This Day In Writing History
On October 16th, 1854, the legendary playwright, poet, and novelist Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a prominent ear and eye surgeon who wrote books on medicine, archaeology, and Irish folklore. His mother Jane wrote poetry for the Young Irelanders revolutionary movement and was a lifelong Irish nationalist.
As a boy, Oscar Wilde was home schooled until the age of nine, when he attended Portora Royal School in County Fermanagh. After graduating from Portora, Wilde enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, where he roomed with his brother Willie and became an outstanding student, winning the Berkley Gold Medal - the highest award a classics student could win at Trinity. He also won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford.
While studying at Magdalen, Wilde won the 1878 Newdigate Prize for his poem Ravenna, but he failed to win the Chancellor's English Essay Prize. However, the essay he entered, The Rise Of Historical Criticism, would be published posthumously in 1909. Wilde graduated from Trinity with a double first (the UK equivalent of two 4.0 grade point averages) in classical moderations and literae humaniores.
During his years at Magdalen, Oscar Wilde was known for his involvement with the aesthetic and decadent movements in art and literature of the time. He wore his hair long, openly expressed his disdain for "manly" sports, and decorated his rooms with objets d'art such as peacock feathers, sunflowers, and blue china. As a result, Wilde was greatly disliked by his fellow students, who would throw their china at him and trash his rooms. Also during this time, Wilde joined a Masonic Lodge and rose to the rank of Master Mason, which he retained until his death.
After he graduated from Magdalen, Wilde returned to Dublin. He met a woman, Florence Balcombe, and courted her, but she ended up marrying writer Bram Stoker. After hearing of their engagement, Wilde wrote to Florence and told her that he was going to leave Ireland permanently. He would return just twice, for brief visits. After he left Ireland, he spent the next six years in London, Paris, and the U.S.
In London, Wilde met Constance Lloyd, whose father, Horace, was Queen's Counsel. Wilde married Constance in May of 1884. They would have two sons. Although a married father of two, Wilde was a bisexual who preferred men. Wilde biographer Neil McKenna theorized that Oscar was aware of his homosexuality as a teenager, when at the age of 16, he experienced his first kiss with another boy. McKenna also speculated that for a time, Wilde became unhappy with his sexual orientation and sought out female companionship, marrying his wife with the hope that marriage could "cure" him. It didn't.
Wilde subsequently developed an interest in homosexual philosophy and law reform. Homosexuality was not only held in great contempt during the Victorian era, it was also illegal under British law and punishable by imprisonment. So, Wilde and some like-minded individuals formed a secret society called the Order of Chaeronea, which was dedicated to gay activism. In the summer of 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas, a young undergraduate student and poet known as Bosie to his friends. Douglas' father was John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry. He was a brutal man who abhorred his son, claiming that Lord Alfred had been corrupted by older homosexuals.
Bosie, who would become famous for his poem Two Loves, wherein he described homosexuality as "the love that dare not speak its name," was first Wilde's close friend, then lover. For a few years, they lived together openly in various places. But their relationship would soon lead to Wilde's downfall.
As a writer, Wilde was best known for his plays, which he infused with his famous, rapacious wit. His only novel was a masterpiece of Gothic horror called The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1890). Dorian Gray, a handsome young man, is the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Hallward becomes smitten with him and believes that Dorian's beauty is responsible for a new phase in his art. He introduces Dorian to his friend, Lord Henry Watton, an aristocrat whose hedonistic philosophy enthralls Dorian.
Fearing that his beauty will fade with age, Dorian sells his soul to Satan in exchange for eternal youth. While Dorian stays young and beautiful, his portrait ages. Over the next eighteen years, he embarks on a path of indulgence and debauchery, experimenting with every vice and sin. When Basil Hallward arrives to question him about the rumors of his debauchery, Dorian shows him the portrait, which has become as hideous as Dorian's sins. Blaming the artist for his fate, Dorian stabs him to death.
Later, Dorian decides to give up his sinful ways. He starts by not breaking the heart of a vicar's daughter whom he has come to love. Back at home, Dorian wonders if his portrait has changed, now that he has chosen to be good. Instead, it has become more hideous than ever. Realizing that only a full confession will absolve him, but lacking the courage to confess to the killing of Hallward and fearing the consequences of doing so, Dorian is left with only one option. He plunges a knife into his portrait. Hearing a scream, his servants summon the police. They find Dorian's body, suddenly aged, withered and monstrous, and stabbed in the heart.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray was decried as immoral upon its publication because of its homoerotic overtones and depictions of debauchery. It would become a classic of Gothic horror. Although it was Oscar Wilde's only novel, a famous, anonymously published gay erotic novel Teleny, or The Reverse Of The Medal (1893) would be attributed to him. Scholars believe that the book was in fact a collaborative effort written by Wilde's friends, with Wilde serving as editor.
Oscar Wilde's most famous play was The Importance Of Being Earnest (1895), a comedy that satirized the hypocrisy and foibles of Victorian society. The play, which is packed with witty dialogue, tells the story of aristocrats who use the same alias (Ernest) in order to lead double lives. Considered his best play, it would also be his last. It closed after 83 performances because of a scandal that had ensnared Wilde.
The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde's lover Bosie, (Lord Alfred Douglas) publicly accused Wilde of being a "posing sodomite," so Wilde made a complaint of criminal libel against him. He was arrested and released on bail. A team of detectives led Queensberry's lawyers to London's gay underground and details of Wilde's associations with male prostitutes, transvestites, and gay brothels were soon revealed and leaked to the press, which assailed him nonstop. Queensberry's lawyers claimed that the alleged libel was done for the public good. He was acquitted and Wilde found himself arrested for "gross indecency" - a term for homosexual acts that were illegal under British law.
The jury in Wilde's first trial failed to reach a verdict. At his final trial, presided by Justice Sir Alfred Wills, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to the maximum of two years imprisonment - a sentence that the judge believed was too lenient for the crime of homosexuality. Wilde served his time at three different prisons. By the time of his release, prison life had left him in poor health. He spent his last years abroad in self-imposed exile, living under the alias Sebastian Melmoth, a name based on Saint Sebastian and the main character of Melmoth The Wanderer, a Gothic novel written by Wilde's great uncle, Charles Robert Maturin.
Wilde was broke, so his wife, who refused to meet with him or let him see his children, sent him money when she could. He took up with his first lover, Robert Ross, and they spent the summer of 1897 together in Northern France, where Wilde wrote his famous poem, The Battle Of Reading Gaol. Despite the objections of their families and friends, Wilde was later reunited with Bosie Douglas, and they lived together in Italy in late 1897, but soon separated.
Wilde settled at the Hotel d'Alsace in Paris, where, it has been said, he lived the uninhibited gay lifestyle that he had been denied in England. He died of cerebral meningitis on November 30th, 1900, at the age of 46. Some have speculated that the meningitis was a complication of syphilis, but Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, has said that it was a complication of a surgical procedure, most likely a mastoidectomy. Wilde's own doctors blamed the meningitis on an old suppuration of the right ear.
Oscar Wilde remains to this day one of the world's great literary icons.
Quote Of The Day
"It is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection." - Oscar Wilde
Today's video features a reading from Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, a long letter he wrote to Bosie Douglas while in prison. Enjoy!