Oscar Wilde

A Short Biography by Andre Gide

Oscar Fingall O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born at 1 Merrion Square, North, Dublin, on October 16th, 1854. He was the second son of Sir William Robert Wilde, Knight, a celebrated surgeon who was President of the Irish Academy and Chairman of the Census Committee. Sir William Wilde was born in 1799, and died at the age of seventy-seven years.

Oscar Wilde’s mother was Jane Francesca, daughter of Archdeacon Elgee. She was born in 1826, and married in 1851. She became famous in literary circles under the pen-names of ‘Speranza’ and ‘John Fenshawe Ellis,’ among her published writings being Driftwood from Scandinavia (1884), Legends of Ireland (1886), and Social Studies (1893). Lady Wilde died at her residence in Chelsea on February 3rd, 1896.

Oscar Wilde received his early education at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, which he entered in 1864 at the age of nine years. Here he remained for seven years, and, winning a Royal scholarship, he entered Trinity College, Dublin, on October 19th, 1871, being then seventeen years of age. In the following year he obtained First Class Honours in Classics in Hilary, Trinity and Michaelmas Terms; he also won the Gold Medal for Greek and other distinctions. The Trinity College Magazine Kottabos, for the years 1876–9, contains some of his earliest published poems. In 1874 he obtained a classical scholarship, and went up to Oxford, where, as a demy, he matriculated at Magdalen College on October 17th, the day after his twentieth birthday. His career at Oxford was one unbroken success. In Trinity Term (June), 1876, he obtained a First Class in the Honour School of Classical Moderations (in literis Græcis et Latinis), which he followed up two years later by a similar distinction in ‘Greats’ or ‘Honour Finals’ (in literis humanioribus). In this same Trinity Term, 1878, he further distinguished himself by gaining the Sir Roger Newdigate Prize for English Verse with his poem, ‘Ravenna,’ which he recited at the Encænia or Annual Commemoration of Benefactors in the Sheldonian Theatre on June 26th. He proceeded to the degree of B. A. in the following term[6]. He is described in Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses as a ‘Professor of Æsthetics and Art critic.’

He afterwards lectured on Art in America, 1882, and in the provinces on his return to England. About this time he wrote his poems, The Sphinx and The Harlot’s House (1883), and his tragedy in blank verse, The Duchess of Padua. The latter was written specially for Miss Mary Anderson, but she did not produce it. This was, however, played in America by the late Lawrence Barrett in 1883, as was also another play in blank verse, entitled Vera, or the Nihilists, during the previous year. He had already published in America and England a volume of Poems, which went through several editions in a few months.

In 1884 Oscar Wilde married Miss Constance Mary Lloyd, a daughter of the well-known Q. C., by whom he had two sons, born in June, 1885, and November, 1886, respectively. Mrs. Wilde died in 1898, and his only brother, William, in March of the following year.

During the next five or six years after his marriage, articles from his pen appeared in several of the leading reviews, notably ‘The Portrait of Mr. W. H.’ in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine for July, 1889, and those brilliant essays afterwards incorporated in Intentions, in The Nineteenth Century and The Fortnightly Review. In 1888 he was the editor of a monthly journal called The Woman’s World. In July, 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. It was the only novel he ever wrote, and was published in book form with seven additional chapters in the following year, and is one of the most remarkable books in the English language.

With the production and immediate success of Lady Windermere’s Fan early in 1892, he was at once recognised as a dramatist of the first rank. This was followed a year later by A Woman of No Importance, and after brief intervals by An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. The two latter were being played in London at the time of the author’s arrest and trial.

Into the melancholy story of his trial it is not proposed to enter here beyond mentioning the fact that he was condemned by the newspapers, and, consequently, by the vast majority of the British public, several weeks before a jury could be found to return a verdict of ‘guilty.’ On Saturday, May 25th, 1895, he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour, most of which period was passed at Wandsworth and Reading.

On his release from Reading on Wednesday, May 19th, 1897, he at once crossed to France with friends, and a few days later penned that pathetic letter, pregnant with pity, in which he pleaded for the kindlier treatment of little children lying in our English gaols. This letter, with his own name attached, filled over two columns in The Daily Chronicle of May 28th. It created considerable sensation—a well-known Catholic weekly comparing it ‘in its crushing power to the letter with which Stevenson shamed the shameless traducer of Father Damien.’ A second letter on the subject of the cruelties of the English Prison system appeared in the same paper on March 24th, 1898. It was headed: ‘Don’t Read This if You Want to be Happy To-day,’ and was signed ‘The Author of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’ The Ballad of Reading Gaol was published early in this same year under the nom de plume ‘C.3.3.,’ Oscar Wilde’s prison number. Its authorship was acknowledged shortly afterwards in an autograph edition. Since that time countless editions of this famous work have been issued in England and America, and translations have appeared in French, German and Spanish. Of this poem a reviewer in a London journal said,—’The whole is awful as the pages of Sophocles. That he has rendered with his fine art so much of the essence of his life and the life of others in that inferno to the sensitive, is a memorable thing for the social scientist, but a much more memorable thing for literature. This is a simple, a poignant, a great ballad, one of the greatest in the English language.’

Of the sorrows and sufferings of the last few years of his life, his friend Mr. Robert Harborough Sherard has written in The Story of an Unhappy Friendship, and M. Gide refers to them in the following pages.

After several weeks of intense suffering ‘Death the silent pilot’ came at last, and the most brilliant writer of the nineteenth century passed away on the afternoon of November 30th, 1900, in poverty and almost alone. The little hotel in Paris—Hotel d’Alsace, 13 rue des Beaux Arts,—where he died, has become a place of pilgrimage from all parts of the world for those who admire his genius or pity his sorrows. He was buried, three days later, in the cemetery at Bagneux, about four miles out of Paris.

I can resist everything except temptation.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.