On 16th October 1854 in Dublin was born one of the most remarkable and controversial figures in the history of English literature or, indeed, of the literature of the world: Oscar Wilde.
He had the misfortune or perhaps the fortune to have been born and to have lived in the stiff-necked, prejudiced, and etiquette -ridden years of the Victorian Age.
A great deal of Wilde's character was directly attributable to his origin, and his career cannot be properly appraised without a brief outline of his ancestry.
Sir William Wilde, Oscars father, became one of the most aural surgeons and oculists of his day. He has been called 'the father of modern otology'. William Wilde was also an eminent archaeologist and wrote about a dozen books on Irish folklore, legend and tradition.
Jane Francesca Wilde wrote inflammatory political articles and poems under the pseudonym of Speranza. After her marriage her political enthusiasms and activities waned, and she settled down to domestic life. The Wildes had three children, two boys and a girl. The eldest, William Wills Wilde was born in 1853. One year later Oscar was born. His birth was somewhat of a disappointment to Jane, who had been quite certain the child was going to be the girl she longed for. It is worthy of note that in those days when boys were dressed in skirts long after they could walk, she kept the child in such clothes until the beginning of her third pregnancy in 1857. She got a girl, who was christened Isola Francesca and from the day of her birth she was idolised by the whole family. She died after a short illness at the age of ten. Many years later Oscar wrote the poem Requiescat in her memory.
When Oscar Wilde was ten years old and his brother twelve, they were both sent to Portora Royal School at Enniskillen. In spite of the difference in their ages the boys seem to have been in the same class. Whereas William was popular at school, Oscar was quite the reverse. He had little in common with his school-fellows as he disliked games and fighting and took more interest in flowers and sunsets. He discovered the dangerous and delightful distinction of being different from others. His main interests in scholarship were poetry and the classics, particularly Greek, for which he had an inordinate passion.
In October 1871, when he was just seventeen, he won an entrance scholarship to Trinity College in Dublin, which is the Protestant University of Ireland. There he remained for three years, and it was there that he fell under the spell of Professor Mahaffy, who was fascinated by Greek culture, and exercised a very considerable influence on Oscar's later life. Oscar Wilde undoubtedly learned a great deal of the art of conversation from Mahaffy.
He concluded his brilliant career at Trinity by winning a scholarship for Magdalen College in Oxford, and in October 1874 he went up to the University, where John Ruskin, Walter Pater and Cardinal Newman were to exert much influence on this twenty-year-old undergraduate. In the summer of 1875 Oscar Wilde made an extensive tour of northern Italy. It is to this visit that is owed the earliest known of Wildes poems. This Italian tour made a great impression on him and also increased his interest in the Roman Catholic Church, by putting into such close touch with so many buildings a nd works of art that had been inspired by it.
But a more important expedition took place in 1877 when Wilde and two other young men accompanied Mahaffy on a tour of Greece. He was enchanted by everything he saw there. He became more than ever absorbed in the Greek ideals of beauty. So absorbed that they overstayed their leave for a month.
In 1876 Wilde began seriously to write poetry and in this and the following two years he had a number of poems published, mostly in Oxford and in Irish magazines. This culminated in his competing, in his last year at Oxford, for the Newdigate Prize Poem, the chief prize for poetry at the university.
Wilde moved from London in 1879 and set about establishing himself as the leader and model of the aesthetic movement. His brother had found a niche in journalism and he helped him in his early struggles, introducing him to editors, who published his poems.
Then he met Lily Langtry, the most celebrated beauty of her day, and of course he fell violently in love with her as indeed did every man, from whom she ever took the slightest notice. It was now that Oscar Wilde began to have attention called to himself by his unconventional clothing. He wore velvet coats with contrasting braid, knee britches, loose-fitting wide-collared shirts with flowing ties and lavender-coloured gloves. He frequently carried a jewel-topped cane and was caricatured in the press flamboyantly attired and bearing an oversized sunflower - an icon for the movement.
Early in 1880 he wrote his first play 'Vera', centred round Nihilism in Russia, but it was not staged in London.
In 1882, short of money, Wilde accepted an invitation to embark on a lecture tour of America. He landed at New York on 2nd January and spent twelve months travelling the length and the breadth of the country addressing meetings of society ladies, students and even miners. His audiences were delighted by his charm, his wit, his voice and his elegance, but the critics were hostile. It says a very great deal for the strength of Oscars belief in his mission that he never allowed this kind of attack to perturb him and that he always kept his good humour. Wildes return from America brought him back to earth. In spite of the attitude of rather amused tolerance which he affected towards the New World, he certainly missed all the feting and flattery that had been upon him in the course of his lecture tour. He was back in the cold, hard, matter-of-fact atmosphere of England.
In 1883 February and March found Oscar Wilde in Paris, completing 'The Duchess of Padua'. This play had been written at the request of the actress Mary Anderson, but she did not like the finished work - a severe blow for the author who was in some financial need. In August he was present at the first performance of 'Vera' at the Union Square Theatre in New York. The play was a failure and was withdrawn within a week.
In November 1883 his engagement had been announced to Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a well-known barrister, who had died at a comparatively early age. Full of talent, passion and most of all, full of himself he married her on 29th May 1884. The honeymoon was spent in Paris. But this Garden of Eden could not last forever, and the stern realities of life had to be faced.
