Childhood & Early Years
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on 16 October 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. His father, Sir William Robert Wills Wilde, was a noted eye-ear surgeon. He also authored a number of books on medicine, archeology and folklore. In 1864, he was knighted for his services in the censuses of Ireland.
His mother, Jane Francesca Agnes (née Elgee) Wilde, was of Italian descent. She was a poetess, writing under the penname of ‘Speranza’, meaning hope. A supporter of Irish nationalist movement, many of her works were pro-Ireland and anti-British. She was also interested in Irish folktales and campaigned for women’s education.
Oscar was born second of his parents’ three children. His elder brother, William Charles Kingsbury Wilde, grew up to be a noted journalist and poet while his sister, Isola Francesca Emily Wilde, died of meningitis at the age of nine.
Oscar also had three half-siblings, Henry Wilson, Emily and Mary Wilde, born out of wedlock to Sir Wilde before his marriage to Jane. Henry William Wilde was later trained in medicine and assisted Sir Wilde in his practice in Dublin.
Up to the age of nine, Oscar Wilde was educated at home under a German governess and a French nurse. From them, he learned German and French respectively.
In 1864, he was enrolled at Portora Royal School, then a boarding school in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Here, he became especially interested in Greek and Roman studies, receiving prizes as the best Classics student in his last two years there.
In 1871, Oscar Wilde graduated from Portora with a Royal School Scholarship to study classics at Trinity College, Dublin. Here he quickly established himself as an outstanding student.
Among his teachers at Trinity was John P. Mahaffy, who inspired Wilde to study Greek literature and also taught him to love “Greek things”. In the year-end examination in 1872, Wilde secured first position in Classics.
Again in the year-end examination in 1873, Wilde was awarded the Foundation Scholarship. He also became a member of the University Philosophical Society, taking regular part in its proceedings. Sometime now, he was drawn towards the theory of aestheticism and presented a paper called ‘Aesthetic Morality’.
In 1874, he graduated from Trinity, winning the Berkeley Gold Medal, the highest medal for Greek. Thereafter, he entered Magdalen College, Oxford with a Demyship. Among his teachers here were John Ruskin and Walter Pater, who impressed upon him the importance of art in life.
Wilde was especially impressed by Pater, who advised his students “to burn always with hard, gemlike flame.” He soon became famous for his role in the aesthetic movement. Wearing his hair long and decorating his rooms with peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers, blue china, he openly scorned manly sports.
This was also the time he first established himself as a poet and in 1878, won the coveted Newdigate Prize with his long poem, ‘Ravenna’. In the same year, he graduated from Oxford with a double first in his B.A. of Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores.
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On his graduation in 1878, Oscar Wilde returned to Dublin for a brief period. By now, his father had died virtually bankrupt. The family now sold the house and with his share of legacy Wilde moved to London, where he put up with portraitist Frank Miles, popular in London’s high circle.
He wrote to various friends in Oxford and Cambridge, trying unsuccessfully for a position in classics. Concurrently, he concentrated on writing new poetry, expanding and revising old ones, which he published as ‘Poems’ in mid 1881. Although the work received mixed reviews it established him as an upcoming poet.
Also in 1881, he secured his first job as an art reviewer. However, he left it towards the end of the year, to embark on a lecture tour in the United States and Canada on the invitation of Richard D'Oyly Carte, an English talent agent and impresario.
In the USA
Oscar Wilde reached New York City on 2 January 1882. Although the tour was originally planned for four months, because of its commercial success, it was extended for almost a year. During this period, he delivered around 140 lectures, mostly on aestheticism.
Wherever he went, he mixed with every class of people. He drank whiskey with miners in Leadville and Colorado and at the same time, visited the most fashionable salons in cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, dining with celebrities like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman.
Although the press was a little hostile to him, the public was intrigued by his dress code and odd character. He also admired many things about America, especially its democracy and universal education. He therefore, returned to Great Britain rich, both in money matters and experience.
Return to Great Britain
On his return to Great Britain, Oscar Wilde embarked on another lecture circuit across England and Ireland, which would last up to the middle of 1884. Meanwhile sometime between February and Ma 1883, he went to Paris for three months and there he completed his play, ‘The Duchess of Padua’.
Very soon Wilde was able to establish himself as a leading proponent of aesthetic movement and became famous for it. Apart from his literally pursuits, he began to contribute regularly as a reviewer in ‘Pall Mall Gazette.’
