Given the name of this blog, Wilde About History, I thought it would be remiss not to write about Oscar Wilde, one of the most important writers of the 19th century and a prominent LGBT+ figure in a period of great repression.
Born in 1854 in Dublin, Wilde’s parents were part of the intellectual milieu of Dublin society. Notable figures such as George Petrie, Samuel Ferguson and Sheridan Le Fanu greatly influenced Oscar growing up as their family home became a focal point for the intellectuals of Dublin. Home-schooled until the age of nine, Oscar then attended the Portora Royal School in County Fermanagh. Oscar left Portora to read classics at Trinity College, Dublin in 1871 with a royal scholarship. Here, Oscar mixed with scholars like Arthur Palmer, R. Y. Tyrell and his tutor J. P. Mahaffy. An outstanding student at Trinity and a member of the University Philosophical Society with a passion for aestheticism, Wilde would compete for a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford- winning easily due to his extensive study of Greek.
From 1874 to 1878, Oscar studied Literae Humaniores at Magdalen, becoming well known for his role in the aesthetic and decadent movements. Oscar was effeminate during his time at Oxford. He wore his hair long, scorned masculine sports and decorated his room with lilies, sunflowers and peacock feathers. Yet Oscar showed incredible strength of character during these times, even single-handedly fighting off four students who physically attacked him. Oscar had been a writer for years, writing Resquiescat aged 12 following the death of his younger sister Isola. In 1878, Oscar won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for Ravenna. In November of that same year, he graduated with a double first in his B.A. of Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores.
Graduating from Oxford, Oscar returned to Dublin. Unsure of what to do next, he wrote to acquaintances to enquire about a position at Oxford or Cambridge University. Yet with no positions forthcoming, Oscar moved to London as a bachelor with the last of his fathers inheritance. Oscar spent the next six years splitting his time between London and Paris, travelling occasionally to the U.S. to deliver lectures on aestheticism.
In 1881, aged 27, Oscar published Poems which collected, revised and expanded the poems and lyrics which Oscar had been publishing since his time at Trinity. The book was well-received and sold out in its first edition. In August 1883, Oscar’s first play Vera opened in New York to lukewarm reviews, closing a week after its opening.
In 1884, Oscar married Constance Lloyd having been introduced to her in 1881. The couple had infamously luxurious tastes and their marital home was renovated for seven months to reach the standards expected of such luxurious figures.
Between 1885 and 1887, Oscar worked as a contributor to the Pall Mall Gazette and other journals, writing astute columns on subjects as diverse as art, life and Irish Nationalism. In mid-1887, Oscar became the editor of The Lady’s World, renaming it The Woman’s World and adding serious articles on politics and culture. Oscar became such an important contributor to the success of The Woman’s World that the magazine ended publication just after he left the helm.
Finding his voice in prose, Oscar released The Happy Prince and Other Tales in 1888 along with The Portrait of Mr W. H. (1889), Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (1891) and A House of Pomegranates (1891). The Picture of Dorian Grey was also released around this time (originally written in 1890 but the longer, book form was released in 1891). Criticised instantly for its decadent literary style and allusions to homosexuality by some critics, while others simply dismissed it as mediocre. Yet, modern critics hail this work as a prime example of late-Victorian Gothic fiction.
Returning to theatre, Oscar opened The Duchess of Padua in New York in 1891, having written it in 1883. Derivative of William Shakespeare, the play garnered lacklustre reviews before closing three weeks after the premiere. With his inspiration renewed by the salons littéraires of Paris in 1981, Oscar rapidly wrote the tragedy Salomé, written in French which was well-received but was not performed until 1896 in Paris. Oscar followed Salomé with the wildly popular Lady Windemere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893) and An Ideal Husband (1894), quintessentially British plays which were received well both commercially and critically. Oscar’s true masterpiece though was written in 1894, The Importance of Being Earnest, performed in 1895 to acclaim and triumph.
Yet it was Wilde’s personal life that would come to overshadow his professional success. In 1886, Robert Ross, having read Oscar’s poetry before their meeting was determined to seduce Oscar as a seventeen year old and did so, opening Oscar’s world to his homosexuality. In 1891, Oscar began an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, also known as Bosie. Following a libellous claim of homosexuality, Oscar sued Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry. Wilde lost the trial and details of his private life were publicly revealed causing scandal during the trial, leading to Oscar being arrested and put on trial for gross indecency, being sentenced to two years of hard labour. While in prison, Oscar composed the letter De Profundis which was released posthumously. Wilde was released with his health incredibly damaged from the hard labour and his reputation in tatters. He lived in Europe for the remainder of his life. In this period he produced his final publication The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). He died in Paris in 1900.
Nevertheless, Oscar Wilde should be remembered as one of the greatest intellectuals and writers of the 19th century, a man whose work stands the test of time and a character of outstanding interest in the area of LGBT+ history.