Student research of Victorian playwright submitted to international journals

May 1 2008

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - A group of honors students went Wilde for a semester, studying playwright and writer Oscar Wilde.

“Wilde’s life has so many facets that there’s something for everyone,” said course instructor Marilyn Bisch, a Wilde scholar. “He was funny, yet tragic, a self-made man before his time.”

The five students, enrolled in the University Honors Seminar devoted to Wilde, were given the charge to research the notable Irish writer, scholar, and wit and present new insights. This was a challenge since a majority of the students knew very little about Wilde.

“The big picture of Wilde’s life has been painted many times,” Bisch said. “By having the students look at small pieces of his life they were able to uncover information that will contribute significantly to Wilde research.”

Jenni Ellington, a sophomore criminology and criminal justice major from Kansas, Ill., researched Wilde’s prosecution of the Marquis of Queensberry for libel and the resulting prosecution of Wilde for gross indecency.

Ellington read Wilde’s writings that were being used against him, poured over trial manuscripts, which included everything said during the trials, and researched English law, which is much different than the American system.

Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency and served two years of hard labor in prison.

“They followed the law,” she concluded, even though it looks otherwise compared to today’s standards.

Wilde paid a high price during that time period, Ellington said.

“At the time of his trials he was at the height of his success,” she said. “When it was all over, Wilde was a poor, broken man ostracized by his friends.”

Wilde’s influence in Russia was a topic of interest for Danville, Ind. junior Kaelynn Hayes, a history major who was taking a class in Russian history at the time.

“Wilde’s first play was set in Russia,” she said. “The Russian people had great respect for Wilde’s work. He took an interest in Russian issues.”

By relying on scholarly works from others who explored small aspects, Hayes was able to create an overview of Wilde’s relationship with Russia.

The research project was an intensive experience, said Hayes, who had conducted research on a smaller scale in a previous class. The presenting and publishing experiences were new.

“It’s daunting to think that your work is being put out there for everyone to see,” she added.

Two other students, freshmen Taylor Schaffer and Alexandra Paauwe, channeled their interest in dance to research the Dance of the Seven Veils, mentioned in Wilde’s “Salome.” Schaffer and Paauwe, both members of the Indiana State Sparkettes and residents of Terre Haute, chronicled how the dance was an early forerunner to belly-dancing.

Another student, Sara Beckman, a freshman history major from Terre Haute, focused on Wilde’s lecture stop in Iowa City, Iowa, which was part of an 1882 tour of the United States and Canada on which he talked about aesthetic values.

Beckman wanted to verify information concerning his stop in Iowa, since there were conflicting accounts.

“I decided to focus on this facet,” she said.

After looking at newspaper accounts, Beckman confirmed the date of Wilde’s main lecture in Iowa City and that he spent part of a second day lecturing to students at the university there.

She also was also able to confirm that Wilde made an intentional stop in Iowa City a day after his original visit, - a new revelation in Wilde scholarship which seems to confirm a story previously thought fictional that he returned to have tea with a minister's daughter.

“This is where a paper focused on one city or aspect is so valuable,” Bisch said.

Beckman, an aspiring historian, said the unique experience will help her through college and beyond. Having her research published is an added bonus.

“I had no idea that I would have this opportunity so early in my academic career,” she said. “I thought I’d be doing this in graduate school.”

Bisch is proud of what the students achieved.

“If one of these papers becomes a footnote in Wilde scholarship, this was a success,” she said.

Students presented their findings at this year’s annual conference of the Mid East Honors Association in Indianapolis and at Indiana State’s Oscar Wilde Symposium, which featured Joan Navarre, an internationally recognized scholar of Wilde and his Victorian contemporaries.

“For all of the students, this was their first professional presentation,” Bisch said.

The presentations came with an added bonus - additional information that they are following up on and adding to their papers.

The students came away with another first - getting their research published in the Spring 2008 volume of Impressions, the society e-journal of American Wilde scholarship, accessible at www.owsoa.org .

The group’s research is currently in final draft stages and will appear online in May, Bisch said.

The research will also be available in a printed, bound form, which will take a little longer since it will be a fine-press edition.

“Oscar Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, a noted scholar and editor of Wilde, has asked for a fine-press edition,” Bisch said. “That is an honor.”

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Contact: Marilyn Bisch, ISU Honors Program, (812) 237-8272 or mbisch@indstate.edu

Writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, (812) 237-3783 or pmeyer4@isugw.indstate.edu

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A group of honors students went Wilde for a semester, studying playwright and writer Oscar Wilde.

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