Known for his wit and flamboyant style, Oscar Wilde needs no introduction in the literary world. He was certainly a non-conformist, trapped in the narrow-mindedness of the late Victorian English Society. KALYANI MAJUMDAR celebrates the iconic writer
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The world is yours for a season.” Startlingly, the quote came to reflect the trajectory of his own life. He was basking in the glory of his literary works when his life quite dramatically took an unfortunate turn that finally led to his eventual downfall. And, what a great tragedy it was for the world to have lost a brilliant playwright, novelist, essayist and poet. Was he far too bold for the 19th century? Perhaps, he was.
The early life
Born in Dublin, Ireland on October 16, 1854, Oscar Wilde was a bright boy with avid interest in Greek and Roman studies. His father Sir William Wilde was a renowned doctor and his mother Jane Wilde was a poet, who wrote under her pen name Speranza. Her liberal ideas had a strong influence on Wilde’s early life. While studying at Portora Royal School, he was awarded a scholarship to attend Trinity College in Dublin. Afterwards, he went on to complete his graduation from Oxford University. At Oxford, he wrote a prize winning poetry titled, Raveena, in 1878.
A fashion icon
When Wilde went to New York on a lecture tour, he drew a lot of attention due to his stylish attire and flowing wavy hair that was unlike the fashion that was prevalent then. Not surprisingly, he strongly supported the Dress Reform Movement of the 19th century.
Feminist, family and children’s stories
In 1884, he married Constance Lloyd, a wealthy Englishwoman and had two sons Cyril and Vyvyan. He took up a job as the Editor of a magazine on women’s fashion, called The Woman’s World. Wilde expanded the range of content in the magazine by focusing on not just what women should wear but also of what they think and feel. It gave a platform for women to voice their opinion. Simultaneously, Wilde published The Happy Prince and Other Tales, a collection of stories for children in 1888. The popularity of the stories garnered him significant attention and praise.
Aestheticism and Dorian Grey
From his Oxford days, Wilde was deeply influenced by Aestheticism. The movement emphasised on the aesthetic value of a creative work that should be independent of vices and virtues. Oscar Wilde was devoted to this idea and his works reflected that fully. In 1891, he published his first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey. It was a story of an attractive young man, Dorian Grey, who traded his soul with his portrait, so that he would remain young while his painting would age. Alas, the novel did not go down well with the Victorian English society, as they felt it had a sheer absence of morality and the lead protagonist lacked virtue. However, Wilde stayed committed to his devotion to aestheticism. While defending his work, he said that right and wrong are just material for the artist to work with. Of course, the book is now revered as one of the finest classics from 19th century and has been adapted into numerous movies, plays and television series.
The brilliant satirical playwright
Wilde’s natural wit won the hearts of the masses with his plays. In 1892, he penned his first play, Lady Windermere’s Fan. It received critical acclaim. It was followed by A Woman of No Importance in 1893, again a huge success. Then in 1895 he wrote two plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. The latter went on to become his most popular play. Wilde was the toast of the town. His name was resonating on every socialite’s living room.
The infamous case
During the time when Wilde was riding high on his literary success, he got involved with a young man, Lord Alfred Douglas. In his private life Wilde was homosexual and it was an open secret. But in Victorian England being homosexual was a crime. When Douglas’ father, Marquess of Queensberry, got a whiff of the affair, he left a calling card for Oscar Wilde addressing him as a posing sodomite. It was evident that Queensberry wanted to ruin Wilde’s reputation and popularity. When Wilde sued Queensberry for libel, a lengthy trial began and evidences were presented by Queensberry of Wilde’s homosexuality. Although, the credibility of the evidences was rather questionable in nature, Wilde was arrested on charges of ‘gross indecency’. He was convicted for two years of hard labour in prison. Overnight his playbills were removed from every theatre. Wilde became a pariah. His name was not to be uttered in public.
The last days
In 1897 when he was released from prison he was impoverished and alone. He left for Paris. He wrote very little in the last years of his life. In 1898 he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol describing his experience at the prison. Wilde died in a cheap hotel in Paris in1900 due to cerebral meningitis at the age of 46. He rests at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and it is one of the most visited graves.
Questions left unanswered
In the strange turn of events in his life, there are many ambiguities in the charges that were made against him. Apparently, some documents from the trial went missing. Throughout the trial, few of Wilde’s close friends felt that he was trying to protect Douglas and did not defend himself adequately for some of the outrageous accusations that were brought against him. Clearly, Wilde paid a steep price for his affection for Douglas.
Although, Oscar Wilde’s last days were spent as an outcast, he remains immortalised through his brilliant works that he has left behind. His quotes are timeless, and even after more than a century has passed, his writing does not fail to find an eager audience.