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Oscar Wilde – First Edition Books: Identification Guide

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854 – 1900) was an Irish poet and playwright. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of the most popular playwrights in London in the early 1890s. He is best remembered for his epigrams and plays, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the circumstances of his criminal conviction for gross indecency for consensual homosexual acts in “one of the first celebrity trials”, imprisonment, and early death from meningitis at age 46.

As a spokesman for aestheticism, he tried his hand at various literary activities: he published a book of poems, lectured in the United States and Canada on the new “English Renaissance in Art” and interior decoration, and then returned to London where he worked prolifically as a journalist. Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversational skill, Wilde became one of the best-known personalities of his day. At the turn of the 1890s, he refined his ideas about the supremacy of art in a series of dialogues and essays, and incorporated themes of decadence, duplicity, and beauty into what would be his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The opportunity to construct aesthetic details precisely, and combine them with larger social themes, drew Wilde to write drama. He wrote Salome (1891) in French while in Paris but it was refused a licence for England due to an absolute prohibition on the portrayal of Biblical subjects on the English stage. Unperturbed, Wilde produced four society comedies in the early 1890s, which made him one of the most successful playwrights of late-Victorian London.

At the height of his fame and success, while The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) was still being performed in London, Wilde prosecuted the Marquess of Queensberry for criminal libel. The Marquess was the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The libel trial unearthed evidence that caused Wilde to drop his charges and led to his own arrest and trial for gross indecency with men. After two more trials he was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour, the maximum penalty, and was jailed from 1895 to 1897. During his last year in prison, he wrote De Profundis (published posthumously in 1905), a long letter which discusses his spiritual journey through his trials, forming a dark counterpoint to his earlier philosophy of pleasure. On his release, he left immediately for France, and never returned to Ireland or Britain. There he wrote his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), a long poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life.

In 2017, Oscar Wilde was among an estimated 50,000 men who were pardoned for homosexual acts that were no longer considered offences under the Policing and Crime Act 2017 (homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967). The 2017 Act implements what is known informally as the Alan Turing law.

