ANYONE INTERESTED in Wilde should, of course, read his plays, essays and stories. Probably the best starting point is The Portable Oscar Wilde, first edited by Richard Aldington and recently revised by Stanley Weintraub (Penguin paperback, $6.95). Included are poems, the major essay "The Critic as Artist," "The Selfish Giant," The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, and other material, including a selection of letters. Many of these works are also available in individual paperbacks. Several editions are available of Wilde's fairy tales; no one should miss the heartbreaking story "The Happy Prince."
The best of Wilde's nonfictional prose can be found in The Artist as Critic, edited by Richard Ellmann (University of Chicago paperback, $12.50); this reprints, with much else, the four dialogues and essays that make up Intentions. Those especially wild about Oscar should also consult the hefty Letters of Oscar Wilde, meticulously edited by Rupert Hart-Davis; this is currently out of print but copies do turn up in second-hand book shops. The cream appears in Hart-Davis' Selected Letters (Oxford, paperback $9.95); recently discovered material can be found in Hart Davis' More Letters of Oscar Wilde (Vanguard, $13.95). All this correspondence, by the way, portrays a much less sympathetic figure than Ellmann's biography -- especially in the last Wanderjahre in Europe when all the man seems to do is whine about money and Bosie.
Of books about Wilde there are dozens. Frank Harris' Oscar Wilde (recently reissued by Horizon, paperback, $12.95) is by an old friend, and is lively, but absolutely unreliable since Harris is one of history's most colorful liars. Hesketh Pearson's The Life of Oscar Wilde (available second-hand and in expensive library editions) was, until Ellmann's, probably the best biography, focusing largely on the conversation and wit; this is a good source for those fascinated by the epigrammatic Wilde, an angle that Ellmann downplays. The best collateral book of all is H. Montgomery Hyde's The Trials of Oscar Wilde (Dover, $6.50), which offers a detailed account of the judicial proceedings and a lot of juicy testimony about sexual goings-on.
Several 1987 books also focus on fin-de-sie`cle England. Oscar Wilde's London, by Wolf von Eckardt, Sander L. Gilman, and J. Edward Chamberlin (Anchor/Doubleday, $24.95) provides a crisply written tour of the social, cultural and artistic backdrop of the 1890s; its great strength, though, lies in the many marvelous photographs. It's easy to see why men fell so hard for Ellen Terry. The Definitive Four Act Version of 'The Importance of Being Earnest' (Vanguard, $18.95) reprints the original form of the play, along with commentary by its editor Ruth Berggren. A curiosity largely, it does offer some repartee cut from the standard three-acter: "Gwendolen has one of those soft yielding natures that always have their own way." This past year N. John Hall edited Max Beerbohm's sequence of caricatures Rossetti and His Circle (Yale, $19.95); in many senses, Wilde continued the bohemian, decadent tradition exemplified by Swinburne, Rossetti, and Pater. Indeed the last drawing in the book depicts Oscar in knee breeches lecturing about estheticism to some dour and skeptical Yankees.