Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland, to parents who were among the most colorful members of the Irish gentry. His father, Sir William Wilde, one of the foremost Victorian oculists and surgeons, numbered crowned heads of Europe among his patients. He was equally famed for his archaeological research and his amorous adventures. Oscar Wilde’s mother was no less remarkable. Born Jane Francesca Elgee, she gained public notice for the patriotic pieces she published under the pseudonym Speranza. When one of Speranza’s essays brought Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, leader of the Young Ireland party, to trial for high treason and sedition, the tall and dramatic authoress rose in court, proclaimed “I alone am the culprit,” and on the spot became one of the heroines of Ireland.
This colorful background and his mother’s doting attention must have fostered young Wilde’s imagination. His mind received more discipline and direction when, through good fortune, he was brought into contact with a series of fine teachers. At Trinity College in Dublin, Wilde’s Greek tutor, the Reverend John Pentland Mahaffy, inspired him with a love of Hellenic culture and, by his own witty example, honed and polished the younger man’s conversational talents. Next, having won a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1874, Wilde encountered Ruskin (then Slade Professor of Art), whose social conscience, love of medieval architecture, and belief in the necessary connection between art and life were to become part of Wilde’s own creed. Even more important to Wilde’s development was Pater, the skeptical latter-day Epicurean famed for his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). In the light of Pater’s intellectual advice to the youth of the day, most memorably distilled in his observation that “to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ectasy, is success in life,” the Oxonian Wilde’s famous ambition, “Oh, would that I could live up to my blue china!” seems a less frivolous objective.
In 1879, Wilde went to London, where, sharing rooms with the artist Frank Miles, he became one of the central figures of the aesthetic movement and made the acquaintance of many of the celebrities of the day, particularly the lovely Lily Langtry, whose career as a professional beauty had been launched by Miles’s drawings. The tall, heavy, epigrammatic young Wilde was soon known in society for his eccentric dress and his paradoxical wit. Caricatured as Reginald Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, he became the epitome of aestheticism for the wider public as well. The shrewd producers of the comic opera, which was to go on an American tour, realized that the presence of Bunthorne’s prototype would fan the flames of interest, so with their sponsorship, Wilde embarked on an extended tour of the United States that permitted him to see the notable places, to meet the notable people, and having done so, to conclude, “When good Americans die they go to Paris. When bad Americans die they stay in America.”
On his return to England after a short stay in Paris, Wilde launched himself on what was to be his period of eminence. He made friends with the painter Whistler and became engaged to the pretty but conventional daughter of an Irish barrister, Constance Lloyd, whom he married in 1883. They had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. In need of funds to finance his luxurious mode of life, he cultivated his literary career, if not in earnest, then at least with more enterprise than he would have wished to acknowledge. He lectured, reviewed books, and for a time edited The Woman’s World. His prose works appeared in rapid succession: short stories (Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories, The Happy Prince and Other Tales, A House of Pomegranates), a novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray), and a collection of critical essays (Intentions).
With his fiction, Wilde solidly established his reputation in the world of letters, but his great period of financial success began only when he turned to writing for the popular theater. Although he found the enforced discipline of playwriting difficult and never regarded his social comedies as anything more than well-crafted potboilers, Wilde managed in a span of three years to write four plays that paid him exceedingly well and made him even more famous. Lady Windermere’s Fan (premiering in February, 1892) was followed by A Woman of No Importance (April, 1893), An Ideal Husband (January, 1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (February, 1895). After completing Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde went to France, where he wrote Salomé, a poetic drama intended to make his artistic reputation on the Continent and at home. Wilde offered the title role in that play to Sarah Bernhardt, who accepted and began rehearsals for a London production that was never staged: The Lord Chamberlain banned it for violating the old law forbidding the theatrical representation of biblical characters.
Having reached its zenith, Wilde’s star rapidly sank to oblivion in the spring of 1895. Since 1891, Wilde had been friends, and more than friends, with the handsome, talented, spoiled, unstable Lord Alfred Douglas, a younger son of the eighth marquess of Queensbury. The relationship was not discreet. Lord Alfred took pleasure in flaunting himself in the role of minion to the celebrated Wilde and in flouting the authority of his father. As his letters reveal, Wilde in his turn expressed his feelings for the elegant youth whose “slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry” with his customary extravagance. Finally, in what was to be one of the most perverse and distasteful interludes in the history of English jurisprudence, Wilde was provoked to sue the ferocious marquess for criminal libel when that rash peer had culminated a campaign of harassment by leaving at Wilde’s club a card bearing the words “to Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite [sic].” For his defense, Queensbury collected a small parade of blackmailers and male prostitutes to testify to the accuracy of his epithet. Unwisely persisting in his suit, Wilde failed, on Queensbury’s acquittal, to seize his chance to flee the country. Having lost his battle with the marquess, Wilde in turn was arrested, tried, and ultimately convicted for practicing “the love that dares not tell its name.” He was sentenced to two years at hard labor.
Wilde’s twenty-four months of imprisonment were a continuous mortification of body, mind, and spirit. He had lost his honor, his position, his fortune, and his family. Although he was to write one more fine work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, his life was behind him. Released from prison on May 19, 1897, he left England behind as well. Under the name Sebastian Melmoth, Wilde resided abroad, principally in France and Italy, until his death in Paris in 1900.