Oscar Wilde – First Editions Identification Guide

How to Identify First Edition books by Oscar Wilde
YearTitlePublisherFirst edition/printing identification points
1878RavennaOxford: Thos. Shrimpton & Son, 1878First edition. Pamphlet, grey paper wrappers printed in black. On the front the lettering of the title-page (with a smaller design of the University arm') is printed within a single-line border with floriated points. On both sides of the back of the wrapper are lists of the winners of the Newdigate Prize Poem (1840 to 1877) and the Gaisford Prize for Greek Prose (1857 to 1876), with the publishers’ imprint at the foot.
1880Vera; or, the NihilistsLondon: Ranken & Co, 1880First edition. Grey paper wrappers with the lettering of the title page printed within a double-ruled border, above which is [Strictly Private.], all printed in black. 52 copies printed.
Note: Only two copies of this edition are known.
ALSO: No publisher, printed in America, where Wilde was lecturing during the greater part of 1882. Grey paper wrappers with the lettering of the title page printed within a double-ruled border, above which is [Strictly Private.], all printed in black.
Notes: In this edition the Prologue, pp. [5-11], is printed for the first time, and the text throughout shows many variations from the edition of 1880. The reverse of pp. 10 and 59 is blank.
1881PoemsLondon: David Bogue, 1881First edition. Covers of white parchment lettered on the back Poems | Oscar Wilde | at the top and David Bogue at the foot, the intervening space being filled with a design in gilt of a prunus blossom. In the top outer corner of each cover is stamped in gilt a similar design within a rectangle. Dutch hand-made paper, watermarked Van Gelder; top edges gilt, others uncut.
Notes: The first printing (June 1881) consisted of 750 copies, of which only 250 copies were used for the first edition, the remaining 500 being equally divided between the second and third editions.
ALSO: London: David Bogue, 1881. Second edition. "Second Edition" stated on title page. Same as above. The prunus blossom design on the sides is larger than in the first edition.
ALSO: London: David Bogue, 1881. Third edition. "Third Edition" stated on the title page. For this edition a printing of 250 copies of a new title-page [pp. iii-iv] was made on September 26, the remainder of the book being part of the first printing in June. ALSO: Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1881. First American edition.
ALSO: Elkin Mathews & John Lane, 1892. Author's edition. Limited to 220 numbered copies. Pale violet cloth boards with gilt lettering and designs and decorated end-papers, all by Charles Ricketts. Green, yellow or brown cloth, gilt, lettered; decorated end-papers.
1883The Dutchess pf PaduaPrivately Printed as Manuscript.First edition. Grey-green paper wrappers without any lettering. There is no headline to the pages, the name of the play appearing only on the title-page (where the words Duchess of Padua and Oscar Wilde are printed in red) and on the last page of text.Twenty copies for use in the theatre are said to have been printed, of which only four are known to exist.
1888The Happy Prince and Other TalesLondon: David Nutt, 1888First edition. Japanese vellum boards, on the front side being a design in black by Jacomb Hood and red text. Illustrated by Walter Crane and Jacomb Hood. Two issues, no priority:
  • (A) Large paper edition, 4to. Limited to 75 copies on hand-made paper, numbered and signed by the author & the publishers.
  • (B) Regular edition, 8vo. Limited to 1000 copies, unnumbered.
ALSO: London: David Nutt, 1889. Second edition. "Second Edition January 1889" stated on © page. Japanese vellum cover printed in red and black.
ALSO: Boston: Robets Brothers, 1888. First American edition. Blue-green or yellow cloth boards, with coloured decorated end-papers.
1891Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other StoriesLondon: James R. Osgood, McIlvaine & Co, 1891First edition. Salmon-coloured paper boards printed in dark red with lettering and design by Charles Ricketts.
Note: Of this edition 2000 copies were printed, including 500 which were issued in America with the imprint of Dodd, Mead and Co., New York.
ALSO: Dodd, Mead and Co., New York, 1891. Pale pink buckram boards, lettered in dark green, with decorations in dark green and yellow.
1891A House of PomegranatesJames R. Osgood, London, MDCCCXCIFirst edition. Cream-coloured linen boards with moss-green linen back. The front side is printed in light red and stamped with gilt designs of a peacock, a running fountain and a basket of split pomegranates. On the back are some small designs with the title, etc., in twelve lines; the designs, lettering and decorated end-papers all being by Charles Ricketts.
Note: Of this edition 1000 copies were printed. Some of these were issued in America by Dodd, Mead and Co. early in 1892, price $5.00.
1891IntentionsJames R. Osgood, London, MDCCCXCIFirst edition. Moss-green cloth boards, on the front side being the titles of the four essays with a design below. On the back is the title of the book with the names of the author and the publishers in six lines, all stamped in gilt from designs by Charles Ricketts.
Note: Of this edition 1500 copies were printed, including 600 which were issued in America with the imprint of Dodd, Mead and Co., New York.
ALSO: Dodd, Mead and Co., New York, MDCCCXCI. First American edition. Pink canvas boards.
ALSO: Osgood, McIlvaine, MDCCCXCIV. Second edition. Light green cloth boards with lettering and design by Charles Ricketts as in the first edition.
Note: Of this edition 1000 copies were printed, including 500 which were issued in America with the imprint of Dodd, Mead and Co., New York.
ALSO: Dodd, Mead and Co., New York, MDCCCXCIV. Yellow buckram boards, lettered in brown on the front side with the title, etc., in six lines as on the title-page.
1891The Picture of Dorian GrayWard Lock & Co, London, [1891]First edition. Rough grey bevelled boards, gilt lettered, boards designed by Charles Ricketts. Buff-coloured outer wrappers with the designs and lettering printed in brown. On p. 208, eight lines from the bottom, is a small misprint, the first letter being dropped from the word “ and.” Two issues, no priority:
