Authors: Oscar Wilde

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Irish playwright, novelist, and poet

October 16, 1854

Dublin, Ireland

November 30, 1900

Paris, France

Biography

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born the second son of Sir William Robert Wills Wilde, surgeon oculist in ordinary to the Queen, and Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde, known as the Irish revolutionary author “Speranza.” Early noted for his casual brilliance, Wilde won prizes at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, and later in Trinity College, Dublin, where the Reverend John Mahaffy encouraged Wilde’s passion for Hellenic culture. Having studied under two famous masters, John Ruskin and Walter Pater, Wilde achieved recognition at Magdalen College, Oxford, for taking double firsts in classics examinations and for winning the Newdigate Prize for the poem “Ravenna” in 1878. {$I[AN]9810000297} {$I[A]Wilde, Oscar} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Wilde, Oscar} {$I[geo]IRELAND;Wilde, Oscar} {$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Wilde, Oscar} {$I[tim]1854;Wilde, Oscar}

Oscar Wilde

(Library of Congress)

Famous for his peacock feathers, sunflowers, dados, blue china, long hair, velveteen breeches, and later his green carnations, Wilde first distinguished himself with the public as the leader of London’s art-for-art’s-sake school of aesthetics. He and his cohorts were lampooned in cartoons, novels, and comic opera, but he remained a sought-after conversationalist. Everyone eagerly followed his outrageous affectations, witty sayings, and paradoxes; and no one ever heard him utter an oath or an off-color remark.

When Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (1881), a spoof of aestheticism, was to tour North America, Richard D’Oyly Carte engaged Wilde for a lecture series to promote American interest in the operetta. Then, following a stint in Paris, where he mingled with the artistic elite and wrote the quasi-Elizabethan tragedy The Duchess of Padua, Wilde returned to the United States to see Vera, his political romance set in revolutionary Russia, open and close after one week on the boards. He went back to Great Britain to lecture on Impressions of America and there rekindled his acquaintance with Constance Mary Lloyd, the daughter of a prominent Irish barrister, whom he married in 1884 and with whom he had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. In 1886, Wilde met Robert Ross, the unfailing friend who most aided Wilde after his release from prison and who, after Wilde’s death, fought to protect his corpus and resurrect his name. From 1887 to 1889, Wilde edited The Lady’s World magazine—changing the title to The Woman’s World—and began the eight-year period that saw his most significant work appear.

The first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890 to a flurry of outrage. Expanded and balanced, the second version, Wilde’s only novel, fully works through the human implications of the conflict between the aesthetics of Ruskin and Pater (represented by the artist Basil Hallward and the writer Lord Henry Wotton) as they vie for influence over Dorian.

The year 1891 witnessed the production in New York of The Duchess of Padua (under the title Guido Ferranti), the publication in England of several volumes of new and collected works, the writing of Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the composition in France (in French) of Salomé, the Symbolist jewel that Richard Strauss later transformed into an opera. In that year also occurred the fateful encounter with Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”) that ensnared Wilde in the cycle of dependency and abuse he so heartrendingly detailed to Bosie in his letter from prison, a severely edited version of which was first published in 1905 as De Profundis. Four years later this relationship led the Marquess of Queensbury (Douglas’s father) to address Wilde publicly as a “sodomite,” bringing about, at Douglas’s instigation, Wilde’s suit against Queensbury for libel and the ensuing countersuit that earned Wilde two years’ hard labor in Wandsworth and Reading prisons.

Happily for Wilde and for generations of theatrical audiences, those intervening four years provided Wilde scope to create his four social comedies, the works (outside of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Wilde’s eminently quotable epigrams) for which he remains most widely remembered. Each of these plays achieved astounding success on the London stage, furnishing Wilde both with a well-deserved respite from debt and with the opportunity playfully to deconstruct Victorian ideology, perhaps the true reason behind his incarceration.

After his release from prison, Wilde took the name Sebastian Melmoth from the 1820 gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer, written by his maternal great-granduncle, the Reverend Charles Maturin. Though personally always light-hearted, Wilde lived out his last sad years on the Continent, grievously estranged from his wife and children, at the insistence of the Lloyds, and always short of funds, though Constance increased his allowance after he published The Ballad of Reading Gaol, called by William Butler Yeats the strongest poem of the century. Following an operation for encephalitis arising from an ear injury sustained in prison, Wilde died at the Hôtel d’Alsace after embracing the Catholicism to which he had long aspired. Originally buried in Bagneux Cemetery, his remains were moved in 1909 to Père Lachaise, where they lie beneath a tomb sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein.

Wilde’s talents were, in his own time, acknowledged by George Bernard Shaw, Frank Harris, James McNeill Whistler, and, of course, Wilde himself. One has only to read his gemlike fairy tales or his letter to the Daily Chronicle (1897), urging the state to reconsider its policy of incarcerating young children under the same hideous conditions as hardened criminals, to recognize the depth of love for humanity that hides behind what often passes in both Wilde’s work and behavior for mere sparkling frivolity. Perhaps the true brilliance of his last and best-loved play, The Importance of Being Earnest, lies in its visionary conception of a genial and benevolent society unencumbered by hypocritical moral earnestness or snobbish self-importance.

