Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16th, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. He was the second child of parents Sir William and Jane Wilde; his older brother, William Robert Kingsbury Wills Wilde, was born in 1852 and his younger sister, Isola Francesca Emily Wilde, would be born in 1857. (William Wilde also had three illegitimate children whom he continued to support). Wilde’s mother, born Jane Frances Elgee, was a woman of immense character whose thoughts and actions heavily influenced her son. Wilde’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, notes that Lady Wilde renamed herself “Speranza Francesca Wilde” and frequently pretended to be younger than she truthfully was, which helps to explain Wilde’s fascination with name and age in his later work (6-7). Another way his parents influenced him was through their own writing. His mother was a prolific poet who published nationalist poems in Irish newspapers and his father, who was a physician, wrote many successful medical books.
In 1864, Wilde and his older brother were sent to live and study at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen; it was here that Wilde began to make a reputation for himself. Ellmann notes that “Wilde alone among the boys wore a silk hat on weekends” and one of Wilde’s classmates cited him as “more careful in his dress than any other boy” (Ellmann 23). Such instances can be taken as early assertions of his later dandyism. In 1871, Wilde was awarded a Royal School scholarship to Trinity College in Dublin. At Trinity he showed an aptitude for classics, and was awarded the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek near the end of his study in 1874. Confident of his strength in the subject, Wilde took an examination on June 23rd of the same year which gained him a Demyship (or scholarship) in classics at Magdalen College, Oxford.
In De Profundis(1905), a letter written during Wilde’s imprisonment, he remarks, “the two great turning-points in my lifewere when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison.” Wilde’s matriculation at Oxford was clearly a significant moment in his life, and his four years there would prove to be a period of self-reinvention. Inarguably, Wilde found life at Oxford much more exciting than life at Trinity College. He became a Mason of the Apollo Lodge, drawn in by their secrecy and required costume, and he even tried his hand at rowing, though he was quickly dismissed from the team (Ellmann 40). Partly with help from these activities, Wilde developed a public persona at Oxford that he would carry with him upon graduation . A good friend of Wilde’s, David Hunter Blair, claims that his “good humor, unusual capacity for pleasant talk, and Irish hospitality” gained him much popularity in the form of Sunday evening gatherings (Pite 8).
|Wilde at Oxford, 1876|
Some of the most influential relationships Wilde formed at Oxford were with practicing Roman Catholics. Many intellectuals were converting to Roman Catholicism during this period, and the conversion of Wilde’s good friend and classmate, Blair, seemed to severely heighten Wilde’s own interest in the idea. His family, however, was strictly Protestant and Ellmann suggests that Wilde’s reluctancy to convert was mostly on the grounds that his father would cut him off financially (54). Nonetheless, Wilde continued to flirt with the idea. In the Spring of 1877, Blair invited him on a trip to Rome, and even set up a meeting with Pope Pius IX in a desperate attempt to finally persuade Wilde to convert. Though deeply inspired by the meeting, Wilde was still unwilling to commit to conversion and even insisted on stopping by a Protestant Cemetery afterwards to admire the grave of John Keats (Ellmann 74). This attitude of uncertainty in regards to religion would endure for the remainder of Wilde’s life. In De Profundis(1905), one of his latest and most confessional works, Wilde defines himself as an agnostic, “When I think about religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe…. Every thing to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.” Therefore, this acknowledgement seems to confirm that Wilde’s interest in Roman Catholicism did not indicate any true belief in their doctrine or practice. Due to his obsession with the material, I would argue that his interest was actually the result of a deep fascination with the pomp and circumstance of their ceremonies. Furthermore, this flirtation with Catholicism reveals a significant amount about Wilde’s personality. It negates the perception of him as simply decadent and immoral, and allows one to see him as a truly multifaceted individual. Wilde struggled with the state of his soul, and desperately wanted to believe, but continually found that he could not. His own beliefs and particularly his faith in the material world, simply could not coexist with the Christian faith.
