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Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

24 February 2021

7 mins

Author: Sam Chambers

An Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde is well remembered for his plays but also the details of his private life that became a public scandal before his early death aged 46. Wilde studied Greats at Magdalen College Oxford, and it was whilst at Oxford Wilde became known for his involvement in the aesthetic and decadent movements. This led to him wearing long hair, refusing “manly” sports and decorating his room with peacock feathers, sunflowers and blue china. In his third year Wilde met Walter Pater, who would have a huge influence over Wilde. Pater’s book Studies was once described by Wilde as “that book that has had such a strange influence over my life” and led to Wilde becoming devoted to art. In 1878 he won the Newdigate Prize for his poem “Ravenna” and he graduated with a double first in his B.A. of Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores (Greats).

In the following years Wilde lived off inheritance from the sale of his Father’s house and setup in London looking for work. He continued to publish lyrics and poems in magazines which he had done since his time at Oxford. In 1881 he published “Poems” which featured revised workings of his previous works. It sold out quickly but was poorly reviewed by critics.

The following year Wilde was invited to tour North America, mainly due to his work on Aestheticism. The tour was planned for four months but due to commercial success lasted nearly a year. The press often criticised with one noting of Wilde “whose only distinction is that he has written a thin volume of very mediocre verse”.

On returning to London he was introduced to Constance Lloyd, a daughter of a wealthy Queen’s counsel. Marrying in 1884 the couple had two sons together. Around 1886, Wilde met Robert Ross, who was aware of Wilde’s work. Ross was seemingly undeterred by the Victorian banning of homosexuality and became estranged from his family determined to seduce Wilde. Wilde himself had previously alluded to interested in “Greek Love” and his marriage had begun to fail after his wife’s second pregnancy. He continued to support his family taking work in journalism, initially thriving in his new role but eventually found his interest on the wane as the commuting and office work became tedious.

Wilde eventually began writing again, with numerous publications in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s. One of his more famous novels “The Picture of Dorian Grey” was published in 1890. The novel drew criticism for its decadence and homosexual allusions. During this time, Wilde also built a career in theatre and his productions include “Salome”, “Lady Windermere’s Fan and “An Ideal Husband”.

In 1891, a friend introduced Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas who, at the time, was studying at Oxford. He was handsome and privileged and an intimate relationship began between the two men. Douglas was spoilt by Wilde who by this time earnt a good amount of money as a playwright. Douglas eventually introduced Wilde to the Victorian underground of gay prostitution and through Alfred Taylor, Wilde was introduced to a number of young male prostitutes. Wilde would offer them gifts and dine with them privately before taking them to his hotel room.

In 1894, Wilde was confronted by the Marquess of Queensberry, Lord Alfred’s Father, about the pairs relationship and warned Wilde never to see him again. It was during the same year Wilde completed his most famous work, The Importance of Being Earnest. It was first performed on the 14th February 1895 and received immediate acclaim.

Just a few days after the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest, the Marquess left a calling card at Wilde’s club accusing him of posing as a sodomite. Wilde took legal action for libel and a court battle began, despite Wilde being encouraged to flee to France by friends. Details of Wilde’s personal life became public knowledge during the trial after Queensberry’s lawyers had a team of private detectives interrogate the underworld. The details of Wilde’s association to blackmailers, male prostitutes, cross-dressers and homosexual brothels were recorded. When the trial opened the weight of evidence stacked against Wilde and caused scenes of mass hysteria in the press and public galleries. Wilde was noted to declare “I am the prosecutor in this case”. Letters and works of Wilde’s that had implied homosexuality were used against him to show immorality, Wilde defended his work with a defence that work could not be immoral only well or poorly made.

After Wilde and his legal team were made aware male prostitutes would testify against him, Wilde dropped his legal challenge and the trial ended. Shortly after leaving the court a warrant for Wilde’s arrest was issued, for the crimes of sodomy and gross indecency. Wilde hid in a hotel with some friends who again told him to flee, his Mother told him to stay and fight. Wilde was arrested on the 6th April 1895 pleading not guilty. His former lovers Ross and Douglas fled for fear of arrest.

His trial began within a few weeks of his arrest and in the end, the jury was unable to reach a verdict and Wilde posted bail. But the accusations and legal challenges continued and Wilde’s final trial was in the May and he was eventually convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labour, the maximum sentence. On sentencing the judge commented the sentence was “totally inadequate for a case such as this”, and that the case was “the worst case I have ever tried”. Wilde’s response “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” was unheard as cries of “Shame” filled the courtroom.

Wilde was incarcerated between May 1895 and May 1897 at various different prisons in London. Initially he was not allowed books or anything to write with but this was eventually granted after the help of a liberal MP and reformer, Richard B. Haldane. Wilde wrote a 50,000 word letter to Douglas and although he was not allowed to send it, he was able to take it with him on his release.

On his departure from prison, in May 1897, he left for France, never to return to the UK. His health had been in decline due to the conditions and diet in prison and he was impoverished with a tarnished reputation. He continued to write including The Ballad of Reading Gaol as well as letters to various newspapers. He reunited with Douglas and for a time they lived together in Naples, but eventually pressure from their families meant they went their separate ways.

At the turn of the century Wilde was almost entirely confined to his hotel room, occasionally leaving to buy alcohol. He once joked that “My Wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has to go”. In October 1900 he sent a telegram to Robert Ross saying he was weak and asking for him to visit. He was very depressed and was having dreams of death that he recounted to friends. By November of 1900, Wilde had developed meningitis, Ross arrived on the 29th and sent for a priest and Wilde was baptised. The following day he died, aged 46. Oscar Wilde was buried outside Paris and there is a tomb commissioned by Robert Ross for him. His work has stood the test of time and is still adapted and performed to this day.

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