Life and Work
Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland to Sir William Wilde and his wife Jane, Lady Wilde. Sir William Wilde, Ireland's leading ear and eye surgeon, wrote books on archaeology and folklore. Lady Wilde was a prominent poet, worked as a translator, and wrote for the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s under the pen-name of Speranza.
After Portora Royal School (1864-1871), Wilde studied the classics at Trinity College, Dublin, with distinction (from 1871 to 1874) and Magdalen College, Oxford, (1874-1878). While at Magdalen College, Wilde won the Oxford Newdigate Prize in 1878 with his poem Ravenna.
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 .
He was deeply impressed by the English writers John Ruskin and Walter Pater who taught about the central importance of art in life. Oscar Wilde soon became an advocate of Aestheticism and supported the movement's basic principle Art for art's sake. The doctrine was 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. Later he lectured in the United States and in Canada where he was torn apart by the critics. At Oxford University, his behaviour cost him a ducking in the river Cherwell in addition to having his rooms 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.
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, Oscar Wilde became one of the most prominent personalities of his day. Apart from the ridicule he encountered, his paradoxes and his witty sayings were quoted on all sides.
In 1882 he went on a lecture tour in the United States, afterwards returning to the United Kingdom where he worked as a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette in the years 1887-1889. Afterwards he became the editor of Woman's World.
In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, and he fathered two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886), who both later took the surname Holland. He had already published in 1881 a selection of his poems, which, however, attracted admiration in only a limited circle. His most famous fairy tale, The Happy Prince and Other Tales , appeared in 1888, illustrated by Walter Crane and Jacob Hood . This volume was followed up later by a second collection of fairy tales, The House of Pomegranates (1892), acknowledged by the author to be "intended neither for the British child nor the British public".
His only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1891. Critics have often claimed that there existed parallels between Wilde's and the protagonist's life. Wilde contributed some feature articles to the art reviews, and in 1891 re-published three of them as a book called Intentions.
Wilde's favourite genres were the society comedy and the play. From 1892 on, almost every year a new work of Oscar Wilde was published. His first real success with the larger public was as a dramatist with Lady Windermere's Fan at the St James's Theatre in 1892, followed by A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), which became Wilde's masterpiece in which he satirised the upper class.
The dramatic and literary ability shown in these plays, all of which were published later in book form, was as undisputed as their action and ideas were characteristically paradoxical. In 1893 the publisher refused to allow Wilde's Salomé to be produced, but it was produced in Paris by Sarah Bernhardt in 1894. This play formed the basis for one of Richard Strauss' early operas (Salome, 1905).
Wilde has variously been considered bisexual or homosexual, depending on how the terms are defined. His inclination towards relations with other men was relatively well known, the first such relationship having probably been with Robert Ross, who proved his most faithful friend. Wilde became intimate with Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he always called "Bosie". Bosie's father, John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensbury, publicly insulted Wilde with a misspelt note left at Wilde's club. The note read "Mr. Wilde posing as a Somdomite."
Wilde charged Queensbury with libel. The confrontation escalated and some believe Lord Alfred egged Wilde on to fight his father. After losing the libel suit Wilde was formally accused of "gross indecency", this being little more than a euphemism for any homosexual act, public or private, and was arrested on April 6, 1895.
He was convicted on May 25, 1895 of gross indecency and sentenced to serve two years hard labor. He was imprisoned at Reading, a town some 30 miles west of London. At first he wasn't even allowed paper and pen to write. During his time in prison, Wilde wrote a 30,000 word letter to Douglas, which he handed to Ross, who sent a copy to Douglas. It was published in 1905 (long after Wilde's death) with the title De Profundis . In 1949 his son Vyvyan Holland published it again, including parts formerly omitted.
The manuscripts of A Florentine Tragedy and an essay on Shakespeare's sonnets were stolen from his house in 1895. In 1904 a five-act tragedy, The Duchess of Padua , written by Wilde about 1883 for Mary Anderson, but not acted by her, was published in a German translation (Die Herzogin von Padua, translated by Max Meyerfeld) in Berlin.
Prison was unkind to Wilde's health and when he was released on May 19, 1897 he spent his last years penniless on the Continent, in self-inflicted exile from society and artistic circles. He went under the assumed name of 'Sebastian Melmoth', after the central character of the gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer. After his release, he wrote the famous poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol ("For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die").
On his deathbed he converted to the Roman Catholic church, which he had long admired.
Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900 in a Paris hotel. Different opinions are given on the cause of the meningitis; Richard Ellman claimed it was syphilitic; Merlin Holland thought this to be a misconception, noting that Wilde's meningitis followed a surgical intervention, perhaps a mastoidectomy ; Wilde's physicians, Dr. Paul Cleiss and A'Court Tucker reported that the condition stemmed from an old suppuration of the right ear (une ancienne suppuration de l'oreille droite d'ailleurs en traitement depuis plusieurs années) and do not allude to syphilis.
Biographies and biographical films
After Wilde's death, Wilde's friend Frank Harris wrote a biography of Wilde.
In 1987 Richard Ellmann published "Oscar Wilde", a very minute biography.
2003 saw the publication of the first complete account of Wilde's sexual and emotional life in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna (published by Century/Random House).
A multiple-issue 'chapter' of Dave Sim's comic book Cerebus the Aardvark, entitled Melmoth, (later collected as a single volume under that title) retells the story of Wilde's final months with the names and places slightly altered to fit the world of the Cerebus storyline, while Cerebus himself spends most of the chapter as a passive observer.
Wilde wrote many famous works, among them:
- The Canterville Ghost (1887)
- The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888)
- The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
- Lady Windermere's Fan (1892)
- A Woman of No Importance (1893)
- The Importance of Being Earnest
- An Ideal Husband (1894)
- Salomé (1896)
- Oscar Wilde's brief biography and works
- Dissertation about the relationship between "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and Postmodernism
- 10 most popular misconceptions about Oscar Wilde
- e-texts of some of Oscar Wilde's works: