Oscar Wilde’s Stories for All Ages compiled by Stephen Fry, illustrated by Nicole Stewart & written by Oscar Wilde.
(Published October 2009).
“Then she gave one last burst of music. The white Moon heard it, and she forgot the dawn, and lingered on in the sky. The red rose heard it, and it trembled all over with ecstasy, and opened its petals to the cold morning air. Echo bore it to her purple cavern in the hills, and woke the sleeping shepherds from their dreams. It floated through the reeds of the river, and they carried its message to the sea.”
-The Nightingale and the Rose
This book is a collection of eleven of Oscar Wilde’s fairytale-like stories selected by Stephen Fry, including The Selfish Giant, The Happy Prince, The Star-Child, and The Canterville Ghost. The stories are accompanied by Nicole Stewart’s illustrations and each story is briefly introduced by Fry.
I’ve been a fan of Stephen Fry for about fifteen years now, so I know that he idolizes Oscar Wilde (he also played him in the ‘90s film Wilde) and it really shows in this book.
His inner fanboy enables him to provide the reader with useful information and insightful thoughts about Wilde’s life and work. Although I must add that Fry’s enthusiasm also causes him to repeat himself. He keeps pointing out that Wilde was a dandy, that his fate was tragic, and that the reader doesn’t need to have any knowledge of Wilde to understand these stories.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love it when people are so passionate about something that they find it almost impossible to stop talking about it and they just keep rambling on and on about the same thing, but after a while I couldn’t help but think ‘Yes Stephen, I know… you’ve said this already… multiple times….’
It is also noticeable that Fry was influenced by Wilde’s work, because the humour in these stories is the same witty and satirical humour you can expect from Fry (and his comedy partner Hugh Laurie). Puns that make you chuckle at their cleverness, or that almost make you do a smiling facepalm.
The following quotes from Oscar Wilde’s Stories for All Ages are very reminiscent of Fry and Laurie’s writing style (tip: watch the A Bit of Fry and Laurie sketch Low Self-Esteem, the Saturday Live sketch Maximum Security Poetry, or the sketch The Letter that Fry first performed for the Cambridge Footlights Revue in ’82 and later performed again in ’86 and ’90):
“…, the daughter of a retired Colonel who had lost his temper and his digestion in India, and had never found either of them again.”
–The Model Millionaire
“… and the King gave orders that the Page’s salary was to be doubled. As he received no salary at all this was not of much use to him, but it was considered a great honour, and was duly published in the Court Gazette.”
–The Remarkable Rocket
“Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”
–The Canterville Ghost
“I like hearing myself talk. It is one of my greatest pleasures. I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”
–The Remarkable Rocket
Now, enough rambling about the compiler of this collection and on to the actual stories.
The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, and The Birthday of the Infanta are heartbreaking, The Remarkable Rocket is very comical, The Fisherman and his Soul and The Star-Child are quite dark, and The Young King and The Selfish Giant are the most uplifting.
My favourites are The Happy Prince, a sad and beautiful story, and The Canterville Ghost, an almost cartoonishly funny story (I visualised it in my mind as a combination of Scooby-Doo and The Addams Family) with a beautifully sad ending.
My least favourites are The Devoted Friend and The Model Millionaire that lack the magic and charm the other stories have. The Remarkable Rocket made me chuckle at almost every page, The Fisherman and His Soul drew me into its detailed and tragic story, and The Happy Prince very nearly made me cry, but The Devoted Friend and The Model Millionaire didn’t make me feel anything.
On a side note, when reading The Fisherman and his Soul I was reminded of the horcruxes in Harry Potter, specifically Slytherin’s locket.
It’s about a fisherman who cuts his soul off and who later gets tempted by his soul to do evil things. And when the fisherman is trying to resist the temptations of the soul, the story provides the following quote: “’Love is better than wisdom, and more precious than riches, and fairer than the feet of the daughters of men. The fires cannot destroy it, nor can the waters quench it.’” Besides it being a powerful and inspiring quote, it’s also reminiscent of the ‘love trumps evil’ idea in Harry Potter.
But anyway, I digress.
I should also touch on the subject of Nicole Stewart’s artwork. To be blunt, I could have done without it. To be less blunt, this is very much a matter of personal taste. Objectively I can tell that Stewart’s illustrations are of good quality, but her style is simply not my cup of tea. When it comes to drawings accompanying text, I’m more into Chris Riddell’s artwork.
Also, I feel like Oscar Wilde’s writing is so visual and detailed that it doesn’t need to be brought to life by illustrations. He himself puts pictures in the reader’s mind with his magnificent writing and it is unnecessary to breathe life into something that is already so very much alive.
In the end, Wilde’s gorgeous writing style, the mix of humour and heartbreak in the stories, Fry’s enthusiastic, informative, and insightful, though sometimes repetitive, introductions, and Stewart’s good but unnecessary artwork make me give this book 4 out of 5 stars.
This review can also be found on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1861997808