Advent awakenings with Oscar Wilde and Conan Doyle

AS PUBLISHERS’ lunches go, it was one of the more productive ones, and may give us some clues for Advent, as, once again, calendar windows are opened, and candles carefully lit.

Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde had been invited to dinner by the American publisher J. M. Stoddart, who later described Sir Arthur as “a walrus in Sunday clothes”.

They all met at the Langham Hotel, in London, and had a good evening together. Wilde, aged 35, and Doyle, aged 30, got on very well, and discussed Doyle’s recent historical novel.

Wilde was in fine conversational form, and Doyle was impressed and charmed. The dinner ended with Doyle being commissioned to write another Sherlock Holmes adventure — The Sign of Four — and Wilde being commissioned to write The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

Whatever bill was presented to Mr Stoddart, and whatever the tip he left, it might be considered money well spent.

There are two things I like about the evening; well, more than two things but time and tide wait for no man.

So first, it was clearly a happy evening, in which a publisher brought together two young writers, who enjoyed each other’s company.

“It was indeed a golden evening for me,” recalled Doyle. No doubt both of them left the table encouraged and stimulated in their writing — a calling that can feel a solitary affair at times.

And second, the evening would produce two excellent stories, which in different ways would bless generations to come.

So, with hindsight, the evening becomes a rather happy memory; history looks back on that dinner in the summer of 1889, and remembers it in glowing terms.

But it might have been different. Wilde and Doyle could easily have been at loggerheads throughout the meal, in insecure competition with each other. And the two commissioned works might have turned out disappointingly. Mr Stoddart knew nothing for sure at the time: we live life blind.

And the challenge of Advent is to remain blind; to keep the present excitement without being crucified by expectation.

It is difficult with the hindsight of history, which gives us the answers before we have even asked the questions. But, once we leave the present, and talk of what will be, we blow up large balloons of fantasy which are in danger of being popped or deflated by experience.

Sadly, despite the hype, post-Christmas conversation is not often spent reflecting on experiences of glad tidings and joy; more on who disappointed, when and how.

Christmas can offer to us only the degree of reality we offer to Christmas. It cannot be conjured up from nostalgic memories, past formulas or high hopes. It must occur before us, arising from the stuff of now.

As J. M. Stoddart sat down to eat, he knew nothing about future outcomes; and neither do I – though I know, with eyes and heart open, that life will arise.

It’s what life does.

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