Oscar Wilde - Biography
Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900) is a central figure in aesthetic writing. Wilde was a poet, fiction writer, essayist and editor. In the opening scenes of the movie Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes suggested that Wilde was one of the first pop idols. Oscar Wilde is often seen as a homosexual icon although as many men of his day he was also a husband and father. Wilde’s life ended at odds with Victorian morals that surrounded him. He died in exile.
In 1854, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born to Sir Robert Wills Wilde and Jane Francesca Wilde in Dublin, Ireland. Sir Wilde was a renowned surgeon who had been knighted for his medical service. His title was non-hereditary. Oscar Wilde’s mother wrote under the name Speranza and advocated liberal causes including ardent support for Irish Nationalism.
Oscar Wilde had a quick and fluid intelligence coupled with a gift for languages. His early education included attending Porotra Royal School in Enniskillen (1873) Trinity College in Dublin (1874-1879), and Magdalen College in Oxford. He excelled in his studies. Along with his schoolwork, Wilde began to build his reputation as a poet. His early work garnered some success. In 1878, Oscar Wilde won the Newdigate prize for poetry. His entry was inspired by a vacation to Ravenna.
More crucial to his later fame, Oscar Wilde began to practice his aesthetic mode of life. Wilde kept his hair long and affected a highly stylized dress and manner. His rooms were well appointed. His collection of blue china was famous. Wilde’s pose was what he leveraged for his initial forays into fame. Wilde had many acolytes. But he also had his detractors, who at one point trashed his room.
Oscar Wilde moved to London in 1879. Wilde released a collection of poetry through the publisher Bogue in 1881. His first play, Vera, was also supposed to be performed. However, it was canceled. This was also the year Wilde would meet his future wife—Constance Mary Lloyd.
Wilde continued to use his style as a way of advancing his reputation. However, his aims were harder to hit in the city. Yet Oscar Wilde wearing knee-breeches and a velvet jacket while carrying a single flower became iconic. It was this image for which Oscar Wilde was lampooned in the comedic opera Patience by W.S. Gilbert. It was also this image that was caricatured in Punch by George Du Maurier and F. C. Barnard. Although most men who faced such satirization would have felt shame, Oscar Wilde relished in the attention he gained.
In 1882, D’Oyly Carte managed Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of the United States of America. Contemporaneously, Carte was also promoting a tour of Patience. Wilde’s presence in some ways provided a framework for the play. As in England, Wilde’s dress, mannerisms and assertions were met with ridicule and violence by some. Fewer still defended Wilde for fear of being ridiculed themselves. In America, Oscar Wilde met Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Ward Beecher, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman proclaimed that Wilde was “a great, big splendid boy.”
On his return to England, Oscar Wilde continued cultivating his relationship with wealthy and influential members of society. His income from his Irish properties were infrequent and could not cover his extravagances. During this period, he see financial difficulties that would plague him intermittently throughout his life.
In 1883, Wilde traveled to Paris and met Paul Verlaine, Victor Hugo, Stephane Mallarme, and Edmond de Goncourt. On returning to London, Wilde continued his relationship with Constance Lloyd. In August, Wilde returned to the New York for the opening of his first play Vera. The show only ran for a week and received mixed reviews. He became engaged to Constance.
In 1884, he married Constance who had some money ending his early cycle of impoverishment. The young married couple moved to Tite Street in the Chelsea neighborhood of London, which at the time was known for its artistic character. Constance and Oscar Wilde’s first son Cyril was born in June 1885 and his second son Vyvyan was born in November 1886. He would also meet the Canadian art critic and journalist Robert Ross. It is widely held that Robert Ross was Oscar Wilde’s first male lover. In 1891, Oscar Wilde would meet Lord Alfred Douglas—the lover whose troubled relationship with Wilde would dominate his life before Wilde’s arrest and imprisonment on charges of sodomy.
Tired of his intermittent financial difficulties, Oscar Wilde committed himself to writing. 1886 was also the year that Wilde began regularly contributing to the Pall Mall Gazette. From 1887 until 1889, Oscar Wilde was the editor of Woman’s World. His fiction also began to receive regular publication. In 1888, Oscar Wilde published The Happy Prince and Other Tales, a collection of children’s tales.
