COMMENTARY 2- A More Detailed Biography
Oscar Wilde’s unconventional life began with an equally unconventional family. He was born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde on October 16, 1854, at 21Westland Row, Dublin, Ireland. His father, Sir William Wilde, was an eminent Victorian and a doctor of aural surgery.Wilde’s mother, Jane Francesca Elgee (or Lady Wilde), saw herself as a revolutionary and liked to trace her family through the Italian line of Alighieris, including Dante. An Irish nationalist, she wrote under the pen name Speranza. She attracted artists like herself and established a literary salon devoted to intellectual and artistic conversations of the day, through which Lady Wilde brought literature, an interest in art and culture, and an elegance and appreciation for wit into the lives of her children.
Wilde had two siblings: an older brother named Willie, born in 1852, and a sister, Isola, born in 1856, but who died at the age of 10. These offspring would not experience a standard, conventional childhood. Through their home passed intellectuals, artists, and internationally known doctors — and the children were not left to a governess or nanny. Allowed to mingle and eat with the guests, they learned to value intellectual and witty conversation, an influence that would have profound and long-lasting effects on young Oscar Wilde.
Education, Travel, and Celebrity
Wilde was given the advantage of a superior education. At age 11, he entered the exclusive Portora Royal School and began to assert the scholarship and intellect that would bring him both great celebrity and great sadness. His long interest in all things Greek began at Portora. Winning several prizes, he was already a first-rate classics scholar and ready to pursue serious studies.
Wilde went on to Trinity College where he extended his interest in the classics and his long list of intellectual accomplishments. He won an additional scholarship, made first class in examinations, received a composition prize for Greek verse, and the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek. In 1874 he received a scholarship to Magdalen College in Oxford. His lifelong love of the classics would continue through his university career and immensely influence his
subsequent writing. Little did he know what turns and twists his life would take when he entered Oxford and came under the influence of three very powerful professors.
Wilde’s four years at Oxford (1874-1878) were dizzy, personality-changing times. By graduation he was firmly committed to the pursuit of pleasure and the careful devising of a public persona, which included unconventional clothing and the pose of a dandy. Wilde’s direction in life changed because of the influence of three professors — Ruskin, Pater, and Mahaffy.The magnetism of Professor John Ruskin, author of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, attracted Wilde’s imagination. Ruskin believed civilizations could be judged by their art, which must consider and reflect moral values. Ruskin also stirred Wilde’s aristocratic soul with social concerns in his insistence
that his students identify with the working class and do manual labor. His influence on Wilde’s social conscience is undeniable, and it permeates Wilde’s plays and his essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Wilde did not, however, agree with Ruskin on the moral purposes of art. Influenced by Keats and his ideas of truth and beauty, he believed art should be loved and appreciated for its own sake.
Yet another Oxford influence was Professor Walter Pater, author of Studies in the History of the Renaissance and Marius the Epicurian. His prose style influenced young Wilde, and his ideas seemed to fit Wilde’s new-found proclivities. Pater emphasized art for art’s sake and urged his students to live with passion and for sensual pleasure, testing new ideas and not conforming to the orthodoxy. Pater was planting seeds in fertile ground. The Aesthetic
Movement, an avant-garde philosophy of the 1870s, was in full bloom, and its advocates were critical of the heavy, moralistic Victorian taste. They wanted to pursue forms of beauty in opposition to the art and architecture of the day. Wilde could not agree more. He went overboard into aesthetics, adopting extravagant clothing styles, which continued when he left Oxford for London in 1878. He thought of himself as an aesthete, poet, writer, and nonconformist— and he wanted to be famous or at least infamous.
A third influence on Wilde at Oxford was Mahaffy, an Oxford professor of ancient history. Professor Mahaffy took him along on trips to Italy and Greece. By 1878, when Wilde completed his degree at Oxford, he had won the coveted Newdigate Prize for his poem “Ravenna.”
Leaving Oxford, Wilde was now ready to take on the world with a classical education and an unequivocal inclination toward the unconventional. Wilde proved to be a master of public relations. Virtually unknown and unpublished, he single-handedly created his own celebrity. While his travels and lectures increased his fame both in England and abroad, his early writings were not critical successes.
London in the 1870s provided Wilde the opportunity to build a public persona and test the limits of what society would tolerate. He dressed in strange clothes and often sported flowers such as lilies and sunflowers. He built a reputation as a minor luminary by courting celebrities. In 1880, he privately printed his first play, Vera, and the following year published his first book of poems. The poems were a modest success, but the play died a quick death.
