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.