7 things you (probably) didn’t know about Oscar Wilde

The Anglo-Irish Victorian playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was the toast of 1890s London, famous for his society plays and flamboyant wit, as well as his support of aestheticism. He later became known for his affairs with men and, after two hugely public and damaging trials, Wilde was in 1895 convicted of 'gross indecency' – a charge which criminalised homosexual people that no longer exists in the UK – and sentenced to two years' imprisonment

During his time in Oxford, Wilde fully embraced ‘aesthetic flair’: growing his hair long; dressing in flamboyant fashions and assuming exaggerated affectations. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The final three years of Oscar Wilde’s life were spent in exile in France and Italy, suffering abuse and humiliation, before he died impoverished in a Paris hotel. Here, we bring you seven surprising facts about Oscar Wilde…

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1

He was a proud Irishman

Oscar Wilde was born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde in Dublin, Ireland, in 1854. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a respected eye and ear doctor who revolutionised the treatment of ear infections (and also gained an unfortunate reputation for womanising; before his marriage he was the father of three children by two different women out of wedlock). Oscar’s mother was Jane Elgee, an Anglo-Irish revolutionary poet who wrote under the pen name Speranza.

Growing up, Wilde was influenced by both his mother’s Irish nationalist politics and his father’s philanthropic tendencies. He was schooled at their family home in Merrion Square before going on to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen and later attending Trinity College, Dublin, where he was introduced to the Greek literature that would greatly influence his later works and beliefs.

Wilde as a young man, c1878. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Wilde as a young man, c1878. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Wilde’s Anglo-Irish background is often forgotten – perhaps because of his quintessentially ‘British’ writings – though he himself was proud of his Irish heritage. When an 1892 production of his provocative play Salomé was banned from the London stage, ostensibly due to its portrayal of biblical figures, Wilde is known to have remarked on the small-mindedness of the English censors, saying: “I am not English; I’m Irish which is quite another thing.”

2

He believed in ‘art for art’s sake’

While at Trinity, and later at the University of Oxford’s Magdalen College (which he attended between 1874 to 1878), Wilde was known for his support of aestheticism – an intellectual movement which centred on the idea that art should not exist for any other motive other than beauty. Drawing on the work of 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, aesthetes baulked against the Victorian idea that art could be a tool for social education and moral enlightenment. They believed that any morality or utility that a work might bring to an audience was irrelevant.

Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Edwin Thomas in 'The Happy Prince'. (Photo by Lionsgate)

During his time in Oxford, Wilde fully embraced ‘aesthetic flair’: growing his hair long; dressing in flamboyant fashions and assuming exaggerated affectations. He famously once declared, when entertaining friends in his Oxford rooms: “Oh, would that I could live up to my blue china!”

When aestheticism was satirised in Patience (1881), a popular comic opera by creative duo Gilbert and Sullivan, Wilde was called upon by opportunistic businessman Richard D’Oyly Carte to give a series of lectures defining and defending the movement. Wilde delivered lectures across North America throughout 1882, to huge success.

Wilde became an icon of the aestheticism movement and his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), is regarded as a great example of aesthetic theory and the interplay between art and morality.

 

3

He wrote children’s stories

Oscar Wilde is most famous for his acclaimed society plays – including Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892); A Woman of No Importance (1893); and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Using sharp and witty comedy to frame a more serious commentary of Britain’s class hierarchy and human nature, Wilde’s plays were hugely popular when they premiered in 1890s London. Wilde became the toast of society, known for his flamboyant manner and frequent socialising at fashionable and exclusive venues such as the Café Royal.

A poster for Wilde's play 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
A poster for Wilde’s play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (1895). (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

However, it is often forgotten that Wilde also wrote children’s stories. The Happy Prince and Other Tales is a collection of short fairy tales published in 1888. The best-known story in the collection is that of a gilded statue which, befriended by a migrating swallow, attempts to help the poor and miserable of its town.

Wilde’s work is best remembered for being full of wry observances and prolific wit. Though there are many examples of witticisms incorrectly attributed to the playwright, among his more famous quotes are: “When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is”; “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much”; and “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.