In April 1881, Gilbert and Sullivan opened a play titled Patience in which a primary character, Bunthorne, was assumed to be based on Wilde. This false assumption was promoted by Wilde through early attendance — in outrageous clothes — at the play. When the play moved on to New York in December 1881, Richard D’Oyly Carte, the producer, hired Wilde to do a series of lectures to introduce the play to American audiences. The press was alerted and ready for his arrival, and Wilde played to them by proclaiming at customs that he had nothing to declare but his genius. What began as a modest tour ripened into a six-month nationwide tour. He spoke in New York, Chicago, Boston, Fort Wayne (Indiana), Omaha (Nebraska), Philadelphia, and Washington. He even lectured in the mining town of Leadville, Colorado, where his ability to hold his liquor brought him a silver drill and the good-humored admiration of the miners. America seemed intrigued by Wilde’s odd character, and he, in turn, admired many things American, including the democratic insistence on universal education. While in America, Wilde’s lectures included “The English Renaissance of Art,” “The House Beautiful,” and “Decorative Art in America.” As a celebrity, he dined with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Eliot Norton (the famous Harvard professor), and Walt Whitman. He also had audiences with Lincoln’s son, Robert, and Jefferson Davis.
Following his triumphant tour, Wilde had enough money to spend three months in Paris. There he finished a forgettable play titled The Duchess of Padua. He was befriended once again by celebrities; this time they were Europeans: Zola, Hugo, Verlaine, Gide, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Pissarro. Obviously, early training at his mother’s salon had paid off.
He returned to London looking for backers to produce his play. In an attempt to garner backing, he cut his hair short and dressed more conservatively. When he was unsuccessful in finding producers, he arranged for a production in New York for $1,000. The play was not successful, closing in less than a week. So, Wilde went back to England, arranging a lecture tour of Great Britain and Ireland, where he encountered a previous acquaintance, Constance Lloyd, who would become his wife — for better or for worse.
Marriage and Commercial Success
During the seven years between his wedding to Constance and his first introduction to a young man who would become part of his downfall — Lord Alfred Douglas — Wilde settled down to a life of domestic respectability as a husband and father. By all accounts the Wildes’ marriage was happy, producing two sons: Cyril in June 1885 and Vyvyan in November 1886. Wilde played often with his children and loved them immensely. To support them he wrote book reviews for newspapers and magazines, including the Pall Mall Gazette and the Dramatic Review. Occasionally, he lectured. The Lady’s World magazine named him its editor in 1887, and he converted it from a fashion magazine to The Woman’s World with essays about women’s viewpoints on art, music, literature, and modern life. He wrote essays that took women seriously as creative and intelligent human beings. When he was an editor, Wilde’s life was financially more secure. In 1888 he wrote a book of fairy tales titled The Happy Prince and Other Tales, and in 1889 he wrote an essay titled “The Decay of Lying.” He left the magazine in July 1889 to begin his greatest period of playwriting.
A Playwright with a Secret Life
Within six months of leaving The Woman’s World, Wilde had published the commercially successful novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, about a man with a secret life. This novel was quickly followed by Intentions, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories, and A House of Pomegranates. In the period from 1891 to 1892, he produced Salome, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and an essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” He amused his
audiences, and in return they offered standing ovations at his plays.
One would think all this good luck, publicity, and commercial success would be enough for a respectably married man with two sons, who finally was receiving acceptance from British aristocracy. However, during this amazingly prolific period, Wilde was beginning to frequent literary circles that were often homosexual. In 1886, he is said to have had his first homosexual affair with a Canadian named Robert Ross. He was also introduced to Alfred Taylor,
who lived in Bloomsbury and often had male prostitutes at his home. One of these young men was the unemployed Charles Parker. Wilde became involved with several of these young men, who later testified against him at trial.
In 1891, Oscar Wilde met the young man who would change his life forever. Lord Alfred Douglas (known as Bosie) was the 21-year-old son of the Marquis of Queensberry. A very controversial figure, Douglas was often described as femininely beautiful, aristocratic, rich, homosexual, and poetic. His hold on Wilde has often been a subject of conjecture, but most writers believe that Wilde, 14 years Bosie’s senior, was infatuated, obsessed, and besotted. By 1892, the two were together constantly. They traveled to France, Italy, and Algiers. Wilde rented homes for them outside London, and when they were apart he wrote letters and was careless with their whereabouts.
Wilde enjoyed unprecedented success in the London theatres from 1893 to 1895. He had two plays running simultaneously in the West End: A Woman of No Importance opened at the Royal Theatre, Haymarket, in January 1893, and Lady Windermere’s Fan began in November of that same year. From August through
September 1894, he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest at the seaside resort of Worthing, Sussex, his wife and children enjoying the holiday with him. By 1895, he had the acclaim of all London for his witty society plays. However, he was also increasingly indiscreet about his personal life. The year 1895 marked the beginning of the end of his public acceptance and the privacy of his secret life.
