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Wilde, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Willsfree


Wilde, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Willsfree

  • Owen Dudley Edwards

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854–1900)

by Elliott & Fry, 1881

Wilde, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills (1854–1900), writer, was born on 16 October 1854 at 21 Westland Row, Dublin, the second of the three children of William Robert Wills Wilde (1815–1876), surgeon, and his wife, Jane Francesca Agnes Wilde, née Elgee (1821–1896), writer and Irish nationalist, daughter of Charles Elgee (1783–1824), solicitor, and his wife, Sarah Kingsbury (d. 1851), whose sister Henrietta married the Revd Charles Robert Maturin (1780–1824), author of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Wilde, his father, and his elder brother, William Charles Kingsbury (1852–1899), afterwards added the name Wills as a forename, asserting kinship to William Gorman Wills, a playwright famous after Henry Irving's title-role performance of his Charles I (1872). Wills was the son of the Revd James Wills (1790–1868), poet and man of letters, whose The Universe (1821) was wrongly attributed to his friend Maturin, thus symbolizing linkage between the Wilde and Elgee families.

Boyhood and education, 1854–1874

Wilde's immediate family was more clerical than any of his fellow writers' of the Irish Renaissance: in addition to Maturin, two paternal uncles proper and one by marriage, a maternal uncle, and maternal grandfather were ordained in the (established) Church of Ireland. These and some of their lay relatives and friends participated in the Romantic flowering of Irish evangelicalism (1815–45) which sought to convert the Irish Catholic masses where predecessor protestant episcopalians were content to subordinate them. All the major Irish Renaissance writers of protestant origin showed some evangelical inheritance, substituting cultural for spiritual leadership: Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Synge, O'Casey. All retained the self-confidence and authoritarianism of Irish protestant evangels. Wilde's Iokanaan in Salomé (1893) and Canon Chasuble in The Importance of being Earnest (1895) reflect that family clerical background, as do Wilde's 'Poems in Prose'.

Wilde was baptized by his father's brother Ralph in St Mark's Church, Dublin, on 26 April 1855. Five or six years later he was baptized into the Roman Catholic church, at his mother's instance, by the Revd L. C. Prideaux Fox (1820–1905), chaplain to the juvenile reformatory at Glencree, co. Wicklow, where the family were on holiday. Wilde violated no Irish protestant taboo as great as that broken by his mother for him in thus perverting him (as her relatives would have termed it). During the great Irish famine (1845–52) William Wilde had directed the census from local medical reports giving him unique mastery of famine mortality and his folklore researches showed its cultural toll, while Jane Elgee as poet and polemicist on the Dublin Nation declared that the million-odd victims owed their fate to her fellow protestant landlords. Wilde's dialogue between Death and Avarice in 'The Young King' (Lady's Pictorial, Christmas 1888) echoes her indictment while his Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) has recollections of her poem 'The Famine Year'. He would have understood the symbolism of her consecration of her sons to the church whose children had died in such horror and such numbers. He reaffirmed her defence of the Irish revolutionaries of 1848 when lecturing in San Francisco in 1882. Filial devotion made him a rebel, with some uncertainty as to his cause.

Wilde's Irish-speaking father took his family on vacations to Galway in quest of folklore, later written up by his widow: Wilde himself retained enough Irish to sing abstruse Gaelic lullabies to his children. Wilde would also draw on his parents' mastery of ghost, curse, and fairy lore to inspire his first prose fiction, 'The Canterville Ghost' and 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime' (Court and Society Review, Feb–March and May 1887), and The Happy Prince and other Tales (1888). The wish of human vanity whose fulfilment brings ultimate damnation, characteristic in Gaelic story-telling, dominates Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891). Wilde would duly win his greatest social success as oral narrator. His parents' choice of Gaelic heroic names for him (including what may have been a claim of descent from the ‘wild’ O'Flaherties, memorable threats to English settlers) heightened his alienation. Fenian legend supposedly survived in the bard Ossian, son of the Odysseus-like contriver Fingal, and father of the Achilles-like hero Oscar: Wilde fulfilled all three roles in his life. But Fenian names sounded ominous in Irish protestant ears after 1858, and Wilde may have suffered from it as a boarder at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, co. Fermanagh, a bastion of English imperial culture where Ireland was virtually obliterated from formal educational allusion. Wilde seems to have detested his time there (1864–71), although winning scripture prizes in 1869 and 1870. But it taught him how to conceal the Irish identity he had inherited.