Author Works Drama: Vera: Or, The Nihilists, pb. 1880 The Duchess of Padua, pb. 1883 Lady Windermere’s Fan, pr. 1892 Salomé, pb. 1893 (in French), pb. 1894 (in English) A Woman of No Importance, pr. 1893 An Ideal Husband, pr. 1895 The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, pr. 1895 A Florentine Tragedy, pb. 1906 (one act completed by T. Sturge More) La Sainte Courtisane, pb. 1908 Long Fiction: The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890 (serial), 1891 (expanded) Short Fiction: “The Canterville Ghost,” 1887 The Happy Prince, and Other Tales, 1888 A House of Pomegranates, 1891 Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, and Other Stories, 1891 Poetry: Ravenna, 1878 Poems, 1881 Poems in Prose, 1894 The Sphinx, 1894 The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 1898 Nonfiction: Intentions, 1891 De Profundis, 1905 The Letters of Oscar Wilde, 1962 (Rupert Hart-Davis, editor) The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, 2000 (Merlin Holland and Hart-Davis, editors) Miscellaneous: Works, 1908 Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, 1948 (Vyvyan Holland, editor) Plays, Prose Writings, and Poems, 1960 Bibliography Beckson, Karl E. The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia. New York: AMS Press, 1998. At nearly five hundred pages, a compendium of useful information on Wilde and his times. Belford, Barbara. Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius. New York: Random House, 2000. An examination of Wilde’s life with a somewhat revisionist view of Wilde’s post-prison years. Calloway, Stephen, and David Colvin. Oscar Wilde: An Exquisite Life. New York: Welcome Rain, 1997. A brief, heavily illustrated presentation of Wilde’s life. Cohen, Philip K. The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978. Examines Wilde’s writings as unified by his moral development through dialectical contraries of Old and New Testament codes. Contains illustrations, a select bibliography, and an index. Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. A biography of Wilde, drawing much insight from Wilde’s published works. The book is extensively documented and footnoted and makes use of many of Wilde’s writings and recorded conversations. Includes bibliography and appendices. Eriksen, Donald H. Oscar Wilde. Boston: Twayne, 1977. This small volume is a useful corrective to studies of Wilde that see him and his work as anomalies of literature and history. After a brief chapter on Wilde’s life and times, Eriksen assesses his poetry, fiction, essays, and drama. A chronology, notes and references, an annotated bibliography, and an index supplement the text. Foldy, Michael S. The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality, and Late-Victorian Society. New Haven; Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. By analyzing the trial testimony and press coverage, Foldy argues cogently that the prosecution of Wilde was not solely based on matters of morality but was directly linked to wider social, cultural, and political issues. Gagnier, Regenia A. Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1986. This study attempts to reach an understanding of Wilde by focusing less on his life and work and more on the relation of his work to his audiences. Leaning heavily on contemporary critical theory, it connects Wilde, Friedrich Engels, and Fyodor Dostoevski in ways that some may find more confusing than illuminating, but Gagnier’s readings of the works are generally insightful and persuasive. Includes bibliography and index. Harris, Frank. Oscar Wilde: Including My Memories of Oscar Wilde by George Bernard Shaw. 2d ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1997. Harris was one of the few friends who remained loyal to Wilde after his downfall. His biography, although highly readable and full of interesting anecdotes, is not always reliable. Shaw’s afterward is a shrewd assessment of Wilde. Holland, Merlin. The Wilde Album. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. This is a useful complement to the weightier biography by Ellmann. Holland, Wilde’s grandson, supplements his biographical narrative with various artifacts—including photographs, press clippings, and political cartoons—that document Wilde’s emergence as a media celebrity and show how Wilde consciously created his own fame. The book includes rare family photos and all twenty-eight publicity portraits made for Wilde’s 1882 US tour. Kohl, Norbert. Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel. Translated by David Henry Wilson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Interprets Wilde’s works mainly through textual analysis, although it includes discussions of the society in which Wilde lived and to which he responded. Kohl argues that Wilde was not the imitator he is often accused of being but a creative adapter of the literary traditions he inherited. Supplemented by detailed notes, a lengthy bibliography, and an index. McCormack, Jerusha Hull. The Man Who Was Dorian Gray. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. John Gray, the supposed model for Wilde’s most famous character, is profiled in this examination of the life of a decadent poet turned priest. Although not focused on the poetry, this work reveals much about early twentieth century literary society and the emerging gay culture. McKenna, Neil. The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. London: Century, 2003. This controversial and groundbreaking biography focuses on how Wilde’s sexuality, and homosexuality in the Victorian era, influenced the writer’s life and work. Illustrated. Pearce, Joseph. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. London: HarperCollins, 2000. Pearce avoids lingering on the actions that brought Wilde notoriety and instead explores Wilde’s emotional and spiritual search. Along with a discussion of The Ballad of Reading Gaol and the posthumously published De Profundis, Pearce also traces Wilde’s fascination with Catholicism. Raby, Peter. Oscar Wilde. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Includes biographical information because, Raby argues, it is most useful to see Wilde as indivisible from his works. The 1881 collection of poems, he says, makes it clear that Wilde’s artistic purpose was a life’s work. Includes chronology, notes, a bibliography, and an index. Small, Ian. Oscar Wilde: A Recent Research—A Supplement to “Oscar Wilde Revalued.” Greensboro, N.C.: ELT Press, 2000. A follow-up to Small’s earlier work on Wilde that surveys previously unknown biographical and critical materials. Includes bibliography. Varty, Anne. A Preface to Oscar Wilde: Preface Books. New York: Longman, 1998. An introduction to the life and works, particularly the period from 1890 to 1895. Some discussion of earlier work provides a view of some of the motivating forces behind his output. Also offers a chapter on his circle. Includes index. Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. A collection of correspondence including previously unpublished letters that unveil the full extent of Wilde’s genius in an intimate exploration of his life and thoughts. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.

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