my wake. Then I trip over my son's hockey gear and swear, engagingly, as everyone looks up expectantly upon my entry. "It's Kay," Melba whispers to the Duke of Cambridge, "I wonder what her mood is tonight. Why last time...," but her voice trails off as I try to cram my son's skates into his tote bag and set the stick in the corner by the door, where it falls forward and hits one of the cats. "Yeoow!/Darling!," the cat/Countess cries, "It's been ages! Wherever have you been keeping yourself?" I laugh my bewitchingly throaty laugh and reply, "Making a house call, I'm afraid; a terribly long one, as dear Bertie has been so down in the dumps lately. He simply begged me to come down to Osborne House and cheer things up a bit." Here I pause to let the assembled circle of dear, dear friends absorb this interesting news and finally succeed in wedging the hockey stick behind the radiator, where I must not forget I have placed it.

It's clear that everyone is waiting to hear more news of this visit, but instead I turn to Edoard and tweak the flower in his buttonhole, saying, "I hope you won't deafen us with that dreadful noise you call singing again," and several people laugh appreciatively, recalling the occasion when he sang "le Veau d'Or" from Faust as loud as he possibly could, which was very loud indeed, and I shout back up the stairs, "Right where you left them!" before turning to Jean, tapping his wrist with my fan. "Now promise me you'll make him behave," I tease; "I'm NOT your servant! If you can't keep track of your things, that's YOUR problem!" He offers me his arm and we drift over to a sofa. A footman offers me a glass of champagne, but it's gotten completely cold and the powdered creamer tastes just awful. "Tell me," I say, looking over the top of my glass, "what you will be giving us this season at Covent Garden." I settle back comfortably upon the sofa, but a Batman action figure embedded in the cushions jabs me in the back and I miss the first part of his reply. "...and then we will be doing Die Meistersinger." "And who will be the Master singer?" I parry, as my eye lights upon a shoe I've been looking for recently which has been nudged out from under the radiator by the blade of the hockey stick.

But then, as often happens when no further witticisms come into my head, I leave Jean sitting on the sofa and walk out on to the terrace, which needs mowing. As I pace in splendid isolation, a figure detaches itself from the shrubbery and approaches. I recognize the distinctive gait of Oscar Wilde even before he puts the mail into the mailbox and calls "Good morning!" cheerfully. I fix my commanding gaze on his receding form. Then suddenly, back on the moonlit terrace, Oscar is standing next to me, looming largely, and I wait patiently for him to speak. I can tell this will be difficult for him, under the circumstances, and I am not initially inclined to make it any easier for him.

"I haven't told a soul," I finally say quietly. "Your secret is safe with me."

"Angel!" he responds. "I don't know what made me do it."

"It's not the first time this has happened..."

"I simply couldn't resist!" he interrupts. "The first one was such a success, and then everyone was simply waiting for the next. So when you showed me the draft of your latest, "The Importance of Being Erwin," I felt as though it were heaven sent."

"You stole it, Oscar. From my escritoire. It was my first play, "Lady Ambermere's Fan," that I was fool enough to show you."

"Forgive me!" he pleads. "I've come to rely on you so as a source of wonderful bon mots. Everyone thinks I make them up on the spur of the moment!"

"Oscar, my poor dear Oscar.... Don't you know that ambition is the last refuge of the failure? One can survive everything nowadays, except death, and live down anything except a good reputation."

"Ahhh! That's what I mean! May I use that one?"

"Of course, dear.... all is forgiven."

And arm in arm we bring in the mail.

Such fantasies can sustain me only so long, however. When the opportunity finally presented itself - after years of dutiful domesticity - to take a solo trip to London, I carpe'd the diem. My son and husband, I rationalized, would appreciate me the better for it. They'd bond. Do the father-son thing a bit.

And so, to London I went. I let Oscar come with me, too, of course.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip