The Wilde Family

In 1976 I stayed a while in Dublin for the first time. Not surprisingly, even then, I visited an antiquarian book seller. I’ve forgotten which, but it was one of the older and better, i.e. more expensive, ones. Since I was interested in the traditions of ancient Ireland, a title caught my eye; Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. With Sketches of the Irish Past, by Lady Wilde “Speranza”, London, 1888. When I left the book store I carried a plastic bag with the book in it. I don’t recall what I paid, but since I was a young man then, I did not have the limitless resources I have now. So it meant I had to skip a few pints of Guiness at O’Donoghue’s public house and limit myself to fish burger lunches (extremely cheap then!) for a while. I still have the book and I still treasure it.

Lady Wilde, with the pen name Speranza, was Jane Francesca Agnes Wilde (1821-1896), the wife of renowned Dublin eye and ear surgeon Sir William Robert Wills Wilde (1815-1876). Sir William shared his wife’s interest in old Ireland so it comes as no surprise that she appended to her book a speech held by her late husband called The Ancient Race of Ireland

In the Hagströmer Library there are a couple of Sir William’s works, one on the eye (An Essay on the Malformations and Congenital Diseases of the Organs of Sight, London, 1862) and one on the ear (Practical Observations on Aural Surgery and the Nature and Treatment of Diseases of the Ear, London, 1853) respectively. There is a German translation of the latter in the library as well.

Lately the Hagströmer Library has had a very substantial addition to its collections – a large part of the holdings of the Karolinska Institutet University Library (KIB) in Flemingsberg has been moved to Haga tingshus. While processing some of the books I noticed yet another book by Sir William, called A Descriptive Catalogue of The Antiquities of Stone, Earthen, and Vegetable Materials in The Museum of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1857. Immediately obvious is the signature “A. Retzius”, written with pencil in the lower right-hand corner of the printed front wrapper. When you look closer at the cover you notice an ink inscription below the printed author’s by-line. It says “1 Merrion Square, Dublin”. 

Dublin is known for its Georgian architecture. In the late 18th century and the early 19th century many of the Irish aristocracy had town houses built, at first as part-time residences when away from their rural estates. The Georgian houses at first looks quite simple; large unadorned red brick edifices. But when you look closer you start to see the wonderful embellishments, especially the doors stand out and no door is quite like any other although the general style is the same. These Dublin doors are often depicted on post cards and on posters. Dublin has had its fair share of modernizing developers (vandals) in the last century and many buildings were pulled down before the destruction was stopped in the final years of the 20th century. There are some areas that remain in all their past splendor, some squares are really worth a visit, and foremost among them is Merrion Square, not far from the greenery of St. Stephen’s Green. It still (or rather, again) has the dignity it had 200 years ago.

I’ve been to Merrion Square several times over the years and I paid my last visit there in the summer of 2015. So I recognized the address on the book cover. It was the house where the famous author Oscar Wilde grew up. And I finally made the connection (some of us are a bit slow…). Sir and Lady Wilde were, of course, the parents of Oscar.

When you start turning the pages of Catalogue of The Antiquities you immediately get to the half title page and there you find this inscription: “Andreas Retzius from his sincere friend, the author”. Could it be that William Wilde wrote his address below his name for Anders Retzius as contact information?

Anders Retzius and William Wilde were both a part of an early 19th century network of scientists concerned with the evolution of Man and of how Man could be classified. Wilde visited Sweden and was received by Retzius. He was given an honorary degree by Uppsala University and King Charles XV awarded him the Order of the North Star (Nordstjärneorden). Arguably he named his son after the Swedish King’s brother Prince Oscar who later became King Oscar II of Sweden.

Dan Jibréus, 3 February 2017

The specifics of Sir and Lady Wilde’s life are from Wikipedia, no less.
Photo: Dan Jibréus