Study Guide

Oscar Wilde Biography

  • Biography

    "[Oscar] Wilde's life is one of the saddest in English literature," reported London's Guardian newspaper on 1 December 1900, the day after the exiled poet and playwright died in disgrace in France at the age of 46. "His abilities were sufficient to win him an honoured place as a man of letters, but they struggled in vain against his lack of character."

  • Childhood

    Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (yes, it's a mouthful) was born 16 October 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. His father was Sir William Wilde, a respected surgeon. His mother, Francesca Elgee Wilde, was a flamboyant, dramatic persona who, before her marriage, published revolutionary poems under the pen name "Speranza." Oscar was the second of the couple's three children, and also had three half-siblings that Sir William Wilde fathered before his marriage.

    When he was nine, Wilde began his studies at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Ireland. At the age of sixteen, he enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin. Wilde was an outstanding student. He took an interest in the classics and was awarded the Berkeley Gold Medal, the highest honor available to classics students at Trinity. He competed for a scholarship to Oxford University's Magdalen College and won it. In 1874, twenty-year-old Oscar Wilde headed over to England to study at Oxford.

  • Oxford Days

    Oscar Wilde cut a flamboyant figure at Oxford. He took to wearing his hair long and dressing dramatically (photographs taken during this period show him wearing things like capes). He disdained sports and decorated his room with flowers and feathers. This behavior raised eyebrows at college, a reaction that did not bother Wilde one bit. Artists throughout Europe were adopting a similar style, in a period now known as the Decadent, or Aesthetic, Movement. It was a rebellion against the sparse, natural quality of Romanticism, which was on its way out in Europe. Wilde would later come to be regarded as the leading English figure of the Aesthetic Movement; at college, he was just the artsy guy.

    Wilde excelled academically at Oxford. He won the university's Newdigate Prize for his poem "Ravenna." In 1878, he graduated with the equivalent of top honors in two classical majors. He moved to London to establish himself as a figure in the city's literary, artistic and social scenes. It worked. By 1881, the year that he published his first book, Poems, he was well enough known that he was parodied by a dandy-ish character in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience.

    In 1882, Wilde embarked on a lecture tour through the United States. He met the poet Walt Whitman, whom he greatly admired. "There is no one in this wide great world of America whom I love and honor so much," one character said - it was not a commercial success.

    Wilde returned to England and embarked on another lecture tour that lasted until 1884. On 19 May 1884, Wilde married Constance Lloyd, the wealthy daughter of an English barrister whom he had met six months earlier. The couple settled in the Chelsea neighborhood of London. They had their first son, Cyril, a year later, and a second son, Vyvyan, the year after that.

  • Dorian Gray

    In 1887 Wilde was hired to run Women's World, a failing magazine whose owners hoped Wilde could turn it around. In the two years he headed the magazine, Wilde transformed it into a much better publication, thanks to his understanding of the things women wanted to read and learn about. "'It seems to me that, at present, it is too feminine, and not sufficiently womanly," he said. "We should take a wider range, as well as a high standpoint, and deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel." These arguments would come back to haunt him in later years.

  • Writing Plays

    In 1892 Wilde wrote a play called Lady Windermere's Fan, a comedy that hinged on manners, secret identities and the Victorian terror of the social faux pas. For the first time, one of his plays was a hit. He then wrote a play called Salomé, about the Biblical character who demands the execution of John the Baptist in the New Testament. The play was written in French, but it was years before it could be performed due to a French law that forbade the dramatic portrayal of Biblical characters.

    Wilde's play A Woman of No Importance premiered in 1893. The comedies An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in early 1895. Earnest was Wilde's last play, and is considered his best for its dead-on satire. Wilde's plays mined for comedy the intricate rules of Victorian courtship and social interactions. The characters in his plays were often scheming, lying, and hiding things from themselves or each other, behind a veneer of Victorian manners. Wilde eviscerated these hypocrisies with his pen.

    It was a period of great creativity for Wilde. It was also an important time in his personal life. A few years earlier, Wilde had been introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas, then an undergraduate student at Oxford. Wilde and Douglas, or "Bosie" as Wilde called him, soon began having a romantic affair. Word of their relationship eventually leaked to Douglas's father John, the Marquess of Queensberry. Queensberry was a belligerent man, and he did not like the idea of his son being in a homosexual relationship with an older man. He set out to take Wilde down.

