I like to think that I’m a mature human being, but there are times, particularly when a new piece of reading material shows up on my doorstep, that I tend to turn into a four-year-old at Christmas. Such was the case when yesterday, I found a coveted package waiting for me when I arrived home from work, stamped with the Barnes & Noble logo. What followed next was a shriek (yes a shriek) of excitement and me pushing random pets out of my path as I attempted to tear open the package, my mother shaking her head in the corner as she sipped her herbal tea. What at last I managed to wrestle the thing open, I was greeted with one of the great benefits of having a credit card and an eye for bargain books – a long-coveted copy of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, one of my all-time favorite writers.
My respect for Oscar Wilde is immense; his poetry is beautiful and his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, thought-provoking. In Victorian England, a world where photography was new and black and white and humor tended to be dry and stuffy, Wilde managed to bring light and color wherever he went, becoming the talk of the world he lived in and the man of the hour. He was well educated (having attended both Trinity College in Dublin and Oxford) and became an accomplished poet and playwright in the 1890’s, his work still in print to this day, and now, many regard him as one of the most beloved writers of the Victorian Era (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker). But Wilde’s life was far from what one would expect to come with success and notoriety and toward the end of his life, he suffered persecution by his peers and even prison, becoming an outcast and dying deep in debt and impoverished at the young age of just forty-six.
Born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde on 16 October 1854, he was the second of three children born to Sir William Wilde and his wife Jane “Speranza” Wilde. His mother was an Irish poet with a passion for folktales who influenced her son’s life to a great extent. Young Oscar was schooled at home until he was sent to boarding school at the age of nine. From 1871-74, he attended Dublin’s Trinity College on scholarship, where he placed first in his class his freshman year, and later transferred to Magdalen College in Oxford, where he graduated in 1878. At over six feet in height, he was an imposing figure, wearing his hair long and growing his lavish tastes. He collected blue china, which he prized most of all among his possessions, saying once “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china!” He studied Greek and learned both French and German, occasionally even boxing. He had a silver tongue and a sharp wit and used it to silence critics and any who insulted him. It was during this time that he wrote Ravenna, a poem which earned him a Newdigate Prize in 1878.
Upon his return to Dublin, Wilde flirted with the idea of converting to Catholicism, among other things. He pursued a romance with his childhood sweetheart, a woman named Florence Balcombe, who later met and married horror author Bram Stoker. After this stinging rejection, he moved permanently to England and made his home in London, where he roomed with high society painter Frank Miles. Later he traveled to the United States of America, where he delivered lectures and in 1881, he collected his poetry and published them as a single volume book, Poems. Upon returning to the Continent, he met and married the wealthy Constance Lloyd and the couple welcomed two sons in the following years, Cyril and Vyvyan.
Soon after, during a high point in his career, he met and fell fatally in love with the Marquess of Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, called Bosie. Bosie was reckless, spoiled, hot-tempered, and just as extravagant as Wilde, and the two formed a friendship that quickly blossomed into a romantic affair, though it was a rocky one. The two were often found in the other’s company and Wilde ended up slowly becoming a distant stranger to his wife and sons as a result. The relationship between the two men was broken off and then rekindled several times and by the mid 1890’s, the Marquess of Queensburry learned of the affair. Several points in time, the Marquess threatened both his son and Wilde, ordering them to stop what they were doing, but it wasn’t until February of 1895 that Wilde had had enough and sued Queensberry from criminal libel after he left a calling card for Wilde that called him a “sodomite.”
The lawsuit backfired when evidence was presented that exposed Wilde as a practicing homosexual, leaving the courtroom in shock. At the time, homosexuality was a criminal offense, for which Queensberry, careful to exclude his son from the impending firestorm of scandal, had Wilde arrested and tried for gross indecency. Found guilty, Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor in prison. His wife Constance left for Switzerland with their children, changing the family surname to Hollard and forbidding him to contact the boys. He never saw them again.
Upon his release from prison in 1897, Wilde made his move to the Continent,, where he met with Bosie once again in France despite the tensions between them (Wilde blamed him for causing his misfortunes). They moved in together near Naples, but broke things off for good soon after when both Bosie’s father and Wilde’s estranged wife threatened to cut them off financially. Constance refused to resume sending money to her husband and as a result, Wilde became destitute, stricken by poverty and an infection in his ear that had increasingly worsened since his time in prison. In 1900, he contracted cerebral meningitis and, upon converting to Catholicism on his death bed in order to receive the Last Rites, he died in his hotel room in Paris on 30 November and was buried in France. His fitting epitaph, taken from his final work, The Ballad of Reading Goal, reads as follows:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-run urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.