Oscar Wilde Biography: His "Wild" Life

Oscar Wilde Biography: His "Wild" Life

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Oscar Wilde His wit was legendary. His literary works showed signs of brilliance
and his lifestyle made him, for a time, among the most celebrated artists of the age… Yet his spectacular fall was unprecedented,
only equaled in modern times by the disaster that was O.J. Simpson. In this week’s Biographics, we delve into
the outrageous life of (self proclaimed) genius Oscar Wilde. Beginnings Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde entered
the world on October 16th, 1854. The flamboyance of his name was a portent
of things to come. His parents were socially prominent Anglo-Irish
Protestants, each with eclectic interests, a belief in national politics, and publishing
careers of their own. Oscar’s father, William, was a renowned
physician specializing in the eye and ear. He was a slight, unkempt figure with an ugly
beard and a roving eye. But that did not stop him carrying on numerous
affairs throughout his marriage, and he fathered several illegitimate children. In contrast to her husband, Oscar’s mother,
Jane, was especially elegant and statuesque. Almost six feet tall, she towered over her
husband. She was a woman who ‘longed to make a sensation,’
once stating that ‘I should like to rage through life – this orthodox creeping is too
tame for me.’ And, well, you probably guessed that this
was an attitude that her son would quickly embrace… When Oscar, her second son, was eight months
old, Jane described him as ‘a great stout creature who minds nothing but growing fat.’ Jane had wanted a girl and is said to have
dressed and treated Oscar as a daughter for the first decade of his life. At age nine, Oscar, along with his older brother
Willie, was sent to his first school – the Portora Royal Boarding School, in Enniskillen,
far in the Protestant north of Ireland. Oscar was younger than most of his peers. At first, he was eclipsed by his older brother,
but by the time that Willie was set to leave Portora, he had been superseded academically
by Oscar. In fact, the younger Wilde was intellectually
far ahead of his classmates. In 1889 he recalled . . . “I was looked upon as a prodigy by my associates
because, quite frequently, I would, for a wager, read a three-volume novel in half an
hour so closely as to be able to give an accurate resume of the plot of the story; by one hour’s
reading I was enabled to give a fair narrative of the incidental scenes and the most pertinent
dialogue.” Higher Education In 1871, Wilde won a scholarship to study
Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. He arrived there in 1873, aged 18. There he was tutored and befriended by Reverend
John Pentland Mahaffy, Professor of Ancient History. Mahaffy inspired his pupil to be proficient
in Greek and, in 1875, he won the prestigious Berkeley Gold Medal in Greek. Three years later, in 1874, Oscar sailed to
England to take the examination for a Classics scholarship at Oxford University. While awaiting the results, he went to London
and was dazzled by his first taste of the metropolis. After that he headed off to another metropolis… Paris. It was there, with his mother and brother,
that he received news that he had won his scholarship. He’d not only won it, but he’d achieved
the highest mark of the entire group… Oscar made the most of his time at Oxford. It was during this time that he cultivated
his aesthetic sensibilities, filling his room with lilies and spending vast portions of
his father’s money upgrading the decor in his room. It was at this time that he famously said,
‘I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.’ Wilde was never a fan of sport, but he enjoyed
watching others play cricket and run. He developed a reputation for his wit, proclaiming
that ‘the only possible exercise is to talk, not to walk.’ Still he was no pushover. It is believed that once, while in his room,
four undergraduates pounced on him to beat him up and smash his belongings. Wilde is said to have kicked out the first
interloper, punched the second as he doubled over, hurled the third through the air, and
carried the last back to his own room and tossing him on the floor. It was during his time at Oxford that Wilde
became a Mason… He adopted the costume – velvet breeches,
tailcoat, white tie and silk hose. But his extravagant lifestyle was dented in
April 1876 when his father died, leaving a serious debt behind. Oscar though, he still managed to find a way
to indulge himself with semester holidays around Europe… Just prior to graduation in 1878, he consoled
his mother, distraught with financial worry that ‘we have genius – that is something
attorney’s can’t take away.’ Oscar emerged with a degree from Oxford, and
a clear vision of what was in store. In a remarkably prophetic couple of sentences
he declared, ‘God knows, I won’t be a dried up Oxford don, anyhow. I cannot live without desire, fear and pain
. . . self-poised, self centered and self comforted. I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow, or other, I’ll be famous, and if
not famous, notorious.’ In December 1878, Wilde moved to London. He shared a flat with Frank Miles, a fellow
Oxford graduate. During this time, he was introduced to many
writers, artists and actors. He soon gained a reputation for his wit, and
became a favored dinner guest, where he would espouse his aesthetic values. He applied for various fellowships and even
tried to become an inspector of schools. Meanwhile he was working on his first play,
Vera, which was privately printed in 1880. Vera was a story of noble socialism set in
19th Century Russia. But, unfortunately for Wilde, the London And
New York producers who Wilde sent the play to turned it down. Literary Beginnings In 1881, Oscar published sixty-one pieces
of writing under the title Poems. An initial run of 750 copies sold out, with
two further printings being required. Meanwhile, a play by the renowned team of
Gilbert and Sullivan was, indirectly making Wilde famous. It was called Patience and was a lampoon of
the aesthetic culture that Wilde epitomized. The main character was clearly modeled on
him. By June of 1881, Wilde’s status was such
that the Prince of Wales commented, ‘I do not know Mr. Wilde, and not to know Mr. Wilde
is not to be known.’ Despite his ever growing reputation, Wilde
found himself in tough financial straits. He was offered, and accepted, a series of
lecture tours around America to coincide with the New York opening of Patience. He set sail on Christmas Eve 1881 to instruct
the New World in ‘The English Art of Renaissance.’ On arrival, he told a New York customs officer,
