Oscar Wilde His wit was legendary. His literary works showed signs of brillianceand his lifestyle made him, for a time, among the most celebrated artists of the age… Yet his spectacular fall was unprecedented,only equaled in modern times by the disaster that was O.J. Simpson. In this week’s Biographics, we delve intothe outrageous life of (self proclaimed) genius Oscar Wilde. Beginnings.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde enteredthe world on October 16th, 1854. The flamboyance of his name was a portentof things to come. His parents were socially prominent Anglo-IrishProtestants, each with eclectic interests, a belief in national politics, and publishingcareers of their own. Oscar’s father, William, was a renownedphysician specializing in the eye and ear. He was a slight, unkempt figure with an uglybeard and a roving eye. But that did not stop him carrying on numerousaffairs throughout his marriage, and he fathered several illegitimate children. In contrast to her husband, Oscar’s mother,Jane, was especially elegant and statuesque.
Almost six feet tall, she towered over herhusband. She was a woman who ‘longed to make a sensation,’once stating that ‘I should like to rage through life – this orthodox creeping is tootame for me.’ And, well, you probably guessed that thiswas an attitude that her son would quickly embrace… When Oscar, her second son, was eight monthsold, Jane described him as ‘a great stout creature who minds nothing but growing fat.’ Jane had wanted a girl and is said to havedressed and treated Oscar as a daughter for the first decade of his life.
At age nine, Oscar, along with his older brotherWillie, was sent to his first school – the Portora Royal Boarding School, in Enniskillen,far in the Protestant north of Ireland. Oscar was younger than most of his peers. At first, he was eclipsed by his older brother,but by the time that Willie was set to leave Portora, he had been superseded academicallyby Oscar. In fact, the younger Wilde was intellectuallyfar ahead of his classmates. In 1889 he recalled . . . “I was looked upon as a prodigy by my associatesbecause, quite frequently, I would, for a wager, read a three-volume novel in half anhour so closely as to be able to give an accurate.
Resume of the plot of the story; by one hour’sreading I was enabled to give a fair narrative of the incidental scenes and the most pertinentdialogue.” Higher Education In 1871, Wilde won a scholarship to studyClassics at Trinity College, Dublin. He arrived there in 1873, aged 18. There he was tutored and befriended by ReverendJohn Pentland Mahaffy, Professor of Ancient History. Mahaffy inspired his pupil to be proficientin Greek and, in 1875, he won the prestigious Berkeley Gold Medal in Greek.
Three years later, in 1874, Oscar sailed toEngland to take the examination for a Classics scholarship at Oxford University. While awaiting the results, he went to Londonand was dazzled by his first taste of the metropolis. After that he headed off to another metropolis… Paris. It was there, with his mother and brother,that he received news that he had won his scholarship. He’d not only won it, but he’d achievedthe highest mark of the entire group….
Oscar made the most of his time at Oxford. It was during this time that he cultivatedhis aesthetic sensibilities, filling his room with lilies and spending vast portions ofhis father’s money upgrading the decor in his room. It was at this time that he famously said,‘I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.’ Wilde was never a fan of sport, but he enjoyedwatching others play cricket and run. He developed a reputation for his wit, proclaimingthat ‘the only possible exercise is to talk, not to walk.’.
Still he was no pushover. It is believed that once, while in his room,four undergraduates pounced on him to beat him up and smash his belongings. Wilde is said to have kicked out the firstinterloper, punched the second as he doubled over, hurled the third through the air, andcarried the last back to his own room and tossing him on the floor. It was during his time at Oxford that Wildebecame a Mason… He adopted the costume – velvet breeches,tailcoat, white tie and silk hose. But his extravagant lifestyle was dented inApril 1876 when his father died, leaving a.
Serious debt behind. Oscar though, he still managed to find a wayto indulge himself with semester holidays around Europe… Just prior to graduation in 1878, he consoledhis mother, distraught with financial worry that ‘we have genius – that is somethingattorney’s can’t take away.’ Oscar emerged with a degree from Oxford, anda clear vision of what was in store. In a remarkably prophetic couple of sentenceshe declared, ‘God knows, I won’t be a dried up Oxford don, anyhow. I cannot live without desire, fear and pain. . . self-poised, self centered and self.
