The history of Oscar Wilde is notorious; he was an Irish writer working in the late 19th Century and is one of the most infamous figures in modern literature. He is revered for his numerous plays and only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as numerous short stories and essays on aestheticism. He is also remembered for his turbulent personal life, trials over homosexuality, imprisonment and early death.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin on 16th October 1854 to Sir Robert Wills Wilde, a successful surgeon, and Jane Francesca Wilde, a literary hostess and writer. He studied at Trinity College in Dublin and then Magdalen College Oxford, where he became interested in the aesthetic values of art and literature. After graduating he moved into prominent fashionable circles in London before publishing a range of works on aestheticism and lecturing in the USA and Canada. Even in his younger years he was known for his flamboyancy, Dandyish dress sense and wit, becoming a well known personality of the day. He was even caricatured as a sunflower in the satirical magazine Punch.
During the early 1890s he published his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, focusing on his obsession with opulence and beauty. Society largely found Wilde’s mockery of Victorian values insulting, but the book gained a large cult following during the 20th and 21st Centuries. Following this he wrote the play Salome, entirely in French, whilst in Paris but it was refused a license in England. Wilde then penned four comedies in the early 1890s, sometimes referred to as the ‘comedies of society’, which include Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). He was still interested in mocking the Victorian upper classes but had found a way to do so without offending them; indeed the majority of his audiences were members of high society. He is most remembered for The Importance of Being Earnest, with it’s quick witted and ridiculous characters.
Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and they had two children, but he began a homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas in the following years. Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, discovered them dining together in the Cafe Royal in 1894. The Marquess began a campaign against Wilde during the opening of the Importance of Being Earnest, culminating in his attempt to sabotage the first production in 1895 by throwing rotten vegetables. He was barred from the theatre but persisted in harassing Wilde over the coming days. He sent a note to the Albemarle Club where Wilde was socialising, addressed to ‘Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite’, which started a trial of the Marquess under harassment charges. However, during the trial the accusation was turned round on Wilde for his homosexual affairs and he became the prosecuted. He was arrested for sodomy and gross indecency and spent two years in Reading Gaol.
Imprisonment and final years
During his imprisonment Wilde wrote poems and love letters to Douglas, including the famous epistle De Profundis. He was released from prison in 1897 and lived out his final years in Europe under the name Sebastian Melmoth, beginning a relationship with Robert Ross. He wrote the The Ballad of Reading Gaol, along with two letters to the Daily Chronicle describing the harsh conditions of English prisons and campaigning for reform. Wilde contracted cerebral meningitis on 25th November 1900 and asked to be baptised, which a priest performed on the 29th November. It’s rumoured that Wilde’s last words were ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go’, but it has never been officially confirmed. He passed away on 30th November 1900 at the age of 46.
He was buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris, but in 1909 his remains were moved to Père Lachaise Cemetery. Robert Ross commissioned his tomb and had a compartment built in for his own ashes, which were added in 1950. The epitaph on the tomb is taken from Wilde’s own Ballad of Reading Gaol:
‘And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.’