‘I have nothing to declare but my genius.’ Don’t try this today anyone… Well, the Americans were fascinated by him
and the original schedule would be extended repeatedly in response to public demand. It would last almost a year, and even extended
to Canada. Financially, he did very well out of the lecture
tour. He stayed in New York for two months after
the tour’s end. He then briefly returned to London in January
1883, before relocating to Paris, where he immersed himself in artistic circles. He now made himself over physically. He had his flowing locks transformed into
a bowl haircut and took to wearing a black overcoat… This was in great contrast to the flamboyant
colors that he was known for. In May, 1883, Wilde returned to London, apparently
motivated by his interest in a woman named Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a prosperous
London lawyer. For the last few years, despite his American
earnings, Oscar had had money worries. The right marriage might solve them, while
also answering growing gossip about his sexual character. A year-long courtship followed, with the marriage
taking place on 29th May, 1884. They honeymooned in Paris and then, thanks
to his new father-in-law’s money, occupied a four-story house in London. He then went ahead and had the place redecorated
at huge expense, which plunged the newlyweds into immediate debt. Wilde’s first child, Cyril, was born on
June 5th, 1885 with Vyvyan following on November 5th, 1886. With his writing career going nowhere, he
agreed to a British lecture tour with topics such as ‘The Value of Art in Modern Life.’ Lecturing and other invitations kept him away
from the family home. During his long absences he began to surround
himself with young men, writing unguardedly of his infatuation with the beauty of the
male form. He formed an especially close friendship with
a seventeen-year-old named Robbie Ross… Success & Scandal During the late 1880’s, while bringing in
money with occasional book reviews, Wilde worked on his first novel, The Picture of
Dorian Gray. When the book was published in a magazine
in 1890 it caused an immediate scandal. The storyline involved a subtly eroticized
triangle of relationships between three men and was condemned by many as being immoral. Wilde had predicted such an outcome, having
written the following in the preface “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral
book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” It was around this time that Wilde was introduced
to a blond fair skinned undergraduate by the name of Lord Alfred Douglas, but who was known
to his intimates as Bosie. Oscar quickly became obsessed with the twenty-two-year
old… From this time on, Oscar saw Constance and
his children less often. He did his writings from rented addresses
or hotels, usually with Bosie in tow…. Bosie’s father was the Marquis of Queensbury,
the man who developed the rules of professional boxing. He took an immediate and intense exception
to the relationship between his son and the famous Wilde. Apart from the homosexual aspect of their
relationship, Queensbury was enraged that Wilde was distracting his son from his studies
at Oxford. When Bosie quit his studies in May, 1893,
the Marquis became determined to bring down Wilde. It was around this time that Wilde finally
achieved success on the stage. A Woman of No Importance opened on April 19th,
1893 to widespread acclaim. During its long run, it brought him between
170 and 200 pounds per week. His next play, the satire An Ideal Husband,
was also successful, providing the means for Oscar and Bosie to travel widely and live
extravagantly. The Marquis of Queensbury thought his son’s
failure to take his degree in Oxford was a scandalous waste of time. He placed the blame squarely at the feet of
Wilde, referring to the relationship as the ‘most loathsome and disgusting’. Queensbury began hounding the pair incessantly. He threatened to disinherit Boise. To this the son replied in a telegram, ‘What
a funny little man you are!’ Queensbury didn’t like this one bit, and
on the 19th of June, Queensbury burst in on Wilde at his Tithe Street address in London. He had a bodyguard with him and proceeded
to threaten bodily harm unless the relationship was immediately ended. And what was Bosie reaction to all this? Well, he wrote nonchalantly to his father,
‘I write to inform you that I treat your absurd threats with absolute indifference.’ The encounter though, it unsettled Wilde,
who got out of London for several months, going on holiday with his family to Worthing. This is where he worked on his latest play,
The Importance of Being Earnest. But it wasn’t long before Bosie, unable
to stay away, invited himself along… As you might imagine this caused a certain
degree of tension between Mr. and Mrs. Wilde. Trials The Importance of Being Earnest opened to
great applause on February 14th, 1895. Two weeks later it was already a ‘wild’
success… In true Oscar WIlde style is began basking
in the glow of this, Wilde called in at the lavish Albemarle Club… There he was handed a card from Queensbury
by a porter. On this card was scrawled, ‘To Oscar Wilde,
posing sodomite.’ At Bosie’s urging, Wilde went to Marlborough
Street police station to ask for a warrant for Queensbury’s arrest on grounds of libel. The case came to trial on April 3rd. Prosecuting Counsel, Edward Carson put on
the stand a sixteen-year-old ‘rent boy’ who claimed to have been paid for sex by Wilde. Carson then went on to dissect Wilde’s published
works, revealing their supposed homosexual undertones… And how did WIlde react to this serious event? Well, he chose to wield his celebrated wit
as his main defensive tool… He was often funny, but the implicit superiority
in his position was also damaging. In one exchange, when Carson asked whether
the affection and love that is portrayed in The Picture of Dorian Gray might lead an ordinary
individual to believe it had a sodomitical tendency, Oscar replied, ‘I have no knowledge
of the ordinary individual.’ Not exactly endearing himself to anyone… Wilde’s counsel, Edward Clarke, made serious
miscalculations that did his client no favors. He went over letters that Queensberry had
sent to his son in an attempt to show how crazed the father had become… To the jury, though, Queensbury’s volatility
was driven by a paternal regard for Bosie's character. As Carson put it, his client had one hope
alone, and that was simply saving his son. On the third day of proceedings, with things
going not exactly brilliantly… Wilde chose not to attend. This was to prove the most damaging day yet,
with Carson announcing that he intended to introduce a number of boys who would testify