Disaster and Ruin
Rumors about Wilde’s secret life were already circulating in 1895, but he was still very amusing, and as long as his indiscretions were kept quiet, society did not care. The Importance of Being Earnest opened on February 14 at St. James’ Theatre, beginning a run of 86 performances to standing ovations. On February 28, the Marquis of Queensberry left a card for Wilde at his club, the Albemarle Club. It read: “To Oscar Wilde, posing as a sodomite.” (Actually,sodomite was misspelled.) Estranged from his father and hating him, Douglas encouraged Wilde to sue the Marquis for libel. Convinced he could triumph in court, Wilde declared to his lawyers that he was innocent and wanted to press the lawsuit. His friends, knowing he had been too indiscreet, urged him to go abroad with his wife until it all blew over, but Wilde intended to carry through with the case. The Marquis hired detectives and, using Alfred Taylor and his young prostitutes, Queensberry effectively put Wilde on trial for homosexuality. The libel trial was disastrous. When the prosecution threatened to bring in male prostitutes to testify, Wilde dropped the case and left in disgrace. But tragedy was not over for Oscar Wilde. In 1885, Parliament had passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act. It was used to try acts of “gross indecency” between men and sometimes could result in hanging. Being a homosexual was not a crime; the sexual act itself was. When the first trial ended, Queensberry’s lawyers
sent a transcript of the trial to public prosecutors. Home Secretary Herbert Asquith decided to arrest, imprison, and try Wilde, but he delayed the warrant long enough for Wilde to leave on the last boat-train to France. Wilde, for various reasons, remained in England and was arrested. A new trial would take place, indicting Wilde.
The press had a heyday, viciously attacking Wilde and holding up Queensberry — hardly a model citizen. They pictured Wilde as a deviant but could not print the crime with which he was charged. Unflattering cartoons and caricatures appeared in magazines such as Punch, and Wilde was pictured in unmanly clothes with flowers in his lapel. The court found Wilde guilty and sentenced him to two years of hard labor.
Today, transcripts of the trials can be read in H. Montgomery Hyde’s The Trials of Oscar Wilde (The Notable Trials Library by Gryphon Editions, Inc., 1989). Just as Wilde’s plays noted the huge gulf between the rich and the working class, the trials themselves displayed the disparity. Lord Alfred Douglas, protected by his powerful family name, was never charged, even though the jury inquired about this because he had committed the same crime. The names of upper-class people associated with the case could not be mentioned in court; in fact, some witnesses were instructed to write a name rather than say it aloud. The names of working class people, however, were readily identified aloud.
The immediate aftermath of the trial was a total disgrace for Wilde. He was abandoned by his friends, his book sales ended, his plays were closed down, and his belongings were sold at auction at low prices. He began his sentence in Newgate Prison but was moved to different prisons over the next two years.
Oscar Wilde was not a man well equipped to face such solitary adversity. His world was normally one of social calendars and lots of people. He was moved to Pentonville Prison where he spent 23 hours a day in poorly ventilated cells and 1 hour exercising without speaking to anyone. His cell was unsanitary, and his bed was nothing more than wooden boards. The food was unspeakable, and he could only read the Bible, a prayer book, and a hymn book. Wilde was not allowed photos of his wife or children or allowed to write or receive more than one letter in three months. In February 1896, his mother dying, Wilde requested leave to go to her. His request was denied; Constance visited the prison on February 19 to tell him in person of his mother’s death. It was their last meeting.
By now Wilde had lost 30 pounds, and was not doing well physically or emotionally. He was transferred to Wandsworth Prison. A parliamentary committee looking into prison conditions took up his case and, because he was destitute, transferred him to Reading Gaol — a debtors’ prison — for the remainder of his time. While he was there, Wilde wrote a famous letter to Douglas justifying his life and position, which was later published as “De Profundis.” When he left this prison on May 19, 1897, he was in decent health and departed immediately for France, never to return to England.
Wilde’s last years were spent in several towns in Europe. He settled in the small village of Berneval-sur-Mer near Dieppe, France, and sent letters to newspapers on prison reform while writing his greatest poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” His wife Constance had settled in Italy with the boys, changing their name to Holland because of the scandal. Wilde wanted to see her and the children, but she refused because he would not give up Douglas. He and
Bosie reunited, and Constance died in April 1898. There was no more writing; Wilde drank heavily and begged money from friends. He and Bosie moved to Naples, Switzerland, and Paris, but Wilde’s health was fading. During his time in prison, he had found an admiration for Jesus Christ and had written about his religious convictions. Just prior to his death in Paris on November 30, 1900, at the age of 46, Wilde converted to Roman Catholicism.
