Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (October 16, 1854- November 30, 1900) was an Anglo-Irish playwright, novelist, poet, and short story writer.
One of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London, and one of the greatest celebrities of his day, known for his barbed and clever wit, he suffered a dramatic downfall and was imprisoned after being convicted in a famous trial of "gross indecency" for homosexual acts.
Wilde was born into a Protestant Anglo-Irish family, at 21 Westland Row, Dublin, to Sir William Wilde and his wife Jane. Jane was a successful writer and an Irish nationalist, known also as 'Speranza', while Sir William was Ireland's leading ear and eye surgeon, and wrote books on archaeology and folklore. He was a renowned philanthropist, and his dispensary for the care of the city's poor, situated in Lincoln Place at the rear of Trinity College, Dublin was the forerunner of the Dublin Eye and Ear Hospital, now located at Adelaide Road.
In June 1855, the family moved to 1 Merrion Square, a fashionable residential area. Here, Lady Wilde held a regular Saturday afternoon salon with guests including such figures as Sheridan le Fanu, Samuel Lever, George Petrie, Isaac Butt and Samuel Ferguson. Oscar was educated at home up to the age of nine. He attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Fermanagh from 1864 to 1871, spending the summer months with his family in rural Waterford, Wexford and at William Wilde's family home in Mayo. Here the Wilde brothers played with the young George Moore.
After leaving Portora, Oscar Wilde studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1871 to 1874. He was an outstanding student, and won the Berkeley Gold Medal, the highest award available to classics students at Trinity. He was granted a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he continued his studies from 1874 to 1878. While at Magdalen, Wilde won the 1878 Oxford Newdigate Prize for his poem Ravenna. He graduated with a double first, the highest grade available for undergraduate degrees in the British university system.
During this time, Wilde became familiar with philosophies and writings on same-sex love, and lived for several years with a male lover he had met in 1876, the society painter Frank Miles. However, in keeping with the social mores of his day, such activities were kept secret from the straight world.
After graduating from Magdalen, Wilde returned to Dublin, where he met and fell in love with Florence Balcome. She in turn became engaged to Bram Stoker. On hearing of her engagement, Wilde wrote to her stating his intention to leave Ireland permanently. He left in 1878 and was to return to his native country only twice, for brief visits. The next six years were spent in London, Paris and the United States, where he travelled to deliver lectures.
In London, he met Constance Lloyd, daughter of the wealthy Queen's Counsel, Horace Lloyd. She was visiting Dublin in 1884 when Oscar was in the city to give lectures at the Gaiety Theatre. He proposed to her and they married on May 29, 1884 in Paddington, London. Constance's allowance of £250 allowed the Wildes to live in relative luxury. The couple had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). After Oscar's downfall Constance took the surname Holland for herself and the boys. She died in 1898 following spinal surgery and was buried in Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa, Italy. Cyril was killed in France in World War I. Vyvyan survived the war and went on to become an author and translator. He published his memoir in 1954. His son, Merlin Holland, has edited and published several Works about his grandfather.
While at Magdalen College, Wilde became particularly well known for his role in the aesthetic and decadent movements. He began wearing his hair long and openly scorning so-called "manly" sports, and began decorating his rooms with peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers, blue china and other objets d'art.
His behaviour cost him a dunking in the River Cherwell in addition to having his rooms (which still survive as dedicated function rooms at his old college) trashed, but the cult spread among certain segments of society to such an extent that languishing attitudes, "too-too" costumes and aestheticism generally became a recognised pose.
Aestheticism in general was caricatured in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience (1881). Such was the success of "Patience" in New York that Richard D'Oyly Carte conceived the idea of sending Wilde to America on a lecture tour. This was duly arranged, Wilde arriving in January 1882. Although Wilde later claimed to have told the customs officer "I have nothing to declare except my genius", historians and biographers have concluded that this is an embellishment of Wilde's as there is no contemporary evidence that this occurred.
Wilde was deeply impressed by the English writers John Ruskin and Walter Pater, who argued for the central importance of art in life. He later commented ironically on this view when he wrote, in The Picture Of Dorian Gray, "All art is quite useless". This quote also reflects Wilde's support of the aesthetic movement's basic principle: Art for art's sake. This doctrine was coined by the philosopher Victor Cousin, promoted by Theophile Gautier and brought into prominence by James McNeill Whistler.
The aesthetic movement, represented by the school of William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had a permanent influence on English decorative art. As the leading aesthete, Wilde became one of the most prominent personalities of his day. Though he was ridiculed for them, his paradoxes and witty sayings were quoted on all sides.
In 1879 Wilde started to teach Aesthetic values in London. In 1882 he went on a lecture tour in the United States and Canada. He was torn apart by no small number of critics, The Wasp, a San Francisco newspaper, published a cartoon ridiculing Wilde and Aestheticism , but also was surprisingly well-received in such rough-and-tumble settings as the mining town of Leadville, Colorado. On his return to the United Kingdom, he worked as a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette in the years 1887-1889. Afterwards he became the editor of Woman's World.