to ‘shocking acts’ performed by Oscar… Without consulting with his client, Wild’s
lawyer, Clarke, offered to abandon the case. The defense, however, insisted that the original
plea stand. The judge agreed and compelled an acquittal
from the jury. Queensbury was found not guilty of libel against
Wilde. It had now been proven that his written accusation
of sodomy was not libelous. Now this had another important consequence… It Wilde highly vulnerable to arrest for sodomy,
which was a crime in England at the time. And, well this happened… At five in the evening of the day that the
libel case was decided, a summons was issued for the arrest of Oscar Wilde. The charge was ‘committing acts of gross
indecency.’ Hiding in the Cadogan Hotel, Oscar was urged
by Bosie and others to take a boat immediately for France… Even his wife told him to run. However this just didn’t sit right with
Wilde. He was determined to stand his ground, declaring,
‘I shall stay and do my sentence, whatever it is.’ At 6:10 pm, two detectives arrived, and took
a semi-drunk Wilde to Bow Street station. The arrest of Oscar Wilde caused an absolute
sensation. Any friends that he still had quickly drifted
away. Both of his currently running plays were cancelled
and his name very quickly became toxic. Wilde was kept in a cell in Bow Street (then
in Holloway Prison). Queensbury now administered the low blow of
forcing a bankruptcy sale of Oscar’s belongings, helped by a long list of angry creditors. By this time, Wilde was about £6000 in debt. After making sure that Oscar had nothing of
any physical value left, Queensbury wrote to a newspaper denying that he was capable
of any sympathy for Wilde. He stated ‘I have helped to cut up and destroy
sharks. I have no sympathy for them, but may have
felt sorry, and wished to put them out of pain as fast as possible.’ The trial ran from the 26th to the 29th of
April. It was extraordinarily explicit in its allusions
to sexual acts, many coming from the young men who claimed to have been partakers. Various Savoy Hotel employees testified that
they had seen boys in Wilde’s bed. However, Oscar’s counsel was able to point
out contradictions in the testimonies, especially those of the ‘rent boys.’ This all meant that the jury were unable to
reach a verdict. But WIlde was not out of the woods, as an
almost immediate retrial began. Between the two trials, he managed to secure
bail, though stiff conditions were imposed… He tried to stay at a number of hotels, only
to be told at each that he was unwelcome. He finally managed to find lodgings with his
brother Willie. The second trial began on May 22nd at the
Old Bailey. This time, after two hours of discussion,
the jury returned with a verdict of guilty. The sentence? Two years hard labor. Confinement Wilde was taken to Pentonville Prison. The wooden bed in his cell had sheets and
rugs but no mattress. A tin pot was provided for his toilet. The prison clothes were not exactly his accustomed
style of dress… Wilde was compelled to walk a treadmill senselessly
for six hours each day, and allowed to exercise outdoors for one hour. He was also forced to make postal bags. For three whole months he had no outside contact,
and after that things were not much better, with him only being allowed to write one letter. The regime was brutal…Wilde recalling three
punishments authorized by law – hunger, insomnia and illness. In September 1895, he received a visit from
Constance who found the experience ‘awful, more so than any conception of it could be.’ Constance reported that Wilde professed a
rejection of his former conduct, and begged her forgiveness for his madness during the
last three years. She decided to stand by her ‘weak rather
than wicked’ spouse. Still, she abandoned his name, referring to
herself as Constance Holland. When Bosie heard about Oscar’s rejection
of his former lifestyle he was heartbroken. He wrote, ‘I am not in prison but I think
I suffer as much as Oscar and in fact more.’ That was probably not the case though… I mean, prison was pretty rough. In October, he actually came down with dysentery. On 21st November, he was transferred to Reading
Prison. At Clapham Junction station, he was spat on
and ridiculed by the crowds. Here though conditions were improved and his
duties were lighter. He was released on May 19th, 1896. Oscar was booked into the Hotel Sandwich in
Dieppe, Northern France, living off the generosity of the few friends who had stood by him. By now, Constance had decided on divorce and,
suffering herself with spinal paralysis, put off any reunion. Between June and July 1897 Oscar wrote his
last major work, The Ballad of Reading Goal. The subject? Well that would be underlining the need for
reform in Britain’s prison and justice systems… Life in Dieppe was excruciatingly lonely for
Oscar. Society at large shunned him and he spent
day after day alone and miserable. Finally, his resolve collapsed and he wrote
to Bosie, inviting him to come and stay. They reconciled on August 28th, with Wilde
bursting into tears at the sight of his ‘one true love.’ When Constance heard of her husband’s behaviour
she wrote to him forbidding any return ‘to your filthy, insane life.’ When he refused to give up Bosie, she cut
him off completely… Once the initial passion subsided, it became
clear that both Wilde and Bosie were very different than their pre-trial selves. Bosie felt a duty to help Wide, but this was
no longer tied to love. On December 3rd, Bosie left for Naples, and
did not return. Oscar’s last two years – mostly in Paris
– where pitiful. He drank, hired men, and begged. Acquaintances were few. Constance Holland sadly died age forty after
an operation on her back on April, 7th, 1898. Then, in April, 1900 Wilde went with an acquaintance
named Harold Mellor to Rome, where he received the Pope’s blessing. A month later he was in Paris and suffering
from ill-health, which he attributed to food poisoning. His skin was irritable, frequently coming
out in rashes. By September, he was completely bedridden. On October 10th, he was operated upon for
an ear infection. The operation did not go well and he got worse. Still he insisted on drinking absinthe and
champagne. On November 25th a diagnosis of acute, inoperable
cerebral meningitis was reached. From here on, Oscar drifted in and out of
consciousness and even sanity. At half past five the following morning, a
death rattle began. Minutes after his demise, his body actually
sort-of exploded, fluid pouring out of several orifices. Oscar Wilde died as he had lived – inappropriately,
outrageously and with scant reference to what decorum demanded.

