Oscar Wilde was one of the most prominent Irish born playwrights. He was a major player in the aesthetic movement, which was based on art for art’s sake. Wilde was also a novelist, playwright, poet, and critic.
He was born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wilson Wilde on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland. Wilde came from a rather large family. William Wilde, his father, had three illegitimate children previous to his marriage. They were Henry Wilson in 1838, Emily in 1847, and Mary in 1849. William provided financially for all of them. Henry studied medicine and later assisted his father at St. Mark’s Hospital. William’s brother raised Emily and Mary but both died in a fire at the ages of 24 and 22. Oscar’s mother had three children, William Charles Kingsbury in 1852, Oscar in 1854, and Isola Emily Franscesca in 1857. Isola died ten years later in 1857 from a sudden fever. Oscar was profoundly affected by this and kept a lock of her hair sealed in a decorated envelope until the day he died.
Oscar’s father, William Wilde, graduated as a doctor, completed voyages to North Africa and the Middle East, studied at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, written two books, and been appointed medical advisor to the Irish Census of 1841 all by the time he was 28. He later became Assistant Commissioner to the 1851 Census and was knighted for his work in 1864 at the age of 49.
Oscar’s mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, wrote revolutionary poems for an Irish weekly newspaper called The Nation in 1846. She was also a gifted linguist with a lot of knowledge of major European languages and translated Wilhelm Meinhold’s horror novel, Sidonia The Sorceress. This came to be one of Oscar’s favorite books.
Oscar attended Protora Royal School at Enniskillen and excelled at Classics. In 1872, he placed first in his examinations and was awarded a Foundation Scholarship. In 1874, Oscar won the college’s Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek and was awarded a Demyship (scholarship) to Magdalen College, Oxford.
Then in 1876, Oscar’s father died and Henry had to support the family, until his sudden death in 1878.
Oscar did very well at Oxford and was awarded the Newdigate prize for his poem, “Ravenna” and “First In Greats” by his teachers. After graduation he moved to London with is friend, Frank Miles, a well-known portrait painter. Then in 1881, Oscar published his first collection of poems entitled, Poems.” It was reviewed well by the critics.
In late 1881, Wilde came to New York and traveled across the United States. He gave a series of lectures on “The Aesthetics.” Originally planed to last four months, the tour stretched to almost a year. In between lectures, Oscar met with Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman. He also had his play, “Vera,” staged the following year. When Oscar returned from America, he moved to Paris. He was commissioned to write a blank-verse tragedy but declined due to his social life. He then went to Ireland and Britain on a lecture tour.
On May 29, 1884, Wilde married Constance Lloyd. She was four years younger than Oscar and her father was a prominent Irish barrister who had died 10 years earlier. Constance was intelligent and well read. She spoke several languages and was outspoken about her beliefs. Oscar and Constance had two sons, Cyril in 1885 and Vyvyan in 1886.
In 1887, Wilde took a position at a magazine called “The Woman’s World” and worked there for two years. During the following two years he would publish “The Happy Price and Other Tales” (1888) and “The House of Pomegranates” (1892). Oscar’s first play, “Dorian Gray,” opened in 1890 and was later made into a book. It caused quite a controversy due to its subject of Crimean deviance and lack of morals, but made little money. His second play, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” opened in February of 1892. It was very successful persuaded Oscar to continue to write plays. His following plays, “A Woman of No Importance” (1892), “An Ideal Husband” (1893), and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1893) were all successful and finally established Oscar as a playwright.
In the summer of 1891, Oscar met Lord Alfred Bosie’ Douglas, the third son of the Marquis of Queensbury. Lord Alfred was a fan of Wilde’s and an undergraduate at Oxford. They soon became lovers and were inseparable. Three years later Oscar was arrested. In April of 1895, Wilde sued Lord Alfred’s father for libel on the charge of homosexuality. He soon withdrew the case and was sentenced to two years of hard labor. Constance left and took the children to Switzerland and took the family name, Holland.
After severing his sentence Oscar wrote “The Ballad of Reading Goal.” It was about the agony that he had suffered in prison and came out shortly before Constance’s death in 1898.
Oscar briefly returned to Lord Alfred but spent the remainder of the last two years of his life traveling through Europe. He stayed with friends and now and then wrote for different Parisian newspapers. Then in 1900, a recurring ear infection became serious and meningitis set in. Oscar died on November 30, 1900.