Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde Review

I feel that I have to start this review almost apologetically by stating that I truly admire Oscar Wilde the person and utterly adore most of his work. Dorian Gray is a bona fide masterpiece, Earnest is immortal, and De Profundis is remarkably moving. I’ve read his stories since I was a child (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read The Happy Prince) and he is one of the few classic writers whose work hasn’t aged a bit since he died. His books read as freshly today as they ever did because, though he lived in the Victorian era, he was years ahead of his time and thoroughly modern. (It’s said that Wilde was the inspiration for Mr Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, motoring uncontrollably ahead of everyone else!)

But, having read his entire canon, I know not everything he wrote was as sparkling as his greatest creations and, unfortunately, the stories collected in this Hesperus Press edition – The Canterville Ghost, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, and The Sphinx Without a Secret – are some of his least enchanting.

In The Canterville Ghost, an American family moves into an old English manor house that’s haunted by the ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville who murdered his wife in the 17th century. His brother-in-laws then walled him up alive and his spirit has been clanking through the halls ever since. But don’t let the word “ghost” put you in mind of a horror story – this is in fact a lightly comedic children’s story that very gently satirises the differences between Americans and Brits, namely that Americans are modern and the British are fusty and maybe it’s better to leave the old-fashioned ways behind and embrace the new?

After graduating from Oxford, Wilde went on a tour of America, promoting the artistic movement of aestheticism, and it’s very clear that he thinks very highly of that country and its population. The characters’ names in The Canterville Ghost are as American as you can get – the son and daughter are named Washington and Virginia while the twin boys are never called anything other than their nicknames, the Stars and Stripes.

The story is told from the perspective of the ghost who is playfully tortured by the Stars and Stripes as he tries to haunt them and winds up an emasculated figure of fun - it’s like a Victorian version of Home Alone! Wilde’s version of a “ghost” though is bizarrely far too physical – Sir Simon treads on broken nut shells which hurt his feet and, after a bucket of water falls on his head, he catches a cold! IS he a “ghost” or an undying man (a la Wilde’s great-uncle’s creation, Melmoth the Wanderer)?

It’s also a story that doesn’t possess the famous Wilde wit. If you’re familiar with Wilde at all, you’ll know that he’s best known for his epigrams and he is a genuinely funny writer – look at Earnest for proof. But none of his luminescent humour is present here and he drearily spins out his farcical ghost story much longer than it needed to be. It’s a predictable and unamusing tale – both qualities you wouldn’t associate with Wilde’s writing usually.

But, disappointingly, it turns out The Canterville Ghost is the best story of the three! Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime is an even less interesting story featuring the na├»ve and dim-witted Lord Arthur who, when told by a palm-reader at a party that he will murder someone close to him before he marries, immediately begins to plot who to kill before he proposes to his girlfriend, Sybil.

The story is another light satire against the empty-headedness of the British upper classes as well as charlatans like soothsayers and psychics, but it’s presented again in a humourless, repetitive fashion that bores beyond belief.

The Sphinx Without a Secret feels like an elongated, weak joke than a short story, which follows a brief romance where the woman appears to be hiding secrets – but really isn’t. Or is she? The real question you’ll be asking is: “Is it over yet?”

These stories are being republished in a lovely new paperback edition probably due to the fact that Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are teaming up for the first time in over a decade to star in a forthcoming animated feature of The Canterville Ghost, with Fry as the titular character (who also played Wilde himself in the 1997 biopic).

I can only hope the production team borrow aspects of Wilde’s brilliance from his other works rather than rely on the tedious original story. If you are in search of a tremendous Oscar Wilde book, I highly recommend reading Dorian Gray instead.

The Canterville Ghost

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