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  1. Hello everyone. We've been experimenting with a bit of a podcast (a few people were asking for audio versions so they can get Biographics while doing other things)! Fair warning: none of these are new biographies, but rather me having a bit more of a free form chat around the script. I'd love to know what you think, if these are useful, wanted etc :). Thanks, Simon.

    Links:
    iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/biographics-history-one-life-at-a-time/id1450405839?mt=2
    Sitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/biographics-history-one-life-at-a-time
    Website: http://biographics.blubrry.net/
    RSS: http://biographics.blubrry.net/feed/podcast/
    Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/6N9PS4QXF1D0OWPk0Sxtb4
    Trolled people: https://open.spotify.com/show/0JzjzwJcRqFZ3BcACtahh8?si=MG5HSm1oT0GTNm_r8_HQcg

  2. What a tragic demise of such a talented man.

    If he had been born into modern society he would have been a massive celebrity probably with his own chat show.

  3. To make a comment on Oska Wild is asking one to slap your own head and kick your own bottom at the same time with out being prejudice, we would have to drag in Alen Turing and the k.k.k. So I'm not going to bother, Unless the face book spelling police Trolls want to join in.

  4. I know this is a true story, and that true stories aren't always happy, but I still wanted this one to be. I rooted for Oscar. I've always admired him. In a lot of ways, we're very alike, and in a lot of ways, we're very different. I self-project onto him. I'm very glad I didn't live during his era and that attitudes towards lgbt+ peoples have changed. Wildely. 😀

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