As anyone who has visited Ireland will know, we’re intensely proud of our rich literary heritage. James, Joyce, W.B Yeats and a vast collection of other writers, poets, playwrights and authors set an extremely high standard for the modern era. One of them however was a little more off-centre than the rest. When others were using their work to encourage political debates or to experiment with revolutionary new literary genres, a gregarious man by the name of Oscar Wilde was making waves for his thorny, hilarious and always pin-point accurate social commentary in his novels, short stories and plays. As well as that, he had arguably one of the most turbulent private lives of the lot. Here’s a brief glimpse into the life and work of Oscar Wilde.
Wilde’s Early Life
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, to give him his full name, was born on 16th October 1854 at 21 Westland Row, Dublin. His father was William Wilde, an ear and eye surgeon and renowned philanthropist, and his mother was Jane Wilde, a poet and writer well known for her love of neo-classicism and her Irish nationalist political leanings. Both were considered to be elite intellectuals of Dublin society. Oscar had one older brother named Willie and a sister Isola who later died, and their father also had three children born out of wedlock before his marriage. Although he provided for them, they lived elsewhere and were never considered part of the family. When Oscar was a year old they moved to a beautiful Georgian house on 1 Merrion Square, and a visit to their salon became one of the most sought-after invitations around.
Oscar was home-schooled until the age of nine by French and German governesses, who both taught him their languages. He was fluent in both long before adulthood. After that, he attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, leaving with a royal scholarship to read classics at Trinity College Dublin. He did just that between 1871 and 1874, where he developed an interest in Greek literature. He was the best student in his faculty by a mile and quickly established himself as one of the best in the entire university too, winning awards and scholarships left right and centre. One of these was for the Magdalen College in Oxford, which he attended from 1874 to 1878. Again he excelled, becoming a notable figure in the college’s circles. It was here that the ‘persona’ of Oscar Wilde as the world now knows him first emerged. He became devoted to aestheticism, filling his living quarters with fresh flowers, china and other beautiful things, entertained friends there weekly, grew his hair long and began to dress in the flamboyant style typical of the day. He was regularly scorned and on one occasion was beaten up by his fellow students, but fended them off singlehandedly and was left undeterred!
Wilde as a Writer
After graduating from Oxford, Oscar returned to Dublin. He found that his childhood sweetheart Florence Balcombe, who was one of the primary reasons for his return, was engaged to marry fellow writer Bram Stoker. Disappointed, he returned to England for good, and only came back to Ireland for two brief visits thereafter. With his large inheritance he was able to set himself up as a bachelor in Chelsea, and began writing and delivering lectures in London, Paris and the United States. He published his first poetry collection in 1881 at the age of 27, which was well received by most. In typical Wilde fashion, it was bound in a rich enamel parchment cover (embossed with gilt blossom) and printed on hand-made Dutch paper. His lectures were on topics related to aestheticism and the need to transfer the beauty of art into daily life. Although also well received by many, he was again scorned by the press and accused of striving for notoriety and improperly influencing the behaviour of the upper classes. Around the same time he began to write essays, plays and stories. His first play, ‘Vera’, debuted in New York in 1883.
Wilde found journalism, editing and journal submissions to be much more suited to his personal writing style than academic essays, and enjoyed plenty of success as the Victorian equivalent of a newspaper columnist. He contributed to several journals between 1885 and 1887, and then became editor of The Lady’s World magazine. He successfully raised the quality and reputation of the magazine and regularly let his wife, mother and literary acquaintances contribute, as well as adding his own work. However after two years he tired of the tedium of the job and left to fully concentrate on his own works of fiction and prose. In 1888 he published a collection of children’s fairy stories, ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’, and two more collections of short stories over the following three years – ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories’, and ‘A House of Pomegranates’. He also continued to write longer essays on his favoured topics of aestheticism, classics, and political and social commentary.
In 1890 his best known work, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, was first published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, and a year later a revised version was published in book form. Again, it gained much criticism from the media of the day, who thought it ‘poisonous’ because of its heavy emphasis on decadence, hedonism and homo-eroticism. Unperturbed as ever, Oscar turned his hand to playwriting. Between 1891 and 1895 his plays ‘Salome’, ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, ‘A Woman of No Importance’ and ‘An Ideal Husband’ all brought the writer to new heights of fame, fortune and social influence, culminating with what many consider to be his greatest work of all, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. He was now getting rave reviews for just about anything he did or said, and was the darling of elite social circles in London, Paris, and further afield. However, it all came at a price.
