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The Model Millionaire

Oscar Wilde

"Under the archway of a bridge two little boys were lying in one another’s arms to try and keep themselves warm.
'How hungry we are!' they said.
'You must not lie here,' shouted the watchman, and they wandered out into the rain."

Reviewed by Frances Gapper

It was a great pleasure to re-read The Canterville Ghost, Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and The Portrait of Mr. W.H. Unfortunately none of these wonderful stories are included here – despite HarperCollins' misleading claim that its new "exceptional collection" includes "nearly every" short story Wilde wrote. Nor is there an introduction to support the anonymous editor's choice.

In place of Wilde's tales, the book squanders space on a "bonus story" by Simon Van Booy, from his collection Love Begins in Winter. Other classic collections in the Harper Perennial series will likewise showcase "bonus" works by contemporary writers – evidence, says the publisher on the back cover, that it "proudly supports the art of the short story". 

Wilde published in total only fourteen stories – not including The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is sometimes described as his only novel – and a number of "poems in prose", which might nowadays be described as flash fiction. Of the eleven Wilde stories featured in The Model Millionaire, five were originally published in the children’s collection The Happy Prince and four in The House of Pomegranates, a book that "completely puzzled the critics, who thought that the stories were meant for children and protested, quite rightly, that no child could understand them" (Vyvyan Holland, introduction to the 1966 edition of the Complete Works). The Happy Prince, maybe the greatest children's story ever written, is like all Wilde's so-called children's stories (a devalued term, unfortunately), for adults too. The Selfish Giant runs it pretty close for greatness, as does The Nightingale and the Rose, heart-piercingly beautiful and sad. I think a child can understand The Birthday of the Infanta very well, although reading this story again after 40 years or so, I noticed and admired how beautifully the ending – the Infanta commands the dead Dwarf to dance for her again – echoes an earlier scene, in which the King tries to wake his dead and embalmed wife.

Ohhh, Oscar! Lists of jewels and other gorgeous/precious things. Christian lessons about renunciation and embracing poverty. Parodies both riotous and subtle. Luxurious melodrama and the witty undercutting of melodramatics. A soul without a heart, travelling the world in human form. Fireworks holding edgy conversations. A swallow sacrificing its life for love – "And he kissed the Happy Prince on the lips, and fell down dead at his feet." A nightingale doing likewise: "So the Nightingale pressed closer against the thorn, and the thorn touched her heart, and a fierce pang of pain shot through her..."

Only the grown-up humans behave ludicrously, self-defeatingly and for no good reason: 

"She was lying on a sofa, in a tea-gown of silver tissue looped up by some strange moonstones that she always wore. She was looking quite lovely. 'I am so glad to see you,' she said; 'I have not been out all day.' I stared at her in amazement, and pulling the handkerchief out of my pocket, handed it to her. 'You dropped this in Cumnor Street this afternoon, Lady Alroy,' I said very calmly...'"(The Sphinx without a Secret

With the exception, of course, of artists: "Trevor was a painter. Indeed, few people escape that nowadays. But he was also an artist, and artists are rather rare..." (The Model Millionaire)

Which takes us back to Harper Perennial, proud supporters of the art of the short story. Maybe next time they could employ a proofreader. "Is this the lad?" on page 7 should be "Is this the lady?" and wheelbarrow has two 'w's, one at the beginning and one at the end. When it comes to clarifying foreign phrases such as "Mi bella Princesa" and "petit monstre", however, the publisher has been a little over-conscientious. 

As for the bonus story – Tiger, Tiger by Simon Van Booy – I found it puzzling, and not in a good way. Sometimes it comes across as a Leacock-style parody, while elsewhere it seems to be taking itself seriously. Although its style is loosely epigrammatic, it is concerned with the psychological rather than the social. The narrator, supposedly a youngish woman, talks like a zombie. The text is often pedantic or clumsy – "Jennifer was Brian’s mother... Alan and Jennifer, Brian’s parents... Alan, Jennifer’s husband... Brian said his father had pleaded... She and the doctor had experienced a brief affair..."

The story comes alive and makes sudden sense of its title when a childhood drama is described, but the rest is dead, and deadening to read. Someone called Allan (possibly Alan, Brian’s father) appears mysteriously in the final paragraph. Tiger, Tiger doesn’t measure up well against Wilde – but then, who could? 

Read the title story from this collection at ReadPrint.com

The Tiny Key, Frances Gapper’s booklet of flash fiction, is published in July 2009 by Sylph Editions, as part of the Ellipsis series. Her story collection Absent Kisses was published in 2002 by Diva Books. She has also written a children’s novel and one for grown-ups, and a gardens guide..
Frances' other Short Reviews: Peter Hobbs "I could Ride All Day in My Cool Blue Train"

Publisher: Harper Collins (Harper Perennial reprint)

Publication Date: June 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?No

Author bio: Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 and died in 1900. His plays include The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband. His poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol was first published under his prison cell number C.3.3. De Profundis, a long open letter to his former lover Alfred Douglas, was heavily expurgated until 1962.

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