Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde first met 30 August 1889 in the luxuriant Langham Hotel (still there, still luxuriant) at a party thrown by Joseph Marshall Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott’s, an American magazine. Stoddart that evening commissioned a work each from the two authors.
The result was Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and the second of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels “The Sign of Four.”
According to Doyle, Wilde not only influenced him profoundly, but was one of the first major writers he’d met to see in Doyle an immense talent. They remained friends for life.
Wilde was a champion of the popular late Victorian philosophy of aestheticism – or, the acceptance of artistic beauty and taste as its own fundamental standard, not needing to have any meaning beyond its existence. In other words, art for art’s sake.
“Beauty is a form of Genius–is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation,” Wilde wrote in Dorian Gray. “It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”
I’ve often wondered if it was Wilde who influenced Doyle to include that extremely odd scene in “The Naval Treaty,” where Holmes – in the middle of a tense investigation – plucks a rose from a vase and gazes at it musingly.
“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
No wonder everyone in the room – including Watson – was so surprised.