Comforted. I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow, or other, I’ll be famous, and ifnot famous, notorious.’ In December 1878, Wilde moved to London. He shared a flat with Frank Miles, a fellowOxford graduate. During this time, he was introduced to manywriters, artists and actors. He soon gained a reputation for his wit, andbecame a favored dinner guest, where he would espouse his aesthetic values. He applied for various fellowships and eventried to become an inspector of schools.
Meanwhile he was working on his first play,Vera, which was privately printed in 1880. Vera was a story of noble socialism set in19th Century Russia. But, unfortunately for Wilde, the London AndNew York producers who Wilde sent the play to turned it down. Literary Beginnings In 1881, Oscar published sixty-one piecesof writing under the title Poems. An initial run of 750 copies sold out, withtwo further printings being required. Meanwhile, a play by the renowned team ofGilbert and Sullivan was, indirectly making Wilde famous.
It was called Patience and was a lampoon ofthe aesthetic culture that Wilde epitomized. The main character was clearly modeled onhim. By June of 1881, Wilde’s status was suchthat the Prince of Wales commented, ‘I do not know Mr. Wilde, and not to know Mr. Wildeis not to be known.’ Despite his ever growing reputation, Wildefound himself in tough financial straits. He was offered, and accepted, a series oflecture tours around America to coincide with the New York opening of Patience. He set sail on Christmas Eve 1881 to instructthe New World in ‘The English Art of Renaissance.’ On arrival, he told a New York customs officer,‘I have nothing to declare but my genius.’.
Don’t try this today anyone… Well, the Americans were fascinated by himand the original schedule would be extended repeatedly in response to public demand. It would last almost a year, and even extendedto Canada. Financially, he did very well out of the lecturetour. He stayed in New York for two months afterthe tour’s end. He then briefly returned to London in January1883, before relocating to Paris, where he immersed himself in artistic circles. He now made himself over physically.
He had his flowing locks transformed intoa bowl haircut and took to wearing a black overcoat… This was in great contrast to the flamboyantcolors that he was known for. In May, 1883, Wilde returned to London, apparentlymotivated by his interest in a woman named Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a prosperousLondon lawyer. For the last few years, despite his Americanearnings, Oscar had had money worries. The right marriage might solve them, whilealso answering growing gossip about his sexual character. A year-long courtship followed, with the marriagetaking place on 29th May, 1884.
They honeymooned in Paris and then, thanksto his new father-in-law’s money, occupied a four-story house in London. He then went ahead and had the place redecoratedat huge expense, which plunged the newlyweds into immediate debt. Wilde’s first child, Cyril, was born onJune 5th, 1885 with Vyvyan following on November 5th, 1886. With his writing career going nowhere, heagreed to a British lecture tour with topics such as ‘The Value of Art in Modern Life.’ Lecturing and other invitations kept him awayfrom the family home.
During his long absences he began to surroundhimself with young men, writing unguardedly of his infatuation with the beauty of themale form. He formed an especially close friendship witha seventeen-year-old named Robbie Ross… Success & Scandal During the late 1880’s, while bringing inmoney with occasional book reviews, Wilde worked on his first novel, The Picture ofDorian Gray. When the book was published in a magazinein 1890 it caused an immediate scandal. The storyline involved a subtly eroticizedtriangle of relationships between three men and was condemned by many as being immoral.
Wilde had predicted such an outcome, havingwritten the following in the preface “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoralbook. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” It was around this time that Wilde was introducedto a blond fair skinned undergraduate by the name of Lord Alfred Douglas, but who was knownto his intimates as Bosie. Oscar quickly became obsessed with the twenty-two-yearold… From this time on, Oscar saw Constance andhis children less often. He did his writings from rented addressesor hotels, usually with Bosie in tow….
Bosie’s father was the Marquis of Queensbury,the man who developed the rules of professional boxing. He took an immediate and intense exceptionto the relationship between his son and the famous Wilde. Apart from the homosexual aspect of theirrelationship, Queensbury was enraged that Wilde was distracting his son from his studiesat Oxford. When Bosie quit his studies in May, 1893,the Marquis became determined to bring down Wilde. It was around this time that Wilde finallyachieved success on the stage.
A Woman of No Importance opened on April 19th,1893 to widespread acclaim. During its long run, it brought him between170 and 200 pounds per week. His next play, the satire An Ideal Husband,was also successful, providing the means for Oscar and Bosie to travel widely and liveextravagantly. The Marquis of Queensbury thought his son’sfailure to take his degree in Oxford was a scandalous waste of time. He placed the blame squarely at the feet ofWilde, referring to the relationship as the ‘most loathsome and disgusting’. Queensbury began hounding the pair incessantly.
