The Life and Times of Oscar Wilde

by Jessica Brain

One of the most popular and controversial literary figures of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde was a celebrated playwright, poet and novelist, famous for his satire and sharp wit.

He was an unconventional figure of his day, well known for his colourful and flamboyant style both in prose and in dress.

In his time he caused quite a stir, with some deeming his work to be immoral. Nevertheless, his satirical plays still garnered considerable interest and drew large audiences.

Some of his most famous work includes “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, which initially received a poor rating from his Victorian counterparts, only to become one of his most well-known works.

His story begins in Dublin. He was born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde to a father who had been knighted for his work in the medical profession and a mother whose poetry would later inspire her own son’s future writing.

From an early age, Wilde demonstrated his propensity for the artistic and literary world, particularly extolling the virtues of the classics of Greece and Rome.

After excelling in his early education, young Oscar went on to achieve a scholarship allowing him to attend Trinity College in Dublin. In less than a year at the college he was already making his mark, having achieved the highest grades in the year and also receiving a second scholarship.

During this time, his academic prowess and literary skills flourished, so much so that in 1874 he graduated and received the highest award, the Berkeley Gold Medal, for best student in Greek.

As a young adult, the opportunity for him to study at Oxford was a natural progression for someone displaying such talent and potential. It was at Magdalen College, Oxford where he would continue to excel in his academic studies and begin to dabble in the field of creative writing.

His poetry became an instant hit and on the year of his graduation he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for the best English verse composition with his poem, “Ravenna”.

Whilst he was at Oxford, he fell under the influence of art critic John Ruskin and Walter Pater, famous essayists. Their works would illustrate the approaches to art and intellectualism which began to characterise nineteenth century Europe.

The artistic movement which took centre stage and in which Oscar Wilde immersed himself, was called aestheticism. Perhaps most succinctly, the movement was characterised by the phrase: art for art’s sake. The focus of their work whether it was literary, art, or design, was primarily on the aesthetics. The emphasis on the beauty of the composition, rather than the contextual background of social, economic or political ramifications characterised the work of this era.

Beauty in all its forms was to be explored and throughout his career, Wilde became a representative of this ideal.

With his academic prowess firmly established at Oxford, upon graduation Wilde moved to London alongside his good friend Frank Miles, an artist popular in London social circles.

Only two years after moving to the capital he released his first publication entitled, “Poems”, an assortment of poetry which received a mixed reaction, with many critics deeming his work to be distinctly aesthetic but also unoriginal.

Despite this setback, his publication did garner enough attention for him to be considered a promising newcomer in the world of writing. In his next move, he would travel to the Big Apple in America to go on a lecture tour which lasted nine months.

In this short time, Wilde mixed with a variety of characters, including the famous American poet, Walt Whitman whom Wilde greatly admired.

When he returned home, after the success of his American lecture tour Wilde decided to embark on a tour of the British Isles which lasted until 1884.

In this time, his poetry and his academic lectures helped to firmly establish him in literary circles and he became a leading light of the aesthetic movement, emphasising beauty over socio-political interpretations.

Whilst his career grew from strength to strength, his personal life would be dogged by rumours of infidelity and scandal.

In 1884, he married a wealthy Englishwoman by the name of Constance Lloyd and settled down, having two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. As he continued to establish himself in London, he was asked to take over the running of an English magazine that was beginning to lose its popularity called the “Lady’s World”.

Oscar, Constance and Cyril Wilde

Wilde accepted the challenge and successfully reversed the magazines fortunes by transforming its focus from fashion to a complete lifestyle publication on all aspects of women’s lives.

It was at this time, whilst he worked as editor of the magazine that he embarked on one of the most successful periods of his career, producing great and varied works that have since become popular classics of English literature.

In 1888, many years after his first publication of poetry, Wilde published a very different kind of literature, this time for children called, “The Happy Prince and Other Tales”.

A few years later, he turned his attentions to the movement of which he had become a figurehead and produced a selection of essays in defence of aestheticism and the values it represented.

Perhaps one of his most famous works, which turned out to be his only novel, was also published in the same year. A story of a man who lives a debauched life with pleasure as his main goal, the young Dorian Gray was the epitome of aestheticism and was said to have been a reflection of Wilde himself.

The hedonism characterised by the novel shocked Victorian readers and greatly offended the sensibilities of the conventional classes who were not ready for the shocking decadence described in his one and only novel.

Despite this, by the 1890’s, Wilde was one of the most successful and well-known literary figures. Celebrated as a playwright, he certainly made his mark on the stage. The plays which gained most traction were his comedies such as “An Ideal Husband” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan”.

In 1895 his play “The Importance of Being Earnest” proved highly popular and was an instant hit, drawing large crowds in London’s West End. Sadly, this success proved short-lived and marked the zenith of his career, with his turbulent personal life destined to take centre stage.

Whilst Wilde explored themes of luxury, decadence and debauchery in his literature, much of it served as a mirror to his own life. After only seven years of being married to his wife, Wilde embarked on an affair with man nicknamed “Bosie”, also known as Lord Alfred Douglas, a young aristocrat and poet.

Osacr Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

At the time, homosexuality was a crime and their love affair was kept secret, however Douglas’ father, after discovering the relationship, was determined to make a spectacle of Wilde and ruin his career.

The Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas’ father, arranged to disrupt Wilde’s play at the West End and present him with a bouquet of rotting vegetables; however, Wilde was able to intervene and prevent him from entering. Inevitably, the quarrel escalated and soon entered the public domain when Queensberry left a card at the Albemarle Club which exposed and accused Wilde of homosexuality.

This caused outrage and immediately close friends of Wilde who knew of his sexuality urged him to flee to France where they had already decriminalised homosexuality in 1791.

Unfortunately, Wilde chose to ignore this advice and instead took the argument to the courts by suing the Marquess for defamation, a case which Wilde lost, costing him his career as well as a spell in prison.

His homosexuality and infidelity would ultimately lead to his downfall and public disgrace.

The accusations of libel levelled at the Marquess did not hold and the attention of the court immediately turned to Wilde’s sexuality, with a number of witnesses called upon to testify to the sight of young men entering Wilde’s bedroom.

The trial ended with no verdict from the jury forcing a retrial a few weeks later which convicted Wilde of gross indecency and a sentence of two years of hard labour.

In May 1895 he began his prison sentence and was put to work. Inevitably, his health deteriorated considerably and in 1897, upon his release, he was shadow of his former self.

Now in exile in Paris, he spent the last three years of his life in poverty, composing his last work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. In November 1900 he passed away at the age of forty-six.

He was a notorious figure who would be remembered for both for his unorthodox, dramatic and scandalous private life as well as his unconventional, creative, intelligent literary creations which provoked and entertained, much like the man himself.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.

Published: July 8th, 2021.

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