Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) was an Irish playwright, novelist, poet and author of numerous short stories and one novel. Known for his biting wit, he became one of the most successful playwrights of the late Victorian era in London, and one of the greatest celebrities of his day. Several of his plays continue to be widely performed, especially The Importance of Being Earnest. As the result of a widely covered series of trials, Wilde suffered a dramatic downfall and was imprisoned for two years hard labour after being convicted of "gross indecency" with other men. After Wilde was released from prison he set sail for Dieppe by the night ferry. He never returned to Britain.
Oscar Wilde was the second son born into an Anglo-Irish family, at 21 Westland Row, Dublin, to Sir William Wilde and his wife Jane Francesca Wilde (née Elgee) (her pseudonym being Speranza). Jane was a successful writer, being a poet for the revolutionary Young Irelanders in 1848 and a life-long Irish nationalist. Sir William was Ireland's leading Oto-Ophthalmologic (ear and eye) surgeon and was knighted in 1864 for his services to medicine. William also 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, where Wilde's sister, Isola, was born in 1856. 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 the ages of nine to sixteen, 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 older 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 awarded 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, one of its tenets being to make 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 double first in classical moderations and Literae Humaniores, or 'Greats'.
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 (1885) and Vyvyan (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 also served in the war and later became an author and translator. He published his memoirs in 1954. Vyvyan's son, Merlin Holland, has edited and published several works about his grandfather. Oscar Wilde's niece, Dolly Wilde, had a lengthy lesbian relationship with writer Natalie Clifford Barney.
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 behaviour 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 recognised pose. Publications such as the Springfield Republican commented on Wilde's behaviour during his visit to Boston in order to give lectures on aestheticism, suggesting that Wilde's conduct was more of a bid for notoriety rather than a devotion to beauty and the aesthetic. Wilde's mode of dress also came under attack by critics such as Higginson, who wrote in his paper Unmanly Manhood, of his general concern that Wilde's effeminacy would influence the behaviour of men and women, arguing that his poetry "eclipses masculine ideals [..that..] under such influence men would become effeminate dandies". He also scrutinised the links between Oscar Wilde's writing, personal image and homosexuality, calling his work and lifestyle 'Immoral'. Wilde was deeply impressed by the English writers John Ruskin and Walter Pater, who argued for the central importance of art in life, an argument laced with a strongly philhellenic and homoerotic subtext. Wilde later commented ironically on Pater's suppressed emotions: on being informed of the man's death, he replied, "Was he ever alive?" Reflecting on Pater's view of art, he wrote, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "All art is quite useless". The statement was meant to be read literally, as it was in keeping with the doctrine of Art for art's sake, coined by the philosopher Victor Cousin, promoted by Theophile Gautier and brought into prominence by James McNeill Whistler. In 1879 Wilde started to teach Aesthetic values in London.
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.
Aestheticism in general was caricatured in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience (1881). While Patience was a success in New York it was not known how much the aesthetic movement had penetrated the rest of America. So Richard D'Oyly Carte invited Wilde for a lecture tour of North America. D'Oyly Carte felt this tour would "prime the pump" for the tour of Patience, making sure that the ticket-buying public was aware of one of the movement's charming personalities. 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.
During his tour of the United States and Canada, Wilde was torn apart by no small number of critics—The Wasp, a San Francisco newspaper, published a cartoon ridiculing Wilde and Aestheticism—but he was also 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.
In Lady Florence Dixie's novel of 1890, Gloriana, or the Revolution of 1900, women win the right to vote, as the result of the protagonist, Gloriana, posing as a man, Hector l'Estrange, and being elected to the House of Commons. The character of l'Estrange is clearly based on that of Wilde. Dixie was an aunt of Lord Alfred Douglas.
Though Wilde's sexual orientation has variously been considered bisexual, homosexual, and paederastic, Wilde himself felt he belonged to a culture of male love inspired by the Greek paederastic tradition. In describing his own sexual identity, Wilde used the term Socratic. He may have had significant sexual relationships with (in chronological order) Frank Miles, Constance Lloyd (his wife), Robert Baldwin Ross, and Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"). Wilde also had numerous sexual encounters with working-class male youths, who were often rent boys.
Biographers generally believe Wilde was made fully aware of his own and others' 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) theorises 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 at one time 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 criticised 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 revelled 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".
