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On 16th October 1854 in Dublin was born one of the most remarkable and
controversial figures in the history of English literature or, indeed,
of the literature of the world: Oscar Wilde.
He had the misfortune or perhaps the fortune to have been born and to
have lived in the stiff-necked, prejudiced, and etiquette-ridden years
of the Victorian Age.
A great deal of Wilde′s character was directly attributable to his
origin, and his career cannot be properly appraised without a brief
outline of his ancestry.
Sir William Wilde, Oscars father, became one of the most aural surgeons
and oculists of his day. He has been called ′the father of modern
otology′. William Wilde was also an eminent archaeologist and wrote
about a dozen books on Irish folklore, legend and tradition.
Jane Francesca Wilde wrote inflammatory political articles and poems
under the pseudonym of Speranza. After her marriage her political
enthusiasms and activities waned, and she settled down to domestic life.
The Wildes had three children, two boys and a girl. The eldest, William
Wills Wilde was born in 1853. One year later Oscar was born. His birth
was somewhat of a disappointment to Jane, who had been quite certain the
child was going to be the girl she longed for. It is worthy of note that
in those days when boys were dressed in skirts long after they could
walk, she kept the child in such clothes until the beginning of her
third pregnancy in 1857. She got a girl, who was christened Isola
Francesca and from the day of her birth she was idolised by the whole
family. She died after a short illness at the age of ten. Many years
later Oscar wrote the poem Requiescat in her memory.
When Oscar Wilde was ten years old and his brother twelve, they were
both sent to Portora Royal School at Enniskillen. In spite of the
difference in their ages the boys seem to have been in the same class.
Whereas William was popular at school, Oscar was quite the reverse. He
had little in common with his school-fellows as he disliked games and
fighting and took more interest in flowers and sunsets. He discovered
the dangerous and delightful distinction of being different from others.
His main interests in scholarship were poetry and the classics,
particularly Greek, for which he had an inordinate passion.
In October 1871, when he was just seventeen, he won an entrance
scholarship to Trinity College in Dublin, which is the Protestant
University of Ireland. There he remained for three years, and it was
there that he fell under the spell of Professor Mahaffy, who was
fascinated by Greek culture, and exercised a very considerable influence
on Oscar′s later life. Oscar Wilde undoubtedly learned a great deal of
the art of conversation from Mahaffy.
He concluded his brilliant career at Trinity by winning a scholarship
for Magdalen College in Oxford, and in October 1874 he went up to the
University, where John Ruskin, Walter Pater and Cardinal Newman were to
exert much influence on this twenty-year-old undergraduate.
In the summer of 1875 Oscar Wilde made an extensive tour of northern
Italy. It is to this visit that is owed the earliest known of Wildes
poems. This Italian tour made a great impression on him and also
increased his interest in the Roman Catholic Church, by putting into
such close touch with so many buildings and works of art that had been
inspired by it.
But a more important expedition took place in 1877 when Wilde and two
other young men accompanied Mahaffy on a tour of Greece. He was
enchanted by everything he saw there. He became more than ever absorbed
in the Greek ideals of beauty. So absorbed that they overstayed their
leave for a month.
In 1876 Wilde began seriously to write poetry and in this and the
following two years he had a number of poems published, mostly in Oxford
and in Irish magazines. This culminated in his competing, in his last
year at Oxford, for the Newdigate Prize Poem, the chief prize for poetry
at the university.
Wilde moved from London in 1879 and set about establishing himself as
the leader and model of the aesthetic movement. His brother had found a
niche in journalism and he helped him in his early struggles,
introducing him to editors, who published his poems.
Then he met Lily Langtry, the most celebrated beauty of her day, and of
course he fell violently in love with her as indeed did every man, from
whom she ever took the slightest notice. It was now that Oscar Wilde
began to have attention called to himself by his unconventional
clothing. He wore velvet coats with contrasting braid, knee britches,
loose-fitting wide-collared shirts with flowing ties and
lavender-coloured gloves. He frequently carried a jewel-topped cane and
was caricatured in the press flamboyantly attired and bearing an
oversized sunflower - an icon for the movement.
Early in 1880 he wrote his first play ′Vera′, centred round Nihilism in
Russia, but it was not staged in London.
In 1882, short of money, Wilde accepted an invitation to embark on a
lecture tour of America. He landed at New York on 2nd January and spent
twelve months travelling the length and the breadth of the country
addressing meetings of society ladies, students and even miners. His
audiences were delighted by his charm, his wit, his voice and his
elegance, but the critics were hostile. It says a very great deal for
the strength of Oscars belief in his mission that he never allowed this
kind of attack to perturb him and that he always kept his good humour.
Wildes return from America brought him back to earth. In spite of the
attitude of rather amused tolerance which he affected towards the New
World, he certainly missed all the feting and flattery that had been
upon him in the course of his lecture tour. He was back in the cold,
hard, matter-of-fact atmosphere of England.
In 1883 February and March found Oscar Wilde in Paris, completing ′The
Duchess of Padua′. This play had been written at the request of the
actress Mary Anderson, but she did not like the finished work - a severe
blow for the author who was in some financial need. In August he was
present at the first performance of ′Vera′ at the Union Square Theatre
in New York. The play was a failure and was withdrawn within a week.
In November 1883 his engagement had been announced to Constance Lloyd,
the daughter of a well-known barrister, who had died at a comparatively
early age. Full of talent, passion and most of all, full of himself he
married her on 29th May 1884. The honeymoon was spent in Paris. But this
Garden of Eden could not last forever, and the stern realities of life
had to be faced.