Politically, Wilde endorsed an anarchistic brand of socialism, expounding his beliefs in the text "The Soul of Man Under Socialism".
He had already published in 1881 a selection of his Poems, which, however, attracted admiration in only a limited circle. His most famous fairy tale, The House of Pomegranates (1892), acknowledged by the author to be "intended neither for the British child nor the British public."
His fame as a dramatist began with the production of Lady Windermere's Fan in February 1892. This was written at the request of George Alexander, actor-manager of the St James's Theatre in London. Wilde described it as "one of those modern drawing-room Plays with pink lampshades". It was immediately successful, the author making the enormous sum of seven thousand pounds from the original run. (He apparently wore a green carnation for the first time on opening night).
Less successful was Salomé the same year, refused a licence for English performance by the Lord Chamberlain because it contained Biblical characters. Wilde was furious, even contemplating (he said) changing his nationality to become a French citizen. The play was published in English, with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, in 1894. A French edition had appeared the year before.
His next comedy was A Woman Of No Importance, produced on 19th April 1893 at the Haymarket Theatre in London by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. It repeated the success of Lady Windermere's Fan, consolidating Wilde's reputation as the best writer of "comedy-of-manners" since Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
A slightly more serious note was struck with An Ideal Husband, produced by Lewis Waller at the Haymarket Theatre on 3 January 1895. This contains a political melodrama—as opposed to the marital melodrama of the earlier comedies—running alongside the usual Wildean Epigrams, social commentary, comedy, and romance. George Bernard Shaw's review said that "...Mr Wilde is to me our only serious playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors, with audience, with the whole theatre..."
Barely a month later, his masterpiece The Importance Of Being Earnest appeared at the St James's Theatre. It caused a sensation. Years later, the actor Allen Aynesworth (playing 'Algy' opposite George Alexander's 'Jack') told Wilde's biographer Hesketh Pearson that "In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than the first night of 'The Importance of Being Earnest'."
Unlike the three previous comedies, Earnest is free of any melodrama, or even of any plot worth speaking about. It is in a class of its own in the whole of English drama as a piece of pure, delightful nonsense. (At least two versions of the play are in existence. Wilde originally wrote it in four acts, but George Alexander asked him to cut it down to three for the original production).
In between An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde wrote at least the scenario for a play concerning an adulterous affair. He never developed it, the Queensberry affair and his own trial intervening. Frank Harris eventually wrote a version called Mr and Mrs Daventry.
Wilde wrote another little-known play (in the form of a pantomime) for a friend of his, Chan Toon, which was called For Love of the King. The 1894 play also went under the name A Burmese Masque. It has never been widely circulated. One copy, held in the Leeds University Library's Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection is marked: "This is a spurious work attributed to Wilde without authority by a Mrs. Chan Toon, who was sent to prison for stealing money from her landlady. A.J.A. Symons."
Wilde's sexual orientation has variously been considered bisexual, gay, or pederastic depending on how the terms are defined. His inclination towards relations with younger men was relatively well-known, and biographers have often recorded Robert Ross (who would be his literary executor) as Wilde's first such lover. Ross, a boy of seventeen when Wilde met him, was already aware of Wilde's poems and indeed had been beaten for reading them. By Richard Ellman's account, Ross, "...so young and yet so knowing, was determined to seduce [Wilde]." Later, Ross boasted to Lord Alfred Douglas that he was "the first boy Oscar ever had" and there seems to have been much jealousy between them. However, Niel McKenna's more recent biography, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003), demonstrates convincingly that Wilde was aware of his homosexuality from the moment of his first kiss with another boy at age 16, and had in fact lived with male lover Frank Miles (two years his senior) for several years before his marriage in 1884.
By the late 1870s, Wilde was already preoccupied with the philosophy of same-sex love, and had befriended several homosexual writers and law reformers. Wilde was infuenced by the writings of gay-rights pioneer Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs and joined a secret organisation called the "Order of Chaeronea", referring in letters to the campaign for legalization of homosexuality as "the Cause". Wilde also met Walt Whitman in America in 1881, writing to a friend that there was "no doubt" about the great American poet's sexual orientation — "I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips," he boasted.
In his public writings, Wilde's first celebration of sex between men and boys can be found in The Portrait of Mr. W. H. (1889), in which he propounds a theory that Shakespeare's sonnets were written out of the poet's love of young male Elizabethan actor "Willie Hughes".
The Queensberry scandal
In 1891, Wilde became intimate with Lord Alfred Douglas, who went by the nickname "Bosie". Bosie's father, John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, became increasingly enraged at his son's involvement with Wilde. He confronted the two publicly several times, and although each time Wilde was able to mollify the elder Douglas, eventually the Marquess threw down the gauntlet. He planned to interrupt the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest with an insulting delivery of vegetables, but somebody tipped Wilde off and the Marquess was barred from entering the theatre.