In the early summer of 1891 he was introduced by the poet Lionel Johnson to the twenty-two-year-old Lord Alfred Douglas, an undergraduate at Oxford at the time. An intimate friendship immediately sprang up between the two, but it was not initially sexual, nor did the sexuality progress far when it did eventually take place. According to Douglas, speaking in his old age, for the first six months their relations remained on a purely intellectual and emotional level. Despite the fact that "from the second time he saw me, when he gave me a copy of Dorian Gray which I took with me to Oxford, he made overtures to me. It was not till I had known him for at least six months and after I had seen him over and over again and he had twice stayed with me in Oxford, that I gave in to him. I did with him and allowed him to do just what was done among boys at Winchester and Oxford ... Sodomy never took place between us, nor was it attempted or dreamed of. Wilde treated me as an older one does a younger one at school." After Wilde realised that Douglas only consented in order to please him, as his instincts drew him not to men but to younger boys, Wilde permanently ceased his physical attentions.
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 formalised by the founding of a highly secretive organisation 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.
Lord Alfred's first mentor had been his cosmopolitan grandfather Alfred Montgomery. His older brother Francis Douglas, Viscount Drumlanrig possibly had an intimate association with the Prime Minister Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, which ended on Francis' death in an unexplained shooting accident. 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.
Divorced and spending wildly, Queensberry was known for his outspoken views and the boxing roughs who often accompanied him. He abhorred his younger son and plagued the boy with threats to cut him off if he did not stop idling his life away. Queensberry was determined to end the friendship with Wilde. Wilde was in full flow of rehearsal when Bosie returned from a diplomatic posting to Cairo, around the time Queensberry visited Wilde at his Tite Street home. He angrily pushed past Wilde's servant and entered the ground floor study, shouting obscenities and asking Wilde about his divorce. Wilde became incensed, but it is said he calmly told his manservant that Queensberry was the most infamous brute in London, and that he was not to be shown into the house ever again. It is said that, despite the presence of a bodyguard, Wilde forced Queensberry to leave in no uncertain terms.
On the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest Queensberry further planned to insult and socially embarrass Wilde by throwing a bouquet of turnips. Wilde was tipped off, and Queensberry was barred from entering the theatre. Wilde took legal advice against him, and wished to prosecute, but his friends refused to give evidence against the Marquess and hence the case was dropped. Wilde and Bosie left London for a holiday in Monte Carlo. While they were there, on February 18, 1895, the Marquess left his calling card at Wilde's Club, with an inscription accusing Wilde of posing as a "somdomite [sic]".
Wilde made a complaint of criminal libel against Lord Alfred Douglas's father based on the calling card incident, and the Marquess was arrested but later freed on bail. The libel trial became a cause célèbre as salacious details of Wilde's private life with Alfred Taylor and Lord Alfred Douglas began to appear in the press. A team of detectives, with the help of the actor Charles Brookfield, had directed Queensberry's lawyers (led by Edward Carson QC) to the world of the Victorian underground. Here Wilde's association with blackmailers and male prostitutes, crossdressers and homosexual brothels was recorded, and various persons involved were interviewed, some being coerced to appear as witnesses.
The trial opened on April 3, 1895 amongst scenes of near hysteria both in the press and the public galleries. After a shaky start, Wilde regained some ground when defending his art from attacks of perversion. The Picture of Dorian Gray came under fierce moral criticism, but Wilde fended it off with his usual charm and confidence on artistic matters. Some of his personal letters to Lord Alfred were examined, their wording challenged as inappropriate and evidence of immoral relations. Queensberry's legal team proposed that the libel was published for the public good, but it was only when the prosecution moved on to sexual matters that Wilde baulked. He was challenged on the reason given for not kissing a young servant; Wilde had replied, "He was a particularly plain boy - unfortunately ugly - I pitied him for it. Counsel for the defence, scenting blood, pressed him on the point. Wilde hesitated, complaining of Carson's insults and attempts to unnerve him. The prosecution eventually dropped the case, after the defence threatened to bring boy prostitutes to the stand to testify to Wilde's corruption and influence over Queensberry's son, effectively crippling the case. After Wilde left the court, a warrant for his arrest was applied for and (after a delay that would have permitted Wilde, had he possessed the inclination to take advantage, to escape to the continent) later served on him at the Cadogan Hotel, Knightsbridge. That moment was immortalised by Sir John Betjeman's poem. He was arrested for "gross indecency" under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. In British legislation of the time, this term implied 'homosexual acts not amounting to buggery'. After his arrest Wilde sent Robert Ross to his home in Tite Street with orders to remove certain items and Ross broke into the bedroom to rescue some of Wilde's belongings. Wilde was then imprisoned on remand at Holloway where he received daily visits from Lord Alfred Douglas.
