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New York Public Library, Sarony/AP

Oscar Wilde, Victorian Literary Genius

July 13, 2010
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
With his intelligent humor and sharp wit, Irish novelist, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde shocked Victorian England with his scandalous behavior. He also broadened the horizons of 19th-century English literature and opened the door for the development of modernism.

Oscar Wilde’s Early Days

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Oscar Fingal O'Flaherty Wilde was born on Oct. 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland, to unconventional and literary parents. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a very successful surgeon who, in his spare time, wrote and published essays about literature, archaeology and medicine. His mother, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, was a women’s rights activist and poet, writing under the pen name Speranza.

After completing his elementary education in Ireland and spending three years at Trinity College in Dublin, Wilde won a scholarship to study English literature at Magdalen College in Oxford, where he remained until 1878. As a student, Wilde distinguished himself not only as a proficient classical scholar but also as a talented poet, winning the prestigious Newdigate Prize with his long poem, “Ravenna.”

From an early age, Wilde developed a flamboyant appearance and a sense of contempt for traditional moral and cultural values. He also became an ambassador for Aestheticism, a late 19th-century movement that advocated art for art’s sake. Although Wilde’s polished manners—together with his witty and satirical nature—made him a prominent figure in literary and social circles of the time, his flamboyancy and mockery of religion and traditional customs made him a disagreeable figure within the more conventional social groups.

Wilde’s Notable Accomplishments

Wilde proved to be a prolific author, producing acclaimed works of poetry, prose and theater. He wrote fairy tale collections such as “The Happy Prince and Other Tales” (1888), novels revealing insightful social commentary such as “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890) and a variety of satirical plays including “Lady Wintermere's Fan” (1892), “An Ideal Husband” (1895) and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895).

Wilde’s lifestyle was famous for its cosmopolitan nature. Moving to London after completing his studies, he worked as a writer and art reviewer, publishing several controversial essays and thought-provoking reviews on theater, books and art exhibitions. He also became a regular contributor to popular publications such as Pall Mall Gazette, Dramatic View and Woman’s World. In 1881, he spent a year traveling and lecturing on literature and decorative arts in the United States and Canada, followed by a year spent living and writing in Paris.

The Rest of the Story

Even though Wilde married Constance Lloyd, an Irish barrister’s daughter, and fathered two sons, the marriage didn’t last long. His intimate friendship with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas led him to be charged for homosexuality, which was then illegal in England.

Douglas’ father, the Marquis of Queensbury, accused Wilde of homosexuality; as a result, Wilde was forced to stand trial. He was sentenced to two years’ hard labor and sent to Wandsworth Prison in 1895, and then transferred to Reading Gaol. During his two years in prison, Wilde composed some of his most famous works, including the mournful “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898) and the autobiographical dramatic monologue “De Profundis” (1905), addressed to Douglas and published posthumously.

After being released from prison, Wilde retreated to Paris where he lived his final years in poverty and poor health. During this time, he continued to write under the pen name Sebastian Melmoth. On Nov. 30, 1900, he died in Paris at the age of 46.

In July 2009, more than a century after his death, the Vatican issued a statement of reconciliation with Wilde; the Church had condemned him as a degenerate at the end of the 19th century. Regardless of his scandalous behavior during the Victorian days, the Holy See recognized the value of Wilde’s work and praised him as a “lucid analyst of the modern world,” the Daily Telegraph reported.
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