By Eileen Murphy
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, whose spectacular rise and ignominious fall were the subject of the trial of the century – the 19th century – was born on Oct. 16, 1854 in fashionable Merrion Square in Dublin.
His father, Sir William Robert Wilde, was an eminent eye doctor who was appointed surgeon occulist to Queen Victoria. His mother, Jane, was a poet and fervent Irish nationalist who wrote patriotic verse under the pseudonym “Speranza.” Wilde had a younger brother, Willie
Wilde was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and later at Magdalen College, Oxford University. While at Oxford, Wilde became interested in the ‘sthetic Movement, and after graduation moved to set about establishing himself as the city’s foremost ‘sthete. His manner of dress caused wide comment – he was known for wearing velvet coats with contrasting braid, knee britches, loose-fitting wide-collared shirts with flowing ties and lavender-colored gloves. His early fame was such that he was parodied in “Patience,” a popular Gilbert and Sullivan operetta of the day, as Bunthorne, the man who “Walked down Picadilly/With a flower or a lily in his hand.”
Wilde published his first collection of poetry in 1881, and was invited a year later to embark on a lecture tour of America. Newspaper reporters followed his every move, from his arrival in New York, where he told bemused customs agents that he had “Nothing to declare – except my genius,” to his lecture in Leadville, where he dined with workers in the silver mines – “The first course was whiskey, the second whiskey, the third whiskey, all the courses were whiskey, but still they called it supper.”
Returning to England _5,000 richer, Wilde courted Constance Lloyd, the daughter of an Irish barrister. The couple married in 1884, and soon had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan.
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After his marriage, Wilde realized that he was attracted to young men, and engaged in a number of short-lived homosexual love affairs. In 1891, Wilde was introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Lord Alfred, or Bosie as he was known to his friends, and Wilde were immediately attracted to each other and began a love affair .
Wilde was at the height of his fame, and his success as a novelist and playwright was without parallel: between 1891 and 1895, Wilde published the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and five plays: “Lady Windemere’s Fan” (1892), “A Woman of No Importance” (1893), “Salome” (1893), “An Ideal Husband (1895) and his masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895). Unfortunately, as his fame grew, so did his indiscretions. Wilde developed Bosie’s penchant for picking up male prostitutes, and was often the subject of blackmail.
Douglas’s father was enraged by his son’s association with Wilde, and threatened to ruin the famous writer. In an attempt to goad Wilde, Queensberry left a card at the playwright’s club, with the insulting (and misspelled) inscription, “To Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite.” Wilde, at Bosie’s urging, sued Queensberry for criminal libel. The case against Queensberry was dismissed, and the Crown then prosecuted Wilde for acts of “gross indecency.” After three trials, Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years at hard labor.
Upon his conviction, Wilde was declared bankrupt. His house and possessions were sold to pay his debts, and his wife fled to the continent with their children, where she and they adopted the surname Holland.
While in prison, Wilde produced a poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” He also wrote “De Profundis,” in which he analyzed the actions leading up to his fall from grace. “De Profundis” was actually a letter to Bosie, but Wilde felt his cry from the heart should be published. The “Ballad” was Wilde’s last success; published in book form, it went through seven printings.
Wilde was freed from prison on May 19, 1897. He immediately left England and traveled to France, where he survived on handouts from friends and acquaintances. Although briefly reunited with Bosie, economic necessity – Bosie’s mother threatened to cut off his allowance – forced them apart. Wilde died alone, except for his faithful friend Robbie Ross.
In one of his final epigrams, Wilde had noted the hotel’s shabby surroundings. “One of us must go,” he said of the wallpaper. In the end, the wallpaper won. Wilde died in Paris on Nov. 30, 1900.
To read a review of “The Judas Kiss,” click here.
To read a review of the Off-Broadway play “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” click here.
To read a review of the film “Wilde,” click here.