Over the last century and a half, many people have believed that Wilde died of cerebral meningitis, complicated by syphilis, and many have seen it as proof of his depravity. However, a November 2000 article in the British journal, Lancet, blames meningoencephalitis, complicated by a chronic right middle-ear disease (see Resource Center for the article). Wilde was treated before and during his imprisonment for a chronic ear infection. Surgery for an acute and life-threatening infection, which had moved into the mastoid, was allegedly performed on October 10, 1900, and was documented in Wilde’s letters. He suffered a relapse in November of that year and fell into a coma, never to awaken. His son, Vyvyan, ironically underwent a similar operation for mastoid infection less than two months after his father died.
Wilde’s death did not end the public’s appreciation of his marvelous wit and staging. The Importance of Being Earnest returned to the West End with revivals in 1902, 1909, 1911, and 1913. The original producer, George Alexander, willed the copyright of the play to Wilde’s son, Vyvyan. After Wilde’s death, many friends and acquaintances destroyed his letters for fear that their own reputations would be tainted by his scandal. Even letters to Constance during his imprisonment were destroyed. Most popular and academic writing about Wilde, since his death, has been about the scandal and speculation concerning his private life. His writing was largely ignored or devalued until the 1960s and 1970s. Now Wilde is often classified as a literary figure whose sensibilities, witticisms, and theatrical staging reflected the social commentary of the nineteenth century and influenced the theatre of the twentieth century.
Oscar Wilde, celebrated playwright and literary provocateur, was born in Dublin on October 16, 1854. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford before settling in London. During his days at Dublin and Oxford, he developed a set of attitudes and postures for which he would eventually become famous. Chief among these were his flamboyant style of dress, his contempt for conventional values, and his belief in aestheticism—a movement that embraced the principle of art for the sake of beauty and beauty alone. After a stunning performance in college, Wilde settled in London in 1878, where he moved in circles that included Lillie Langtry, the novelists Henry James and George Moore, and the young William Butler Yeats.
Literary and artistic acclaim were slow in coming to Wilde. In 1884, when he married Constance Lloyd, Wilde’s writing career was still a work in progress. He had gone on a lecture tour of North America and been lampooned in the 1881 Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience as the self-consciously idiosyncratic philosopher-poet Reginald Bunthorne, but he was celebrated chiefly as a well-known personality and a wit. He may have been the first person ever to become famous for being famous.
During the late 1880s, Wilde wrote reviews, edited a women’s magazine, and published a volume of poetry and one of children’s stories. In 1891, his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, appeared and was attacked as scandalous and immoral. In that same year, he met Lord Alfred Douglas, who would eventually become his lover, and Wilde finally hit his literary stride. Over the next few years, he wrote four plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest.
Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance enjoyed successful runs in the West End in 1892 and 1893, respectively. An Ideal Husband opened in January 1895, but it was The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened a month later, that is regarded by many as Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece. Its first performance at the St. James’s Theater on February 14, 1895 came at the height of Wilde’s success as a popular dramatist. Wilde was finally the darling of London society, a position he had striven for years to attain.
In many ways, The Importance of Being Earnest was an artistic breakthrough for Wilde, something between self-parody and a deceptively flippant commentary on the dramatic genre in which Wilde had already had so much success. Wilde’s genre of choice was the Victorian melodrama, or “sentimental comedy,” derived from the French variety of “well-made play” popularized by Scribe and Sardou. In such plays, fallen women and abandoned children of uncertain parentage figure prominently, letters cross and recross the stage, and dark secrets from the past rise to threaten the happiness of seemingly respectable, well-meaning characters. In Wilde’s hands, the form of Victorian melodrama became something else entirely. Wilde introduced a new character to the genre, the figure of the “dandy” (a man who pays excessive attention to his appearance). This figure added a moral texture the form had never before possessed. The character of the dandy was heavily autobiographical and often a stand-in for Wilde himself, a witty, overdressed, self-styled philosopher who speaks in epigrams and paradoxes, ridicules the cant and hypocrisy of society’s moral arbiters, and self-deprecatingly presents himself as trivial, shallow, and ineffectual. In fact, the dandy in these plays always proves to be deeply moral and essential to the happy resolution of the plot.
