Saturday, October 16, 2010

In Memoriam: Oscar Wilde

Novelist, poet, playwright, bon-vivant, and the foremost wit of the Victorian era, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on this day in 1854, in Dublin; his father was the noted ear and eye specialist William Wilde, his mother the successful writer Jane Francesca Elgee, an Irish nationalist who wrote under the name Speranza.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWilde's precocity was evident from an early age; home-schooled until the age of nine, he was sent away to Portora Royal School first, then to Dublin's Trinity College. Having excelled at his schoolwork, Wilde was awarded a place at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied the classics and rowed crew.

At one time enamored of Florence Balcombe (who later married Bram Stoker), in May 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd; together they had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, who after their father's 1895 downfall would be known by the name Holland. Although Wilde had been aware of his attraction to men throughout his life (thanks to early liaisons with Frank Miles and Robert Baldwin Ross) it cannot be said for sure when he first engaged in 'the unspeakable vice of the Greeks', or with whom. However, it was his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas which was to prove both the apex of Wilde's homosexual life, even if their illicit love would also bring about the nadir of his reputation.

While it lasted, though, what a reputation it was! Built on such novels as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and theatrical comedies of manners as Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) and An Ideal Husband (1895) their aesthetic flamboyance and (for the times, anyway) racy dialogue was nothing compared to Wilde's own patented affectations - principally a wardrobe of velvet and satin combined with a flair for caustic witticisms. In a society for which the best-suited adjective will always be 'stuffy' Wilde was a breath of fresh air... Alas, Victorian society was stuffy for a reason, and those who'd made it that way increasingly sought to keep it stuffy at whatever cost.

It was at the beginning of April 1895, at the pinnacle of his greatest success - as author of the hugely successful play The Importance of Being Earnest - that Wilde sued Douglas' father, the irascible* Marquess of Queensberry, for libel; before the trial was over, thanks in no small part to the legal maneuvering of Edward Carson QC, not only was Queensbury's libel disproven but Wilde and his quick wit would be vanquished. Encouraged by the few friends he had left to flee to the Continent, Wilde refused.By the end of the month he'd been arrested outside Knightsbridge's Cadogan Hotel and would soon thereafter be sent to jail - first to Pentonville, thence to Wandsworth, and finally to Reading Prison (wherefrom sprang his famous Ballad). Released in 1897 after two years imprisonment, his health ruined, Wilde settled in Paris (often under the assumed name of Sebastian Melmoth); he died 3 and a half years later, in November 1900, in room 16 of the Hôtel d'Alsace - his condition apparently aggravated by the decor**.

Initially buried outside Paris at Cimetière de Bagneux, his body was later moved to its current resting place, at Père Lachaise Cemetery, within a tomb designed by Sir Jacob Epstein: as proof of the rehabilitation of Wilde's memory, his final resting place is today covered with lipstick traces, and is among the most visited in that hallowed ground.

Oscar Wilde has been best played onscreen by Stephen Fry in the 1997 biopic Wilde, which was itself based on Richard Ellmann's definitive 1989 biography; interest in Wilde, though, remains high - as evidenced by recent works like Oscar Wilde Discovers America: A Novel by Louis Edwards.

*Which is putting it mildly... He was, in fact, a major league prick - yet his other accomplishment in life were rules for fair play in the pursuit of pugilism.
**He did, after all, famously quip from his death bed: '
My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.' In truth, Wilde succumbed to cerebral meningitis.
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