Academically, Wilde performed well at Oxford. Though he seemed to neglect his studies during his first two years, Ellmann attributes this conception to his preference of a reputation of “brilliance without zeal” (43). In reality, Wilde was well prepared by his education at Trinity College and also had a natural ability when it came to the study of classics. Such circumstances allowed him to spend less time reading required texts and more time reading in other fields, both of which contributed to his preferred image of being naturally intelligent rather than a dilligent worker. Wilde graduated from Oxford University in November of 1878 with a double first in his Literae Humaniores, or “Greats” program. He was also the first scholar from Oxford to win the Newdigate Prize, for his poem “Ravenna,” since 1825.
Upon graduation, Wilde faced an uncertain future. He was not offered a fellowship and a writing career would not provide him with financial stability. His mother urged him to marry an heiress, but his only female love interest, Florence Balcombe, had recently accepted a marriage proposal from Bram Stoker, who would later write Dracula (Ellmann 99). Therefore, Wilde set off for London shortly after receiving his Bachelor’s of Arts in search of a career. He was welcomed into London society, mixing well with high-profile personalities like William Gladstone and the Prince of Wales (Ellmann 108). Before leaving Ireland, Wilde sold his inherited property and as a result, was able to take up residence in a house off of the Strand with the artist Frank Miles. It was here that he wrote his first play, Vera; or, The Nihilists(1880). In May of the following year he signed a contract with David Bogue to publish his first set of poems, which was plainly entitled, Poems(1881). Wilde was made responsible for all of the costs of publication, and in turn, Bogue was to receive only a small percentage of its overall profit. Ellmann notes that the subject matter of these poems constantly wavers between Christianity and Paganism, and cites this observation as proof of Wilde’s fascination with and inclination towards contradictoriness (139-143). Unfortunately, the compilation met harsh criticism, and Wilde was even accused of plagiarism. Frank Miles’s father was shocked by the immorality of the poems and forced his son to break relations with Wilde. Upon hearing that Miles would obey his father’s wishes, though it was solely because he was financially dependent, Wilde, in a characteristically dramatic fashion, threw his trunk of clothes over the banister and smashed an antique table while declaring that he would “never speak to [Miles] again as long as [he] lived” (Ellmann 148).
Wilde in America
|Wilde, photographed by Napolean Sarony in New York, 1882|
Unexpectedly, Wilde received an offer from New York producer Richard D’Oyly Carte to travel to America and give a lecture tour. Wilde accepted the offer to lecture on the aesthetic movement in December of 1881 and began his preparations. He knew he was not a strong orator; therefore he sought to win over America with his ostentatious dress and natural style of speaking (Ellmann 154-155). Wilde arrived in America on January 2nd, 1882 and to his own suprise was met onboard the ship by a number of eager reporters. Ellmann suggests that the press was perhaps even more surprised by Wilde’s large stature, fancy green coat, and husky voice than he was by their invasive questioning (158). Not yet ready to begin his tour, Wilde spent his first week in New York making appearances at various parties and productions. He gave his first lecture on January 9th, closing with the lines, “We spend our days looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life is art” (Ellmann 166). Overall, he was a great success in New York and subsequently earned the respect of one of his favorite poets, Walt Whitman.
Wilde’s nearly year-long tour would prove to have its failures as well as its successes. Ellmann alludes to one of these failures by explaining an argument Wilde had with another lecturer en route to Baltimore. Wilde was so offended by the incident that he refused to stop in the city and afterwards received an outpouring of unfavorable press (174-175). However, the most important and longest lasting effect of Wilde’s time in America was the further development of his public persona. He had started building an image for himself during his Oxford years and continued to do so in London, yet it was not until he traveled across America that he became a type of celebrity. Wilde had women flocking after him in each city, songs composed about him, numerous newspaper articles which referenced him and he even had an impersonator in Denver (Ellmann 191). In fact, Wilde enjoyed his celebrity status in America so much that he stayed in New York for another two and a half months after his tour ended, finally sailing home on December 27th, 1882.
