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||Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900)|
Irish poet and dramatist whose reputation rests on his comic masterpieces Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. Oscar Wilde's other best-known works include his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), which deals very similar theme as Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Wilde's fairy tales are very popular – the motifs have been compared to those of Hans Christian Andersen.
"When they entered they found, hanging upon the wall, a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was." (in The Picture of Dorian Gray)
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin to unconventional parents. His mother, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde (1820-96), was a poet and journalist. Her pen name was Sperenza. According to a story she warded off creditors by reciting Aeschylus. Wilde's father was Sir William Wilde, an Irish antiquarian, gifted writer, and specialist in diseases of the eye and ear, who founded a hospital in Dublin a year before Oscar was born. His work gained for him the honorary appointment of Surgeon Oculist in Ordinary to the Queen. Lady Wilde, who was active in the women's rights movement, was reputed to ignore her husbands amorous adventures.
Wilde studied at Portora Royal School, in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh (1864-71), Trinity College, Dublin (1871-74), and Magdalen College, Oxford (1874-78), where he was taught by Walter Pater and John Ruskin. Even at the age of 13, Wilde had a dandy's taste in clothing. "The flannel shirts you sent in the hamper are both Willie's mine are one quite scarlet and the other lilac but it is too hot to wear them yet," he wrote in a letter to his mother. Willie, whom he mentioned, was his elder brother. Lady Wilde's third and last child was a daughter, named Isola Francesca, who died young. It has been said that Lady Wilde insisted on dressing Oscar in girl's clothes because she had longed for a girl.
In Oxford Wilde shocked the pious dons with his irreverent attitude towards religion and was jeered at for his eccentric clothes. He collected blue china and peacock's feathers, and later his velvet knee-breeches drew much attention. Wilde was taller than most of his contemporaries, and athletically built, but the subject of sport bored him. In 1878 Wilde received his B.A. and on the same year he moved to London.
Soon his lifestyle and humorous wit made him the most talked-about advocate of Aestheticism, the late 19th century movement in England that argued for the idea of art for art's sake. To earn his living, Wilde worked as art reviewer (1881), lectured in the United States and Canada (1882), and in Britain (1883-1884). Since his childhood, Wilde had studied the art of conversation. His talk was articulate, imaginative, and poetic. From the mid-1880s he was regular contributor for Pall Mall Gazette and Dramatic View. Between 1887 and 1889 he edited Woman's World magazine
Wilde married in 1884 Constance Mary Lloyd, the daughter of John Horatio Lloyd, a wealthy barrister, and Ada Atkinson. Constance had enjoyed athorough education, she played the piano well, was interested in arts, embroidery, and could read Dante in Italian. For a short period she was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. After she turned away from occultism she became involved in Christian socialism. Wilde himself had joined the Freemasons in the late 1870s.
On honeymoon in Paris Wilde and Constance visited the annual Paris salon, saw there Whistler's Harmony in Grey and Green and went to opera to see Sarah Bernhardt in Macbeth. It is possible that before the marriage Wilde told Constance something of his sexual past. "... I am content to let the past be buried, it does not belong to me," she said in a letter, "I will hold you fast with chains of love." At Portora Royal School he had had some "sentimental friendships" with boys, and he had an encounter with a female prostitute in Paris while going steady with Constance. Their marriage ended in 1893, but the couple never divorced officially. Wilde's love letters to Constance have not survived.
The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), a collection of fairy-stories, Wilde wrote for his two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Possibly one of the pieces, 'The Selfish Giant,' was a joint effort between Wilde and Constance, who published her own collection, There Was Once in the same year. The Picture of Dorian Gray followed in 1890 and next year he brought out more fairy tales. Wilde had met a few years earlier Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), an athlete and a poet, who became both the love of the author's life and his downfall. "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it," Wilde once said. Bosie's uncle, Lord Jim, caused a scandal when he filled in the 1891 census describing his wife as a "lunatic" and his stepson as a "shoeblack born in darkest Africa." During a stay in Paris, Wilde wrote Salomé in French. An anonymous English translation, dedicated to Alfred Douglas, was published in 1894. Richard Strauss's operatic version of the play was first performed in Dresden, five years after Wilde's death.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was published first by Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890. Some of the homosexual content was censored by Lippincott editor J. M. Stoddart. Wilde revised the novel still further before it came out in expanded book form in 1891, added with six chapters. The book has some parallels with Wilde's own life. At Oxford he became a close friend of Frank Miles, a painter, and the homosexual aesthete Lord Ronald Gower, and it seems that they both are represented in Dorian Gray. In the story Dorian, a Victorian gentleman, sells his soul to keep his youth and beauty. The tempter is Lord Henry Wotton, who lives selfishly for amoral pleasure. "If only the picture could change and I could be always what I am now. For that, I would give anything. Yes, there's nothing in the whole world I wouldn't give. I'd give my soul for that." (from the film adaptation of 1945). Dorian starts his wicked acts, ruins lives, causes a young woman's suicide and murders Basil Hallward, his portrait painter, his conscience. However, although Dorian retains his youth, his painting ages and catalogues every evil deed, showing his monstrous image, a sign of his moral leprosy. The book highlights the tension between the polished surface of high life and the life of secret vice. In the end sin is punished. When Dorian destroys the painting, his face turns into a human replica of the portrait and he dies. "Ugliness is the only reality,'" summarizes Wilde.
