Part II: For Love of the King: the Wild Story of a Forged Wilde Story

Marco Tomaschett, Swann autographs specialist, explores the events and personalities surrounding For Love of the King, and the evidence that suggests that the story was not written by Oscar Wilde, but by a woman, known by many names, but usually referred to as Mrs. Chan-Toon. Read Part I here.


Examining the Inconsistencies

The Timeline

An investigation into the authorship of For Love of the King should consider a number of observations suggesting that the story was penned by someone other than Oscar Wilde. First, consider the inconsistencies between the facts on the one hand, and the picture formed by Mrs. Chan-Toon’s explanations and supporting documents on the other. The most important example of this concerns the claims published in the Hutchinson’s introduction to the story, which were either found in the letter Chan-Toon claimed was from Wilde, or presumably expressed by her to an editor of that magazine.

The introduction states that Wilde had written the story around 1893 for Chan-Toon “just for your own amusement”; but this was an unlikely time for Wilde to have taken up a whimsical project for a friend, since Wilde’s commitments to complete serious works were then pressing for his time. Also in the introduction is the statement that Chan-Toon was raised with Oscar and his brother, which was impossible, since Oscar was already an adult at the time Chan-Toon was born (according to her birth certificate, which, of course, was not requested by the editor at Hutchinson’s). The letter allegedly from Wilde says of the story (which is in the form of a play), “I should like to see it acted in your Garden House,” but the story contains a setting introduction that includes fragrance (“The indescribable scent of Burmah”), which is out of place in a play; moreover, the lavish production budget that would be required would not have been suitable for performance in a garden house (according to a letter from Martin Holman to Wilde’s son Wyvyan Holland, dated July 11, 1921).

The Writing Style

Although For Love of the King is a fairy tale, superficially resembling those for which Wilde has become well-known, the story that Mrs. Chan-Toon peddled exhibits some traits that are inconsistent with Wilde’s style. The ingenuity of wit found in Wilde’s comedic plays of the 1890s is absent in For Love of the King, according to a critic writing in the October 26, 1922, issue of the Times Literary Supplement (“A Burmese Masque”). Moreover, as Gregory Mackie writes in his 2019 book on Wilde forgeries, the style of Chan-Toon’s story is too anthropological in tone: “For Love of the King’s meticulous facility with Burmese names and vocabulary . . . simply does not pass muster” (Beautiful Untrue Things). For Love of the King seems in many places to be a parody of Wilde’s style rather than an authentic example, suggests John Gilmore, writing in the August 8, 1925, issue of The Outlook (“A Literary Hoax?”).

Looking at the Handwriting

Comparing Wilde & Chan-Toon

In the same year that the Outlook article appeared, before Mrs. Chan-Toon was aware that Christopher Millard believed that For Love of the King was a forgery, Chan-Toon contacted Millard intending to gain his confidence, as he was a widely-recognized authority on Oscar Wilde. On that occasion, Chan-Toon attempted to sell Millard a group of letters she claimed were sent to her by Wilde; Millard rejected them, of course. If it were possible today to examine the handwriting in the letters offered to Millard, or the handwriting of the corrections in the typescript of For Love of the King, which Hutchinson’s published, we might be able to build further evidence against the claim that Wilde is the story’s author, and possibly also collect evidence in favor of the claim that Chan-Toon is its author.

Figure 1: Oscar Wilde, autograph letter signed to Wilson Barrett, circa 1882; Swann Galleries, sale 2446, lot 426.
Figure 2: Mary Mabel Chan-Toon Wodehouse Pearse, née Cosgrove, autograph letter signed to Seumas O’Sullivan, 10 January 1924. (1)

Alas, neither the letters nor the typescript is available at the time of writing. It is interesting to note, however, that there are some surprising similarities in the authentic handwriting of Chan-Toon and Wilde, such as a long cross stroke of the word-initial “t,” and the sporadic mix of detached and connected letters which, when detached, are sometimes widely spaced (see figures 1 and 2). Although this coincidence is hardly evidence of anything, it is interesting to suppose that Chan-Toon’s striving to emulate Wilde’s handwriting (as well as his literary style) influenced the way she wrote even when not intending to emulate Wilde at all.

Even if the foregoing considerations do not persuade those who might take up the question of the authorship of For Love of the King, facts about Mrs. Chan-Toon herself make the conclusion inescapable that, not only is the story a forgery, but that she is its author. We must recognize that Chan-Toon had a clear motive to take extreme steps to obtain money after the unexpected death of her husband in 1904, which was demonstrated by her bankruptcy in 1910 and her conviction of theft in 1936. Given her financial straits, it would not be surprising to learn that Chan-Toon felt pressure to sell the story, regardless of whether she had written it, and that she might have been driven to do so even knowing it is a forgery. That Chan-Toon was moreover driven to author the story is evident given the damning fact, which she failed to mention to the Hutchinson’s editor (and none at the time recognized), that she herself had written a short story (using a pseudonym) with the identical title and strikingly similar plot to For Love of the King, published in the April 1900 issue of The Idler magazine.

  1. The Fales Manuscript Collection; MSS 001; Box 27; Folder 10e; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries

Part I

More from Marco Tomaschett

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