In this week’s Know who you’re Googling, Loretta Barnard outlines the trial and the genius of the one and only Oscar Wilde.
When private lives become public, sometimes there is hell to pay. When private lives become public, sometimes a life’s achievements are devalued, derided and discarded.
Oscar Wilde is one such life. Remembered for his notorious trials, he deserves so much more.
Born in Ireland in 1854 to a surgeon father and artist and Irish nationalist mother, Wilde studied at Trinity College, Dublin and Oxford University. At Oxford, he discovered aestheticism, which espoused beauty and the pursuit of pleasure above more pragmatic workaday values.
He ponced around in fancy clothes, grew his hair long and carried lilies with him. A bit affected, sure, but he genuinely delighted in beauty for its own sake.
He loved women; was “incomplete” without his wife Constance and adored his two sons, but he was lured into the illicit world of homoeroticism. And illicit it was – homosexuality was a criminal offence.
When Oscar met spoilt, vacuous Lord Alfred Douglas or “Bosie” who was 14 years his junior, he was completely besotted. So began a long liaison that proved totally disastrous. Bosie introduced Oscar to the seedy world of rent-boys and although rumours flew hither and yon, things were kept under wraps.
Or were they?
Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury (the boxing guy, Google him too), publicly accused Oscar of being “a somdomite” (sic). He wasn’t much of a speller, but his accusation of sodomy brought about Wilde’s downfall.
All this while Oscar’s comic gem The Importance of Being Earnest was playing to rave reviews in London. He was at the height of his fame, so he sued Queensbury for libel.
Big mistake, because Queensbury made Wilde’s associations with male prostitutes public knowledge. Oscar was ultimately convicted for “gross indecency”, or “the love that dare not speak its name” and sentenced to two years imprisonment.
From being an admired and fêted member of society, Oscar was now universally reviled.
What had come before the trial?
The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) is a poignant collection of tales, ostensibly for children. I’m not sure you’d read them to small kids, though, as they’re quite sad. There are no happy endings or riding off into the sunset with one’s true love and all that, but they do invite reflection on things like selfishness, ego, hypocrisy. Read them, they’re very moving.
In his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Gray makes a Mephistophelian deal: while his portrait ages, he remains young and beautiful; embarking on a debauched life of lust, blackmail and murder. All the while, he keeps his handsome visage and the portrait grows uglier. Criticised as immoral, the book caused something of a sensation in literary circles.
Wilde also wrote poetry. He lectured across America about decorative arts. He wrote loads of reviews and essays. When he was appointed editor of a women’s magazine, he transformed it from a fashion rag to a profitable publication covering art, literature and women’s issues. A successful playwright, he penned plays as varied as Salomé and An Ideal Husband. He was a tremendously talented man.
His last works were De Profundis, a letter to Bosie examining their time together and his newfound spiritual maturity. The last lines of his lengthy but significant poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, are very powerful and contemplative:
“And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword.”
Wilde – that brilliant, funny, sad, beautiful soul – died in Paris in November 1900 of meningitis, not syphilis as is often claimed.
Known for his quick wit, Wilde once said, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Take that as an instruction. Google him, then go talk about him.