WILDE, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. London: Leonard Smithers, 1899.
Small 4o. Original rose cloth, covers with gilt ornaments after Charles Shannon, gilt-lettered on spine, uncut (spine lightly soiled and bumped at ends, few pale spots and wrinkles on rear cover, light offsetting on endleaves). Provenance: Rowland Strong (1865-1924, presentation inscription); Albert F. Madlener (bookplate); Anonymous owner (sold Sotheby's New York, 14 February 1986, lot 196); Anonymous owner (sold Sotheby's New York, 10 December 1993, lot 595).
FIRST EDITION. PRESENTATION COPY, INSCRIBED BY WILDE TO ROWLAND STRONG on the blank page facing the title: "Rowland Strong with the author's compliments. February 99. Oscar Wilde." 1,000 copies were issued in February 1899.
A fine association copy, presented to Strong, a friend of Wilde and Lord Douglas and the Paris correspondent for the Observer and the New York Times. He was also a notorious anti-semite and homosexual, and one of the few people who maintained contact with Wilde during and after his imprisonment at Reading. At Wilde's funeral in 1900, Robert Ross included Strong on a short list of loyal friends "who had shown kindness to him during or after his imprisonment." This list and a card reading "A tribute to his literary achievements and distinction" was placed on a wreath of laurels at the head of Wilde's coffin (Letters, pp.853-56, 14 December 1900). Strong's major claim to fame came not through his friendship with Wilde but through his entanglements with the Dreyfus Affair. His exact role in the prosecution, deportation and eventual vindication of Alfred Dreyfus is murky, but he was the best friend of Col. Esterhazy who was later implicated in forging the primary piece of evidence against Dreyfus.
The dating of this inscription is important in relation to the events of the Dreyfus Affair. Zola had published his famous defense of Dreyfus, "J'Accuse," in January 1898. Following its publication, Esterhazy found himself increasingly shunned (if not attacked) by the literary members of society. In the Spring of 1899 he was virtually without friends, except for Strong and by extension Wilde, who had met Esterhazy through Strong and quickly became platonically enamored of him. In Esterhazy, Wilde perceived a fellow victim of society, forced to spend life on the run. According to his biographer Richard Ellman, Wilde leaned across the dinner table and said to Esterhazy in early 1899, "The innocent always suffer, Monsieur le Commandant; it is their metier." Esterhazy, so taken into Wilde's confidence, then confessed (Ellman, p.564). This dinner changed the course of history: Strong sent an article the following day to The New York Times exposing Esterhazy, forcing him to flee to Belgium and London. By February 1899 a new administration favoring revision was in power and the reexamination of the Dreyfus case was underway. Esterhazy and Strong were no longer speaking. Wilde apparently also fell into Esterhazy's disfavor, and never spoke about his role, or lack thereof, in Esterhazy's exposure. Mason 381.