After experiencing the excitement that was his American tour, Wilde had little interest in remaining stationary. In the years immediately succeeding his return to London he would live in Paris for a few short months and return again to America, all the while finishing his second play The Duchess of Padua(1883) and attending the New York opening of his first play, Vera (first performed in August of 1883). Unfavorable reviews of the performance and continued financial concerns led Wilde back to his mother’s suggestion that he marry into a wealthy family. He had met Constance Lloyd in May of 1881, prior to his first trip to America, and now, with his mother’s approval, began to seriously consider her as a marriage prospect. Ellmann suggests that Wilde’s interest in marriage was not only the result of a desire to secure himself financially, but also the result of his need to project a heterosexual image of himself onto society (233). By this time, rumors were already circulating about his homoeroticism and his flamboyant manner of dress did nothing to help the situation. Since homosexuality was still illegal, these rumors had a negative affect on his credibility, and consequently, on his success as a writer. Therefore, thinking a marriage might help to silence such gossip, Wilde proposed to Lloyd in November of 1883 and married her on May 29th of the next year. Lloyd received £250 a year from her grandfather and would receive nearly £900 a year after his death, thus easing Wilde’s financial problems. Overall, the match was a happy and supported one, though it is probable that Lloyd admired Wilde more so than he did her (Ellmann 247).
|Douglas and Wilde|
In the early years of their union it became evident that Wilde was quickly tiring of married life, as he once again began to explore his homosexual tendencies. As noted before, he had been suspected in his bachelorhood of having an interest in young males, but most agree that Wilde’s first real homosexual encounter was with Robert Ross, whom he met at Oxford in 1886. Ross would remain a close friend of Wilde’s until his death, but it was Wilde’s later relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas that would change the course of his life. They first met in June of 1891, shortly after The Picture of Dorian Gray(1891) had been published in book-form. Douglas admired Wilde greatly, but Ellmann notes that his temperament was “totally spoiled, reckless, insolent, and, when thwarted, fiercely vindictive” (324). Over the next few years, their relationship intensified and they were practically inseparable. However, Douglas was perhaps even more extravagant than Wilde and frequently relied upon Wilde’s generosity whenever ongoing disputes with his father left him without an allowance (Ellmann 385-387).
The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in Lippincott’s magazine on June 20th, 1890. It was later revised and published in book form in April of 1891 by Ward, Lock and Company. The story focuses on a beautiful youth, Dorian Gray, and his relationship with both Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward. Lord Henry influences Dorian with ideas of a new Hedonism. In the opening chapter he tells Dorian, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.” He goes on to emphasize the value of youth in life and causes Dorian, in examining the portrait that Basil painted of him, to exclaim that he would trade everything in order to retain his youth and to have the portrait age instead. Dorian’s wish is granted and he proceeds down a path of lust and excess under the advisement of Lord Henry. The initial reviews of the novel were mixed. Some praised Wilde and others claimed that the novel was “tedious and dull, that its characters were ‘puppies,’ that it was merely self-advertisement, and that it was immoral” (Ellmann 320). Whatever the review, the book did gain much attention, particularly for the subtle suggestion of a homosexual relationship between Dorian and the two other central figures.
Written by Wilde himself, the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray can stand apart from the novel as an outline of aesthetic doctrine. The movie below provides phrases from the preface and supports them with both pictures of Wilde and facts about his life and character.
You can watch the trailer for Oliver Parker’s film rendition of The Picture of Dorian Gray here.
Trials & Prison
Lord Alfred Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensbury, became increasingly more irritated by the public relationship between Wilde and his son. He wrote a letter to Douglas claiming, “If I catch you again with that man I will make a public scandal in a way you little dream of; Unless this acquaintance ceases I shall carry out my threat and stop all supplies…” (Ellmann 418). The Marquess continued to antagonize Wilde, prompting him to sue for libel. The trial opened on April 3rd, 1895 at the Old Bailey, and Wilde, feeling secure in his prosecution, upheld a humorous demeanor in the courtroom. Upon taking the stand, he lied about his age, claiming to be thirty-nine instead of forty-one (Linder). As it soon became evident that Wilde would not win the case, he withdrew his prosecution under the advisement of his attorney.
