Sorry, Oscar, but even in 1882 it was all about us

This week marks the 125th anniversary of one Oscar Wilde's visit to our fair town, part of the witty wordsmith's cross-country tour aimed at civilizing the colonies.

In 1882, Ottawa was a bustling burgh of 30,000 brave, muddy souls, including at least a few forebears of the ESIs. The national hockey trophy was but a gleam in Lord Frederick Stanley's eye. And John Turmel had completed just two unsuccessful runs at elected office.

Wilde rolled into town on Tuesday, May 16, 1882, settling in at the fine Russell House Hotel, later demolished to make way for Confederation Square.

Then as now, the Ottawa Daily Citizen couldn't break a story even by hurling it from a second-storey window (buildings were shorter then). Behold, the paper's May 17 coverage of Wilde's presence in the capital:

Mr. Oscar Wilde arrived in the city yesterday and is staying at the Russell House.

A perusal of the 19th-century Petfinder shows the paper was more interested in the fact some louts were rowing up and down the canal at night, causing a mighty ruckus.

In fairness, our 27-year-old visitor was a dozen years away from penning his best-known plays. A poet of some repute and a leading advocate of the Aesthetic movement, Wilde delivered a lecture at the since disappeared Grand Opera House (Albert and O'Connor streets), waxing on about stuff like why it's not a good idea to wallpaper your ceiling and the reason rows of pictures should be hung asymmetrically.

His talk was rather poorly attended, competing with a city council meeting, the University of Ottawa's annual athletic banquet, the imminent end of the parliamentary session, carriage rides, tea-drinking and church-going.

Wilde apparently had dinner with then-prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald and his wife, though details are sketchy. He was snubbed by the Governor General, the Marquess of Lorne, who somehow managed to find time for two rounds of golf the day Wilde arrived.

Wilde lamented the sawdust that wafted over the city from the local lumber mills. He admired the natural scenery around Ottawa. And whatever his companionship preferences, Wilde attracted plenty of babes, according to the Citizen report of May 18:

Local News, Mr. Oscar Wilde

This gentleman had a large number of callers during his stay in the city. A number of lady admirers of the apostle of aestheticism sent him their albums for the purpose of having his autograph written therein.

But the paper, despite ignoring his lecture, couldn't resist poking fun at the fact Wilde recommended sunflower seed as some sort of decorative adornment:

It is very fattening, so if you are served with lean chickens at your country boarding home this summer you may thank Mr. Wilde and the more important demand he has created for the seed as a feast for the eyes.

Wilde's time in Ottawa was not a total loss. He met painter Frances Richards, headmistress of the Ottawa School of Art, who would make a portrait of him in London five years later. Upon seeing the results, Wilde said, "What a tragic thing it is. This portrait will never grow older, and I shall." So was planted the idea for The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1890.

Wilde left town on the overnight train for Quebec City, soon blazing a trail for bands like April Wine with stops in Belleville, Moncton and Charlottetown.

So, let's see: during his brief sojourn in Ottawa our boy hung out on Elgin Street, was overlooked by the media elite and did his best, under trying conditions, to liven up Bytown.

Truly, Oscar Wilde was the original ESI.

Photos: (left) Himself, (right) As represented in the forthcoming ESI: The Sock Puppet Movie (licensing arrangements to be confirmed)

(Sources: Oscar Wilde in Canada: An Apostle for the Arts, by Kevin O'Brien; the Ottawa Sun; the Ottawa Daily Citizen; Wikipedia)


Harmony said...

IO, the fact that this is the 125th anniversary of OW's visit reminds me that this year is the 150th anniversary of the choice of Ottawa as the capital city. So at the time of Mr. Wilde's visit, Ottawa had been a capital city for just 25 years. So, could our provincialism perhaps be excused? After all, we hadn't had much time to practice being a capital. What our excuse is these days remains a mystery, however.
I'd also note that confederation itself hadn't happenend until 1867, so Canada had only seen 15 years of practice as a united country. An even bigger excuse!

coyote said...

As long as we're nominating ESI Oscars, I'm gonna put forward:

Oscar Madison, a noted baseball writer and inveterate Mets fan who now seems to be on about the Ottawa Lynx in some kinda anti-hockey screed in the "got-its-nose-outta-joint-cuz-the-Leafs-still-suck" National Post;

Oscar Peterson, a helluva pinano player in any coyote's books;

And my personal pick, Oscar Mayer, who really gets weenies and drives a snappy car. What's not for an Irregular to love?

Anonymous said...

Oscar Fingall O’Flahertie Wills Wilde visited Woodstock Ontario shortly after Ottawa and spoke on May 29 at the Town Hall (now Woodstock Museum) on the subjects of house decoration, dress and personal ornaments.

Attendence was better as well.

He advised “Embroidery you will have, of course, but don’t I pray you, have everything covered with embroidery as if it were washing day ..."

Indeed. He was not in favour of cut glass either saying it was too common.

comment posted by benwaydr @yahoo.com

The Independent Observer said...

I'm sure, Harmony, that the NCC would have staged an OscarFest, complete with fireworks, had it been around back then.

Embroidery and cut glass: Amen to that, Anonymous.

Aggie said...

Nice research, IO. Perhaps Oscar's mug should be displayed on the header of our blog along with Lord Elgin. I am wondering who the original female ESI was.