THE FACT THAT Ronald Firbank was an innovator in his medium, that he was a humorous commentator on social mores, has long been recognized. That his novels are wise as well as witty has not been generally acknowledged, a fact that may be due to the strong influence of Oscar Wilde upon his work. However, as literary and cultural criticism has come increasingly to appreciate Wilde as a major writer and as a prophet of our age, Firbank’s fortunes have risen accordingly.
Firbank, who wrote in the early 20th century and was, like Oscar Wilde, a gay man, fixed upon Wilde early on as his guiding inspiration and patron saint in both life and art. The gist of the Wildean wisdom that Firbank internalized and expressed through his fiction is presented, however obliquely, in his first published novel, Vainglory, in the character of Claud Harvester, a sophisticated dilettante (like Firbank himself). After an extended youth of restless wandering and existential “groping,” Harvester “began to suspect that what he had been seeking for all along was the theater. He had discovered truth in writing plays. In style—he was often called obscure, although, in reality, he was as charming as an apple-tree above a wall.” In short, Harvester had discovered style, that Wildean virtue summed up in the dictum, “Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style.” Wilde’s repeated argument in his essays is that Truth is fundamentally an æsthetic rather than an epistemological or ethical phenomenon. Taste is at the heart of human nature, he maintained, and indeed of Nature itself, which is, after all, “our creation.” This is not to say that Nature may be made into anything we will it to be; rather, it is to affirm that what we instinctively consider to be natural is according to our taste.