The Importance of Being Earnest: Biography: Oscar Wilde

The Irish poet, novelist, and dramatist Oscar Fingal OFlahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland on October 16, 1854, the second son of unconventional parents. His mother was Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, a poet, translator, and journalist who was active in the women’s rights movement. His father was Sir William Wilde, an Irish antiquarian, writer, and specialist in diseases of the eye and ear, who founded a hospital in Dublin. Wilde was educated at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, and Trinity College, Dublin (1871-74). He continued his education at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he proved an outstanding student. He was taught by the art critic and social critic John Ruskin and the essayist and art critic Walter Pater. At Oxford, Wilde shocked the staff by his irreverent attitude to religion and was mocked by his peers for his dandy’s style of dress. He graduated with a B.A. in 1878 and moved to London.
Wilde’s dandyism and wit contributed to his becoming the spokesman for the Aesthetic artistic movement, which believed in art for art’s sake. Aestheticism held that the purpose of art was to produce beauty, not moral improvement or sentimental effect. In the six years following graduation, Wilde lectured in the United States, Canada, and Paris, and worked as an arts reviewer. From the mid-1880s he was a regular contributor to the Pall Mall Gazette and Dramatic View. In London, Wilde met Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a wealthy lawyer, and they married in 1884. They had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). From 1887 until 1889 Wilde was editor of Womans World magazine. In 1888 he published The Happy Prince and Other Tales, a book of fairy stories written for his sons. His most famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, followed in 1890.
Wilde’s best-known theoretical works are the dialogues “The Decay of Lying” (1889) and “The Critic as Artist” (1890). The latter puts forward the idea that the critic must not be fair and rational, but possessed of “a temperament exquisitely susceptible to beauty”.
Wilde’s marriage ended in 1893, apparently as a result of his having met in 1891 the love of his life, the poet Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”). For a few years Wilde and Douglas lived together. Biographers differ as to when Wilde first became aware of his homosexuality, with Neil McKenna’s biography, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (Basic Books, 2005) suggesting it may have been as early as 1870. Other biographers believe he was introduced to active homosexuality the year after his wedding, in 1885, by his 17-year-old friend Robert Baldwin Ross. Homosexuality was illegal in England at the time, so Wilde was taking risks in pursuing relationships with men. Wilde was one of a circle of upper-class men committed to homosexual law reform, or “The Cause”, as it was known. Wilde was a member of a secretive organization called the Order of Chaeronea, which cultivated a homosexual and pederastic (relating to close relationships between adults and adolescents) ethos.
Between 1892 and 1895 Wilde made his reputation as a playwright with a series of popular plays: Lady Windermeres Fan (1892), a biting satire on Victorian morals, A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895). Wilde wrote the comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) with the avowed intention that it should be a commercial success. The play opened on February 14, 1895, to standing ovations. That night, Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who was determined to end the relationship between Wilde and Douglas, planned to disrupt the performance, but Wilde got wind of the plan and had him barred from entering the theater. A few days later, Queensberry left a card for Wilde at his club which read, “To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite [sic].” Urged on by Douglas, Wilde sued Queensberry for libel, a decision that was to prove his downfall. Wilde dismissed the advice of his friends, George Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris, to drop the case and flee the country.
The court case opened on April 3, 1895 at the Old Bailey, London. During cross-examination by Queensberry’s attorney, Wilde was asked about the meaning of a phrase in a poem of Douglas’s: “What is the Love that dare not speak its name?” Wilde answered: “The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect . . . There is nothing unnatural about it.” Witnesses testified regarding their roles in helping Wilde act out his sexual fantasies. At the trial’s end, the jury failed to reach a verdict. However, the case against Wilde was taken up by the government of the time, which aggressively pursued a conviction in a second court case. On May 25, 1895, Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency,” a euphemism for homosexual acts, and was sentenced to two years’ hard labor. He was imprisoned in Pentonville and Wandsworth prisons in London, and then in Reading Gaol. While in prison, Wilde wrote a long letter to Douglas, which was published in expurgated form after Wilde’s death, under the name De Profundis (1905). The work was only published in its unexpurgated and correct form in 1962.
After Wilde’s release in 1897 he lived in self-imposed exile in France under the name Sebastian Melmoth in Berneval and Paris. He wrote a poem about the death penalty and inhumane prison conditions, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which he published in 1898 under a pseudonym. Wilde’s health had never recovered from his years of hard labor and he died penniless of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900 in a cheap Paris hotel at the age of 46.