Shakespeare’s Globe. (Loop Images/UIG via Getty Images)
4

He was in love with Bram Stoker’s wife

Wilde is remembered for his relationships with men [he fell from public regard after his infamous trial and conviction for ‘gross indecency’ and subsequent imprisonment between 1895 and 1897], but he also had several notable relationships with women.

During his youth in Dublin, Wilde had been infatuated with the beautiful and witty Florence Balcombe. Eleanor Fitzsimons writes in Wilde’s Women (2017) how Wilde gushed to a friend about Balcombe: “I am just going out to bring an exquisitely pretty girl to afternoon service in the Cathedral. She is just seventeen with the most perfectly beautiful face I ever saw and not a sixpence of money. I will show you her photograph when I see you next.”

To Wilde’s disappointment and despite their courtship, Balcombe instead chose to marry fellow Irish author Bram Stoker, who would later gain fame as the creator of Dracula. Fitzsimons notes that although Wilde was crushed, he went on to propose marriage to two further women before he met Constance Lloyd, the woman who would become his wife.

Constance Wilde photographed with her son Cyril. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Constance Wilde photographed with her son Cyril. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Wilde was introduced to Lloyd, the daughter of an Irish barrister, in 1881. They married in 1884 and had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Many of their letters demonstrate a deep affection: “As long as I live you shall be my lover,” Lloyd wrote in answer to Wilde’s proposal in 1883.

Around the time of the birth of the couple’s second child in 1886, Wilde met 17-year-old Robbie Ross, a Canadian journalist and art critic who was openly homosexual. Shortly after their meeting, Ross moved into Wilde’s family home and, according to many sources, the two began an affair.

Queen Victoria. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

From that point on, Wilde became more open in his favour of the company and attentions of young men and embraced the hidden side of London’s nightlife, regularly arranging rendezvous with young male ‘renters’. Frequent instances of public affection scandalised London society, one occurring in Kettner’s restaurant in Soho when Wilde kissed a waiter.

5

Wilde’s accusation of libel led to his own trial

In 1891, Wilde embarked on a tempestuous affair with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, a handsome and poetic 21-year-old Oxford undergraduate. Douglas was Wilde’s beloved, talented muse but was also a petulant burden who was often reckless with both Wilde’s affections and money. The couple argued and reconciled frequently.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas, c1893. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, c1893. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In one letter in mid-1894, Wilde wrote to Bosie: “I can’t live without you. You are so dear, so wonderful. I think of you all day long, and miss your grace, your boyish beauty, the bright sword-play of your wit, the delicate fancy of your genius, so surprising always in its sudden swallow-flights towards north and south, towards sun and moon — and, above all, yourself.”

Suspecting a relationship between his son and the playwright, Bosie’s father – John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry – began harassing Wilde in an attempt to sever the connection. In February 1895, Queensberry left a calling card at the Albemarle Club in London, where Wilde was a member. The message on the card read: “For Oscar Wilde posing as somdomite [sic]” – though there is still debate about the actual words and meaning, due to Queensberry’s handwriting.

Wilde took exception to the message, believing it a public accusation of the crime of sodomy. Against the advice of many of his friends, including Robbie Ross, Wilde sued Queensberry for criminal libel.

Queensberry was well known for his pugnacious attitude and outspoken nature: he gathered copious evidence that Wilde had solicited male prostitutes and he coerced witnesses to testify against the writer. Despite deploying his characteristic wit during the trial, Wilde was unable to refute Queensberry’s accusation. In a humiliating reversal, the marquess was acquitted and immediately prepared to bring charges against Wilde, for ‘gross indecency’ and sodomy – charges which criminalised homosexual people and no longer exist in the UK.

A common myth endures that the magistrate delayed Wilde’s arrest warrant in order to allow him time to catch the last ferry from Dover and escape the charges. However, as Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandson writes, this is unlikely for a number of reasons, including the fact that there were still four trains from London to Paris which would have left after the time ofhis eventual arrest.

John Douglas, Marquess of Queensberry, who was tried and acquitted for libelling Oscar Wilde in a case which ultimately led to Wilde's imprisonment. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
John Douglas, Marquess of Queensberry, who was tried and acquitted for libelling Oscar Wilde in a case which ultimately led to Wilde’s imprisonment. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On 6 April 1895, Wilde was arrested and charged, and two hugely public and damaging trials followed, in which Wilde pleaded not guilty.

