Books from Oscar Wilde's library discovered at the KB

From the library of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) only 42 books are known to be held in public libraries around the world. Curator Paul van Capelleveen has now added five books to that tally, finding them in the collection of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands, KB) in The Hague by accident and thanks to a keen nose.

Library Oscar Wilde broken up

When Wilde was imprisoned for being a homosexual, he was declared bankrupt and his entire library was sold in April 1895. Because of the scandal, people did not want to be associated with him and they tore written dedications to Wilde, or his signature, from the books. His famous library was broken up in both senses of the word.

Being able to trace books back to his library is therefore exceptional.

Discovery at the KB

Five books were discovered at the KB, three of which contain written dedications to Wilde while two others merely contain a note that they originate from the auction of his books. Paul van Capelleveen, curator of the KB, discovered the first one in a book by the long-forgotten Le Gallienne, which he needed for research. In it he discovered the handwritten dedication: “Oscar Wilde from his friend Richard Le Gallienne. 17, June, ’94 (...)”. His curiosity was roused. Van Capelleveen investigated how and when this book had been acquired for the collection and after a long search, he found four other books which had been purchased from the same bookstore at the same time. They had been included in the KB collection within six months of the auction. One of the books contains an inscription by Maurice Maeterlinck from 1894, an early reminder of his continuous admiration for Oscar Wilde.

Provenance

The books contained notes to say they originated from Oscar Wilde's library, a fact that was not mentioned in the library’s catalogue. Apparently that information was not interesting a hundred and twenty years ago. These days it is interesting; the scandal surrounding Wilde has dissipated and it certainly is important now to know which books he owned and who his friends and admirers were. For that reason, the five books will be transferred to KB's Special Collections. Want to find out more about the books and Paul van Capelleveen's quest? Read his blogpost in English here. He also wrote a Dutch blogpost on this topic.