|Born:||October 16, 1854
|Died:||November 30, 1900
|Occupation(s):||Playwright, novelist, poet|
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (October 16, 1854 – November 30, 1900) was an Irish playwright, novelist, poet, short story writer and Freemason. Known for his barbed and clever wit, he was one of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London, and one of the greatest celebrities of his day. Known for his outrageous behavior as well as his literary output, Wilde was an iconoclastic personality. His plays include An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. He was also the author of the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
As the result of a famous trial, he suffered a dramatic downfall and was imprisoned after being convicted of "gross indecency"—the term for homosexual acts in contemporary British legislation.
Wilde was born into an Anglo-Irish family, at 21 Westland Row, Dublin, to Sir William Wilde and his wife, Lady Jane Francesca Elgee. 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, 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, in a fashionable residential area. Here, Lady Wilde held a regular Saturday afternoon salon with guests including 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 Sir William's family home in Mayo. Here the Wilde brothers played with the young George Moore.
After leaving Portora, 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 and where he became a part of the Aesthetic movement, which advocated making an art of life. While at Magdalen, he won the 1878 Newdigate Prize for his poem Ravenna, which he read out at Encaenia; he failed, though, to win the Chancellor's English Essay Prize for an essay that would be published posthumously as The Rise of Historical Criticism (1909). In November 1878, he graduated with a First Class Honors in classical moderations and literae humaniores, or "greats."
After graduating from Magdalen, Wilde returned to Dublin, where he met and fell in love with Florence Balcombe. 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 traveled to deliver lectures. Wilde's address in the 1881 British Census is given as 1 Tite Street, London. The head of the household is listed as Frank Miles.
In London, he met Constance Lloyd, daughter of 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 Holland (1885) and Vyvyan Holland (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 memoirs in 1954. Vyvyan's 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.
Legends persist that his behavior cost him a dunking in the River Cherwell in addition to having his rooms (which still survive as student accommodation 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 recognized 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 invited Wilde to America for a lecture tour. This was duly arranged, Wilde arriving on 3 January 1882, aboard the SS Arizona. Wilde is reputed to have told a customs officer, "I have nothing to declare except my genius," although there is no contemporary evidence for the remark. D'Oyly Carte used Wilde's lecture tour "to prime the pump" for an American tour of Patience, making sure that the ticket-buying public was aware of his personality.
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." Wilde was associated with the phrase Art for art's sake, though it appears nowhere in his writings: it 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 in Britain, Wilde became one of the most prominent personalities of his day. Though he was sometimes 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 attacked 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."
In 1881 he published a selection of his poems, but these attracted admiration in only a limited circle. His most famous fairy tale, The Happy Prince and Other Tales, appeared in 1888, illustrated by Walter Crane and Jacob Hood. This volume was followed by a second collection of fairy tales, A House of Pomegranates (1892), which the author said was "intended neither for the British child nor the British public."
His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in 1891. Critics have often claimed that there existed parallels between Wilde's life and that of the book's protagonist, and it was used as evidence against him at his trial. Wilde contributed some feature articles to the art reviews, and in 1891 republished four of them as a book called Intentions, upon which his reputation as a critic rests.
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 7,000 pounds from the original run. He wore a green carnation on opening night. In 1894, the Robert Hichens' novel The Green Carnation, said to be based on the relationship of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, was published. It would be one of the texts used against Wilde during his trials the following year.
Less successful in 1892 was the play Salomé, which was refused a license for English performance by the Lord Chamberlain because it contained Biblical characters. Wilde was furious, even contemplating 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 play, a social satire and melodrama, was A Woman of No Importance, produced on 19 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 again 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; it brought irony, satire and verbal wit to English drama. Yet it follows an unusually clever plotline, where alter egos abound among false identities, mistaken identities, and imaginative romantic liaisons. This "comedy of manners" is a perfect example of Wilde's theory on Art: "Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art." At least two versions of the play are in existence. Wilde originally wrote it in four acts, but George Alexander proposed 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 due to the Queensberry affair and his trial. Frank Harris eventually wrote a version called Mr and Mrs Daventry.
It has been suggested that in 1894, 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 and 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 was accused of pederasty, but Wilde himself felt he belonged to a culture of male love inspired by the Greek pederastic tradition. In describing his own sexual identity, Wilde used the term Socratic. He had a number of sexual relationships with male partners and numerous sexual encounters with working-class male youths, who were often rent boys. Biographers generally believe Wilde was introduced to homosexuality in 1885 (the year after his wedding) by the 17-year-old Robert Baldwin Ross. Neil McKenna's biography The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003) theorizes that Wilde was aware of his homosexuality much earlier, from the moment of his first kiss with another boy at the age of 16. According to McKenna, after arriving at Oxford in 1874, Wilde tentatively explored his sexuality, discovering that he could feel passionate romantic love for "fair, slim" choirboys, but was more sexually drawn towards the swarthy young rough trade. By the late 1870s, Wilde was already preoccupied with the philosophy of same-sex love, and had befriended a group of Uranian (pederastic) poets and homosexual law reformers, becoming acquainted with the work of gay-rights pioneer Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs. Wilde also met Walt Whitman in America in 1882, 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. He even lived with the society painter Frank Miles, who was a few years his senior and may have been his lover. However, writes McKenna, he was unhappy with the direction of his sexual and romantic desires, and, hoping that marriage would cure him, he married Constance Lloyd in 1884. McKenna's account has been criticized by some reviewers who find it too speculative, although not necessarily implausible.
