Biography of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin, Ireland, to prominent intellectuals William Wilde and Lady Jane Francesca Wilde. Though they were not aristocrats, the Wildes were well-off, and provided Oscar with a fine education. Oscar was especially influenced by his mother, a brilliantly witty raconteur, and as a child he was frequently invited to socialize with her intellectual circle of friends.
Wilde entered Trinity College in 1871 and focused his academic studies on the classics and theories of aestheticism. In 1874, he transferred to Oxford and studied under the divergent tutorials of John Ruskin (a social theorist and Renaissance man) and Walter Pater (a proponent of the new school of aestheticism). Wilde negotiated their conflicting philosophies as his personal life developed. He also experimented with cutting-edge fashion and experimented with homosexuality.
Upon graduating from Oxford, Wilde had a brief flirtation with Catholicism, but his independent orientation toward the world prevented an exclusive attachment to religion. In 1881, he published his first volume of verse (Poems), and he became famous enough to be satirized in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. He moved to Chelsea, an avant-garde neighborhood in London, but his father's death and the family's snowballing debts forced him to embark on a lecture tour of the United States in 1882. Upon arriving at customs, Wilde made his now-famous statement: "I have nothing to declare except my genius." On tour, he dressed in a characteristically flamboyant style. He advocated for the philosophy of the Aesthetic: art should exist solely for art's sake, or, as he wrote elsewhere, it should be "useless." While on tour in New York, Wilde also produced his first, unsuccessful play, Vera.
In 1884, Wilde married a shy and wealthy Irishwoman named Constance Lloyd, and the two moved into a posh house in London. Wilde briefly edited Woman's World magazine while writing a collection of fairy tales and a number of essays (collected later as Intentions, 1891,) which elaborated his unique approach to Aestheticism, a movement with which he was rather reluctant to associate himself. While Wilde had been socially and professionally linked to confirmed aesthetes such as Max Beerbohm, Arthur Symons, and Aubrey Beardsley, he was an open critic of the kind of reductive aesthetic philosophy expressed in the famous journal The Yellow Book. Preferring to explore his own thoughts about art and politics through idiosyncratic readings of Plato, Shakespeare, and contemporary painting, Wilde's social circle featured a diverse cast of characters, among them poets, painters, theater personalities, intellectuals, and London "rent boys" (male prostitutes). His closest friend, however, remained the Canadian critic and artist Robert Ross, who at times handled Wilde's publicity and acted as Wilde's confidant in his professional and personal affairs.
Throughout the 1890s, Wilde became a household name with the publication of his masterpiece novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a Faustian tale about beauty and youth, as well as a string of highly successful plays, including Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), the Symbolist melodrama Salome (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), and An Ideal Husband (1895). His last play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), among his greatest, is considered the original modern comedy of manners. By this time, Wilde's extravagant appearance, refined wit, and melodious speaking voice had made him one of London's most sought-after dinner party guests.
In 1891, Wilde became infatuated with the beautiful young poet Lord Alfred Douglas (known as "Bosie"). The dynamic between Bosie and Wilde was unstable at the best of times, and the pair often split for months before agreeing to reunite. Still, the relationship consumed Wilde's personal life, to the extent that the sexual nature of their friendship had become a matter of public knowledge. In 1895, Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensbury, accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde replied by charging Queensbury with libel. Queensbury located several of Wilde's letters to Bosie, as well as other incriminating evidence. In a second trial often referred to as "the trial of the century," the writer was found guilty of "indecent acts" and was sentenced to two years of hard labor in England's Reading Gaol.
In 1897, while in prison, Wilde wrote De Profundis, an examination of his newfound spirituality. After his release, he moved to France under an assumed name. He wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol in 1898 and published two letters on the poor conditions of prison. One of the letters helped reform a law to keep children from imprisonment. His new life in France, however, was lonely, impoverished, and humiliating.
Wilde died in 1900 in a Paris hotel room. He retained his epigrammatic wit until his last breath. He is rumored to have said of the drab establishment that between the awful wallpaper and himself, "One of us has to go." Critical and popular attention to Wilde has recently experienced a resurgence; various directors have produced films based on his plays and life, and his writings remain a wellspring of witticisms and reflections on aestheticism, morality, and society.