It's short story Wednesday! Let's have some Oscar Wilde, shall we?
Today I’m recapping an Oscar Wilde 1891 short story called Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime. You can read it here, if you wish. It contains a character in it named Lady Windermere, who, as far as I can tell, is completely unconnected to the character of the same name in Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. He apparently just really wanted to use that name.
Anything with a page number next to it is a direct quotation from the text.
Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (Triggers for swearing, if that needs a trigger warning)
Lady Windermere is throwing a big swanky bash in London and it is spectacular. If it were the 1990s, everyone would have glow sticks and be tripping on E and dancing to the Spice Girls, and Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jonathan Taylor Thomas would be there. But since this is the 1890s, all they really have is sparkling conversation and the odd foreign princess or two.
Lady Windermere, being the society grand dame that she is, likes to play patron to people who can provide her with entertainment. One such person is Mr. Podgers, a gross, boring little man, who reads palms and is kept as a pet by Lady Windermere. One of her friends is like, “Why the fuck do you keep a palm reader on retainer?”
And Lady Windermere is like, “Oh, I have him read my palm once per month so he can tell me what to do and warn me if any disasters are impending.” Then she says, verbatim from the text, “New year, for instance, I am in great danger, both by land and sea, so I am going to live in a balloon, and draw up my dinner in a basket every evening. It is all written down on my little finger, or on the palm of my hand, I forget which” (4).
Yeah, Mr. Podgers sounds totally legit.
Question: how will she go to the bathroom? Although I suppose she could just poo over the side of the basket. It’s been done before.
Anyway, Mr. Podgers goes around the party and reads people’s hands with astonishing accuracy, sometimes revealing embarrassing secrets about them in front of the rest of the guests. Pretty soon, no one wants him to come anywhere near their hands.
Lord Arthur Savile (he of the probable crime) comes in late and goes, “Oooh, a palm reader! Fun!” Lady Windermere says, “I know you’re engaged to be married to my friend Sybil, who is the most beautiful woman in London, so if you’re hiding a wife somewhere a la Bertha Mason, Mr. Podgers will definitely find out and I will be forced to tell Sybil.”
Mr. Podgers takes one look at Lord Arthur Savile’s hand and breaks out into a cold sweat. He’s very, “Nothing to see here, folks, nothing to see here!” When he is finally pressured into telling what he saw in Lord Arthur's hand, he gives a very watered down version and says that Lord Arthur Savile is about to go on a long voyage and will lose a distant relative. Everyone goes, “Yeah, he’s about to go on his honeymoon, and also who gives a crap about distant relatives? LET’S PARTAAAAY!” and all is forgotten.
Actually, the way in which they party is by going to eat some soup, but this is a stuffy crowd. You can’t expect anything too crazy.
Lord Arthur Savile stays behind while the rest of them go buck wild eating their soup. He’s lived a life of decadence, foppery, and luxury, without a care in the world. What he is feeling, and not comprehending, for the first time in his life is stress. Mr. Podgers comes into the room and Lord Arthur Savile demands he tell him what he saw on his palm.
Mr. Podgers only agrees to do it for 100 pounds. Ten minutes later, Lord Arthur Savile runs from the house in panic and madness, having been told of MURRRDERRRR.
He runs around London for a while, staggering in back alleys like a drunk person, going on and on about murder like it’s helping anything. If ANYTHING, acting unpredictable and vulnerable in Crime Spree Alley is going to make murder more likely in your future. Jeez, guy. And then some prostitutes laugh at him. You know, just to round off the good night he’s having.
The next morning, he wakes up in the lap of luxury and realizes that nothing, not even murder, can be that bad when he lives in such opulent digs. He drinks some hot chocolate, and gets fussed over by his valet, and smokes a cigarette, and pervs on a photograph of his super hot fiancée, and laughs at how silly he was the previous night. Because dark fate and impending felonies are nothing compared to creature comforts.
But the longer he pervs on that picture of Sybil, the longer he starts to worry about one day shaming her in the public eye. “I know what to do!” he thinks. “I will postpone, or even call off our marriage! Because it is the noble thing to do.”
Here’s the thing, though: Podgers hadn’t told him who he was going to kill, or how, or when, or why. Just that he would kill someone, sometime. So, rather than thinking, “Well, that is deeply unlikely, but just in case, I will make sure to control my temper and never participate in any activity that could even vaguely be construed as violent,” he has a much different thought.
He thinks, “Well, it’s inevitable, because a man I met last night told me so. Let’s sit down and decide who to kill. Get it over with.”