Events moved quickly and his prosecution opened on April 26, 1895. Wilde had already begged Douglas to leave London for Paris, but Douglas complained bitterly, even wanting to take the stand; however, he was pressed to go and soon fled to the Hotel du Monde. Ross and many others also left the United Kingdom during this time. Under cross examination Wilde presented an eloquent defence of pederasty:
Charles Gill (pros.): What is "the love that dares not speak its name?"
The trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict and Wilde's counsel, Sir Edward Clark, was finally able to agree bail. Wilde was freed from Holloway and went into hiding at the house of Ernest and Ada Leverson, two of Wilde's firm friends. The Reverend Stuart Hedlam put up most of the £5,000 bail, having disagreed with Wilde's heinous treatment by the press and the courts. Edward Carson, it was said, asked for the service to let up on Wilde. His request was denied. If the Crown was seen to give up at that point, it would have appeared that there was one rule for some and not others, and outrage could have followed.
The final trial was presided over by Justice Sir Alfred Wills. On May 25, 1895 Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years' hard labour. 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 British upper class men.
Wilde 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 which is quite close to the prison.
Now known as prisoner C. 3.3, (which described the fact that he was in block C, floor three, cell three) he was not, at first, even allowed paper and pen, but a later governor was more amenable. Wilde was championed by the Liberal MP and reformer Richard B. Haldane who had helped transfer him and afforded him the literary catharsis he needed. 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 later denied having received it). Ross published a much expurgate 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 first occurred in 1962, in The Letters of Oscar Wilde.
Nevertheless, Wilde lost no time in returning to his previous pleasures. According to Douglas, Ross "dragged [him] back to homosexual practices" during the summer of 1897, which they spent together in Berneval. After his release, he also wrote the famous poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Wilde spent his last years in the Hôtel d'Alsace, now known as L'Hôtel, in Paris, where it is said he was notorious and uninhibited about enjoying the pleasures he had been denied in Britain. Again, according to Douglas, "he was hand in glove with all the little boys on the Boulevard. He never attempted to conceal it." In a letter to Ross, Wilde laments, "Today I bade good-bye, with tears and one kiss, to the beautiful Greek boy... he is the nicest boy you ever introduced to me. 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." His moods fluctuated; Max Beerbohm relates how, a few days before Wilde's death, their mutual friend Reginald 'Reggie' Turner had found Wilde very depressed after a nightmare. "I dreamt that I had died, and was supping with the dead!" "I am sure," Turner replied, "that you must have been the life and soul of the party. Reggie Turner was one of the very few of the old circle who remained with Wilde right to the end, and was at his bedside when he died.
Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900. Different opinions are given as to 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 Wilde was received into the Roman Catholic church and Robert Ross, in his letter to More Adey (dated 14 December 1900), states "He was conscious that people were in the room, and raised his hand when I asked him whether he understood. He pressed our hands. I then sent in search of a priest, and after great difficulty found Father Cuthbert Dunne... who came with me at once and administered Baptism and Extreme Unction. - Oscar could not take the Eucharist".
Wilde was buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris but was later moved to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. 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 epitaph is a verse from 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 mourn.
The numerous spots on the tombstone are lipstick traces from admirers. The modernist angel depicted as a relief on the tomb was originally complete with male genitals which were broken off and kept as a paperweight by a succession of Père Lachaise Cemetery keepers; their current whereabouts are unknown. In the summer of 2000, intermedia artist Leon Johnson performed a forty minute ceremony entitled Re-membering Wilde in which a commissioned silver prosthesis was installed to replace the vandalised genitals.
The bulk of Wilde's letters, manuscripts, and other material relating to his literary circle are housed at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. A number of Wilde's letters and manuscripts can also be found at The British Library, as well as public and private collections throughout Britain, the United States and France.
(Dates are dates of first performance, which approximate better with the probable date of composition than dates of publication.)