Wilde made his reputation in theatre world between the years 1892 and 1895 with a series of highly popular plays. Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) dealt with a blackmailing divorcée driven to self-sacrifice by maternal love. In A Woman of No Importance (1893) an illegitimate son is torn between his father and mother. An Ideal Husband (1895) was about blackmail, political corruption and public and private honour. In The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), a comedy of manners, John Worthing (who prefers to call himself Jack) and Algernon Moncrieff (Algy) are two fashionable young gentlemen. "Relly, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?" John tells that he has a brother called Ernest, but in town John himself is known as Ernest and Algernon also pretends to be the profligate brother Ernest. Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew are two ladies whom the two snobbish characters court. Gwendolen declares that she never travels without her diary because "one should always have something sensational to read in the train".
Before the theatrical success Wilde produced several essays, many of these anonymously. "Anybody can write a three-volume novel. It merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature," he once stated. His two major literary-theoretical works were the dialogues 'The Decay of Lying' (1889) and 'The Critic as Artist' (1890). In the latter Wilde lets his character state, that criticism is the superior part of creation, and that the critic must not be fair, rational, and sincere, but possessed of "a temperament exquisitely susceptible to beauty". The Soul of a Man Under Socialism (1891), a more traditional essay, takes an optimistic view of the road to socialist future. Wilde rejects the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice in favor of joy. "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it."
Although married and the father of two children, Wilde's personal life was open to rumours. Constance had tolerated his infidelities and long absences from home, but his affair with Alfred Douglas (or 'Bosie') had a catastrophic effect on the marriage. In the midst of the crisis Constance found comfort from reading Dante's Inferno. During a separation from her husband in 1893 she took a portable Kodak camera with her to Italy, where she photographed buildings and some of the art pieces in Florence.
Wilde's years of triumph ended, when his intimate association with Alfred Douglas led to his trial on charges of homosexuality (then illegal in Britain). He was sentenced two years hard labour for the crime of sodomy. Constance went with her children to Switzerland and then to Germany to escape the public eye. In 1895 she changed her and son's names to Constance, Cyril and Vyvyan Holland, taking the same family name her brother Otho used.
During his first trial Wilde defended himself, stating that "the 'Love that dare not speak its name' in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare... There is nothing unnatural about it." Mr. Justice Wills, stated when pronouncing the sentence, that "people who can do these things must be dead to all senses of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them." While he served his sentence, Bosie stood by Wilde, planned to dedicate a volume of poems to him, but the author felt himself betrayed and turned against him. Later they met in Naples, where they shared a villa. Constance visited Wilde in prison, too. Afterwards she wrote: "It was indeed awful more so than I had any conception it could be. I could not see him, I could not touch him, and I scarcely spoke."
Wilde was first in Wandsworth prison, London, and then Reading Gaol. When he was at last allowed pen and paper after more than 19 months of deprivation, Wilde had became inclined to take opposite views on the potential of humankind toward perfection. During this time he wrote De Profundis (1905), a dramatic monologue and autobiography, which was addressed to Alfred Douglas. "Everything about my tragedy has been hideous, mean, repellent, lacking in style. Our very dress makes us grotesques. We are the zanies of sorrow. We are the clowns whose hearts are broken." (in De Profundis)
After his release in 1897 Wilde lived under the name Sebastian Melmoth in Berneval, near Dieppe, then in Paris, where he spent his first weeks in exile at hotel Lavenue on rue du Depart. He wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, revealing his concern for inhumane prison conditions. On his death bed Wilde became a Roman Catholic. Wilde's friend Robbie Ross, who became his literary executor, brought a priest to his bedside. Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900, penniless, at Hôtel Alsace on rue des Beaux-Arts at the age of 46. One of his visitors had called it a "shabby, cheap, and unsanitary place with no drainage." Wilde can claim several last words, of which the most famous include "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do" and "I am dying, as I have lived, beyond my means." Mostly he talked nonsense, sometimes in English, sometimes in French. Wilde was first buried in the cemetery in Bagneux, and in 1909 his remains were removed to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
"Do you want to know the great drama of my life," asked Wilde of André Gide. "It's that I have put my genius into my life; all I've put into my works is my talent." Constance died in 1898 in Genoa, after a spinal surgery. Her brother Otho blamed the surgeon, Signor Bossi, for his sister's death. Bossi was shot dead in 1919. Cyril was killed by a German sniper in 1915. Vyvyan, who also served in the army during WW I, gained fame as a translator and author. His son Merlin became an acknowledged Wilde scholar.
For further reading: Oscar Wilde: Art and Morality by Stuart Mason (1907); The Life and Confessions of Oscar Wilde by Frank Harris (1914); Oscar Wilde and Myself by Lord Alfred Douglas (1932); Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, ed. Karl Beckson (1970); The Trials of Oscar Wilde by H. Montgomery Hyde (1975); Oscar Wilde: A Biography by H. Montgomery Hyde (1975); Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism by Rodney Shewan (1977); Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellman (1987); Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel by Norbert Kohl (1989); Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, ed. C. George Sandulescu (1993); Oscar and Bossie by Trevor Fisher (2002); A Portrait of Oscar Wilde by Merlin Holland (2008); Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle (2011); The Fall of the House of Wilde: Oscar Wilde and His Family by Emer O'Sullivan (2016) - See also: André Gide, John Keats - Films: Oscar Wilde (1960), dir. Gregory Ratoff, starring Robert Morley, Phyllis Calvert, John Neville, Ralp Richardson. The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), dir. Ken Hughes, starring Peter Finch, Yvonne Mitchell, Lionel Jeffries, Nigel Patrick, James Mason. Wilde (1998), dir. Brian Gilbert, starring Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Vanessa Redgrave, Jennifer Ehle. Suomeksi Wildeltä on julkaistu mm. pamfletti Sosialismi ja individualismi (1895). Näytelmän Ystäväni Bunbury suomensi vuonna 1951 kirjailija Helvi Erjakka.