Wilde’s Personal Life and Downfall
In 1881 Oscar had been introduced to Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a wealthy Queen’s Counsel. They remained as acquaintances until they both met by chance in Dublin in 1884. Wilde proposed, and they returned to London to marry and renovate a home to reflect both of their luxurious standards. They had two sons in quick succession; Cyril in 1885 and Vyvyan in 1886. After the second childbirth, Wilde was allegedly ‘physically repelled’ by his wife and the marriage began to unravel. He had long alluded to the concept of homosexuality through his work however, even though at the time it was still outlawed in most places and was considered one of the worst social taboos. It is a well known fact now that Oscar was in fact gay, and it is thought that his friend Robbie Ross, who was prominent in his life around this time, was his first gay relationship.
In 1891 Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas (known to his friends as ‘Bosie’), then a student at Oxford. Bosie was to become the love of Oscar’s life. They spent disproportionate amounts of time together, and their relationship was turbulent and passionate to say the least. While Oscar made at least some effort to keep things discreet (as much as his extroverted nature would allow), Bosie was much more reckless. Such was his indiscretion that his father, the rich, powerful and esteemed Marquess of Queensberry, soon caught wind of the situation. Queensberry and his son had a fractured relationship and regularly fought, so when he became aware of the gossip that was circulating, he had no hesitation in calling on Oscar unannounced and demanding that he stay away from his son. He threatened to ruin Oscar’s life if he didn’t obey by exposing his private life.
Allegedly, Oscar ‘acted in a cowardly manner’ at the attack, but nonetheless Queensberry went through with his threats. He left a calling card at Wilde’s club that called him a ‘posing sodomite’, and Wilde had him arrested for criminal libel. Queensberry could avoid conviction however if we proved that his accusation was true, so he and his lawyers set out to do just that. They hired private detectives to probe his life behind closed doors and portrayed him as a depraved old man who was corrupting young men around him and seducing them against their will. Despite warning from friends not to pursue the case, Wilde was adamant. The trial went ahead and every detail of his private life was put on display. Naturally, it became the talk of the town – not least because of Oscar’s quips and witty remarks during questioning. The turning point in the trial began with one such remark, when he denied having kissed a young servant boy because he was ‘unfortunately ugly’. The courtroom then heard that there were several male prostitutes willing to testify against Wilde, and on the advice of his lawyers he dropped the prosecution. Queensbury was found not guilty and Oscar was ordered to pay his accuser’s expenses for the trial, which left him bankrupt.
Following that, a trial for the crimes he was accused of by Queensbury took place, which resulted in a two-year jail sentence. Being accustomed to the finer things in life, prison was especially hard on him. His health sharply declined and any time he was seen by the outside world, he was spat at and heckled. He spent his time reading classic texts and writing a 50,000 word letter to Bosie, which was later published publicly after his release. On leaving prison in 1897, he fled to France and briefly reunited with Bosie until their families threatened to cut off both of their funds if they continued to be together. Oscar wandered around Paris alone and depressed from then on, refusing to write and spending the little money he had left on alcohol. In November 1900 he contracted meningitis and never recovered, dying in his hotel room with his few remaining friends at his bedside on November 30th. Bosie was not among them.
Wilde’s Best Work
The Picture of Dorian Gray: Wilde’s only fiction novel, the Picture of Dorian Gray is the epitome of all the concepts and beauty he surrounded himself with in life. The flawless Dorian has his portrait painted, and makes a deal with the devil that instead of the painting staying beautiful and the real Dorian ageing, the opposite will happen.
The Importance of Being Earnest: The writer’s most loved work, The Importance of Being Earnest is still hilarious today. It tells a tale of switched identities as the play’s two protagonists partake in the pastime of ‘bunburying’ – maintaining one persona in the city and one in the country.
Lady Windemere’s Fan: Lady Windermere suspects that her husband is having an affair, and decides to leave him for another man to spite him. Her husband’s mistress then intervenes to save the marriage, with surprising results.