Oscar Wilde was born on the 16thOctober 1854 in Dublin, to parents William Wilde an eye surgeon, and Jane Francesca Wilde, a literary writer, better known by her pseudonym “Speranza.”
His early education, commenced at home, learning French and German, until he was nine. Then he attended the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, then onto Trinity College in Dublin from 1871-1874, where he read the classics.
His tutor J.P.Mahaffy enlightened Wilde about all things Greek, and they worked together on the book “Social Life in Greece.” In a quote Wilde referred to Mahaffy, as my first and best teacher, whilst Mahaffy is quoted as saying; I created Oscar Wilde.
During his time at Trinity College he became an active participant of the Philosophical Society and went on to present a paper, “Aesthetic Morality.” He won the Berkeley Gold Medal for his studies, and went on to study at Magdalene College, Oxford, from 1874-1878.
His life at Oxford would change his outlook on life, and where he was going…
Wilde had wit, talent and charm, and had a place in London’s society life, and styled himself upon Bunthorne, from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera “Patience.”
However, there was more to Wilde, than the man associated with London’s society life.
Wilde, was a member of Oxford’s Apollo Masonic Lodge, and let it be known, he was in the process of considering leaving, for it was his intention to convert from the Protestant faith to Catholicism. Shock waves would rumble at such a suggestion among his peers.
Pope Pius IX granted Wilde an audience in Rome in 1877. Then he went on to have meetings with the Reverend Sebastian Bowden, a priest from the Brompton Oratory.
So what changed his mind on the subject of converting from Protestant to Catholic, one will never know, all we can do is surmise. One suggestion could be the threat by his father to cut off his allowance, and the loss of money is a powerful persuasion. Whatever the actual reason, he backed out at the last minute, maybe he came to his senses before it was too late. Wilde may not have converted to Catholicism, but he retained a keen interest in the faith.
In 1877 he met Walter Pater, writer of “Studies in the History of the Renaissance” which was published in 1878. A copy of which he would always carry with him in later years.
1878 was a good year for Wilde. He won the Newdigate Prize for his poem “Ravenna” which he read at Encaenia. Then in November graduated from Oxford with a B.A. in “Classical Moderations and Literature Humaniores.”
Following his graduation, Wilde returned to Dublin, wanting to share his success with his childhood sweetheart; Florence Balcombe. His intentions had been honourable, but her love led her into the arms of another; Bram Stoker, who became a well known writer of horror stories. A gutted and distraught Wilde, felt he had no choice but to return to England. As his funds faded, he earned money, delivering lectures in London, Paris and New York. He was now living a hand to mouth existence.
In the summer of 1881, he published a collection of poems, and went on to present copies to many of his peers. The Oxford Union rejected the book on the grounds of plagiarism, yet the public loved them.
That same year a caricature of Wilde appeared in the Punch magazine. Part of his caption read: “What’s in a name. The poet is Wilde. But his poetry’s tame.” For they were less enthusiastic of his works.
In 1882, Wilde was invited to tour North America by Richard D’oyly Carte, with the aim of selling his charm to the American public. It became an overnight success, and a four month tour lasted over a year.
His aim was to take the beauty from art, and add it to daily life. He had a reputation whilst at Oxford, for surrounding himself with blue china and lilies, and gave lectures on the merits of interior design. For he believed, pleasure and beauty put forward in an artist’s work, were not limited to one’s individual ethical beliefs.
The Springfield Press, criticised his behaviour in Boston with caricatures, and comments, saying his actions had more to do with notoriety, than the true devotion to that of beauty. Press receptions were often hostile, yet he drank with local miners, and often frequented fashionable drinking houses, making a name for himself.
In the early part of 1883, he moved to Paris, where he met Robert Sherard, and they wined and dined often, and Wilde was often heard to say: “We are dining on the Duchess tonight,” it was a reference to his play, “The Duchess of Padua.”
In August 1883, he returned to New York for the production of his play, “Vera” the audience loved it, but the critics review killed it, and it closed its doors within a week.
In 1884 he lectured in Dublin, there he met his future wife; Constance Lloyd, and they were married on the 29thMay 1884 at St.James Church in Paddington. They were blessed with two children; Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886), for whom he wrote “The Happy Prince,” a book of fairy tales.
Wilde’s marriage was falling apart before his very eyes, just after his second child was born. Robert Ross initiated Wilde into the life of homosexuality, and this change his future life.
During the years 1885-1887, Wilde became a regular contributor to the Pall Mall Gazette, sharing his views on art, literature and life. Like his parents before him, he supported the cause of Irish Nationalism. It was at this time, Charles Stewart Parnell was falsely accused of inciting murder, and Wilde defended his actions in the Daily Chronicle, with a collection of articles.
In the summer of 1887, Oscar Wilde the family man became editor of “The Lady’s World Magazine,” and promptly renamed it, “The Woman’s World,” in an attempt to raise its tone, with serious articles on parenting, politics, life and art. Some two years later in the autumn of 1889, he left to concentrate on prose writings.
Between 1889 and 1891, Wilde published: Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime, The House of Pomegranates, which he dedicated to his wife Constance. Along with The Portrait of Mr. W. H. This is based upon the theory that the Sonnets written by William Shakespeare were written out of the poet’s love for one Willie Hughes, designed as a rather controversial story asking more questions about the character, than giving answers. Wilde’s interest in journalism had wavered somewhat, which saw a collection of longer prose pieces being published.
In 1890, Wilde published his one and only novel: “The Picture of Dorian Gray. His critics gave it bad reviews, possibly because of its links to homosexuality. Wilde responded to the comments made by the Scots Observer, and revised the story, adding six new chapters in time for its 1891 release.
In October 1891, Wilde returned to Paris, this time as a respected and published writer. During his time there wrote the play “Salome.” The then Lord Chamberlain refused a licence for it to be performed in England, since it depicted characters from the bible. The play was published in Paris and London in 1893, and performed in Paris in 1896.
Wilde irritated Victorian England with his outrageous dress sense, then took it a step further with his novel: Dorian Gray, based on the world of vice, hidden beneath art.
In 1892, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” the first in a collection of comedies was performed at St.James Theatre, and became an overnight success as it toured the country. In 1893, “A Woman of No Importance,” was released, then followed by “An Ideal Husband,” in 1894, and “The Importance of Being Ernest,” in 1895.
In the summer of 1891, Wilde was introduced to Alfred Douglas, and their friendship grew into an affair. Wilde was discreet, but Douglas was reckless, for he did not care who knew. It wasn’t long before he was introduced into the world of gay prostitution.
Wilde having been accused by Alfred’s father the Marquess of Queensbury of the intense friendship came to a head in 1895, when he was imprisoned for homosexual offences, and served two years hard labour.
On the 19thMay 1897, Wilde was released and it was obvious his health had suffered from such an experience. He left for France, and would never set foot on English soil for the remainder of his life.
He lived in Dieppe for two years, during which time he wrote of the cruelties of prison life, which led to the Prison Act of 1898. He followed up by writing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” whilst he stayed in the village of Bernaval-sur-Mer. In May 1899, returned to Paris, and lived the life of a beggar.
He knew his life was coming to an end. His last act before death, was being baptised into the Catholic Church on the 29thNovember, and on the 30thNovember 1900, he died of cerebral meningitis aged 46.
His tomb can be found in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Oscar Wilde lived life to the full, yet his downfall was one of his own making. It is sad that such a distinguished writer should die in poverty, an outcast in his time.
He will always be remembered for his works…