He threatened to disinherit Boise. To this the son replied in a telegram, ‘Whata funny little man you are!’ Queensbury didn’t like this one bit, andon the 19th of June, Queensbury burst in on Wilde at his Tithe Street address in London. He had a bodyguard with him and proceededto threaten bodily harm unless the relationship was immediately ended. And what was Bosie reaction to all this? Well, he wrote nonchalantly to his father,‘I write to inform you that I treat your absurd threats with absolute indifference.’.
The encounter though, it unsettled Wilde,who got out of London for several months, going on holiday with his family to Worthing. This is where he worked on his latest play,The Importance of Being Earnest. But it wasn’t long before Bosie, unableto stay away, invited himself along… As you might imagine this caused a certaindegree of tension between Mr. and Mrs. Wilde. Trials The Importance of Being Earnest opened togreat applause on February 14th, 1895. Two weeks later it was already a ‘wild’success… In true Oscar WIlde style is began baskingin the glow of this, Wilde called in at the.
Lavish Albemarle Club… There he was handed a card from Queensburyby a porter. On this card was scrawled, ‘To Oscar Wilde,posing sodomite.’ At Bosie’s urging, Wilde went to MarlboroughStreet police station to ask for a warrant for Queensbury’s arrest on grounds of libel. The case came to trial on April 3rd. Prosecuting Counsel, Edward Carson put onthe stand a sixteen-year-old ‘rent boy’ who claimed to have been paid for sex by Wilde. Carson then went on to dissect Wilde’s publishedworks, revealing their supposed homosexual.
Undertones… And how did WIlde react to this serious event? Well, he chose to wield his celebrated witas his main defensive tool… He was often funny, but the implicit superiorityin his position was also damaging. In one exchange, when Carson asked whetherthe affection and love that is portrayed in The Picture of Dorian Gray might lead an ordinaryindividual to believe it had a sodomitical tendency, Oscar replied, ‘I have no knowledgeof the ordinary individual.’ Not exactly endearing himself to anyone… Wilde’s counsel, Edward Clarke, made seriousmiscalculations that did his client no favors.
He went over letters that Queensberry hadsent to his son in an attempt to show how crazed the father had become… To the jury, though, Queensbury’s volatilitywas driven by a paternal regard for Bosie's character. As Carson put it, his client had one hopealone, and that was simply saving his son. On the third day of proceedings, with thingsgoing not exactly brilliantly… Wilde chose not to attend. This was to prove the most damaging day yet,with Carson announcing that he intended to introduce a number of boys who would testifyto ‘shocking acts’ performed by Oscar…
Without consulting with his client, Wild’slawyer, Clarke, offered to abandon the case. The defense, however, insisted that the originalplea stand. The judge agreed and compelled an acquittalfrom the jury. Queensbury was found not guilty of libel againstWilde. It had now been proven that his written accusationof sodomy was not libelous. Now this had another important consequence… It Wilde highly vulnerable to arrest for sodomy,which was a crime in England at the time. And, well this happened… At five in the evening of the day that thelibel case was decided, a summons was issued.
For the arrest of Oscar Wilde. The charge was ‘committing acts of grossindecency.’ Hiding in the Cadogan Hotel, Oscar was urgedby Bosie and others to take a boat immediately for France… Even his wife told him to run. However this just didn’t sit right withWilde. He was determined to stand his ground, declaring,‘I shall stay and do my sentence, whatever it is.’ At 6:10 pm, two detectives arrived, and tooka semi-drunk Wilde to Bow Street station.
The arrest of Oscar Wilde caused an absolutesensation. Any friends that he still had quickly driftedaway. Both of his currently running plays were cancelledand his name very quickly became toxic. Wilde was kept in a cell in Bow Street (thenin Holloway Prison). Queensbury now administered the low blow offorcing a bankruptcy sale of Oscar’s belongings, helped by a long list of angry creditors. By this time, Wilde was about £6000 in debt. After making sure that Oscar had nothing ofany physical value left, Queensbury wrote to a newspaper denying that he was capableof any sympathy for Wilde.
