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Michael Seeney, ed. Wilde’s Wittiest Woman: Ada Leverson’s Uncollected Writings. High Wycombe, UK: Rivendale Press, 2021. 238 pp. ISBN 9781904201335. £15.

Reviewed by Margaret Stetz.

Not all late-nineteenth-century humor ages well. Anyone who has visited the house museum in London of Edward Linley Sambourne (1844–1910) and looked closely at the many Punch cartoons that cover the walls knows this to be true. Although they are beautifully drawn, their subjects refer to events and their human figures depict personages long ago forgotten, which means the artist’s jokes are now lost completely. Explanatory labels might have made a difference, but only in terms of providing a historical context; they could not cause a modern viewer to laugh.

Fortunately, the majority of the previously uncollected pieces from 1893 to 1906 by Ada Leverson (1862–1933) that Michael Seeney has brought together into an attractive and reasonably priced paperback volume allude to nothing obscure or impenetrable, though they too appeared in Punch, as well as in the Sketch. Most of them are comic in tone, but their topics are familiar to anyone acquainted with late-Victorian theatre or fiction: house parties and social-climbing guests; mothers pushing forward their daughters; young girls playing rival suitors off one another; young men convinced of their own wit and brilliance, etc. When there are parodies, the targets are still recognizable ones, including a variety of earlier Victorian works by authors such as Dickens and Eliot, along with the creations of Leverson’s contemporaries—especially, the plays of Oscar Wilde and the short, ironic essays that Max Beerbohm wrote for the Yellow Book.

These choices, of course, were no accident. If Ada Leverson is remembered today, it is either for her later writings (a series of novels published after the turn of the century and known as The Little Ottleys) or, more often, as the dear friend whom Wilde called “Sphinx”—the one who gave him shelter in her house in 1895, when he was being prosecuted for “gross indecency,” and then again in 1897, after his release from prison. She was at the center of a circle of male aesthetes, decadents, and literary realists with Yellow Book and/or Savoy magazine connections. Michael Seeney points out, both in his “Introduction” and in the brief sections titled “Commentary” found throughout the volume, that she counted Beerbohm, Aubrey Beardsley, George Moore, and Richard Le Gallienne among her intimates. In poking fun at their work, as she did in a number of the selections reprinted here, she was actually serving their interests. Comedy of the sort that Seeney has reproduced—witty, but never brutal—would have kept them in front of the broad audiences that both Punch and the Sketch attracted and might well have made readers of those periodicals feel that they needed to know more about the originals, if only to appreciate Leverson’s satire.

At the same time, she was also refining her craft as a writer of comedy during a decade when “New Women” were expected to be angry and passionate, but not necessarily funny (although plenty of Leverson’s female contemporaries in the literary world were that, too). As Seeney reports, many of these humorous sketches, parodies, and dialogues either were published anonymously or were merely accompanied by the initials “A. L,” so readers would not have known that their author was a woman. What they would have seen, however, were short works by someone with a knack for dialogue and with a strong sense of how to create vivid stage presences. There are moments, in fact, when Leverson seems not to be reflecting the tone of social comedy as practiced by Wilde, so much as looking ahead to the plays three decades later of Noël Coward. The Compleat Angler, for instance, which appeared in Punch in January 1897, contains exchanges that sound remarkably like something from Hay Fever (1925):

Ezzie: I say, I think these back-garden parties of Auntie’s are perfectly ghastly.
Dolly: So do I.
Daisy: I think they’re very amusing.
Ezzie: Oh! That’s only your nasty cynical habit of making the best of everything. You know they’re really rather awful. You don’t mind my saying so, do you? I mean, there’s never anyone here one knows.
Daisy: I know; but Mamma gets hold of a whole heap of celebrities, and Lord Jasmyn likes looking at clever people.
Ezzie: How sweet of him! I hate being the only stupid person in a crowd of clever people—they make such a fuss about one. (191).

While it is true that the final pronouncement has the ring of a Wildean epigram, the line “That’s only your nasty cynical habit of making the best of everything” does not; it is instead precisely the sort of statement that one of Coward’s Bright (and Bitchy) Young Things would eventually make. (Coward, of course, also owed much to Wilde, but preferred to deny the debt.)

Seeney’s “Introduction” mentions that Leverson never produced anything that was performed onstage. In light of the large number of highly entertaining dialogues contained in this collection, that seems a great loss. At the end of the century, there were multitudes of “New Women” novelists and also a few Jewish women novelists, but few Jewish women playwrights and certainly too few women in general writing stage comedies. Ada Leverson definitely would have occupied a special niche, and it is clear that she had a talent that would have allowed her to excel.

No one should exaggerate the significance of what Seeney’s research has unearthed. There are no masterpieces here; most of the selections are slight, and they were obviously meant to be ephemeral, befitting their publication in weeklies that aimed at offering topical, light entertainment. Yet Leverson’s early works should not be ignored or dismissed, and scholars will rightly be grateful for this volume, for it reveals a brilliant woman of the period responding creatively to the social scene, as well as to the avant-garde literary and artistic circles that surrounded her in fin-de-siècle London. These fugitive pieces are invaluable historical documents—and ones that can, even now, produce an occasional chuckle.

Margaret D. Stetz is the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women's Studies and Professor of Humanities at the University of Delaware. She is the author of British Women’s Comic Fiction, 1890-1990: Not Drowning, But Laughing (Ashgate, 2001; reissued by Routledge, 2018), as well as over 120 essays published in journals and edited collections, many of them on the subject of late-Victorian “New Women” and decadence. She has also been curator or co-curator of more than a dozen exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic related to late-Victorian art, literature, and print culture. The most recent of these is “Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young,” curated with Mark Samuels Lasner, at the Grolier Club in New York City, 8 September to 12 November 2022.