    On 14 February 1895, Queensberry showed up at St. James's Theatre in London with an armload of vegetables, which he planned to throw at Wilde when he took his bows at the end of The Importance of Being Earnest. This plant-based attack was thwarted when Queensberry was denied entry to the theater. Four days later, he left a calling card at Wilde's home addressed to Oscar Wilde, "posing somdomite" (a misspelling of Sodomite). Wilde was furious. He decided to sue Queensberry for libel. It turned out to be the worst decision he ever made.

  • Wilde on Trial

    Queensberry's libel trial began on 3 April 1895. It soon became clear that the actions on trial there were Wilde's, not Queensberry's. The defense's lawyer grilled Wilde on his lifestyle, asking about his relationships with men, picking apart his published works and reading his letters to Alfred Douglas in court. Wilde defended himself with his trademark wit, and refused to renounce or deny his homosexuality.

    At one point, defense lawyer Edward Carson read excerpts from the preface to Dorian Gray as evidence. Wilde defended his thesis that morality and art were two separate things, prompting this exchange:

    "Carson: Then, I take it, that no matter how immoral a book may be, if it is well written, it is, in your opinion, a good book?
    Wilde: Yes, if it were well written so as to produce a sense of beauty, which is the highest sense of which a human being can be capable. If it were badly written, it would produce a sense of disgust.
    Carson: Then a well-written book putting forward perverted moral views may be a good book?
    Wilde: No work of art ever puts forward views. Views belong to people who are not artists.
    Carson: A perverted novel might be a good book?
    Wilde: I don't know what you mean by a "perverted" novel.
    Carson: Then I will suggest Dorian Gray as open to the interpretation of being such a novel?
    Wilde: That could only be to brutes and illiterates. The views of Philistines on art are incalculably stupid."

    Queensberry was acquitted of libel, but Wilde was then immediately arrested and charged with gross indecency. On 25 May 1895 he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labor. He was sent immediately to prison, eventually transferring to Reading Gaol.

    The trial destroyed Wilde's reputation. His wife Constance packed up their two young sons, took them to Switzerland, changed their names and never allowed them to see Wilde again. (Though the couple never lived together again, they remained legally married and Constance continued to send him financial support.) His former lover, Bosie, never came to visit him in prison. "Unfortunately," Wilde wrote to a friend, "I spent on him my life, my genius, my position, my name in history; for these no little, or big return is possible."

  • Imprisonment & Death

    Wilde was released from prison in May 1897. Penniless and disgraced, he moved to France and lived the rest of his life in exile. He immediately reunited with Bosie, though all his friends told him this was a mistake. "Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don't understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world,"

    • Family

      Father: Sir William Wilde (1815-1876)
      Mother: Jane Francesca Wilde (1821-1896)
      Brother: William Charles Kingsbury Wilde (1852-1899)
      Sister: Isola Francesca Emily Wilde (1857-1867)
      Half-brother: Henry Wilson (1838-1877)
      Half-sister: Emily Wilde (1847-1871)
      Half-sister: Mary Wilde (1849-1871)

      Wife: Constance Mary Lloyd Wilde (1858-1898)
      Son: Cyril Holland (1885-1915)
      Son:Vyvyan Holland (1886-1967)

    • Education

      Trinity College (1871-1874)
      Magdalen College, Oxford (1874-1878)

    • Work Experience

      Lecturer (1881-1884)
      Editor, Woman's World (1887-1889)
      Playwright (1880-1895)

    • Major Works

      Vera (1880)
      The Duchess of Padua (1883)
      Salomé (1883)
      The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888)
      The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
      Intentions (1891)
      Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (1891)
      A House of Pomegranates (1891)
      Lady Windermere's Fan (1892)
      A Woman of No Importance (1893)
      An Ideal Husband (1895)
      The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
      "The Ballad of Reading Gaol "(1898)
      De Profundis (1905)

    • Awards

      Foundation Scholarship (1872)
      Berkeley Gold Medal (1874)
      Demyship Scholarship (1874)
      Newdigate Prize (1878)
      Master Mason