Oscar began to look round to decide, what to do next. He was now 30 years of age, married, his name known to everyone, with extravagant tastes, no money, no fixed occupation. Constances dowry was not sufficient to provide even the bare necessities of existence. In 1885 Wilde had not only himself and his wife to support, but also his first son Cyril. It was thus imperative that he should find employment. He became book reviewer on the 'Pall Mall Gazette' and frequently contributed to other magazines and reviews.
One year later Oscars second son Vyvyan was born. Also from 1886 dates his friendship with Robert Ross, a young Canadian houseguest. It was a friendship, that was to survive disgrace and imprisonment, and remain lifelong. He seduced Oscar and forced him finally to confront the homosexual feelings that had gripped him since his schooldays. Oscars works thrived on the realisation that he was gay, but his private life flew increasingly in the face of the decidedly anti-homosexual conventions of late Victorian society.
As his literary career flourished, the risk of a huge scandal grew ever larger. In 1887 Wilde was the editor of 'The Woman's World'. He also wrote and published some short stories. At the same time he was writing the fairy stories that were published in 1888 under the title 'The happy prince and other tales'. They are almost more in the nature of poems in prose than stories. In 1891 four books of very differing character were published: 'A House of Pomegranates', 'Lord Arthur Saviles crime', 'Intentions' and his best known work, the novel 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'.
The book represents a scathing assault on the bankrupt values of the English society. However, English society was not ready for either Wilde or his book, which scandalised the English reading public. Nevertheless this important work won high praise from more sophisticated readers. In 1892, on the first night of his acclaimed play 'Lady Windermeres Fan', Oscar was re-introduced to a handsome young Oxford undergraduate, the son of the Marquess of Queensberry, Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie. They were immediately attracted to each other. Bosie was taken with the brilliance of Wildes conversation and wit, and Oscar was mesmerised by the cocky, dashing and intelligent young man. He began the passionate and stormy relationship which consumed and ultimately destroyed him.
While he had only eyes for Bosie, he embraced the promiscuous world that excited his lover, enjoying the company of rent boys. In following the capricious and amoral Bosie, Oscar neglected his wife and children and suffered great guilt.
And then the dragon awoke. Alfreds father, the violent, eccentric, cantankerous Marquess of Queensberry, became aware that his son, whose unmanly and careless behaviour he despised, was cavorting around London with its greatest playwright Oscar Wilde.
Oscars aestheticism and preciosity had dready given rise to certain rumours and Queensberry added fuel to the fire. Matters came to a head with the Marquess forcing his way into Wildes house and repeating his accusations of unnatural practices. Oscar refused to be intimidated by Queensberry and continued his friendship with Alfred Douglas.
In 1895, some days after the triumphant first night of 'The Importance of Being Earnest' the Marquess insulted Oscar. Because of that Bosie, who hated his father, persuaded Oscar to sue the Marquess for libel. On 3rd April the case of Queensberry was opened and lasted three days at the end of which Sir Edward Clarke, Wildes counsel in all three trials, seeing the hopelessness of the position, withdrew from the case and a formal verdict of 'Not Guilty' was returned in Queensberrys favour. Oscar was urged by all his friends to go abroad and let the turmoil subside. But he was dazed by the disaster that had befallen him and refused to go. Three weeks elapsed between his arrest and his trial at the Old Bailey, where he stood in the same dock into which he had placed Lord Queensberry short time before. During those three weeks he was declared a bankrupt and the contents of his house were sold by public auction. Mr. Justice Charles presided at this first trial of Wilde on which a verdict of 'Not Guilty' was passed on certain counts.
He was recharged and on 20th May the second trial opened before Mr. Justice Wills. As homosexuality was itself illegal, Queensberry was able to destroy Oscars case at the trial by calling as witnesses rent boys who would describe Wildes sexual encounters in open court. The judge was obviously against Oscar from the very start and he summed up dead against him. It resulted in a verdict of 'Guilty' and Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour, the latter part in Reading Gaol. Unreformed conditions caused a calamitous series of illnesses and brought him to deaths door.
His wife fled the country with their children and changed the family name, always hoping that her husband would return to his family and give up Bosie, now also living in exile. When Oscar was released from prison in 1897, he tried to comply to Constances wishes, sending Bosie a deeply moving epic letter 'De Profundis', explaining why he could never see him again.
However, the intervals between visits of his friends became longer and longer and Wilde began to feel desperately lonely. Then Alfred Douglas, who had been responsible for his downfall and whom he had declared his attention of never seeing again, came to visit him. Love, passion, obsession and loneliness combined however to defeat prudence and discretion. Despite the certain knowledge that their relationship was doomed, Oscar was unable to resist temptation and he and Bosie were reunited. They went off to Italy together, where Wilde finished 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'.
In 1899 his wife died and he himself did not long survive her. In May 1899 he returned finally to Paris. By this time he realised that the future held nothing for him and he made no effort to do any more creative work.
In the middle of the following year he began to suffer from intermittent headaches, and on 30th of November 1900 he died in the Hôtel d'Alsace in Paris. He was buried three days later in the presence of Robert Ross, Reginald Turner and Alfred Douglas.