AN ASTONISHING RARITY: OSCAR WILDE’S OWN COPY OF SALOMÉ, SIGNED BY HIM—ONE OF ONLY 50 COPIES OF THE FIRST EDITION
WILDE, Oscar. Salomé. Drame en un Acte. Paris and Londres [London]: Librairie de L'Art Independent and Elkin Matthews et John Lane, 1893. Octavo, original purple paper wrappers respined. Housed in custom cloth chemise and half burgundy morocco slipcase. $37,500.
First deluxe edition of the controversial play, Salomé, Wilde's own copy from his personal library, number 10 of only 50 copies printed on Van Gelder handmade paper and numbered and signed by Oscar Wilde, in original purple paper wrappers. With a laid-in signed autograph letter of provenance from Caroline Morse, daughter of Colonel W.F. Morse, British talent agent Richard D’Oyly Carte’s representative in the U.S., and friend to Wilde. Also with two hand-stitched purple ribbon bookmarks, presumably Wilde’s own.
In June 1892, as rehearsals for the stage performance of Salomé were beginning in London, Pigott, the licenser of plays, decided to ban Salomé, citing an old law that forbade the depiction of biblical characters on the stage. Incensed by Pigott's censorship—only the latest insult in Wilde's ongoing struggle to find artistic freedom in England—Wilde threatened to leave England and seek citizenship in France, declaring, "I will not consent to call myself a citizen of a country that shows such narrowness in artistic judgment" (Ellmann, 372). Although Salomé could not be staged in London, Wilde, in defiance, chose to proceed with publication, and the play was published in book form in Paris in February 1893. Immediately, Salomé met with critical acclaim, particularly from a number of French writers, including Mallarmé, Loti and Maeterlinck, and the first production starred Sarah Bernhardt in the title role. This, the first edition, is in French. Wilde, finding the French language more akin to his artistic sensibility than English, had initially chosen to write Salomé in French, asserting, "To me there are only two languages in the world: French and Greek. Here people are essentially anti-artistic and narrow-minded… There is a great deal of hypocrisy in England" (Ellmann, 373). The first edition in English did not appear until 1894.
Two years after the publication of Salomé, Wilde's threat to leave England was put to the test. The Marquess of Queensbury, angry at Wilde's affair with his son Lord Alfred Douglas, embarked upon a campaign of public harassment, ultimately resulting in Wilde's suing the Marquess for libel. Queensbury used the trial as a forum to embarrass and condemn Wilde, and used all of his influence to have Wilde arrested for "gross indecency." Wilde was urged to flee England by many of his friends and admirers, but stayed, saying "I decided that it was nobler and more beautiful to stay… I did not want to be called a coward or a deserter. A false name, a disguise, a hunted life, all that is not for me" (Ellman, 471). Instead, he was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labor. As a final and definitive blow against Wilde, The Marquess demanded and won immediate reimbursement for his £600 in court costs from Wilde, throwing the imprisoned author into bankruptcy. His other creditors soon followed Queensbury's lead. Wilde was forced to sell all of his possessions at a humiliating public auction. This included his extensive library of over 2000 books, which fetched in total a mere £130. "Some of Oscar's most prized possessions, including first editions of his own books" were sold (Mark Gribben). According to eyewitness accounts of the sale, it was conducted in a frenzied manner, and manuscripts littered the floor of Wilde's study, and even the books dedicated to his wife and children that were in their rooms were sold. This volume was one of the items auctioned at that sale. Lot 53 of the sale catalogue mentions 2 copies of Salomé, and lot 112 (a collection of 20 presentation copies of various titles) also contains a copy. Frequently, books from this auction have been later discovered with preliminary pages, such as dedication pages, removed, in order to conceal the volume's relationship to the disgraced Wilde. This copy lacks only the two preliminary blank leaves and the half title. Mason, 349. This volume's provenance is attested to in an autograph letter accompanying it, part of a correspondence between Caroline Morse, daughter of Colonel W.F. Morse, D'Oyly Carte's representative in the United States. Wilde befriended W.F. Morse when Morse served as tour manager for the author's 1882 speaking tour in the United States. Morse also defended Wilde against sensationalistic comments in the U.S. press, and he later accompanied Wilde on a tour of Britain. The letter, on Waldorf Astoria notepaper, and dated February 26, reads: "My Dear Mr. Madigan, You have asked me to confirm your statement and belief as to the copy in your possession of Oscar Wilde's "Salome" to the effect that it was the one copy of Salome that he had retained and held in the library of his home in Chelsea. I can confidently assure you that your copy fulfills in every respect the one that I, a visitor to Mr. Wilde's home remember taking from his hand during a certain afternoon visit at the Tite St. house; and I recall that it was one among the many of his valued and valuable copies of his first editions of his own work and those of other authors. Most Sincerely, Caroline M. Morse."
Letter and envelope each split in two at horizontal fold. Interior clean, fragile original wrappers neatly respined with expert restoration to extremities. A rare copy with an extraordinary association.