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From 1887, Wilde found employment as the editor of ‘Lady’s World,’ a magazine that dealt in women’s fashion and had lost its popularity in recent years. Soon, he was able to revive the magazine by incorporating women’s viewpoints not only on art, literature and music, but also on modern life.
In 1888, while working as editor of ‘Lady’s World,’ Wilde published his first major work titled, ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’, a collection of children's stories. Next in 1889, he published another of his memorable works, ‘The Decay of Lying’.
In July 1889, he left his job to concentrate on his literary ambition. His only novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ appeared in the July 1890 edition of ‘Lippincott's Monthly Magazine.’
Although the editor of the magazine had deleted roughly 500 words it was criticized by the reviewers for decadence and homosexual allusions. However, Wilde defended his work and in 1891, he had it published in book form.
In 1891, apart from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, he had five other major works published. Among them, ‘Intentions’ consisted of previously published essays. Others were ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’, ‘Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories’, ‘A House of Pomegranates’ and ‘Salome’.
Wilde then continued to produce more plays, many of which satirized the upper class society. Falling in this category were ‘Lady Windermere's Fan’ (1882) and ‘A Woman of No Importance’ (1893), both of whichwere highly successful.
Contrarily, ‘An Ideal Husband’, a work which Wilde started in the summer of 1883, revolved around blackmail and political corruption. Just like ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, which he wrote in the summer of 1894, ‘An Ideal Husband’ is also considered one of his masterpieces.
Personal Life & Legacy
On 29 May 1884, Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd, daughter of Horace Lloyd, a wealthy Queen's Counsel. The couple had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan.
In 1886, while Constance was pregnant with their second child, Wilde was seduced by seventeen-year-old Robert Baldwin Ross, the grandson of the Canadian reform leader Robert Baldwin. Subsequently, they developed a relationship and Ross became Wilde’s first male lover.
In 1891, Wilde met Alfred Douglas, son of John Douglas, 9th Marques of Queensberry, and developed an affair with him. Unable to stop the liaison, the Marques left his calling card at Wilde's club, inscribed: "For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite” on 18 February 1895.
Against his friends' advices, Wilde filed a suit of libel against the Marques. To protect himself, the Marques appointed detectives to find evidence about Wilde’s homosexuality and planned to portray him as the older man who habitually seduced the young and innocent. Many were also coerced to give evidence against Wilde.
Imprisoned for Sodomy
As evidence against Oscar Wilde mounted, a case of sodomy and gross indecency was filed against him. The prosecution, which opened on 26 April 1895, found him guilty on 25 May 1895. He was awarded with hard labor. On the same day he was sent to Newgate Prison.
He was subsequently shifted to Pentonvile and from there to Wandsworth Prison in London. Life in the latter place was too hard for Wilde’s delicate health. In early November 1895, he collapsed from hunger and illness, resulting in the rapture of his right ear drum.
On 23 November 1885, he was transferred to HM Prison Reading at the initiative of Liberal MP and reformer Richard B. Haldane and provided with reading as well as writing materials. Meanwhile his wife changed her and her sons' last name to Holland, thus dissociating themselves from Wilde's scandals.
It was here at Reading Gaol that he wrote a 50,000-word letter to Douglas. Written between January and March 1887, it was never delivered, but was partially published in 1905 as ‘De Profundis’ and fully published in 1962 as ‘The Letters of Oscar Wilde’.
Exile & Death
Wilde was released from prison on 18 May 1887 and immediately left for France, never to return to England. Very soon, he wrote ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, his last major work. Initially, the authorship was credited to C33, but when it became successful; his name was added to it.
Wilde lived for three more years, poor and desolate. His wife sent him three pence a week from her annual allowance. She refused to see him or allow him to see the children. Among his few friends, who remained loyal till the end, were author Reginald Turner and Robert Ross.
Sometime around 25 November 1900, Wilde developed meningitis, stemming from the ear wound he had developed in prison and died from it on 30 November 1900. Initially he was buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris.
On his death, Robert Ross became his literary executer. In 1900, he had Wilde’s remains transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery. The tomb, which took around ten months to complete, was built by sculptor Jacob Epstein while the plinth was built by Charles Holden. The inscription on it was carved by Joseph Cribb.
As per tradition, visitors used to kiss Wilde’s tomb after applying lipstick on their lips, thereby leaving a print on it. In 2011, the edifice was cleared of these marks and was made ‘kiss-proof’ by erecting a glass-case around it.
In 2017, as the Policing and Crime Act 2017 was enacted in UK, Wilde was officially pardoned for his offence as homosexuality is no longer a crime in England.