Oscar Wilde only wrote one novel in his life, The Picture of Dorian Gray (which you can read my review of here), but he created numerous plays including The Importance of Being Earnest, short stories, poems and essays. The Picture of Dorian Gray is famous not only for it’s brilliant storyline and killer wit but for it’s use against its own creator – it was used as evidence of his homosexuality in a court case against him in 1895. His work is famed for it’s laugh-out-loud wit, biting honesty and Wilde’s distinctive voice. He is also noted for his witticisms, which have sort of become mini-works in themselves. A couple of personal favourites include, ‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken’, and, spoken days before his death, ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.’
Wilde’s life is, quite honestly, more interesting and complex than most fiction. He was born in 1854 and died, after a short but tumultuous life, at age 46 in 1900.
He was born in Dublin, the middle child of three, to Sir William Wilde and Jane Wilde. William was Ireland’s leading ear and eye surgeon, work for which he was knighted, and wrote books about folklore and archaeology on the side. Jane, a lifelong Irish nationalist, wrote poetry under another name. Oscar Wilde’s younger sister died at the age of nine, and his poem Requiescat is written in her memory.
He studied at both Trinity College, Dublin, and at the Oxford Magdalene College. During this period he seriously considered converting to Catholicism, even having an audience with the Pope. Although skipping out just before his Catholic baptism, he remained interested in Catholic readings throughout the remainder of his life, being conditionally baptised shortly before his death.
In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd, together having two sons called Cyril and Vyvyan. After the birth of their second son (Vyvyan) the marriage deteriorated, and Wilde took his first known male lover; the then seventeen-year-old Robert Ross who was a fan of Wilde’s poetry, and was described as a ‘so young and yet so knowing … determined to seduce Wilde.’ The two remained close right to the end of Wilde’s life.
The most famous of Wilde’s homosexual lovers however was, perhaps, Lord Alfred Douglas – the young man that was the downfall of Oscar Wilde. The affair began in 1894 and was practically flaunted in public (an extremely reckless move given that such relationships were illegal in Victorian London). Wilde doted on Douglas, catering to his every material whim; whatever Lord Alfred Douglas asked for, Wilde saw to it that he got. Wilde was unquestionably in love with the younger, dangerously spoilt man, although it is doubtful that Douglas reciprocated such feelings – there is a story of Douglas (known as Bosie by his friends) falling sick and Oscar nursing him back to health, only to then fall sick himself; Bosie left him to his own devices.
The Marquess of Queensbury (the creator of the Queensbury Rules by which modern day boxing is governed), Bosie’s father, made it known to Wilde that he did not approve of the writer’s relationship with his son, threatening to ‘thrash’ him if he ever saw Wilde out in public with his son again, to which Wilde replied, ‘I don’t know what the Queensbury rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.’ In 1895 Queensbury publicly called Wilde a ‘sodomite’. Egged on by Bosie, Wilde sued him for libel. This backfired though, as this case was dismissed and a new case was bought; a criminal case against Wilde for homosexuality. He was found guilty, and subsequently spent two years of hard labour at Reading Prison.
Oscar Wilde, bankrupt by his two lawsuits and lifestyle (in no part helped by his pandering to Bosie’s whims), died destitute of cerebral meningitis in 1900. He is buried in Paris, his tomb having been paid for by Robert Ross, whose own ashes are also interred there. Robert Ross died in 1950.