Out of the Bag: The Fiction of Laetitia Prism

She could have run Hollywood. Miss Prism, I mean. You know, the governess in The Importance of Being Earnest who couldn’t tell a book from a baby. Summing up the ends (the conclusion as well as the purpose) of her novel, she explains: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”  We know where her story ended up, of course; but what end did Miss Prism face, and what ends might she have served after and beyond Wilde? Where do fictional characters go once their creators are done with them? What do they think, dream, or do between chapters or acts? Where have they been before entering the story their creators had in mind for them? Those are the question tackled by Celluloid Extras, a series of sketches now playing on BBC Radio 4.

What every governess knows: It is impolitic to point.

The practice of picking up familiar characters from the world of literature, disentangling them from the plots that contained them, and getting them back onto a public stage to let them tell us something else about themselves is hardly a novel idea. In January 1937, for instance, the familiar characters of Alice in Wonderland were released from the confines of “Copyright Lane” to mingle with Hamlet and assorted originals from Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and Martin Chuzzlewit in the free-for all of radio’s “Public Domain,” a play produced by the aforementioned Columbia Workshop. It is a tongue-in-cheek approach to pastiche that is both liberating and controlling of the afterlife and private lives of imaginary personages, who, even without those efforts, often do quite well in the minds of those who recall them from their excursions into drama and literature.

Natalia Power’s “Miss Prism, or the Dreadful Secret,” the first of those five Celluloid Extras promises the untold story of the absent-minded governess, whom last we saw being embraced by Dr. Chasuble, much to her delight. Now, I might have picked up some queer vibes, given that the Miss Prism I last experienced on stage was impersonated by a male actor; but Power seems to have gotten a similar impression, however her conclusions were drawn. And yet, Miss Prism seems to have been coerced into speaking up, if indeed the words coming out of her mouth were not put there by another. If it was her mouth.

In “The Decay of Lying,” one of the fictional characters through which Wilde spoke in his dialogued essays, remarked that the “only real people are the people who never existed.” In a postmodern dismissal of boundaries and binaries that would not have done for Wilde, whose stage plays and word plays depend on them, Power suggests that Miss Prism did exist as something other than the prism or lens of our changing mores, that she was, in fact, an acquaintance of the playwright to whom we are indebted for immortalizing her. By telling the fictive truth about imaginary people, “Miss Prism, or the Dreadful Secret” seems to be degrading the art of lying to a practice as indelicate and vile as tabloid journalism.

Giving Miss Prism a dirty secret (aside from the ones already out of the bag when the curtain falls on Wilde’s comedy) and by extracting it in a moment of alcohol-induced carelessness means to imitate life and, according to Wilde’s logic, to take it. Now that is character assassination.

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