October 23, 2017
Oscar WildeWhen the headmaster of Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, Ireland, announced the 1870 winner of the Greek Testament Prize as "Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde," the other boys broke into predictable laughter. When, the following year, Wilde won a scholarship to Trinity College, his name was put up on the school honour board in gold lettering, his first marquee. Twenty-five years later, when Wilde was in disgrace and in prison, known only as "Convict 3.3," the school would paint his name out, and the headmaster would scrape his initials out of a windowsill. Much later still, the name on the honour board would be regilded.
These were first and last turns in the two-step of delight and outrage that society enjoyed with Oscar Wilde. Although he preferred to call the tune, he did not insist upon it. He usually gave better than he got, but he knew the importance of not being earnest. As biographer Richard Ellman puts it, Wilde "undercut [his] grandiosities with a smile."
Not all his contemporaries could, or cared to, recognize this. He was already a legend as an Oxford undergraduate for his white lilies, and his lavish Sunday entertainments, and his line, "I am finding it harder and harder to live up to my blue china." The levity and self-mockery in the remark are hard to miss, but not impossible: from the pulpit, a local Anglican minister declared it a sign that "there has crept into these cloistered shades a form of heathenism which it is our bounden duty to fight against and crush out, if possible."
It would be possible, but not just yet. In 1881, when Wilde took his contempt for conventional morality, his "art for art's sake" credo, his velvet coats and his green carnations and his hairdresser on tour to America, he was a sell-out. "They could attack him," says one biographer, "but they couldn't take their eyes off him." His epigrams, delivered in bored languor, left most opponents hoist with their own petard. When one reviewer laboured to prove him an empty, over-the-hill "phrase-maker," Wilde obliged with a new one: "If if took [him] three columns to prove that I was forgotten, then there is no difference between fame and obscurity."
Within this growth there was also "decadence" -- first as idea, then as lifestyle. Decadence was a French import, though Wilde wore his with a difference. His aestheticism took a downward twist, towards rebellion and danger. "The artistic life is a long lovely suicide," he wrote, a search for "an unknown land ... full of strange flowers and subtle perfumes ... where all things are perfect and poisonous."
In Wilde's personal life, the perfect poison was sex. He had married in 1884, and fathered two sons, but by the early 90s he was an active member of London's underground homosexual community, most notably and disastrously with Lord Alfred Douglas, youngest son of the Marquess of Queensberry. In 1885 England had passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act outlawing homosexuality. Wilde and Douglas had become increasingly flagrant with their activities, and careless with their letters. It was all too easy for the Marquess to assemble a list of male prostitutes and small-time blackmailers ready to testify against Wilde. The Marquess was certainly unbalanced, and he may also have been, as one writer puts it, "evil masquerading as fatherly feeling and social orderliness," but Victorian society responded enthusiastically to his portrait of Wilde as predator and contagion. Many urged Wilde to flee to France, but he did not -- although there is some evidence that the Dover-Calais ferries were packed with single men in a hurry.
He received the maximum sentence: two years in prison at hard labour. He lost thirty pounds, most of his friends and all of his belongings, through bankruptcy. For the last three and a half years of his life he moved about Europe with ever-diminishing health and interest, humiliated, lonely, poor, and increasingly addicted to absinthe. He was gawked at by strangers and snubbed by acquaintances and Alfred Douglas deserted him in all ways: when his father died, and Douglas inherited great wealth, he did not share.
But it likely would not have helped: when an old friend gave him money for his hotel debts, Wilde bought a nickel-plated bicycle for his newest young lover. He died on November 30, 1900, at the age of forty-six.
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