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Oscar Wilde

Literary Greats (Part XII)

by Kerry Meadows-Bonner

He was a brilliant playwright, poet and author who was a larger than life figure in the Victorian era. He advocated for socialism and the literary movement, Aestheticism and was famously imprisoned for his homosexuality at a time of illegality, rife sexual repression and hostility. Nevertheless, he broadened the horizons of 19th century literature and helped open the doors to the development of modernism.

Born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde on October 16th, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland, he was the second of three children to William Wilde, an eye and ear surgeon and Jane Wilde a poet and devoted mother to her children. Both were notable figures in Dublin.

Oscar and Willie’s sister Isola died of meningitis aged nine and their father had three other children born out of wedlock to two other women before his marriage to Jane. This was not uncommon for the era and he acknowledged paternity of all three of his illegitimate children and provided for their education, however they did not live with him, his wife or their legitimate children. Sadly, two of his illegitimate children, his two daughters, Emily and Mary also died, in a freak accident when their dresses caught on fire at a Halloween party in 1871.

Their mother Jane had a larger than life personality and her thoughts and actions largely influenced Oscar. She was an early advocate for women’s right, well read in classic literature and frequently pretended to be younger than she really was, which would influenced Oscar’s own fascination with names and ages in his later work.

The Wilde’s home life had a reputation for being sociable, hospitable, intellectual, stimulating and unconventional and there was plenty of encouragement and affection.

In 1864, three years before their sister’s death, Oscar and Willie were sent away to the prestigious Portora Royal School in Enskillen, Northern Ireland. It’s reputation was considered both social and academic and known to some as the ‘Eton of Ireland’ and where students were treated as ‘gentlemen’.

While Willie’s engagement with school life was enthusiastic, Oscar preferred to escape into books and his own thoughts, showing little interest much else aside from literature but already showing signs of remarkable intelligence for his age.

As their school years progressed, Oscar developed into something of an accomplished performer and his ability to speed read was great entertainment for his peers where he would ‘for a wager’ read a three volume novel in half an hour and be able to give a fairly accurate plot synopsis.

In 1817, Oscar was awarded a scholarship to Trinity College in Dublin and it marked a new era for him. Here, he was awarded the Berkley Gold Medal for Greek which he excelled in and was again awarded a scholarship in classics at Magdalen College in Oxford.

His next four years at Oxford proved to be significant moments in his life and self- reinvention, developing his public persona that he would carry with him the rest of his life. Academically he did well, due to his education at Trinity College, although for the first two years at Oxford he neglected his studies. He graduated Oxford in 1878 with first class honours in Literae Humaniores, the classics in languages, Ancient Roman, Ancient Greek, Latin, Ancient Greek and Philosophy. He was also the first scholar from Oxford since 1825 to win the Newdigate Prize for his first major work, a poem titled, ‘Ravenna’.

However, upon graduation his future was uncertain. When he wasn’t offered another scholarship and a writing career seemed financially unviable, he was urged at his mother’s insistence that he marry an heiress for financial stability. At the time, he hadn’t fully discovered his sexuality so he did have a female love interest, but she had had accepted a marriage proposal by none other than Bram Stoker (who would go on to write Dracula).

After receiving his Bachelor of Arts he set his sights on London instead and quickly became immersed in London’s social scene and where he would write his first play, 1880’s, Vera; or, The Nihilists. The following year he signed a contract to publish his first set of poetry with the subject matter compromising of Christianity and Paganism, a lifelong topic of fascination to Oscar and his inclination towards oppositeness. However, his poetry was not well received and he was even accused of plagiarism.

Unexpectedly, around the same time he was offered a chance to give a lecture on the aesthetic movement in America and sought to win over them over with his flamboyant dress and natural speaking style. His lecture was well received and he became a success in New York also earning him respect from famed poet and journalist, Walt Whitman. The tour which lasted a year saw many of his successes and failures but ultimately he ended up staying a further two months because of his celebrity status until he sailed home December, 1882.

After his overseas excitement, he would go on to live in Paris briefly and make a return trip back America while he finished his second play, 1883’s, The Duchess of Padua and attended the opening of his first play (Vera) in New York. However, he again received negative criticism and was urged once more from his mother to marry into a wealthy family. Around this time rumours of his homosexuality began to circulate, not helped by his flamboyant dress and he sought to protect his image since homosexuality was still illegal and would have a negative impact on his credibility and successes. On May 29th 1884, he would marry Constance Lloyd, an Irish author, quelling any gossip about his sexuality and they would have two sons together, Cyril and Vyvyan.

Although the marriage was a somewhat happy and supported one and he was a devoted father, Oscar soon grew tired of married life and began to explore his homosexual tendencies having already had encounters with young men since his Oxford days. One of whom would remain a close friend until Oscar’s death.

In 1890, Oscar would publish his first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s theme was based on a new hedonism and it was received with mixed criticism and gained much attention for the subtle suggestion of a homosexual relationship between the novel’s characters, Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward.

Around this time, the father of Oscar’s secret lover became increasingly suspicious of his son’s friendship with Wilde and suspected homosexuality tendencies of the two men. The father antagonized until Oscar sued for defamation but upon realizing he would not win, was advised to withdraw his prosecution under advisement from his attorney.

Unfortunately, enough evidence was presented against Oscar in the form of male prostitutes which he had previously solicited. The jury were unable to form a verdict leaving Oscar free on bail, however it meant a second trail would take place and had a vastly different outcome. He was convicted on all accounts of sodomy and was sentenced to two years of hard labour with the last eighteen months served at Berkshire’s Reading Gaol.

During his imprisonment he read voraciously and was even allowed to write, completing his famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and his letter, De Profundis, translated from Latin as ‘from the depths’ which would be published posthumously in 1905.

He was released from prison on May 19th 1897 and would spend his remaining three years in exile. Abandoning his wife and children, upon his release he fled to Dieppe, a port on the French coast and it was here he met up with his former lover from Oxford, Robert Ross, although he refused to have anything more to do with Lord Alfred Douglas, who’s father was the antagonist that led to his eventual imprisonment.

However, he was committed to restarting his life and avoiding further scandal, although he realized his life could only follow one course because of his sexuality. He briefly reunited with Lord Alfred Douglas which lasted only a few months before he returned to Paris alone.

In 1898, his estranged wife, Constance died due to complications following surgery of multiple sclerosis which was then a little-known condition.

Two years later in 1900, Oscar underwent ear surgery and developed meningitis from which he would never recover.

With his former lover, Robert Ross at his side he died in Paris a few months later in November.

He was forty-six years old.

Upon hearing of his death, his other former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas arrived in Paris in time for Oscar’s funeral and in true dramatic fashion, was said to of fallen into the grave as the casket was lowered as he was competing to be the ‘principal mourner’.

Oscar Wilde was first interred at Bagneux, Southern France and his remains were later moved to the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery where they remain today and is one of the most popular graves with thousands of visitors each year.

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elocal Digital Edition – August 2020 (#233)

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