Wilde times: rare book coup for UBC

UBC Library has scored a rare book coup by acquiring two exceptional examples of early gay literature that share a connection with famed Victorian writer Oscar Wilde.

And the purchase of the books — Teleny and its prequel, Des Grieux — was bolstered by an enterprising graduate student’s crowdsourcing effort.

It’s long been suspected — but remains unproven — that Wilde may have authored or contributed to the texts. “Even if Wilde didn’t write them, the speculation is still a fascinating part of his enduring mythology,” says Gregory Mackie, Assistant Professor in UBC’s Dept. of English. “These are crucial documents in queer history, literary history, sexuality studies and studies of erotica.”

Wilde remains loved for his writing and witty sayings. Following a scandalous trial, he was imprisoned for gross indecency; he died in 1900 at the age of 46, a few years after his release.

Teleny was first published in 1893, and only five known sets of the two-volume publication remain. Meanwhile, there are only three known copies of Des Grieux, published in 1899. “UBC is the only collection in the world with both texts, and that is huge from a research perspective,” says Justin O’Hearn, a PhD candidate in Victorian literature at UBC.

Last November, O’Hearn launched his first-ever crowdfunding campaign when he learned that a copy of Des Grieux was going to be available shortly via auction. Within a week, he had raised more than $3,000 from 56 backers — including UBC colleagues, librarians, Wilde fans and anonymous donors. The Library contributed the remaining monies for the titles, which sold for about $23,000 (Des Grieux) and $16,000 (Teleny). The Library’s contribution was taken from a fund earmarked for rare and special acquisitions.

“The one thing that unified everybody who backed this project was the belief that these texts should be publicly available,” says O’Hearn. “And that’s why the fit with UBC Library is perfect.”

“We’re delighted that the Library has been able to bring both of these titles together for scholarly research,” adds Ingrid Parent, UBC’s University Librarian. “It was inspiring to see Justin’s enthusiasm as well as faculty support for the acquisitions.”

The additions complement UBC Library’s Colbeck Collection of 19th-century literature, which includes a number of rare Wilde texts.

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