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Wilde, Oscar

Early family life

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on 16th October 1854 in Dublin. His father, William, was a leading ear and eye surgeon, and his mother, Jane, was a writer and an Irish nationalist. As well as Wilde’s elder brother and younger sister, William Wilde also fathered three illegitimate children before his marriage. Wilde’s family were firmly grounded in religion, with many taking an active role in the Irish evangelical movement, which aimed to convert Irish Catholics to Protestantism. Tragedy struck in the Wilde family in 1867 when Oscar’s younger sister Isola Francesca died of meningitis, aged nine. Oscar was deeply upset by this and carried a lock of her hair with him until his death. The death of Wilde’s father in 1876 was another blow to the family, leaving Oscar distraught and his family financially insecure.

Education and early career: 1878–1883

Wilde was educated at home until he was nine years of age, when he became a boarder at Portora Royal School. At Portora, Wilde won a scholarship to study Classics at Trinity College Dublin. He graduated with a double first, winning a demyship in Classics at Oxford. Here he was tutored by John Ruskin and Walter Horatio Pater, both of who helped influence and shape his philosophies (particularly through introducing him to aestheticism) and written style. In 1878 his poem ‘Ravenna’ won the Oxford University Newdigate Prize and eventually went on to be published as his first book.

Upon graduation in 1879, Wilde settled in London, where he gave public lectures. He was well known for his eccentricity in personality and dress, and was satirised in the Victorian magazine Punch and in the opera Patience by Gilbert and Sullivan. He self-funded the publishing of his book Poems, whose four 250-book editions sold out within the year. He moved to Paris in 1883, but continued to lecture in England.

Marriage

Wilde became engaged to Constance Mary Lloyd on 25th November 1883, and they married in London on 29th May 1884, honeymooning in Paris. His marriage was highly sexualised, with two sons being born in the first two years, and there is no reason to suspect that in the first three years of his marriage his sexual experiences were not entirely heterosexual. However, a lack of sufficient income to raise further children meant that Wilde and Constance had to abstain. These circumstances coincided with the beginning of Oscar’s homosexual infidelities. Despite the obvious distance that ensued between the partners, the pair stayed in contact through letters and visits while he was in prison. The family home was handed to bailiffs in order to pay legal costs following Wilde’s trial, leading Constance to go to stay with her brother. During Wilde’s time in prison she was suffering severe spinal injuries from a fall, which ultimately resulted in her death on 7th April 1898.

Career: 1883–1899

Wilde became a book critic for the Pall Mall Gazette in early 1885. The pressure of having to review books so quickly and frequently enhanced his comic abilities in the medium of written prose. In 1888 his collection of children’s stories The Happy Prince and Other Tales was published. The tales’ sympathy with the poor and their disparaging satire of the hypocrisy of some adults give an extra dimension to Wilde’s morality, often assumed to be purely hedonistic.

The first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in July 1890. Although there are no direct incidences of homosexual behaviour in the book, Basil’s adoration of Dorian caused a critical outrage, and W H Smith refused to stock the novel, describing it as ‘filthy’.

Following The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde moved into theatre. Lady Windermere’s Fan opened at St James’s Theatre in London in February 1892 (published in 1893). The comedy was strongly critical of marriage within Victorian society, again enraging critics but nevertheless being highly popular with audiences. Wilde’s next play was An Ideal Husband, closely followed by his final play (and the most celebrated by critics and audiences alike), The Importance of Being Earnest. The play was first performed in 1895 but by the time it was published in 1899 Wilde was incredibly ill, causing him to omit the fourth act from publication. The original four-act text was eventually published in 1956.

Legal controversy and imprisonment

In February 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry, John Sholto Douglas, left a card for Wilde at his club accusing him of being a ‘sodomite.’ Wilde took him to court for criminal libel, but Queensberry pleaded justification. Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency with two known persons (prostitutes used as witnesses in the trial) and of two separate incidents with an unknown person (speculated to be Douglas’s son, who had once been Wilde’s lover). Wilde was imprisoned at Pentonville and then Wandsworth, before being transferred to Reading Gaol, where he had a long-running dispute with the prison doctor regarding his middle ear disease. Upon his eventual release he publicly condemned prison conditions.

Death: 1900

Upon his release from prison, Wilde drifted aimlessly around Europe, spending most of his time in Paris. His medical condition worsened severely, and he would have died on the streets of Paris had he not been found by Jean Dupoirier, his former landlord. Dupoirier took Wilde back to his hotel, where he died on 30th November.