Let’s just revisit this for a second.
A palm reader is brought out for entertainment at a society party. You’ve never met or heard of this man before, and you didn’t even arrive in time to see him read the palms of other guests; in fact, you have zero experience or proof of the veracity of his skills. He says you will kill someone. You not only don’t question this, but you actively TRY TO MAKE IT HAPPEN.
He has a long think about it and decides to bestow some murder upon his mother’s second cousin, Lady Clementina Beauchamp.
His reasons for selecting her are this: 1.) He’s very fond of her, and 2.) he will gain absolutely nothing (monetarily) by her death. I don’t know if he’s trying to erase motive, or what, but couldn’t you pick some random criminal to bump off? If you HAVE to kill someone, why pick the sweet old dearie who’s never done anyone a bad turn in her life?
He has a weird confusion of motives, as well. He wants to keep the murder as quiet as possible, which is understandable. But he also seems to know that he will get caught and doesn’t want to tell Sybil or her parents of his motives in breaking up with her, since they might see it as a selfless act and will maybe even let Sybil remain engaged to him.
Which is it, guy? Are you definitely going to get caught, in which case why bother trying so hard o hide it? Or are you trying not to get caught, in which case, why implode your social circle by murdering a relative and calling off your engagement?
He decides to poison dear old Clementina, but knows precisely zero about poisons, so he goes to the library and has a pre-emptive murder montage. He discovers a poison called aconitine, which is flavorless when put in a capsule, immediate, and painless.
A few things on aconitine, which I just looked up. Colloquially, it’s called devil’s helmet or monkshood. It USED to be undetectable in the mid-1800s and earlier, but forensics had improved by the 1880s. Lord Arthur Savile, if you’re going to murder someone and you’re researching poisons, don’t pick the old pharmacology book that’s decades out of date. That is just sloppy murder preparation.
In tiny doses, aconitine can be used as a painkiller. In slightly larger doses, it makes humans have uncontrollable diarrhea. In my heart of hearts, I hope to god that’s where Oscar Wilde is going with this story: Lord Arthur Savile gives a dose that’s slightly too small to Clementina, and she just poops for the rest of the story. He comes to his senses, maybe gets her some medical help, and everyone has a big old laugh about it.
So he goes right to the local pharmacist to the aristocracy, a guy who knows everyone in their social circles, and asks directly for a lethal dose of aconitine. That's right, Lord Arthur: stealth. The guy says that he kind of needs a prescription or something, but Lord Arthur Savile is all like, “Nah, dude, it’s cool, I just have to kill a giant dog that has rabies.”
Instead of saying, “I believe a bullet, or rat poison, or literally any other general method of death would probably be cheaper and less suspicious,” the pharmacist goes, “Oh, well, if you’re a Lord, and you say it’s for a dog, I guess that should be just fine! One batch of poison, coming up!”
He puts the single pill in a pretty box and drives straight for Clementina’s house. You sure about this? This is all pretty off the cuff. You don’t want to maybe work out an alibi for the time of death, or . . . No? Okay, then.
He goes to see Clementina for the first time in ages (nothing suspicious there) and learns that she has terrible heartburn that her doctors can’t cure (how convenient!). And he just happens to have a fantastic heartburn remedy at hand (seems legit). She tries to take the heartburn pill right then, but he says she must wait until she a giant attack of heartburn. He says (verbatim), “You will be astonished at the result.” (28).
Ho ho ho, Arthur. You’re such a card.
1.) What if she WAS suffering from heartburn right then? 2.) Surely it would be best to have her take it that very second, die right in front of you, and then call for the maid, saying that she had collapsed. You could tidy away the box, and there would be no suspicion of foul play. But if you wait until she actually has heartburn, then you’ll have to leave the box behind, which is traceable evidence, and she’ll likely call for her maid to bring her "that wonderful, miracle drug that Lord Arthur left behind, oh, shoot, now I’m dead."
Also, I really hate to see her die, because she’s a fantastic lady who reads dirty French books and is bored to tears by people who won’t gossip with her, and basically tells Lord Arthur, “Thanks for the medicine, now fuck off.”
ILU, Clementina. I hope you only get some nasty poops.
He next goes to Sybil’s house and breaks up with her, and then flees for Venice. Yep. These are the actions of an innocent man.
He parties wild in Venice, but keeps checking English obituaries for news of Clementina’s death. Finally he gets a telegram saying that she’s died, and recently made her will leaving him a little house and some pictures and things. He’s touched that she was so fond of him, and curses Mr. Podgers.
