D.C. Rose: Oscar Wilde and the Chase of the Cantervilles

[This article first appeared in 2003 on a former OSCHOLARS website as a downloadable Word document.  It is now reposted here (March 2012)]

Oscar Wilde and the Chase of the Cantervilles

 David Charles Rose

‘I bid you welcome to Canterville Chase.’
‘Welcome, Sir Henry, welcome to Baskerville Hall.’

We offer these reflections to mark the recent production of The Canterville Ghost in Italy; the current production in New York; and the new production of The Hound of the Baskervilles at the International Theatre, Vienna, 28th January to 16th March directed by Don Fenner, with Jeff Sturgeon and Michael E. Lopez as Holmes and Watson.  (There was also broadcast a new and rather anodyne film version directed by David Attwood with Richard Roxburgh as Sherlock Holmes, Ian Hart as Dr Watson, Richard E. Grant as Stapleton, and John Nettles as Dr Mortimer on BBC television on 26th December.  Information can still be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/drama/hound_of_the_baskervilles.shtml)

The Canterville Ghost seems to be embedded in a series of late Victorian referents, which also implicate Conan Doyle.  It was clearly necessary for the plot for The Hound of the Baskervilles to be set on Dartmoor, but one may note too that Lord Dartmoor was the title of Lord Henry Wotton’s elder brother.  That Baskerville Hall and Canterville Chase should share certain stock characteristics is not surprising (one has oak-blackened rafters, the other black oak panelling; both have stained glass windows), although something may be made of the metrical similarities of the names and one may also link them to Whyte-Melville’s Dangerfield Hall with its black oak wainscotting and the Dangerfield ghost which ensures ‘that drops of blood, freshly sprinkled, were found every morning’1.

Reverse the C and the T in Canterville and one comes to the Tankerville Club, to which Colonel Moran belongs2.  ‘Tankerville’ is also the family name of the Duke of Dorset in Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, deriving ultimately one presumes from Tancarville in Normandy, itself almost an anagram of Canterville.  The duc de Tancarville’s daughter was married to the Paris banker Hermann Hüffer, a cousin of Ford Madox Ford: there is no reason why Wilde should not have known this.

In The Valley of Fear, Doyle’s ‘Birdy Edwards’ is an employee of Pinkerton’s Detective Agency, engaged to rid Vermissa of the bloodstained ‘Scowrers’; ‘Pinkerton’s’ is the name Wilde gives to the ‘Champion Stain Remover’ which the Otis family use to scour away the bloodstain in the library in The Canterville Ghost.

Mariano Baselga has pointed out that the name Otis ‘is an epenthesis of the Greek pronoun hostis which means “anybody”‘3 [Liddell & Scott prefer ‘whosoever’].  Hostis is also the Latin for enemy, and the relationship between the Otis family and Sir Simon de Canterville is certainly a hostile one; but it seems to me that Otis is nearer to ‘oútis meaning nobody, the name given as his own by Odysseus to Polyphemos.  It is not entirely fanciful to see Otis / Outis confronting the Ghost / Cyclops, nor to see Virginia Otis as corresponding to Galatea.  ‘Polyphemos’ means ‘many tales’, which are what the Ghost enacts.  None of this was been unfamiliar to Wilde the classicist: ‘my father’s knowledge of Greek was profound,’ wrote Vyvyan Holland.  ‘Such was his love of the language that he remembered every word he ever read in it.’

There are closer odyssean links than this, however.  In the Conan Doyle story ‘A Point of Contact’, following speculation on the synchronicity of the Conquistadors and Baber the Mogul Emperor, Doyle tells how Odysseus, putting into Tyre for repairs on his way to Troy, meets King David, come from Jerusalem for supplies.  The King of Tyre mentioned in the Old Testament is called Hiram, the first name of Mr Otis in The Canterville Ghost.  More curiously, there is a reference to Odysseus standing on the forecourt of the temple of Melmoth overlooking Sidon, thus making the link (at the very least by parataxis) between Melmoth the Wanderer and Sidonia von Bork, translated into English by Lady Wilde.

As for the Ghost, at one time he begins ‘to make preparations for turning himself into a large black dog, an accomplishment for which he was justly renowned, and to which the family doctor always attributed the permanent idiocy of Lord Canterville’s uncle, the Hon. Thomas Horton.’  The legend of a ghost dog is of course key to the creation by Stapleton of the Hound, bought with a nice nod towards Robbie, from Ross and Mangles, the dealers in Fulham Road.

NOTES

1.  G.J. Whyte-Melville: Kate Coventry.  London: Ward, Lock & Co n.d.
2.  ‘The Empty House’, published in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.  London: John Murray 1905.
3.  Mariano Baselga: ‘Oscar Wilde and the Semantic Mechanism of Humour’, in C. George Sandulescu (ed.): Rediscovering Oscar Wilde.  Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1994 p.15.

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