The Greatest Writers of The English Language – Part 12- Oscar Wilde

Born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Irish writer Oscar Wilde is best known for the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and the play The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as for his infamous arrest and imprisonment for being gay.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland to William Wilde and Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde. Oscar’s father was an acclaimed doctor who was later knighted by Queen Victoria. His mother was a poet and had been closely associated with the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. In the true tradition of the times William was a heavy drinker and an uncontrolled fornicator who had fathered three children before his marriage. Henry Wilson was born in 1838, Emily in 1847 and Mary in 1849. To William’s credit however, he provided financial support for all of them. Oscar`s mother Jane, was also a colourful person in her own right and between them had an enormous influence on their son`s future.

Jane’s first child, William “Willie” Charles Kingsbury, was born on September 26, 1852 and her second, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie, on October 16, 1854. A daughter Emily Francesca, came into the world on April 2, 1857 but died from a sudden fever ten years later. Oscar was greatly affected by his sister`s death, and for the rest of his life, he carried a lock of her hair sealed in an envelope.

Oscar attended the Portora Royal School at Enniskillen, where he excelled at studying the classics and in drawing. In 1871 he was awarded the Royal School Scholarship to attend Trinity College in Dublin. Again, he did well in his classics courses, earning the highest honor the college could bestow on an undergraduate, a Foundation Scholarship. Oscar`s crowning glory at the school however, came in 1874 when he won the college’s Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek and was awarded a Demyship scholarship to Magdalen College in Oxford.

On April 19, 1876, William Wilde died leaving the family financially strapped. His eldest son, Henry, paid the mortgage on the family’s house and supported them until his sudden death in 1877. Oscar continued to do well at Oxford. He was awarded the Newdigate prize for his poem, “Ravenna,” and a First Class in both his “Mods” and “Greats” by his examiners. After graduating he moved to London to live with his friend Frank Miles, a popular high society portrait painter. In 1881, Oscar published his first collection of poetry. “Poems” received mixed reviews by critics, but helped to further his writing career.

In December 1881, Oscar travelled to the United States to deliver a series of lectures on aesthetics. The tour, originally scheduled to last four months stretched to nearly a year, with over 140 lectures given in 260 days. In between lectures he found time to meet with such personages than Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman. He also arranged for his play, “Vera,” to be staged in New York the following year. Returning from America, he set off on a lecture tour of Britain and Ireland.

On May 29, 1884, Oscar married Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a prominent barrister who died when she was 16. She was well-read, spoke several European languages and had an outspoken, independent mind. Oscar and Constance had two sons in quick succession, Cyril in 1885 and Vyvyan in 1886. Now that he had a family to support, Oscar accepted a job revitalizing the Woman’s World magazine, where he worked from 1887 to 1889. The next six years were the most creative period of his life.  In 1888 he published “The Happy Prince and Other Tales” and “The House of Pomegranates” in1892. His first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in an American magazine in 1890 amid a storm of critical protest. He expanded the story and published it in book form the following year. Its implied homoerotic theme shocked the Victorians and played a considerable part in his later legal trials. Oscar’s first play, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” opened in February 1892 and the financial and critical success it received, prompted him to continue to write for the theater. In 1893 he wrote “A Woman of No Importance” followed by “An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” in1895. All three plays were highly acclaimed and firmly established Oscar as a playwright.

In the summer of 1891, Oscar met Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, the third son of the Marquis of Queensberry and the pair soon became lovers. When Douglas`s father  left a calling card at his home, calling him a sodomite, Oscar became outraged and sued the Marquis for libel. It proved to be the greatest mistake of his life.   

At the trial, Queensberry and his lawyers presented evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality—homoerotic passages from his literary works, as well as his love letters to Douglas, which quickly resulted in the dismissal of Wilde’s libel case and his arrest on charges of “gross indecency.” Wilde was convicted on May 25, 1895 and sentenced to two years in prison. In the meantime Constance took the children to Switzerland and reverted to an old family name, “Holland.”

When released from prison in 1897, Wilde was exhausted both physically and emotionally. He was also broke and went into exile in France, where, living in cheap hotels and friends’ apartments, he briefly reunited with Douglas. Wilde wrote very little during these last years; his only notable work was a poem he completed in 1898 about his experiences in prison, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”

Wilde died of meningitis on November 30, 1900 at the age of 46.

Originally buried in the Bagneaux Cemetery Oscar Wilde`s remains were moved to Père Lachaise – the French National Cemetery – on July 19, 1909. However, the famous tomb, sculpted by Jacob Epstein was not added until 1914. It is now visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

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1 Comment
  1. Posted February 5, 2013 at 7:24 am

    Very good article and share, thanks.

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