On February 18, 1895, the Marquess left a calling card at one of Wilde's clubs, the Albemarle. On the back of the card he wrote "For Oscar Wilde posing as a Somdomite" (the final word being a misspelling of 'sodomite').
Although Wilde's friends advised him to ignore the insult, Lord Alfred later admitted that he egged Wilde on to charge Queensberry with criminal libel. Queensberry was arrested, and in April 1895, the Crown took over the prosecution of the libel case against the Marquess. The trial lasted three days. The prosecuting counsel, Edward Clarke, was unaware that Wilde had had liaisons and romantic relationships with other men. Clarke asked Wilde directly whether there was any substance to Queensberry's accusations and Wilde denied that there was. Edward Carson, the barrister who defended Queensberry, hired investigators who were able to locate a number of men with whom Wilde had been involved, either socially or sexually.
Wilde put on a tremendous display of drama in the first day of the trial, parrying Carson's cross-examination on the morals of his published works with witticisms and sarcasm, often breaking the courtroom up with laughter. For instance, asked whether he had ever adored any man younger than himself, Wilde replied, "I have never given adoration to anybody except myself." However, on the second day Carson's cross-examination was much more damaging; Wilde later admitted to perjuring himself by some of his answers. On the third day, Clarke recommended that Wilde withdraw the prosecution, and the case was dismissed.
The authorities were unwilling to let matters rest. Based on the evidence acquired by Queensberry and Carson, Wilde was arrested on April 6, 1895, in room no. 118 at the Cadogan Hotel, London, and charged with "committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons" under Section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, this being little more than a euphemism for any sex between males. Clarke offered to defend him for nothing at his upcoming trial.
Trial and imprisonment in Reading Gaol
At his own trial Wilde dropped any semblance of subterfuge and delivered an impassioned defense of male love in answer to the cross examination by Mr. C. F. Gill:
Gill: What is "the love that dares not speak its name?"
Wilde: "The love that dares not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as "The love that dares not speak its name," and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.
Wilde was convicted on May 25, 1895 of gross indecency and sentenced to serve two years hard labour. He was imprisoned first at Pentonville and then at Wandsworth prison in London, and finally transferred in November to the prison in the town of Reading, some 30 miles west of London. Wilde knew the town from happier times when boating on the Thames and also from visits to the Palmer family, including a tour of the famous Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory quite close to the prison.
Now known as prisoner C. 3.3, at first he was not even allowed paper and pen to write, but a later governor was more friendly. Thus during his time in prison, Wilde wrote a 50,000 word letter to Douglas, which he was not allowed to send while still a prisoner, but which he was allowed to take with him at the end of his sentence. On his release he gave the manuscript to Ross, who may or may not have carried out Wilde's instructions to send a copy to Douglas who, in turn, denied having received it. Ross published a much expurgated version of the letter (about 30% only) in 1905 (4 years after Wilde's death) with the title The Letters of Oscar Wilde.
The manuscripts of The Duchess Of Padua, written by Wilde about 1883 for Mary Anderson, but not acted by her, was published in a German translation (Die Herzogin von Padua, translated by Max Meyerfeld) in Berlin.
After his release
Prison was unkind to Wilde's health and when he was released on May 19, 1897 he spent his last three years penniless, in self-imposed exile from society and artistic circles. He went under the assumed name of 'Sebastian Melmoth', after the central character of the gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer. After his release, he wrote the famous poem The Ballad Of Reading Gaol.
On his deathbed he converted to the Roman Catholic church, which he had long admired. He spent his last days in the Hôtel d'Alsace in Paris (now known as L'Hôtel). Just a month before his death he is quoted as saying, "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go."
Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900. Different opinions are given on the cause of the meningitis; Richard Ellmann claimed it was syphilitic; Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson, thought this to be a misconception, noting that Wilde's meningitis followed a surgical intervention, perhaps a mastoidectomy; Wilde's physicians, Dr. Paul Cleiss and A'Court Tucker reported that the condition stemmed from an old suppuration of the right ear (une ancienne suppuration de l'oreille droite d'ailleurs en traitement depuis plusieurs années) and do not allude to syphilis. Most modern scholars and doctors agree that syphilis was unlikely to have been the cause of his death. Wilde was buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris but was later moved to Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His tomb in the Père Lachaise was designed by the sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, at the request of Robert Ross, who also asked for a small compartment to be made for his own ashes. Ross's ashes were later transferred to the tomb in 1950. The numerous spots on it are actually lipstick traces from admirers. Recently, a plaque asking visitors not to desecrate the tomb and a metal fence had to be put around the grave due to the admirers' enthusiasm.