Regardless of whether or not Wilde was still naïve when he first met Ross, Ross did play an important role in the development of Wilde's understanding of his own sexuality. Ross was aware of Wilde's poems before they met, and indeed had been beaten for reading them. He was also unmoved by the Victorian prohibition against homosexuality. By Richard Ellmann'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. Soon, Wilde entered a world of regular sex with youths such as servants and newsboys, in their mid to late teens, whom he would meet in homosexual bars or brothels. In Wilde's words, the relations were akin to "feasting with panthers," and he reveled in the risk: "the danger was half the excitement." In his public writings, Wilde's first celebration of romantic love 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 Elizabethan boy actor "Willie Hughes."
After meeting and falling in love with Lord Alfred Douglas in 1891, Wilde and his lover embraced an orgiastic lifestyle, and for a few years they lived together more or less openly in a number of locations. Wilde and some within his upper-class social group also began to speak about homosexual law reform, and their commitment to "The Cause" was formalized by the founding of a highly secretive organization called the Order of Chaeronea, of which Wilde was a member. A homosexual novel, Teleny or The Reverse of the Medal, written at about the same time and clandestinely published in 1893, has been attributed to Oscar Wilde, but was probably, in fact, a combined effort by a number of Wilde's friends, which Wilde edited. Wilde also periodically contributed to the Uranian literary journal The Chameleon.
In 1891, Wilde became intimate with Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed "Bosie." Lord Alfred's first mentor had been his cosmopolitan and effeminate grandfather Alfred Montgomery. His older brother Francis Douglas, Viscount Drumlanrig also had an association with the Prime Minister Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, which ended with Francis's death, a possible suicide. Lord Alfred's father John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry came to believe his sons had been corrupted by older homosexuals, or as he phrased it in a letter, "Snob Queers like Rosebery." As he had attempted to do with Rosebery, Queensberry confronted Wilde and Lord Alfred on several occasions, but each time Wilde was able to mollify him.
However, on the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest Queensberry planned to insult Wilde with the delivery of a bouquet of vegetables. Wilde was tipped off, and Queensberry was barred from entering the theater. 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" (a misspelling of 'Sodomite').
Although Wilde's friends advised him to ignore the insult, Lord Alfred encouraged Wilde to charge his father with criminal libel. Queensberry was arrested, and in April 1895, the Crown took over the prosecution of the libel case against him. The trial lasted three days. The prosecuting counsel, Edward Clarke, was unaware of Wilde's previous liaisons with other males. Clarke asked Wilde directly whether there was any substance to Queensberry's accusations. Wilde denied that there was. However, Queensberry's barrister Edward Carson hired investigators who were able to locate a number of youths with whom Wilde had been involved, either socially or sexually, such as the 16-year-old Walter Grainger and other newsboys and valets. Most damaging of all, among them were a number of young men who had earned money through prostitution, including one of the main witnesses, Charles Parker.
Wilde acquitted himself well on the first day of the trial, parrying Carson's cross-examination on the morals of his published works with wit and sarcasm, that brought laughter to the courtroom. 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 with 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 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—an event later immortalized by the poet laureate John Betjeman in a poem The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel. Despite pleas by friends to flee the country, Wilde chose to stay and martyr himself for his cause. Clarke offered to defend him pro bono at his upcoming trial.
Wilde brought suit against Lord Alfred Douglas's father, the ninth Marquess of Queensberry, for sending him a slanderous note. However, it was Wilde who was forced to act defensively at the trial because sodomy was a crime in late Victorian England. This first trial led to two others. While Wilde did not speak directly for same-sex love in his trials, he nevertheless defended it eloquently:
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 glamor 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."
This trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict. The next, and last, trial was presided over by Chief Justice Sir Alfred Wills. On May 25, 1895, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years' hard labor. His conviction angered some observers, one of whom demanded, in a published letter, "Why does not the Crown prosecute every boy at a public or private school or half the men in the Universities?" in reference to the presumed pederastic proclivities of English upperclassmen.
He was imprisoned first in Pentonville and then in Wandsworth prison in London, and finally transferred in November to Reading Prison, some 30 miles west of London. Wilde knew the town of Reading 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, (which described the fact that he was in block C, floor three, room three) he was not, at first, even allowed paper and pen for writing, but a later governor was more friendly. 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 a third of it) in 1905 (four years after Wilde's death) with the title De Profundis, expanding it slightly for an edition of Wilde's collected works in 1908, and then donated it to the British Museum on the understanding that it would not be made public until 1960. In 1949, Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland published it again, including parts formerly omitted, but relying on a faulty typescript bequeathed to him by Ross. Its complete and correct publication did not take place until 1962, in The Letters of Oscar Wilde.
The manuscripts of A Florentine Tragedy and an essay on Shakespeare's sonnets were stolen from Wilde's house in 1895. In 1904, a five-act tragedy, The Duchess of Padua, written by Wilde around 1883 for Mary Anderson but not acted by her, was published in German (Die Herzogin von Padua, translated by Max Meyerfeld) in Berlin.
Prison was unkind to Wilde's health and after 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 famously "penetrated" Saint Sebastian, who has since become a gay icon, and the devilish central character of his great-uncle Charles Robert Maturin's gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer. After his release, he wrote the famous poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."
Wilde spent his last days in Paris at the Hôtel d'Alsace, now known simply 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 did not allude to syphilis. Most modern scholars and doctors agree that syphilis was unlikely to have been the cause of his death.
On his deathbed he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. However, biographers disagree on whether his conversion was an act of volition, since he may not have been fully conscious at the time. Eyewitnesses, however, all asserted that he was conscious.
Wilde was buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris but was later moved to Père Lachaise Cemetery in the city proper. His tomb in Père Lachaise was designed by 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 transferred to the tomb in 1950. The numerous spots on it are lipstick traces from admirers.
(Dates are dates of first performance, which approximate better with the probable date of composition than dates of publication.)
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