Unfortunately for Wilde, the defense had gathered plenty of evidence, in the form of male prostitutes which Wilde had solicited, and they were able to turn the case around to prosecute him. Wilde was given time to flee, but was struck by indecision and missed the last train out of England (Ellmann 456). His first criminal trial opened on April 26th, 1895, but the jury could not reach a verdict, leaving Wilde free on bail. The second trial opened on May 22nd, 1895, and had a very different outcome. Wilde was convicted on all counts except those relating to one of the many male prostitutes who testified. He was sentenced to two years of hard labor, and would spend the last eighteen months of his sentence at Reading Gaol.
In prison, Wilde spent his time reading and was even allowed to write. During his sentence, he completed his famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol(1898), and wrote De Profundis, which would be published posthumously in 1905.
Death & Exile
Wilde was released from prison on May 19th, 1897 and quickly fled to Dieppe, a port on the French coast. He met Robert Ross here, though he refused to rekindle his relationship with Douglas. As a result, Douglas wrote a letter childishly accusing Wilde of “hating him,” which Wilde denounced (Ellmann 529-530). Eventually, Wilde desired a reunion with Douglas, but was deterred by threats from his wife. When it became obvious that Constance would not allow Wilde to see his children, he agreed to reunite with Douglas in Rouen in August of 1898. Wilde sent Douglas a telegram stating, “Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don’t understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world” (Ellmann 547).
Upon his release from prison, Wilde seemed committed to restarting his life and avoiding further scandal. However, as he became reacquainted with the idea of freedom he seemed to realize that for him, life could only follow one course. He said of Douglas, “I love him as I always did, with a sense of tragedy and ruin…. My life cannot be patched up. There is a doom on it…. I was a problem for which there was no solution” (Ellmann 549). Therefore, his return to Douglas is indicative of him accepting what he felt to be his fate. The relationship would end a few months after their reconcilement, with Douglas returning to London and Wilde to Paris.
When Wilde underwent ear surgery on October 10th, 1900, his wife, Constance, had been dead for two years. Following the surgery he developed a severe case of meningitis from which he would not recover. Wilde died in Paris on November 30th, at the young age of forty-six. Robert Ross, his former lover and loyal friend, was by his side and alleged that Wilde was consciously received into the Catholic Church upon his deathbed. Douglas arrived in Paris on December 2nd, in time for the funeral, and is said to have almost fallen into the grave when the coffin was lowered, as he was competing among others to be the “principal mourner” (Ellmann 585). Wilde was first interred at Bagneux, though his remains were later moved to Père Lachaise Cemetery where they still remain. His funerary monument, designed by Jacob Epstein, is inscribed with a stanza from his poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always morn.
|“I always like to know everything about my new friends, and nothing about my old ones.”|
|“All women become like their mothers, that is their tragedy. No man does, that is his.”|
|“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”|
|“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise, they’ll kill you.”|
|“Only the shallow know themselves.”|
|“The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself.”|
|“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”|
|“There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating: people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.”|
|“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”|
|“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”|
|“At twilight, nature is not without loveliness, perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets.”|
|“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”|
- Ravenna (1878)
- Poems (1881)
- The Duchess of Padua (1883)
- The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
- Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892)
- Salomé (1893)
- A Woman of No Importance (1893)
- The Sphinx (1894)
- An Ideal Husband (1895)
- The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
- The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898)
- De Profundis (1905)
Click on Wilde’s signature to read his works online:
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, Distributed by Random House, 1988. Print.
Pite, Ralph. Lives of Victorian Literary Figures, Part IV: Henry James, Edith Wharton and Oscar Wilde by their contemporaries. New York: Pickering & Chatto, 2005. Print.
Images of Wilde courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Contributor: Delanie Laws