Oscar Wilde was an Irish novelist, playwright, and poet, best known for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and his plays Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. He was persecuted for his homosexuality.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, on October 16, 1854. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a respected ear and eye surgeon who founded St. Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital for the poor. His mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, wrote revolutionary poetry under the pen name Speranza.
Wilde attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, where he became fascinated with Greek and Roman studies. He earned scholarships to Trinity College, Dublin, and Magdalen College, Oxford. He graduated from Magdalen with honors in 1878, and he won the Newdigate Prize for best English verse in that year for his long poem, Ravenna.
During his time at Oxford, Wilde embraced Aestheticism, a late-19th-century European arts movement that promoted “art for art’s sake,” as described by the philosopher Victor Cousin. Aesthetes believed that art did not need to have a political or informative purpose. Wilde became known for his flamboyance, and he decorated his rooms with objets d’art, famously including his blue china: “Oh, would that I could live up to my blue china!” He was a devotee of essayist Walter Pater, a well-known aesthete. Due to Pater’s influence, Wilde became intrigued by Catholic rituals and frequently attended Mass.
After graduation, Wilde moved to London and mingled with high society. In 1881, he published a lavishly decorated volume called Poems at his own expense and sold all copies. He traveled to Canada and the United States in 1882 on a lecture tour, delivering 140 lectures and garnering media attention for his velvet jackets, knee breeches, and silk stockings. Upon his return to Great Britain, he lectured in England and Ireland about his impressions of America.
In 1884, Wilde married Constance Lloyd, and they had two children, Cyril and Vyvyan. They rented a house on Tite Street in London’s artists’ quarter and hired fellow aesthete E.W. Godwin to decorate the interior. Whistler, the artist known for painting Whistler’s Mother (Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1), created a peacock feather design on the ceiling of the Wildes’ drawing room.
Wilde wrote reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette and edited Woman’s World, which he renamed from Lady’s World. He also published The Happy Prince and Other Tales, a romantic allegory, in 1888.
Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, first appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890; then it was expanded by six chapters and printed in book form in 1891. The romantic fantasy concerns a young handsome man, Dorian Gray, whose portrait grows old and horrific over the years while he commits amoral acts and stays young. Wilde based a character in the novel on his fellow aesthete, Whistler. Victorian critics declared the work to be immoral, despite its moralistic ending. The novel has inspired works in other media, including an Academy Award-winning film in 1945.
Wilde published many essays and poems in the final decade of his life. In addition, he wrote popular comedic plays, including Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, the latter of which is considered to be his greatest drama. His one-act play Salomé was halted during production because it included biblical characters, but it was published in 1893.
In the late 1800s, Wilde began an affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, son of the marquess of Queensberry. The marquess accused Wilde of homosexual activity, which was illegal at the time, and Wilde in turn sued the marquess for criminal libel. That trial did not go well for Wilde — details of his private life were revealed, including love letters to Douglas — and he eventually dropped his suit. Wilde’s friends urged him to flee London, but he did not think that was necessary. However, he was soon arrested and tried for gross indecency.
In the first trial against Wilde, the jury failed to reach a verdict; in the retrial, he was found guilty. Wilde’s love letters and his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray were presented as evidence against him. In 1895, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor, most of which he served at Reading Gaol. While there, he wrote a long letter to Douglas, chastising his lover for encouraging him to participate in debauchery and distracting him from his work. Parts of that letter were published posthumously as De Profundis.
After Wilde was sentenced, his wife changed her last name to Holland and took their children to Switzerland. She died in exile at the age of 40.
Wilde was released from prison in 1897 and immediately left England for France, bankrupt but hoping to resurrect his career. His final work was a poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, published in 1898. Friends rallied around him, and he reconciled with Douglas. Wilde briefly traveled to Rome, where he attended Masses and received a blessing from Pope Leo XIII. He thought the experience benefited his health, but he did not convert to Catholicism at the time.
Back in Paris, Wilde developed an ear infection, followed by acute meningitis. On November 30, 1900, Wilde was on his deathbed and a priest was called. The priest determined that Wilde truly wished to become a Catholic. At the age of 46, moments before his death, Wilde was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
The marquess of Queensberry, Wilde’s opponent in the trials that ruined his life, also died in 1900 and was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the marquess and Wilde’s lover, converted to Catholicism in 1911.
Oscar Wilde is remembered for his literary works, his wit, and his confident flamboyance in an era when homosexuals were both persecuted and prosecuted.
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Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0394554841/.
Frankel, Nicholas. Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years. Harvard University Press, 2017 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0674737946/.
Lewis, Lloyd. Oscar Wilde Discovers America, 1882. Harcourt, Brace, 1936 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0006AN9R0/.
Mendelssohn, Michele. Making Oscar Wilde. Oxford University Press, 2018 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0198802366/.
Sturgis, Matthew. Oscar: A Biography. Head of Zeus, 2018 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/1788545974/.
Wilde, Oscar. Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom: A Book of Quotations. Dover Thrift Editions, 1998 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0486401464/.
BODY OF WORK
Wilde, Oscar. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Collins Classics, 2003 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0007144369/.
Wilde, Oscar. De Profundis and Other Prison Writings. Penguin Classics, 2013 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0140439900/.
Wilde, Oscar. The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde: The Complete Collection Including The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant. Armadillo, 2020 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/1861478828/.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. Dover Publications, 1990 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0486264785/.
Wilde, Oscar. Lady Windermere’s Fan. Throne Classics, 2019 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/935383791X/.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dover Thrift Editions, 1993 — https://www.amazon.com/dp/0486278077/.
“Oscar Wilde,” Wikipedia — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Wilde.
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