In a memorable moment from the first trial, which opened on 26 April at the Old Bailey, Wilde was fiercely cross-examined over the meaning of the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name”. The words were from one of Bosie’s poems and thought by the prosecution to be a euphemism for homosexuality. Wilde’s defence of the term drew cheers within the court: “[It] is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect.”

After the two trials, Wilde – along with Bosie, who had escaped to safety on the continent before the charges were brought – was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ by a jury on 25 May 1895. Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labour, a punishment described as “totally inadequate” by the judge, given the “seriousness” of his “crime”.

6

Wilde wrote one of his most famous works from his cell in Reading gaol

Wilde was imprisoned first in Pentonville and Wandsworth prisons, before being moved to Reading gaol in November 1895. During his transfer via Clapham Junction station he was recognised on the platform while manacled to a warden – he was subjected to abuse and spat on by his previously adoring public.

Before the 1898 Prison Act, which reformed the aims and methods of incarceration in Britain, the British prison system was designed to subject prisoners to harsh physical labour and silent meditation on their crimes. Wilde’s life in prison was arduous and grim: he spent 23 hours a day in his cell, with hardly any contact with other prisoners, and was required to labour on a treadmill. He became ill with dysentery during his incarceration.

Though Wilde was forbidden from writing plays, prose or poetry while serving his sentence, he was permitted to write letters. He realised that the prison regulations did not specify how long a letter should be and, if a letter were not finished, then the prisoner may be allowed take it with him when he left the prison.

Virginia Woolf. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

So, over the final three months of his sentence, Wilde worked on the letter that would be later known as De Profundis (Latin for “from the depths”). He addressed the letter to Douglas, beginning: “Dear Bosie, After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you myself, as much for your sake as for mine.”

The letter contains many references to their relationship and to Wilde’s feelings about Christianity and Jesus Christ.

Wilde never revised De Profundis after his release from Reading gaol in 1897 and it wasn’t published until after his death: first in part by Robbie Ross in 1905; and later in full by Wilde’s youngest son, Vyvyan, in 1949.

 

7

He died destitute in Paris – but not of syphilis

Upon his release, Wilde was irrevocably marred by his imprisonment; his health was suffering and he was financially ruined. He retired to the continent and assumed the name of Sebastian Melmoth – inspired by Melmoth the Wanderer, a 19th-century Gothic novel by Irish writer Charles Maturin. Wilde lived for the most part impoverished and alone, occasionally joined and supported by former associates, including a short-lived reunion with Bosie in Naples in August 1897.

Though Oscar’s wife, Constance, continued to support him with a financial stipend for some time after his release, she remained in England with their two sons and changed their surname to ‘Holland’ to escape scandal. Wilde remained estranged from his family until his wife’s death in 1898.

With the exception of The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) – a scathing indictment of the Victorian penal system first published under Wilde’s prisoner identification number, C3-3 – he wrote little else of literary significance during this time. He told one friend: “I can write, but have lost the joy of writing.”

Wilde’s health continued to decline and he suffered public abuse and humiliation, often ridiculed and jeered by those who recognised him.

Though there is a common misconception that Wilde died of syphilis – propagated by British journalist and author Arthur Ransome, who in a 1912 biography claimed syphilis as the cause of Wilde’s death – the playwright died aged 46 on 30 November 1900 after suffering from meningitis. On his deathbed, Wilde is reported to have remarked: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.” The writer died at the shabby Hotel D’Alsace in Paris in the company of a few friends including Robbie Ross and a Catholic priest, who baptised Wilde before his death.

Oscar Wilde left behind a complicated legacy: Merlin Holland has written that, as well as a writer of stature, his grandfather was also “a convict, a homosexual, a bankrupt… and a charismatic figure prepared to stand up for what he believed in”.

Wilde was posthumously pardoned for his convictions in 2017, when the UK government’s ‘Turing Law’ (named after the British Second World War codebreaker Alan Turing) exonerated more than 50,000 men who had been convicted of crimes for homosexuality that no longer exist.

Elinor Evans is Deputy Digital Editor of HistoryExtra.com

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This article was first published in June 2018