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Thursday, February 28, 2013

A minor bibliographical conundrum on the Wilde side

A modest cover.
The primary joy of cataloging rare books is that you never know what you will find next or where your bibliographical travels will take you.  My hope is that someone out there will help guide me to my destination on my current journey!

Or at least help an aging medievalist (did someone say "15th-century German religious plays?") to catalog this book!!!

I have been cataloging a large gift of books that come to our library in the summer of 2012.  Many of these books from the Anderson Collection are about Minnesota history, life, and literature.  As such, they provide a strong core of materials to support the study of local history at our parent institution, Saint John's University, and its sibling institution, the College of Saint Benedict.

One book caught my attention--an 1898 edition of Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol.  I have to confess that while I have found the history and art of fin-de-siecle Europe quite fascinating (especially as it developed in places like Vienna, Austria), I know sadly little about this author and his work.  What especially caught my attention, however, was the pencilled note on the inside of the front cover that this was a "1st ed[ition] with auto[graph]."  Spoiler alert -- it does not appear to be a first edition, but it does have an autograph pasted in.

The title page of Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol, with his name given as his cell number in the jail/gaol: "C.3.3." = Cell 3 on the third landing of gallery C.

My searches in OCLC/WorldCat did not produce any exact matches to the item I had in my hand.  While the title page matched the descriptions I found, I soon ascertained that there were six different editions that appeared from the same publisher in 1898, each one slightly different from the other.  However, the copyright statement on the first edition did not match that on this copy. The limitation statements on other editions did not appear on this copy either. I turned to published bibliographies in an attempt to verify which edition this really is.  Fortunately, two early bibliographies were available for free at

Copyright statement for February 1898. Note the lack of any kind of limitation statement.

Christopher Millard's 1914 Bibliography of Oscar Wilde indicates that the very first edition of the Ballad bears a copyright statement from January 1898--ours states "February 1898." This matches the second to sixth editions.  Several textual variants cited in Millard also indicate that this is not from the January version, but one of the later ones.

Autograph of Oscar Wilde glued into the Ballad.

The second edition of the Ballad appeared in 1000 copies, with the edition statement on the verso of the title page, followed a short while later by a third edition (99 copies, each signed by the author on the copyright leaf), and then a fourth (1200 copies, in March), a fifth (1000 copies in March), and a sixth edition (1000 copies, in May 1898).  Millard states clearly that the second and sixth editions bear the number of the edition on the verso of the title page--he does not say this explicitly for the fourth and fifth editions.

So here's the problem:  The verso of the title page has been covered with a glued-in piece of paper signed by Oscar Wilde and dated March 22.  From my limited experience, I would say this looks like other autographs of the author that appeared in the bibliography (or online).  So, I am hoping it is genuine.

My assumption was that the edition statement could be found under the autograph sheet.  Unfortunately ...

Looking through the title page from behind.

When I held the title page up to the light, I could see through both leaves, and the text on the title page, the autograph and even the watermark were all clearly visible.  Unfortunately, no edition statement was forthcoming!

So, my primary question is this:  did the fourth or the fifth edition have an explicit edition statement on the verso of the title page?  Were there editions from 1898 that did not bear any edition statement on them?

A corollary:  Was it common to glue an autograph sheet into early editions of this work?  I've not seen something quite like this, so I am assuming that a later collector added the sheet.

My hope, as I tried to say earlier, is to identify this edition so I can catalog the piece. So any clues that those more experienced in late 19th-century authors like Oscar Wilde and their publishing history will be greatly appreciated!!

Until next time,



  1. Hi Just found your piece, I have a Fifth edition of this book and can tell you for definite that it clearly states FIFTH EDITION , in caps on the Verso of the title page, hope this helps