Oscar began to look round to decide, what to do next. He was now 30
years of age, married, his name known to everyone, with extravagant
tastes, no money, no fixed occupation. Constances dowry was not
sufficient to provide even the bare necessities of existence. In 1885
Wilde had not only himself and his wife to support, but also his first
son Cyril. It was thus imperative that he should find employment. He
became book reviewer on the ′Pall Mall Gazette′ and frequently
contributed to other magazines and reviews.
One year later Oscars second son Vyvyan was born. Also from 1886 dates
his friendship with Robert Ross, a young Canadian houseguest. It was a
friendship, that was to survive disgrace and imprisonment, and remain
lifelong. He seduced Oscar and forced him finally to confront the
homosexual feelings that had gripped him since his schooldays. Oscars
works thrived on the realisation that he was gay, but his private life
flew increasingly in the face of the decidedly anti-homosexual
conventions of late Victorian society.
As his literary career flourished, the risk of a huge scandal grew ever
larger. In 1887 Wilde was the editor of ′The Woman′s World′. He also
wrote and published some short stories. At the same time he was writing
the fairy stories that were published in 1888 under the title ′The happy
prince and other tales′. They are almost more in the nature of poems in
prose than stories. In 1891 four books of very differing character were
published: ′A House of Pomegranates′, ′Lord Arthur Saviles crime′,
′Intentions′ and his best known work, the novel ′The Picture of Dorian
The book represents a scathing assault on the bankrupt values of the
English society. However, English society was not ready for either Wilde
or his book, which scandalised the English reading public. Nevertheless
this important work won high praise from more sophisticated readers.
In 1892, on the first night of his acclaimed play ′Lady Windermeres
Fan′, Oscar was re-introduced to a handsome young Oxford undergraduate,
the son of the Marquess of Queensberry, Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed
Bosie. They were immediately attracted to each other. Bosie was taken
with the brilliance of Wildes conversation and wit, and Oscar was
mesmerised by the cocky, dashing and intelligent young man. He began the
passionate and stormy relationship which consumed and ultimately
While he had only eyes for Bosie, he embraced the promiscuous world that
excited his lover, enjoying the company of rent boys. In following the
capricious and amoral Bosie, Oscar neglected his wife and children and
suffered great guilt.
And then the dragon awoke. Alfreds father, the violent, eccentric,
cantankerous Marquess of Queensberry, became aware that his son, whose
unmanly and careless behaviour he despised, was cavorting around London
with its greatest playwright Oscar Wilde.
Oscars aestheticism and preciosity had dready given rise to certain
rumours and Queensberry added fuel to the fire. Matters came to a head
with the Marquess forcing his way into Wildes house and repeating his
accusations of unnatural practices. Oscar refused to be intimidated by
Queensberry and continued his friendship with Alfred Douglas.
In 1895, some days after the triumphant first night of ′The Importance
of Being Earnest′ the Marquess insulted Oscar. Because of that Bosie,
who hated his father, persuaded Oscar to sue the Marquess for libel. On
3rd April the case of Queensberry was opened and lasted three days at
the end of which Sir Edward Clarke, Wildes counsel in all three trials,
seeing the hopelessness of the position, withdrew from the case and a
formal verdict of ′Not Guilty′ was returned in Queensberrys favour.
Oscar was urged by all his friends to go abroad and let the turmoil
subside. But he was dazed by the disaster that had befallen him and
refused to go. Three weeks elapsed between his arrest and his trial at
the Old Bailey, where he stood in the same dock into which he had placed
Lord Queensberry short time before. During those three weeks he was
declared a bankrupt and the contents of his house were sold by public
auction. Mr. Justice Charles presided at this first trial of Wilde on
which a verdict of ′Not Guilty′ was passed on certain counts.
He was recharged and on 20th May the second trial opened before Mr.
Justice Wills. As homosexuality was itself illegal, Queensberry was able
to destroy Oscars case at the trial by calling as witnesses rent boys
who would describe Wildes sexual encounters in open court. The judge was
obviously against Oscar from the very start and he summed up dead
against him. It resulted in a verdict of ′Guilty′ and Wilde was
sentenced to two years hard labour, the latter part in Reading Gaol.
Unreformed conditions caused a calamitous series of illnesses and
brought him to deaths door.
His wife fled the country with their children and changed the family
name, always hoping that her husband would return to his family and give
up Bosie, now also living in exile. When Oscar was released from prison
in 1897, he tried to comply to Constances wishes, sending Bosie a deeply
moving epic letter ′De Profundis′, explaining why he could never see him
However, the intervals between visits of his friends became longer and
longer and Wilde began to feel desperately lonely. Then Alfred Douglas,
who had been responsible for his downfall and whom he had declared his
attention of never seeing again, came to visit him. Love, passion,
obsession and loneliness combined however to defeat prudence and
discretion. Despite the certain knowledge that their relationship was
doomed, Oscar was unable to resist temptation and he and Bosie were
reunited. They went off to Italy together, where Wilde finished ′The
Ballad of Reading Gaol′.
In 1899 his wife died and he himself did not long survive her. In May
1899 he returned finally to Paris. By this time he realised that the
future held nothing for him and he made no effort to do any more
In the middle of the following year he began to suffer from intermittent
headaches, and on 30th of November 1900 he died in the Hôtel d′Alsace in
Paris. He was buried three days later in the presence of Robert Ross,
Reginald Turner and Alfred Douglas.