Witty, provocative and scandalous – three words that sum up the life of the great Irish playwright Oscar Wilde and the extensive volumes of work he left behind. Wilde took the later Victorian society by storm, and his work became infamously good in the very circles he mocked. Today, he may be most remembered for The Importance of being Earnest (1895), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Salome (1894) and Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893), but his foray into the dazzling literary world of the times began much earlier.
Despite his meticulous diction and insight into a world that was ‘extremely English’, Wilde was a red-blooded Irishman at heart. Born into the talented family of William Wilde, an acclaimed doctor and medical advisor who was later knighted for his efforts, and Jane Francesca Elgee, a renowned poet and skilled linguist, Wilde was privy to meeting famous, inspiring personalities from an early age. Jane was closely associated with the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, and her fiery Irish temperament and passion for soulful writing had a deep impact on her son’s later works.
Wilde always nurtured a deep hunger for learning. Whilst studying at Portora Royal School at Enniskillen, he would often top his class and was even rumoured, at the time, to have possessed a photographic memory. His academic prowess managed to win him the Royal School Scholarship Award to attend Trinity College in Dublin, where he placed first in the school's classics examination and received the college's Foundation Scholarship – the highest honour awarded to undergraduates at the time. He went on to study at Magdalen College in Oxford, where, apart from topping in academics, he made his first attempt at creative writing with Ravenna, a poem that won the Newdigate Prize for the best English verse at Oxford.
This gave Wilde the literary push he needed. With a suitcase full of possibilities, he, like any aspiring writer of the time, moved to the ‘Big City’ – London. Victorian London was a flurry of layered skirts, licentious infidelity, masquerades and drunken gambling. Wilde understood the nascent decadence that lingered in the air of the royal halls, but he knew better than to challenge it outright. Thus, he resorted to revealing the rampant hypocrisy that maligned society through his works, but always behind the shadow of humour and subtlety.
Curious to seek a culture beyond the one he lived and abhorred, he set sail to America. Here, he reportedly gave 140 lectures on art and aesthetics in just nine months. During his travels, he met distinguished literary intellectuals like Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and his personal idol, Walt Whitman. Upon his return, he met the wealthy Constance Lloyd and married her. The couple had two sons – Cyril and Vyvyan.
At the time, Wilde was editing and changing the face of a popular British magazine called Lady’s World, once a fashion magazine but now, under his influence, a platform for female speech, opinion and empowerment. This period, between 1888 and 1895, was very fruitful to him. He wrote a majority of his greatest work like The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A Woman of No Importance during this time. Wilde was beginning to gain global recognition, and for a while things seemed to be going quite well for the family.
But tragedy struck in the typical Wilde-esque, scandalous style. It was an open secret that Oscar Wilde was homosexual, or as some records state, bisexual. He had a passionate affair going on the side with one Lord Alfred Douglas, a junior from Oxford. The two had spent a considerable amount of time together, and when their secret was unearthed, Douglas’ father, a conservative aristocratic, openly defamed Wilde. Wilde, on a foolish impulse, sued the former for a libel. What followed was a serious of misfortunes that destroyed Wilde’s personal and professional life. Douglas Senior procured evidence of Wilde’s homo-erotic affair with his son, a blatant evil and strict taboo in the England of those days. This led to a two-year long arrest that broke him mentally and physically, leaving him penniless and with a bad reputation. The intolerance of the hypocritical British society forced Wilde to leave for Paris, where he spent some time in exile. He wrote very little during this time. The only piece that made it to the public was The Ballad of Reading Gaol that spoke of his experiences in prison. He passed away at the young age of 46 after incurring meningitis in 1900 and was buried in Pe`re Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, a famous tourist attraction today.
Oscar Wilde was taken from the world too young. He was a man with infinite literary potential and his works were among the first satires on the life and times of the people of late Victorian England. The humour, simplicity and emotion in his writings were so raw that his works have passed down several generations and now hold a permanent place in our libraries. On his 162nd birthday, we want to remember him, not as a man who suffered at the hands of an intolerable society, but as one who gave us some of the best literature of the times. Happy birthday, sir!