Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (October 16, 1854 – November 30, 1900) was an Irish playwright, novelist, poet, and author of short stories. Known for his barbed wit, he was one of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London, and one of the greatest celebrities of his day.
He was born in 1854 in Dublin and later studied at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford. After his love Florence Balcombe became engaged to Bram Stoker, Wilde left Ireland and spent the next few years in London, Paris, and the United States. He married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and the couple had two sons. As the result of a widely covered trial, Wilde suffered a dramatic downfall and was imprisoned for two years of hard labour after being convicted of the offence of "gross indecency."
Birth and early life
Oscar Wilde was the second son born into an Anglo-Irish family, at 21 Westland Row, Dublin, to Sir William Wilde and his wife Jane Francesca Wilde (née Elgee) (her pseudonym being Speranza). Jane was a successful writer, being a poet for the revolutionary Young Irelanders in 1848 and a life-long Irish nationalist. Sir William was Ireland's leading Oto-Ophthalmologic (ear and eye) surgeon and was knighted in 1864 for his services to medicine. William also wrote books on archaeology and folklore. He was a renowned philanthropist, and his dispensary for the care of the city's poor, in Lincoln Place at the rear of Trinity College, Dublin, was the forerunner of the Dublin Eye and Ear Hospital, now located at Adelaide Road.
In June 1855, the family moved to 1 Merrion Square in a fashionable residential area, where Wilde's sister, Isola, was born in 1856. Here, Lady Wilde held a regular Saturday afternoon salon with guests including Sheridan le Fanu, Samuel Lever, George Petrie, Isaac Butt and Samuel Ferguson. Oscar was educated at home up to the age of nine. He attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Fermanagh from the ages of nine to sixteen, spending the summer months with his family in rural Waterford, Wexford and at Sir William's family home in Mayo. Here the Wilde brothers played with the older George Moore.
After leaving Portora, Wilde studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1871 to 1874. He was an outstanding student, and won the Berkeley Gold Medal, the highest award available to classics students at Trinity. He was awarded a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he continued his studies from 1874 to 1878 and where he became a part of the Aesthetic movement, one of its tenets being to make an art of life. While at Magdalen, he won the 1878 Newdigate Prize for his poem Ravenna, which he read out at Encaenia; he failed, though, to win the Chancellor's English Essay Prize for an essay that would be published posthumously as The Rise of Historical Criticism (1909). In November 1878, he graduated with a double first in classical moderations and Literae Humaniores, or 'Greats'.
Marriage and family
After graduating from Oxford, Wilde returned to Dublin, where he met and fell in love with Florence Balcombe. She in turn became engaged to Bram Stoker. On hearing of her engagement, Wilde wrote to her stating his intention to leave Ireland permanently. He left in 1878 and was to return to his native country only twice, for brief visits. The next six years were spent in London, Paris and the United States, where he traveled to deliver lectures. Wilde's address in the 1881 British Census is given as 1 Tite Street, London. The head of the household is listed as Frank Miles with whom Wilde shared rooms at this address.
In London, he met Constance Lloyd, daughter of wealthy Queen's Counsel Horace Lloyd. She was visiting Dublin in 1884, when Oscar was in the city to give lectures at the Gaiety Theatre. He proposed to her and they married on May 29, 1884 in Paddington, London. Constance's allowance of £250 allowed the Wildes to live in relative luxury. The couple had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). After Oscar's downfall, Constance took the surname Holland for herself and the boys. She died in 1898 following spinal surgery and was buried in Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa, Italy. Cyril was killed in France in World War I. Vyvyan survived the war and went on to become an author and translator. He published his memoirs in 1954. Vyvyan's son, Merlin Holland, has edited and published several works about his grandfather. Oscar Wilde's niece, Dolly Wilde, was involved in a lengthy lesbian affair with writer Natalie Clifford Barney.
Aestheticism and philosophy
While at Magdalen College, Wilde became particularly well known for his role in the aesthetic and decadent movements. He began wearing his hair long and openly scorning so-called "manly" sports, and began decorating his rooms with peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers, blue china and other objets d'art.