  • (A) Dated 1891 on title page. Limited edition of 250 copies on large paper, numbered and signed by the author.
  • (B) Trade edition, undated.
ALSO: Ward Lock & Bowden, London, [1895]. Second edition. 8 pages of ads at the end.
ALSO: Paris: Charles Carrington, 1901. Light blue boards, gilt, lettered on the back DORIAN GREY (sic)
1893Lady Windermere's FanLondon: Elkin Mathews & John Lane, 1893First edition. "Copyright, October 1893" stated on © page. Light brown-red linen boards, gilt lettering, boards designed by Charles Shannon. 500 copies printed.
1893SalomeLondres: Elkin Mathews et John Lane, 1893First edition. "Acheve d’imprimer le 6 fevrier 1893" stated on © page. First published in French. Bright purple paper wrappers lettered in silver. Two issues, no priority:
  • (A) Limited edition of 50 copies on Van Gelder hand-made paper.
  • (B) Limited edition of 600 copies (500 are for sale.)
ALSO: London: Elkin Mathews & John Lane, 1894. First English edition. Two issues, no priority:
  • (A) Limited edition of 100 copies. Green silk boards, gilt, with lettering and designs as in the trade edition.
  • (B) Trade edition. Limited edition of 500 copies. Rough blue canvas boards, gilt, stamped on both sides with a design by Aubrey Beardsley; lettered in gilt.
1894A Woman of No ImportanceLondon: Elkin Mathews & John Lane, MDCCCXCIVFirst edition. Two issues, no priority:
  • (A) Limited edition of 50 copies on hand-made paper. Light brown-red linen boards, gilt lettering. Boards designed by Charles Shannon.
  • (B) Regular edition. Light brown-red linen boards, gilt lettering. Same design as above.
1894The SphinxLondon: Elkin Mathews & John Lane, MDCCCXCIVFirst edition. Full vellum boards, gilt, with designs on the back and on both sides by Charles Ricketts, whose monogram CR appears in the bottom left-hand corner of the front cover, in the bottom left-hand corner of the under cover being the monogram of the binders, Leighton, Son and Hodge. Two issues, no priority:
  • (A) Limited edition of 25 copies on large paper.
  • (B) Trade edition. 250 copies printed of which 50 are for sale in America.
1895The Soul of Man under SocialismLondon: Privately Printed, MDCCCXCVFirst edition. Light brown paper wrappers printed on the front side only, with lettering and designs of the title-page in red. Limited edition of 50 copies.
1898The Ballad of Reading GaolLondon: Leonard Smithers, MDCCCXCVIIIFirst edition. "Copyright January 1898" stated on © page. Cinnamon colour linen with white linen back. Two issues, no priority:
  • (A) Limited edition of 30 numbered copies on Japanese vellum.
  • (B) Trade edition. 800 copies printed on Dutch hand-made paper watermarked Van Gelder, of which 400 were printed on January 24, 1898 and 400 on on February 8. The later are lettered in gilt on boards.
ALSO: London: Leonard Smithers, MDCCCXCVIII. Second edition. "Copyright February 1898" and "Second edition" stated on © page.
ALSO: Third edition. "Copyright February 1898" on the limitation page. Purple linen with white linen back lettered as in the earlier editions. In the top right-hand corner of the front side is a leaf-design by Charles Ricketts, stamped in gilt. Limited to 99 numbered copies signed by the author.
1899An Ideal HusbandLondon: Leonard Smithers, MDCCCXCIXFirst edition. "Copyright, July 1899." stated on © page. Light brown-red linen boards, gilt lettering, with designs by Charles Shannon. Two issues, no priority:
  • (A) Limited edition of 12 numbered copies on Japanese vellum, signed by the author. Bound in vellum, gilt lettering. Presentation copies.
  • (B) Limited edition of 100 numbered copies on Dutch hand-made paper, watermarked Van Gelder Zonen, signed by the author.
  • (C) Regular edition. 1000 copies printed.
1899The Importance of Being EarnestLondon: Leonard Smithers, MDCCCXCIXFirst edition. "Copyright, December 1898" stated on © page. Light red-brown linen boards, gilt lettering, with designs by Charles Shannon. Three issues, no priority:
  • (A) Limited edition of 12 numbered copies on Japanese vellum for presentation, signed by the author. Bound in vellum, gilt lettering and designs.
  • (B) Limited edition of 100 numbered copies on Dutch hand-made paper, watermarked Van Gelder Zonen, signed by the author.
  • (C) Trade edition. Limited edition of 1000 numbered copies, unsigned.
ALSO: London, New York: Samuel French, 24, West 22 nd Street. "Copyright, October 1893" (Error in copyright date). Acting edition issued in New York. Wrapper, wired. The front wrapper is headed “ The Dramatic Works of Oscar Wilde.” No. 1. In later impressions “ No. 1 ” is omitted; the publishers’ London address on the title page is changed to 26, Southampton Street, Strand; and three preliminary leaves are added at the beginning, including half-title, particulars of fees payable, etc., the book being sewn instead of wired.
1905De ProfundisLondon: Methuen & Co, [1905]First edition. "First published in 1905" stated on © page. Three issues, no priority:
  • (A) Limited edition of 50 copies on Japanese vellum. Limp vellum, gilt, with overlapping fore-edges, the lettering and designs by Charles Ricketts.
  • (B) Limited edition of 200 copies on English hand-made paper, watermarked Unbleached Arnold. White buckram boards, gilt lettering and designs by Charles Ricketts.
  • (C) Regular edition. Blue buckram boards, gilt lettering and designs by Charles Ricketts. 10, 000 copies printed.
ALSO: London, Muethen & Co., 1905. Second edition. "Second Edition, 1905" stated on © page.
ALSO: New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1905. First American edition. Grey paper boards, gilt, with dark blue linen back, on which is pasted a strip of grey paper, showing a dark blue edging on either side, lettered in Old English characters. Issued with a loose outer wrapper of grey paper printed in dark blue, on the back being a publisher’s advertisement.

Reference:

  • Wikipedia
  • Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, Stuart Mason

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