We know what Oscar Wilde sounded like; many of his contemporaries attested to the quality of his voice. "He had one of the most alluring voices that I have ever listened to, round and soft, and full of variety and expression" [Lillie Langtry].
But also an astonishing
recording exists of a voice reciting from The Ballad of Reading Gaol recorded at The Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900, purporting to be that of Wilde. When the recording was first played to Wilde's son in the 1960s he declared it was assuredly his father. However he later recanted and said that upon reflection he thought he was wrong, but who else would recite such a work at that time?
Even allowing for the deficiencies of early audio techniques the recorded voice is thin, reedy and affected, and, although the lilting delivery could well be derived from Irish inflections, the curiously suburban vowels betray no hint of an Irish accent. But it corresponds in almost every particular with a phonetic example notated by the American actress
Helen Potter (who went on to give impersonations of Oscar as a career) during Wilde's lecture tour of 1882. She remarked "The voice is clear, easy and not forced.Change pose now and then, the head inclining towards the strong foot, and keep a general appearance of repose. This disciple of true art speaks very deliberately, ... the closing inflection of a sentence or period is ever upward."
If the recording
is Oscar it runs contrary to all the received ideas we now have about how he must have sounded. The influence of Micheal Macliammoir's rich, fruity Irish delivery in his famous impersonation has coloured modern expectations. (Macliammoir's Irish identity is however as spurious as Wilde's English: born Alfred Willmore in London without a trace of Hibernian lineage, Macliammoir assiduously cultivated an Irish persona, to the extent of learning Gaelic and moving to Dublin).
All the contemporaries who remembered Wilde commented on the expressiveness of his speaking voice,
Max Beerbohm told Lord David Cecil that it was like a flower opening. Although during his student days Wilde had self-consciously erased any vestiges of an Irish accent (and apparently a lisp), the lilt of the brogue must have contributed to the musical effect everybody remarked upon.
The New York Tribune reported that his voice was anything but feminine, burly rather; The New York World said he stressed every fourth syllable in a kind of sing-song; "I came from England because I thought America was the best place to see." Helen Potter remarked on the frequency of his rising inflections. Walt Whitman noticed his "English society drawl, but his enunciation is better than I ever heard in a young Englishman or Irishman before."
It was variously described as a light tenor or a mezzo voice, "
uttering itself in leisurely fashion, with every variety of tone" [Beerbohm]. "A low voice, with peculiarly distinct enunciation; he spoke like a man who has made a study of expression. He listened like one accustomed to speak." [Julia Constance Fletcher/George Fleming]
The recording reminds me of nothing so much as the ancient Edwardian ladies I remember from my childhood, who spoke in a strange fluting drawl and emphasised all the most unexpected words. They exuded a strange mixture of charm and intimidation, and fascinated me as they drove through our village, stopping outside the shops to be waited on by the tradesmen without ever alighting from their antiquated Gargantuan motors (my father even took shoes from his shop for them to try in the comfort of their own automobiles). When I later saw
Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell in the film of The Importance of Being Earnest I noted the objective accuracy of her portrayal. Putting all the contemporary comments together with a close examination of Helen Potter's notation, and my own observation of these dinosaurs, once persuaded me that the recording was the genuine voice of Oscar Wilde.
Unfortunately, the latest
scientific investigation of the recording suggests that it cannot date from earlier than the 1920s, so cannot possibly be the voice of the writer. I do not know whether I am glad or disappointed ...
John H. Bartlett
Oscar from beyond the grave!
Oscar Wilde was notoriously superstitious, firmly believing in the powers of necromancers, witches, clairvoyants and palmists; if anyone was going to try to come back after death to the earthly stage where he had had such triumphs, he was. There are two famous cases of his supposedly returning from the dead to communicate through mediums.
In the early 1920s a
Mrs Travers Smith received messages through automatic writing and the Ouija board, and some years later in 1962 a Mr Leslie Flint was a vessel for a voice purporting to be that of Oscar Wilde. Doubtless there have been other instances.
The transcripts of
Mrs Travers Smith's seances were published by the Society for Psychical Research and Mr Flint's manifestations were tape recorded (examples of a fruity voice in the Macliammoir vein can be heard on the Internet).
However, unless
Wilde entirely lost his talent in the passage to "the other side" I find such material unconvincing.
Relevant links :-
The 1900 recording
Leslie Flint's tapes
  Macliammoir's Importance of Being Oscar
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