Biography of Oscar Wilde, Irish Poet and Playwright

Oscar Wilde
Photograph of Oscar Wilde in 1882 by Napoleon Sarony (Image credit: Heritage Images / Getty Images).

Heritage Images / Getty Images

Born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854 – November 30, 1900) was a popular poet, novelist, and playwright in the late 19th century. He wrote some of the most enduring works in the English language, but is equally remembered for his scandalous personal life, which ultimately led to his imprisonment.

Fast Facts: Oscar Wilde

  • Full Name: Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde
  • Occupation: Playwright, novelist, and poet
  • Born: October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland
  • Died: November 30, 1900 in Paris, France
  • Notable Works: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Salome, Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Spouse: Constance Lloyd (m. 1884-1898)
  • Children: Cyril (b. 1885) and Vyvyan (b. 1886).

Early Life

Wilde, born in Dublin, was the second of three children. His parents were Sir William Wilde and Jane Wilde, both of whom were intellectuals (his father was a surgeon and his mother wrote). He had three illegitimate half-siblings, who Sir William acknowledged and supported, as well as two full siblings: a brother, Willie, and a sister, Isola, who died of meningitis at age nine. Wilde was educated first at home, then by one of the oldest schools in Ireland.

In 1871, Wilde left home with a scholarship to study at Trinity College in Dublin, where he particularly studied the classics, literature, and philosophy. He proved himself to be an excellent student, winning competitive academic awards and coming first in his class. In 1874, he competed for and won a scholarship to study at Magdalen College, Oxford for another four years.

During this time, Wilde developed several, widely differing interests. For a time, he considered converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism. He became involved with Freemasonry at Oxford, and later became even more involved with the aesthetic and Decadent movements. Wilde scorned “masculine” sports and deliberately created an image of himself as an aesthete. However, he was not helpless or delicate: reportedly, when a group of students attacked him, he singlehandedly fought them off. He graduated with honors in 1878.

Society and Writing Debut

After his graduation, Wilde moved to London and began his writing career in earnest. His poems and lyrics had been published in various magazines previously, and his first book of poetry was published in 1881, when Wilde was 27 years old. The next year, he was invited to make a lecture tour of North America talking about aestheticism; it was so successful and popular that a planned four-month tour turned into nearly a year. Although he was popular with general audiences, critics eviscerated him in the press.

In 1884, he crossed paths with an old acquaintance, a wealthy young woman named Constance Lloyd. The couple married and set out to establish themselves as stylish trendsetters in society. They had two sons, Cyril in 1885 and Vyvyan in 1886, but their marriage began to fall apart after Vyvyan’s birth. It was also around this time that Wilde first met Robert Ross, a young gay man who eventually became Wilde’s first male lover.

Wilde was, by most accounts, a loving and attentive father, and he worked to support his family in a variety of pursuits. He had a stint as editor of a women’s magazine, sold short fiction, and developed his essay writing as well.

Literary Legend

Wilde wrote his only novel – arguably his most famous work – in 1890-1891. The Picture of Dorian Gray eerily focuses on a man who bargains to have his aging taken on by a portrait so that he himself can stay young and beautiful forever. At the time, critics heaped disdain on the novel for its portrayal of hedonism and fairly blatant homosexual overtones. However, it’s endured as a classic of the English language.

Over the next few years, Wilde turned his attentions to playwriting. His first play was a French-language tragedy Salome, but he soon shifted to English comedies of manners. Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband appealed to society while also subtly critiquing it. These Victorian comedies often revolved around farcical plots that nonetheless found ways to critique society, which made them immensely popular with audiences but riled up more conservative or straitlaced critics.

Wilde’s final play would prove to be his masterpiece. Debuting onstage in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest broke away from Wilde’s “stock” plots and characters to create a drawing room comedy that was, nonetheless, the epitome of Wilde’s witty, socially-sharp style. It became his most popular play, as well as his most praised one.

Scandal and Trial

Wilde’s life began to unravel when he became romantically involved with Lord Alfred Douglas, who introduced Wilde to some of the seedier side of gay London society (and who coined the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name”). Lord Alfred’s estranged father, the Marquess of Queensbury, was livid, and an enmity between Wilde and the marquess sprung up. The feud reached a boiling point when Queensbury left a calling card accusing Wilde of sodomy; an infuriated Wilde decided to sue for libel. The plan backfired, since Queensbury’s legal team mounted a defense based on the argument that it could not be libel if it was the truth. Details of Wilde’s liaisons with men came out, as did some blackmail material, and even the moral content of Wilde’s writing came under criticism.

Wilde was forced to drop the case, and he himself was arrested and tried for gross indecency (the formal umbrella charge for homosexual behavior). Douglas continued to visit him and had even tried to get him to flee the country when the warrant was first issued. Wilde pled not guilty and spoke eloquently on the stand, but he did warn Douglas to leave for Paris before the trial ended, just in case. Ultimately, Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labor, the maximum allowed under the law, which the judge decried as still not sufficient.

While in prison, the hard labor took a toll on Wilde’s already-precarious health. He suffered an ear injury in a fall that later contributed to his death. During his stay, he was eventually allowed writing materials, and he wrote a lengthy letter to Douglas that he could not send, but that laid out a reflection on his own life, their relationship, and his spiritual evolution during his imprisonment. In 1897, he was released from prison and immediately sailed to France.

Final Years and Legacy

Wilde took the name “Sebastian Melmoth” while in exile and spent his final years digging into spirituality and railing for prison reform. He spent some time with Ross, his longtime friend and first lover, as well as Douglas. After losing the will to write and encountering many unfriendly former friends, Wilde’s health took a steep decline.

Oscar Wilde died of meningitis in 1900. He was conditionally baptized into the Catholic Church, at his wish, just before his death. At his side to the end was Reggie Turner, who had remained a loyal friend, and Ross, who became his literary executor and the primary keeper of his legacy. Wilde is buried in Paris, where his tomb has become a major attraction for tourists and literary pilgrims. A small compartment in the tomb also houses Ross’s ashes.

In 2017, Wilde was one of the men formally given posthumous pardons for convictions of previously-criminal homosexuality under the “Alan Turing law.” Wilde has become an icon, much like he was in his time, for his style and unique sense of self. His literary works have also become some of the most important in the canon.

Sources

  • Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. Vintage Books, 1988.
  • Pearson, Hesketh. The Life of Oscar Wilde. Penguin Books (reprint), 1985
  • Sturgis, Matthew. Oscar: A Life. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018.