The Importance of Being Earnest was an early experiment in Victorian melodrama. Part satire, part comedy of manners, and part intellectual farce, this play seems to have nothing at stake because the world it presents is so blatantly and ostentatiously artificial. Below the surface of the light, brittle comedy, however, is a serious subtext that takes aim at self-righteous moralism and hypocrisy, the very aspects of Victorian society that would, in part, bring about Wilde’s downfall.
During 1895, however, a series of catastrophes stemming from Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred, also a poet, led to personal humiliation and social, professional, and financial ruin. On February 28, 1895, two weeks after The Importance of Being Earnest’s opening night, Lord Alfred’s belligerent, homophobic father, the Marquess of Queensberry, publicly accused Wilde of “posing as a somdomite.” The nobleman meant “sodomite,” of course, an insulting and potentially defamatory term for a homosexual. Queensberry had for some time been harassing Wilde with insulting letters, notes, and confrontations and had hoped to disrupt the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest with a public demonstration, which never took place. Against the advice of his friends, Wilde sued for libel and lost. Wilde probably should have fled the country, as the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 had made homosexual acts punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. However, Wilde chose to stay and was arrested. Despite information about Wilde’s private life and writings that emerged at the trial, the prosecution initially proved unsuccessful. However, Wilde was tried a second time, convicted, and sentenced to prison for two years.
Wilde may have remained in England for a number of reasons, including self-destructiveness, denial, desperation, and a desire for martyrdom. However, some historians have suggested that Wilde’s relentless persecution by the government was a diversionary tactic. Lord Alfred’s older brother was reportedly also having a homosexual affair with Archibald Philip Primrose, Lord Rosebery, the man who would become prime minister. Queensberry was apparently so outraged that he threatened to disclose the relationship, and the government reacted by punishing Wilde and his lover in an effort to assuage the marquess. In any case, Wilde served his full sentence under conditions of utmost hardship and cruelty. Following his release from prison, his health and spirit broken, he sought exile in France, where he lived out the last two years of his life in poverty and obscurity under an assumed name. He died in Paris in 1900.
For sixty or seventy years after Wilde’s death, critics and audiences regarded The Importance of Being Earnest as a delightful but utterly frivolous and superficial comedy, a view that partly reflects the mindset of a period in which homosexuality remained a guarded topic. The decriminalization of homosexuality in England in 1967 and the emergence in American of an interest in gay culture, and particularly in the covert homosexual literature of the past, has made it possible to view the play in a different light. The play’s danger and subversion are easier to see from a twenty-first-century perspective. In the ambiguity over exactly what people refer to when they speak of “wicked” or immoral behavior, we can detect a system of coded references to homosexuality, just as we can infer a more general comment on the hypocrisy of late Victorian society.
Oscar Wilde was a critic, essayist, poet, and novelist, as well as a playwright. He is most remembered for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his most popular play, The Importance of Being Earnest. A brilliant comedy, the play was first performed for the British public in 1895, near the end of the Victorian era, the time in British history when Queen Victoria ruled over a powerful country marked by great wealth and great poverty. The age of Queen Victoria is often noted for its especially rigid code of social and moral behavior; today, the term “Victorian” has become synonymous with prudery and social repression. Human nature being what it is, the behavior of Victoria’s subjects frequently fell short of society’s demands; hypocrisy reigned in England, along with the Queen.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde took satirical aim at the hypocrisies of his society and scored a direct hit. Victorian theatergoers—perhaps… Read Less
The Importance of Being Earnest follows a classical dramatic structure, often known as Freytag’s pyramid. It consists of exposition (an introduction to the characters and themes), rising action (plot complications to keep the protagonist from his goal), climax or turning point (the moment that changes the protagonist’s plight—in comedies, for the better), falling action (the unraveling of the conflict), and resolution or dénouement (the release of tension for a satisfying conclusion). Within this structure, Earnest is packed with witticisms, inverted logic, wordplay, and absurdities. Its humor is as funny today as its underlying message is resonant.
Though we no longer live in an era marked by a Victorian moral code, headlines persist of moralizing politicians’ secret double lives—lives filled with the very acts they have criticized to make successful careers. Hypocrisy, it seems, is ageless. Does moralizing, through its suffocating effects, actually lead the righteous to their downfall? The upstanding citizen falling from his moral pedestal predated Victorian England. Earnest’s character Gwendolen remarks that even noble, moral men are susceptible to straying, adding that “Modern, no less than Ancient History, supplies us with many most painful examples of what I refer to. If it were not so, indeed, History would be quite unreadable.” Earnest’s examination of the timeless theme of hypocrisy reveals that society itself always puts on a play—one in which the participants are both entertained and entertaining.
- Introduction to the Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde for Waec/neco Literature Exams (80) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)