Oscar Wilde continued cultivating his relationships with both the socially prominent James McNeil Whistler, the American painter, was a friend during this period. The two wits often verbally sparred—and their friendship ended with such an argument.
In 1889, Blackwood’s Magazine published The Portrait of Mr. W.H.. This literary endeavor straddled the genre of essay and short fiction. In this work, Oscar Wilde argues that William William Shakespeare’s sonnets were written to a young male actor. True to his intellectual project, Wilde’s argument does not require facts to support its legitimacy. The following year Lippincott’s Magazine published The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s longest work. At the time, many viewed this work as obscene. However, it has became a standard text when looking for homosexual subtext from the Victorian period.
Throughout this period, Oscar Wilde also published a range of essays including The Critic as Artist, The Decay of Lying, and The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Each of these works is wrought with humor and intelligence and frames Wilde’s concepts of aestheticism. His intellectual prowess is tempered with a playfulness that resembles his fiction.
In 1892, Oscar Wilde encountered his first legal difficulties when his play Salome was banned in England. The following year Wilde circumvented this censorship by publishing a French version of Salome. In 1893, Wilde would return to the English stage by mounting his play A Woman of No Importance.
In 1894, Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, Marquess of Queensberry, witnessed his son and Oscar Wilde eating at Café Royal. This would mark the start of a conflict that would end in Wilde’s imprisonment. The Marquess would visit Wilde’s home and threaten the poet and his family. Oscar Wilde continued his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglass—traveling to Europe with him in 1894, and to Algiers in 1895. The French colonies in North Africa had become a haven for sexual tourism. It was during this second trip that Wilde met Andre Gide. It is commonly held that Wilde spiritually (but not physically) seduced Andre Gide into discovering the pleasures of homosexuality. Wilde tried to persuade Andre Gide to follow him in search of more angelic boys.
On returning to England, Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest opened. This play, which concerns creating alternate social postures, is viewed as Wilde’s greatest work. It carefully straddles the line of celebrating and ridiculing Victorian society. This work insured Wilde was viewed as a preeminent artist.
Unfortunately, the success that The Importance of Being Earnest seemed to promise was short lived because of the worsening feud with the Marquess of Queensberry. Queensberry publicly left a note for Wilde at a club. Queensberry addressed this note, “For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite[sic].” Wilde, at the behest of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, sued Queensberry for criminal libel.
To defend himself, the Marquess only had to prove that his accusation was based in fact. Queensberry relished at having his lawyers parade male prostitutes and a proprietor of a male brothel through the court. Wilde’s love letters to Douglas were also used as evidence in defense of the Marquess.
Wilde lost the case and was responsible for compensating the Marquess for the expenses he accrued to mount a defense. In addition based on the evidence presented at trial, Oscar Wilde was arrested on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. His friends tried to convince Wilde to flee to France. But Wilde’s mother appealed to her son to fight the charges. He plead not guilty, and when asked under oath to define “the love that dare not speak its name.”
Wilde responded, “The love that dare 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 William Shakespeare.” His passionate and eloquent defense was not sufficient, and Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor. He would write The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis which captured the harsh reality and self-reflection that came from his incarceration.
During his imprisonment, Constance Wilde (with Cyril and Vyvyan) fled to Europe. She changed their last name to Holland in an attempt to shield her sons from Oscar Wilde’s infamy. In 1898, she died after complications to a spinal surgery, which was performed in Italy. Her family took legal recourse to prevent Oscar Wilde from ever seeing the children again.
In 1897, Oscar Wilde was released from prison. He exiled himself to Europe and lived under the name Sebastian Melmoth, a pseudonym derived from the Saint Sebastian and his great uncle Charles Maturin’s novel, Melmoth the Wanderer. He lived with Robert Ross during this period. Later in that year, Wilde renewed his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Their relationship ended after a few month when their families threatened to deprive the two men of their allowances.
Wilde’s life ended in Hotel d’Alsace in Paris. In 1900, Wilde contracted cerebral meningitis. Some virulently homophobic critics maintain this was a result of syphilis, but the original medical report does not suggest this. He sent for Robert Ross and was conditionally baptized into the Catholic Church. He died on the thirtieth of November. Wilde was originally buried in Cimetière de Bagneux, but in 1909 his body was moved to Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.