Oscar Wilde 1854 -1900
Known for his satirical wit, flamboyant dress and scintillating conversational skill, Wilde became one of the best-known London personalities of the 1880’s and 1890’s. He is best remembered for his epigrams and plays, his novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, as well as the circumstances of his imprisonment and early death.
Oscar, Fingal, O’Flahertie, Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland. Wilde’s father, Sir William Wilde, was Ireland’s leading oto-ophthalmologic surgeon. His mother, Jane Elgee Wilde, wrote poetry for the revolutionary ‘Young Irelanders’ under a pseudonym .
Wilde was educated at home until the age of nine, learning German and French from family servants. He then attended Portora Royal School, where he learned to love the Greek and Roman classics. He won the Royal School Scholarship to attend Trinity College in Dublin to read Classics in 1871. Wilde eventually received Trinity’s Foundation Scholarship, the highest honour awarded to undergrads, along with the Berkeley Gold Medal and the Demyship scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford.
While at Magdalen College, he became well-known for his interest in the aesthetic movement, the pursuit of beauty for its own sake. He began wearing his hair long and he decorated his room with peacock feathers, lilies, blue china, and various art objects.
Wilde had an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome in 1877 and then he began the process of converting to Catholicism. However, his father threatened to cut off his funds if he did so and he retracted his intention.
Wilde moved to London, living the life of a bachelor and 1881 he published a collection of his works, ‘Poems’, which sold out in its first printing. The book was very extravagant in form, bound in enamel parchment, the cover embossed with a gilt blossom, and pages of handmade Dutch paper.
‘Poems’ brought Wilde enough fame to launch him onto the lecture circuit. In 1882 he travelled to New York to deliver the first of 140 lectures in 9 months, with topics including ‘The English Renaissance’, ‘The Decorative Arts’ and ‘The House Beautiful’. For his lectures Wilde wore velvet jackets, knee breeches and black silk stockings.
After his American tour, Wilde started another lecture tour in England and Ireland.
In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd, daughter of a wealthy Queen’s Counsel. The couple had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan.
The couple lived extravagantly in Tite Street, London. Her family’s wealth and his reputation as an aesthete meant they had luxurious furnishings, such as a drawing room with dragons on a blue ceiling, peacock feathers set into the plaster of the walls, and black and white bamboo chairs. The artist James Whistler’s works decorated their walls.
Wilde’ study was a yellow room at the front of the house, which featured red lacquered woodwork, a statue of Hermes, and pictures by Monticelli and Simeon Solomon.
Wilde became editor of ‘The Lady’s World’ magazine in 1887. He renamed it ‘The Woman’s World’ and raised its tone, adding articles on parenting, culture, fiction, and politics to the standard fashion fare.
In 1891 Wilde published his only novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, a dark novel, which explores aesthetics and vanity and sinister death. Then Wilde switched to playwriting, starting with ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, followed by others such as ‘A Woman of No Importance’, ‘An Ideal Husband’ and finally ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, his most famous play. All were satirical comedies on the social life of the time. He also published ‘Intentions’, a collection of essays about aestheticism.
In 1891 Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquis of Queensberry. The two enjoyed an intimate friendship that soon evolved into a love affair. Although homosexual activities were illegal at the time, the two men were indiscreet.
When the Marquis accused Wilde of being a sodomite, against the advice of his friends, Wilde sued him for libel. But court revelations of Wilde’s homosexual activities reversed the position and brought about charges of indecency against Wilde. Wilde was arrested, then later convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.
Reading gaol was especially difficult for Wilde, because he was used to creature comforts and at one point Wilde collapsed from illness and hunger, rupturing his right eardrum. He was hospitalized for two months.
In May of 1897 Wilde was released from prison, ill and penniless. Wilde’s wife would not see him and would not let him see his sons, but she sent him some money and after their divorce changed their last name to Holland.
Wilde lived in exile on the Continent with friends, using a pseudonym. He was briefly reunited with Douglas, but their families separated them.
Wilde’s last work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” was a long poem about the harshness of prison life.
Wilde died, destitute, in Paris on November 30, 1900 of meningitis at the dingy Hôtel d’Alsace (now known as L’Hôtel), on Rue des Beaux-Arts in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris. Two friends were with him and he was received into the Catholic faith before his death.
Wilde was initially buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris; in 1909 his remains were disinterred and transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery, inside the city. His remarkable tomb there was designed by Sir Jacob Epstein.
Meanwhile in the city of his birth, Dublin, a statue commemorating Wilde had to wait 97 years after his death before being inaugurated in Merrion Square. When the statue, a collection of three statues by sculptor Danny Osborne, was unveiled in 1997, it received near unanimous praise for the materials used and for its location near his childhood home at 1, Merrion Square.