As a child, Mark Girouard must have been easy to buy for at Christmas. An ideal gift would have been a puzzle, preferably the sort that looks easy, but is actually fiendish; one you have patiently to tease away at for hours until finally you unlock it, and long to share its cunning solution. This is more or less what Girouard does in several of the essays in this delightful collection.
Girouard is our most distinguished architectural historian and writer on great houses, but here he solves puzzles, and also reveals a rich and diverse literary taste.
He solves puzzles because he is sure there is something more to this or that received version of a story than meets the eye, and wants to dig deeper. Take two well-known facts about the rise and fall of Oscar Wilde. ‘If one looks into it, the success was not as great and the decay not as miserable as he and others have portrayed it.’ Girouard discovers that Wilde acquired his status and position in society by self-promotion and social climbing. Yes, he was a celebrated, admired author. Just not quite as much a one as he wanted people to believe.
Well, that is not an unfamiliar story among ambitious authors. His decline, though, has always seemed heart-rending. It is true that after he left prison and went to Paris he was, because of his own profligacy, sometimes broke and reduced to begging. But Girouard says,
No one, to my knowledge, has added up the total amount of his income in the three and a half years between his coming out of prison in 1897 and his death in Paris in 1900.
He does so himself and discovers that Wilde received roughly (translated into modern equivalent) £70K a year.