On 23 February 1867 Wilde was told that his little sister Isola Francesca (b. 1857) had just died. He mourned her unconsolably, memorialized her ten years later in the poem 'Requiescat' (later anthologized by Yeats), carried a lock of her hair as best he could until his death, and haunted his literary work with images of girls unknowing of their incipient womanhood, for example in Vera (1880, 1882), 'The Canterville Ghost', 'The Birthday of the Infanta' (Paris Illustré, 30 March 1889), The Picture of Dorian Gray, each of his four great comedies, and Salomé, the keynote always innocence expressed in extreme terms, whether of courage, kindness, or cruelty. His earliest surviving letter (to his mother, 5 September 1868) shows his hunger at Portora for home and its culture, asking for the current number of James Godkin's National Review, then an outlet for her patriotic verse, and seeking news of her poems' possible republication (subsequently realized) by the Glasgow Irish nationalist firm Cameron and Ferguson. From Portora he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1871.

Wilde's mother by now held a literary salon at 1 Merrion Square, Dublin, the Wilde family home from 1855, with visitors such as the poets Aubrey de Vere and Samuel Ferguson, the great peasant story-teller William Carleton, and the Dublin historian John Gilbert. At Trinity, Wilde's chief mentors were the classicists John Pentland Mahaffy and Robert Yelverton Tyrrell. Mahaffy proved a stimulating challenge in his witty contempt for Roman Catholicism, Irish nationalism, democracy, liberalism, socialism, and Gaelicism, on none of which he influenced Wilde: but both men helped make him a great Greek scholar. He won a foundation scholarship in 1873 and the Berkeley gold medal for Greek in 1874. Mahaffy germinated Wilde's first great dramatic character, Prince Paul Maraloffski, the tsar's premier in Vera, cruel, treacherous, and endlessly amusing. Wilde's juvenile cult of Shelley weathered the editorial austerity exuded by Edward Dowden from Trinity's chair of English literature. Wilde was then too shy for much student friendship but activity in college societies threw him together with Edward Carson.

Poet and intellectual in Oxford, 1874–1879

In June 1874 Wilde won a demyship in classics to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied until 1879, having graduated BA in November 1878 with a double first in classical moderations and literae humaniores or Greats (classics). Dublin probably educated him better than Oxford, but Oxford gave him a new world of expression and audience. In place of the Dublin wits and scholars vying to outsmart one another, he found intellectuals whose oratorical articulacy was declining as his own developed: Walter Horatio Pater and John Ruskin. In Wilde's last Dublin year Pater published his Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Its conclusion induced academic malice and was withdrawn by him in the second edition (1877), but Wilde was fascinated by its agenda: 'not the fruit of experience, but experience itself … success in life … [is] to burn always with this hard gemlike flame' (W. Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, 1873, 210). Ruskin recruited Wilde into a group of social activists trying to build a road, and his anger at social cruelty found fallow soil in the boy from the famine-writers' house. Pater and Ruskin shaped Wilde's thought and its expression: they did not originate it. Initially he brought their ideas and his glosses into the market place in lectures on aesthetics in the UK and the USA. Thereafter he embedded them, begirt in his own wit and charm, in fictions such as The Happy Prince and other Tales and The Picture of Dorian Gray. To Wilde ideas had to assert themselves dramatically: Yeats saw him as 'a man of action' (O'Sullivan), Chesterton as 'an Irish swashbuckler—a fighter' (The Victorian Age in Literature, 1913), and even Whistler's sneer 'Oscar has the courage of the opinions—of others' (Truth, 2 Jan 1890) realized it.