He stated ‘I have helped to cut up and destroysharks. I have no sympathy for them, but may havefelt sorry, and wished to put them out of pain as fast as possible.’ The trial ran from the 26th to the 29th ofApril. It was extraordinarily explicit in its allusionsto sexual acts, many coming from the young men who claimed to have been partakers. Various Savoy Hotel employees testified thatthey had seen boys in Wilde’s bed. However, Oscar’s counsel was able to pointout contradictions in the testimonies, especially those of the ‘rent boys.’.
This all meant that the jury were unable toreach a verdict. But WIlde was not out of the woods, as analmost immediate retrial began. Between the two trials, he managed to securebail, though stiff conditions were imposed… He tried to stay at a number of hotels, onlyto be told at each that he was unwelcome. He finally managed to find lodgings with hisbrother Willie. The second trial began on May 22nd at theOld Bailey. This time, after two hours of discussion,the jury returned with a verdict of guilty. The sentence? Two years hard labor.
Confinement Wilde was taken to Pentonville Prison. The wooden bed in his cell had sheets andrugs but no mattress. A tin pot was provided for his toilet. The prison clothes were not exactly his accustomedstyle of dress… Wilde was compelled to walk a treadmill senselesslyfor six hours each day, and allowed to exercise outdoors for one hour. He was also forced to make postal bags. For three whole months he had no outside contact,and after that things were not much better,.
With him only being allowed to write one letter. The regime was brutal…Wilde recalling threepunishments authorized by law – hunger, insomnia and illness. In September 1895, he received a visit fromConstance who found the experience ‘awful, more so than any conception of it could be.’ Constance reported that Wilde professed arejection of his former conduct, and begged her forgiveness for his madness during thelast three years. She decided to stand by her ‘weak ratherthan wicked’ spouse. Still, she abandoned his name, referring toherself as Constance Holland.
When Bosie heard about Oscar’s rejectionof his former lifestyle he was heartbroken. He wrote, ‘I am not in prison but I thinkI suffer as much as Oscar and in fact more.’ That was probably not the case though… I mean, prison was pretty rough. In October, he actually came down with dysentery. On 21st November, he was transferred to ReadingPrison. At Clapham Junction station, he was spat onand ridiculed by the crowds. Here though conditions were improved and hisduties were lighter. He was released on May 19th, 1896.
Oscar was booked into the Hotel Sandwich inDieppe, Northern France, living off the generosity of the few friends who had stood by him. By now, Constance had decided on divorce and,suffering herself with spinal paralysis, put off any reunion. Between June and July 1897 Oscar wrote hislast major work, The Ballad of Reading Goal. The subject? Well that would be underlining the need forreform in Britain’s prison and justice systems… Life in Dieppe was excruciatingly lonely forOscar. Society at large shunned him and he spentday after day alone and miserable.
Finally, his resolve collapsed and he wroteto Bosie, inviting him to come and stay. They reconciled on August 28th, with Wildebursting into tears at the sight of his ‘one true love.’ When Constance heard of her husband’s behaviourshe wrote to him forbidding any return ‘to your filthy, insane life.’ When he refused to give up Bosie, she cuthim off completely… Once the initial passion subsided, it becameclear that both Wilde and Bosie were very different than their pre-trial selves. Bosie felt a duty to help Wide, but this wasno longer tied to love.
On December 3rd, Bosie left for Naples, anddid not return. Oscar’s last two years – mostly in Paris- where pitiful. He drank, hired men, and begged. Acquaintances were few. Constance Holland sadly died age forty afteran operation on her back on April, 7th, 1898. Then, in April, 1900 Wilde went with an acquaintancenamed Harold Mellor to Rome, where he received the Pope’s blessing. A month later he was in Paris and sufferingfrom ill-health, which he attributed to food poisoning.
His skin was irritable, frequently comingout in rashes. By September, he was completely bedridden. On October 10th, he was operated upon foran ear infection. The operation did not go well and he got worse. Still he insisted on drinking absinthe andchampagne. On November 25th a diagnosis of acute, inoperablecerebral meningitis was reached. From here on, Oscar drifted in and out ofconsciousness and even sanity. At half past five the following morning, adeath rattle began. Minutes after his demise, his body actuallysort-of exploded, fluid pouring out of several.
Orifices. Oscar Wilde died as he had lived – inappropriately,outrageously and with scant reference to what decorum demanded.