Oscar Wilde

1854-1900

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, better known as Oscar Wilde, was born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. His mother was Jane Francesca Wilde, a poet who wrote under the pseudonym Speranza, and his father was (Sir) William Wilde, a Dublin surgeon. He had 2 siblings, Isola Wilde and Willie Wild (a successful poet and writer in his own right)

By all accounts, Oscar had a privileged childhood, both due to his father’s status as a surgeon as well as his mother’s successful poetry career. He learned to speak French and German as a child. He attended Trinity College in Dublin from 1781 to 1784 and Magdalen College at Oxford from 1874 to 1878. At Oxford, he wrote his first poem, Ravenna, for which he received the Newdigate Prize. It was also around this time that he became a part of the aesthetic movement, which championed “art for art’s sake.”

After he graduated from Oxford, Wilde moved to London to continue his literary career. He published Poems in 1881, which was his first book of poetry. 

 

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He left London in 1882 for New York City for a lecture tour of the United States, where he delivered 140 lectures in 9 months.

After he returned home to London, he embarked on yet another lecture tour of England and Ireland until 1884. It was during this time that he became known as a big proponent of the aesthetic movement, pursuing beauty for the sake of beauty.

He married Constance Lloyd on May 29, 1884, and they had two sons: Cyril Wilde (later known as Cyril Holland), born in 1885 and Vyvyan Wilde (later known as Vyvyan Holland), born in 1886.

He wrote The Happy Prince and Other Stories in 1888, a collection of fairy tales for children that were quite well received. He also wrote a second collection of children’s fairy tales, A House of Pomegranates, that was not as well received.

In 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote his most famous literary work, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel about a young man who makes a deal with the devil so that he remains young, while his portrait ages and reflects his every sin.

When it released, the general public was outraged at the novel, and the publishers even changed 500 of his original words.

He wrote his first successful play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, in 1891. It was also around this time that he met Lord Alfred Douglas. He and Douglas engaged in a homosexual love affair.

Their affair was discovered after Oscar Wilde sued Douglas’ father for defamation, after the latter insinuated that Wilde was a “sodomite.” This proved a disaster, as the lawsuit was thrown out and Oscar Wilde himself was arrested on charges of “gross indecency”.

He was put on trial in 1895 and quickly convicted. He was sent to prison for 2 years, most of which he spent in Reading Gaol. He was in prison from May 25, 1895 to May 18, 1897.

During this time, he wrote very little. The biggest piece of literature was his letter to Douglas (later published as De Profundis, some 50,000 words long) that he was not allowed to send, but was allowed to take with him when released.

As soon as he was released from prison, Oscar Wilde sailed to France. He spent the rest of his life impovrished, and never returned to England. 

He reunited with Douglas in August of 1897, and they even lived together briefly, until their families forced them to separate.

Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900 of meningitis, and was buried in a cemetery outside Paris.

 

The Picture of Dorian Grey

Oscar Wilde’s most popular work of prose, The Picture of Dorian Grey, tells the story of a young man, Dorian, who after arriving in London and becoming introduced to the pleasures of the city, has a painter create a portrait of him in all his youthful beauty.

Dorian declares that he would give anything, even his soul, to stay as he is in that painting forever. His wish soon comes true as he finds that every sin he commits is reflected in the painting, and that he himself never ages, while the painting grows older with time.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of Oscar Wilde’s most celebrated works, and has been referenced in countless other works by authors, filmmakers, musicians and artists of all types.

It is perhaps one of the best examples of a “Faustian Bargain” in Victorian literature, and possibly in all of modern literature.

Movie

Released in 1997, “Wilde” stars Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde, and centers on Wilde coming to terms with his homosexuality, as well as the reaction of Victorian society to his “gross indecency.”

The Story

In 1883, Irish-born Oscar Wilde returned to London bursting with exuberance from a year long lecture tour of the United States and Canada. Full of talent, passion and, most of all, full of himself, he courted and married the beautiful Constance Lloyd.

A few years later, Wilde’s wit, flamboyance and creative genius were widely renowned. His literary career had achieved notoriety with the publication of “The Picture Of Dorian Gray”. Oscar and Constance now had two sons whom they both loved very much. But one evening, Robert Ross, a young Canadian houseguest, seduced Oscar and forced him finally to confront the homosexual feelings that had gripped him since his schooldays.

Oscar’s work 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 1892, on the first night of his acclaimed play “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, Oscar was re-introduced to a handsome young Oxford undergraduate, Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed “Bosie”. Oscar was mesmerised by the cocky, dashing and intelligent young man and began the passionate and stormy relationship which consumed and ultimately destroyed him.

[ Jude Law as Bosie ] While Oscar had eyes only 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. Bosie’s father, the violent, eccentric, cantankerous Marquess of Queensberry, became aware that Bosie, whose “unmanly” and careless behaviour he despised, was cavorting around London with its greatest playwright, Oscar Wilde.

In 1895, days after the triumphant first night of “The Importance Of Being Earnest”, Queensberry stormed into Wilde’s club, The Albemarle, and finding him absent left a card with the porter, addressed “To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite” (…misspelling the insult). Bosie, who hated his father, persuaded Oscar to sue the Marquess for libel. As homosexuality was itself illegal, Queensberry was able to destroy Oscar’s case at the trial by calling as witnesses rent boys who would describe Wilde’s sexual encounters in open court.

Oscar lost the libel case against Queensberry and was arrested by the crown. With essentially no credible defence against charges of homosexual conduct, he was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labour, the latter part in Reading Gaol. Unreformed Dickensian prison conditions caused a calamitous series of illnesses and brought him to death’s door.

Constance fled the country with their children and changed the family name, always hoping that Oscar 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 with Constance’s wishes, sending Bosie a deeply moving epic letter, “De Profundis”, explaining why he could never see him again.

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, with disastrous consequences.

“In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
 – Oscar Wilde