Oscar Wilde? Irishmen? Australian? Scot? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent English actor and author Stephen Fry once said something about Oscar Wilde that I found fascinating:
Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publisher, a compliments slip in which he’d scribbled the injunction, “I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whichs etc.”
This remark was made during a program about language that is available on YouTube, and Fry’s claim can be heard around 1 minute and 45 seconds into the audio [SFYV] [SFLE]. However, I have yet to find any support for this assertion. Can you?
Quote Investigator: There is evidence that Oscar Wilde asked the editor of his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, to carefully examine his use of “wills” and “shalls” in the text and change them if necessary. The novel was published in 1891 by Ward, Lock, and Company after it initially appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. Coulson Kernahan who worked for the book publisher wrote a memoir that discussed his interactions with Wilde during the preparation of the manuscript [OWCK]:
When The Picture of Dorian Grey was in the press, Wilde came in to see me one morning.
“My nerves are all to pieces,” he said, “and I’m going to Paris for a change. Here are the proofs of my novel. I have read them very carefully, and I think all is correct with one exception. Like most Irishmen, I sometimes write ‘I will be there,’ when it should be ‘I shall be there,’ and so on. Would you, like a dear good fellow, mind going through the proofs, and if you see any ‘wills’ or ‘shalls’ used wrongly, put them right and then pass for press? Of course, if you should spot anything else that strikes you as wrong, I’d be infinitely obliged if you would make the correction.”
I agreed, went through proofs, made the necessary alterations, and passed for press.
The word ‘Grey’ is used in the passage above instead of the expected ‘Gray’ because Kernahan used ‘Grey’ when he specified the title of Wilde’s work. The personal recollections of Kernahan were printed in 1917 and included anecdotes about other figures, e.g., Algernon Charles Swinburne, Theodore Watts-Dunton, and Edward Whymper.
Another piece of evidence showing Wilde’s lack of assuredness in this grammatical domain is contained in a personal letter he sent to his friend Robert Ross in 1898. Wilde asked Ross to examine and correct his “woulds” and “shoulds,” and his “wills” and “shalls.” The details are presented immediately below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Many letters between Oscar Wilde and his correspondents were published after his death. A collection edited by Rupert Hart-Davis that was printed in 1962 contained a letter from Wilde to Ross about the preparation of a play. Wilde was planning to publish “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “An Ideal Husband,” and he asked for some help from Robert Ross [OWRR]:
2 December  Taverne F. Pousset, 14 Boulevard des Italiens, Paris
My dear Robbie, You are usually so kind in sending me my allowance on the 30th of the month, so that I can touch it by the 1st, that I write to say that nothing has yet arrived. The post often goes wrong, so I write merely to tell you. …
I have corrected all the proofs of my play, but I feel sure my “woulds” and “shoulds,” my “wills” and “shalls,” are all wrong. Perhaps you might look at them.
In 1899 a book review in the periodical Bookseller asserted that Australians had word-choice difficulties with the same terms that concerned Wilde [BKRG]:
To write a successful Australian novel, one should be one of the “native-born”—a qualification with which we are disposed to credit Mr. Nelson, partly from his notions of the way in which English ladies and gentlemen speak and act, and partly from the hopeless confusion of his “wills” and “shalls,” and “woulds” and “shoulds.”
In 1929 a book in the series “Writers of the Day” was released that focused on the prominent author James Matthew Barrie. The writer of the profile commented parenthetically on the word choices made by Barrie [WDJB]:
“Woulds” and “shoulds” for Scots need as sure a step as “wills” and “shalls.”
The 1946 biography of Wilde by Hesketh Pearson told of the episode in which Kernahan worked on the proofs of Wilde’s novel [OWP1]:
One of the readers for Ward Lock & Co., the firm which published the novel in England, was Coulson Kernahan, who had been asked by Wilde to correct if necessary the “wills” and “shalls” and “woulds” and “shoulds,” about which he never felt certain, and pass the proofs for press.
Pearson’s biography of Wilde also depicted his reaction to imprisonment: “I feel no desire to write — I am unconscious of power.” Yet, Wilde did expend some effort on one of his plays because of an eager publisher [OWP2]:
But as Smithers wanted to publish The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, he corrected the proofs of the former, asking Ross to look at his “woulds” and “shoulds,” his “wills” and “shalls,” as he felt sure they were all wrong.
In conclusion, Wilde did ask others to help him with his word selections in this syntactic realm, so QI thinks that the main point of Stephen Fry’s remark is well supported. QI is unable to corroborate the exact wording on the note described by Fry at this time. Thank you for an entertaining question.
(Many thanks to Rik for pointing out Stephen Fry’s remark and motivating this investigation.)
[SFYV] 2010 September 30: Upload date, YouTube Video, Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language, RogersCreations. [Comment about Oscar Wilde near 1 minute 45 seconds into the program] (Accessed on youtube.com on 2011 August 18) link
[SFLE] 2008 December 22: Release date, Stephen Fry website, Series 2 Episode 3, Language. [Comment about Oscar Wilde near 20 minutes 20 seconds into the program] (Accessed at stephenfry.com on 2011 August 18) link
[OWCK] 1917, “In Good Company: Some Personal Recollections of Swinburne, Lord Roberts, Watts-Dunton, Oscar Wilde, Edward Whymper, S. J. Stone, Stephen Phillips” by Coulson Kernahan, Second Edition, Page 212, John Lane, London. (HathiTrust) link link
[BKRG] October 12 1899, Bookseller: A Newspaper of British and Foreign Literature, [Review of The Romance of the Greystones: An Australian Story], Page 865, Published at the Office of Bookseller, London. (Google Books full view) link
[OWRR] 1962, The Letters of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, [Letter dated 1898 December 2 from Oscar Wilde in Paris to Robert Ross], Pages 765-766, Published by Rupert Hart-Davis, Ltd, London. (Verified on paper)
[WDJB] 1929, Writers of the Day: J. M. Barrie by F. J. Harvey Darton, Page 31, Nesbit & Co. Ltd., London. (Verified on paper)
[OWP1] 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Page 129, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
[OWP2] 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Page 313, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)