That’s right. He curses Mr. Podgers for forcing him to poison his favorite relative. No, no, that’s even too strong. He curses Mr. Podgers for revealing to him that he would one day murder some general person. I have never seen anyone pass the buck so hard in my life.
He also goes, “Well, the murder is accomplished. I guess I can marry Sybil now.” So he goes back to England, and the wedding is back on, and everything is happy! Except when he clears out Clementina’s house, he finds the pill box WITH THE PILL STILL INSIDE IT! He hasn’t killed anyone after all! Nooooooooooooo! (or . . . yaaaay?)
So he postpones their wedding again. And once again, he starts planning murder. “He accordingly looked again over the list of his friends and relatives, and, after careful consideration, determined to blow up his uncle, the Dean of Chichester” (34).
Okay, maybe this is a comedy after all. It rides a very weird line where, mostly, Lord Arthur just whines and is emo and philosophical, and there is nothing even remotely funny about it. And then there are absolute howlers like that last quotation. Which is why I’m complaining so much about how stupid Lord Arthur’s murder plots are—they’re just ridiculous enough for me to go, “You didn’t think this through,” without being so absurd that they seem intentionally funny.
Lord Arthur plans to put a bomb in one of the clocks in his uncle’s clock collection. How he’s going to explain that one away, I’m sure I don’t know. While aconitine may not have left much of a trace, a bomb most definitely would. Lord Arthur, of course, knows even less about explosives than he did about poison, and he isn’t having any luck looking it up in the London directory. Then he remembers that he knows a Russian anarchist named Rouvaloff, who most definitely knows how to blow stuff up.
Rouvaloff is all like, “Oooh, are you getting into politics?” but Lord Arthur says he needs “the explosive machine for a purely family matter” (36). That shit is hilarious. This story has turned on a dime from being an admittedly witty drama, to a straight-up comedy. Keep it up, Oscar Wilde, you’re better at comedy.
Rouvaloff knows a guy (as all the best anarchists do), and Lord Arthur gets the exploding clock made, and set to go off at exactly Friday at noon, when he knows the Dean will be home.
Friday comes and goes and he hears nothing about the Dean. Outraged, he demands an explanation from the bomb-maker, who says that you just can’t find good explosives anymore, and offers to make him another bomb free of charge. Lord Arthur refuses, having lost faith in explosives, and goes home depressed.
He eventually finds out that the Dean received the clock, which he assumed to be an anonymous present from an admirer, and that it had some sort of sensational alarm clock built in, since it released a small pop and a bit of smoke at 12 o’clock on Friday. He and his family were very charmed by the novelty, and took it apart to understand the mechanism, and they learned how to re-fill it with gun-powder, and the children brought it up to the school room, and make the "alarm" go off all day long, to everyone’s intense amusement. They even wonder if they should buy Lord Arthur one of those clocks as a wedding present.
And Lord Arthur goes, “God fucking damn it.”
He gets super emo, and considers calling off the wedding entirely. He mopes around London for hours, until, late at night, he sees a man standing on a bridge, looking at the Thames. Upon closer inspection, he notices that it’s Mr. Podgers. Without thinking twice, he runs up, grabs Mr. Podgers by the ankles, and flips him over the bridge.
Soon thereafter, he reads in the paper that the body of Mr. Podgers had been found and it was deemed a suicide. He runs over to Sybil and asks her to marry him tomorrow. Nothing gets a man in the mood for commitment quite like the falsely-reported suicide of a palm reader.
A few years later, he and Sybil are happily married with two children. Lady Windermere comes to visit and talks about how bored she is, and how none of her ‘pets’ can keep her interested for very long. She says, “Remember that horrible Mr. Podgers? He turned out to be a charlatan who just wanted to borrow money off of me and get into my pants.”
Sybil says that Lady Windermere must not bad-mouth palm reading in this household, since Lord Arthur is deadly serious about it. Lady Windermere asks why, and he says that he owes his entire happiness and his marriage to Sybil to palm reading.
Lady Windermere says, “You’re an idiot.”
This would have been a great deal stronger if it were clearer from the beginning how farcical it was going to be. I had a difficult time discerning if it was a straight drama or a black comedy. It ultimately turned out to be neither, instead being a silly romp much along the lines of Kind Hearts and Coronets. That said, once it got going, it was absolutely hysterical.
I suppose the moral of the story is: if you're going to murder someone, don't plan anything, ever. Impromptu murders are always successful, and they always lead to happiness.