Legends persist that his behaviour cost him a dunking in the River Cherwell in addition to having his rooms (which still survive as student accommodation at his old college) trashed, but the cult spread among certain segments of society to such an extent that languishing attitudes, "too-too" costumes and aestheticism generally became a recognised pose. Publications such as the Springfield Republican commented on Wilde's behaviour during his visit to Boston in order to give lectures on aestheticism, suggesting that Wilde's conduct was more of a bid for notoriety rather than a devotion to beauty and the aesthetic. Wilde's mode of dress also came under attack by critics such as Higginson, who wrote in his paper Unmanly Manhood, of his general concern that Wilde's effeminacy would influence the behaviour of men and women, arguing that his poetry "eclipses masculine ideals [.. that..] under such influence men would become effeminate dandies".
He also scrutinised the links between Oscar Wilde's writing, personal image and homosexuality, calling his work and lifestyle 'Immoral'. Wilde was deeply impressed by the English writers John Ruskin and Walter Pater, who argued for the central importance of art in life, an argument laced with a strongly philhellenic and homoerotic subtext. Wilde later commented ironically on Pater's suppressed emotions: on being informed of the man's death, he replied, "Was he ever alive?" Reflecting on Pater's view of art, he wrote, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "All art is quite useless". The statement was meant to be read literally, as it was in keeping with the doctrine of Art for art's sake, coined by the philosopher Victor Cousin, promoted by Theophile Gautier and brought into prominence by James McNeill Whistler. In 1879 Wilde started to teach Aesthetic values in London. The aesthetic movement, represented by the school of William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had a permanent influence on English decorative art. As the leading aesthete in Britain, Wilde became one of the most prominent personalities of his day. Though he was sometimes ridiculed for them, his paradoxes and witty sayings were quoted on all sides.
Aestheticism in general was caricatured in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience (1881). While Patience was a success in New York it wasn't known how much the aesthetic movement had penetrated the rest of America. So Richard D'Oyly Carte invited Wilde for a lecture tour of North America. D'Oyly Carte felt this tour would "prime the pump" for the tour of Patience, making sure that the ticket-buying public was aware of one of the movement's charming personalities. This was duly arranged, Wilde arriving on 3 January 1882, aboard the SS Arizona. Wilde is reputed to have told a customs officer "I have nothing to declare except my genius", although there's no contemporary evidence for the remark.
During his tour of the United States and Canada, Wilde was torn apart by no small number of critics—The Wasp, a San Francisco newspaper, published a cartoon ridiculing Wilde and Aestheticism—but he was also surprisingly well received in such rough- and-tumble settings as the mining town of Leadville, Colorado. (External Link) On his return to the United Kingdom, he worked as a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette in the years 1887-1889. Afterwards he became the editor of Woman's World.
Wilde, for much of his life, advocated socialism, which he argued "will be of value simply because it'll lead to individualism." He also had a strong libertarian streak as shown in his poem "Sonnet to Liberty" and, subsequently to reading the works of Peter Kropotkin—whom he described as "a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ which seems coming out of Russia"—he declared himself an anarchist. Other political influences on Wilde may have been William Morris and John Ruskin. Wilde was also a pacifist and quipped that "When liberty comes with hands dabbled in blood it's hard to shake hands with her". In addition to his primary political text, the essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism", Wilde wrote several letters to the Daily Chronicle advocating prison reform and was the sole signatory of George Bernard Shaw's petition for a pardon of the anarchists arrested (and later executed) after the Haymarket affair.
In Lady Florence Dixie's novel of 1890, Gloriana, or the Revolution of 1900, women win the right to vote, as the result of the protagonist, Gloriana, posing as a man, Hector l'Estrange, and being elected to the House of Commons. The character of l'Estrange is clearly based on that of Wilde. Dixie was an aunt of Lord Alfred Douglas.