Wilde's first literary stage was Irish, finding outlets for his Oxonian perceptions in poetry and prose in the Dublin University Magazine (protestant evangelical), Kottabos (edited by Tyrrell), the Irish Monthly (Jesuit), and the Boston Pilot (Catholic and Irish nationalist). He celebrated the new temple of aesthetic rebellion, the Grosvenor Gallery (Dublin University Magazine, June 1877), and made a lengthy appeal for a starving Irish artist Henry O'Neill (1800–1880) in Saunders's News-Letter (29 December 1877), reprinted in his mother's old Dublin journal, The Nation. David (later the Rt Revd Abbot Sir David) Hunter-Blair (1853–1939), a close friend at Magdalen, was converted to Roman Catholicism in 1875, graduated in 1876, and entered the Benedictine order in 1878. Wilde's Catholic self was most notably expressed to him, although Wilde deferred a full Catholic identity until his deathbed (D. H. Blair, In Victorian Days, 1939). Wilde's Catholic consciousness permeates his stories, his prison and post-prison writings pursue its realization, and his poem The Sphinx (1894), begun at Oxford, shows warring attractions for him of paganism and Catholicism.

Wilde was happy at Oxford, apart from financial pressures and disciplinary measures following his protracted vacation in Greece in April 1877 with Mahaffy. Sir William Wilde's death on 19 April 1876 was a severe psychological blow, and left the family much poorer than they had expected. Wilde won Oxford's Newdigate prize for his poem 'Ravenna' in 1878 and declaimed it in the Sheldonian Theatre on 26 June. It was published as his first book. Its laments for the sufferings of Dante and Byron proclaimed admiration and anticipation. His graduation was delayed by the requisite divinity test to satisfy requirements as to his Anglican status, which he deliberately failed until it was a laughing-stock. He then worked on 'Historical criticism among the Ancients', for the chancellor's English essay prize. No award was made. Posthumously published as The Rise of Historical Criticism (1909) it shows a remarkable grasp of historiography, a subject then in its infancy. It shows history as the foundation of his thought, with a judicious scepticism. It also stands on the cusp of Victorian confidence and its collapse. It sees history's motive as 'the discovery of the laws of the evolution of progress' (O. Wilde, Complete Works, introduced by M. Holland and others, [1994], 1207). Its author's doubts about whether history was progress grew to illuminate works as different as his The Importance of being Earnest and The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Literary apprentice, dandy, and lecturer at large, 1879–1885

Wilde settled in London early in 1879; his mother and brother also moved there. The land war developing in Ireland made their few remaining properties uneconomic, but Oscar and his mother were none the less firm supporters of home rule and Charles Stewart Parnell. They still cut a wide swathe in society, assisted by her new salon. He won friendships with three great rivals in beauty and celebrity in and out of the theatre, Emily Charlotte Le Breton (Lillie) Langtry, Ellen Terry, and Sarah Bernhardt, writing poems to all three. He frequented the theatre and dressed in the aesthetic role, the better to evangelize beauty in modern life. The knee-breeches, the great bow-ties, and the ornate hats became famous; they were guyed and caricatured in Punch and bad plays and ultimately in the new Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience, for whose opening on 23 April 1881 Wilde bought a 3 guinea box. He knew their work, and he intended not to protest against its satire on aestheticism, but to latch on to it. His physique, mannerisms, opportunism, salesmanship, female admirers, and even background of Irish landholding inspired George Grossmith as Bunthorne to put more and more of Wilde into the part. Wilde, tall, growing plumper, drawling, almost affecting affectation, developed his own performance on Bunthorne lines. Unlike Bunthorne, Wilde was not a fraud: he was fascinated by beauty from classicism to Keats, he correlated reform in dress and house decoration with beauty and respect in human relations, and he saw philistinism as tyranny in taste and politics. But he enjoyed self-mockery—from his difficulty at Oxford in living up to his blue china to his deathbed insistence that the wallpaper was killing him. His Poems were published by David Bogue at his own expense a few weeks after Patience opened, and like Bunthorne's they were often derivative (for which the Oxford Union, despicably, rejected his presentation copy). The book sold out four editions of 250 copies at half a guinea within the year. Amid much that had been tried, there was a little that rang true—'Requiescat', 'Magdalen Walks', 'Hélas!', 'Humanitad', respectively saluting Isola, Oxford, Christianity, paganism. Many of the poems have a value as social documents—giving us incisive glimpses of the theatre, politics, cosmopolitanism, and parochialism of their time. Gladstone, Matthew Arnold, Swinburne, and Oscar Browning complimented him on all or some of the poems, but reviewers were rude. Individual verses acquired new meanings in the light of his later life, such as 'Roses and Rue—to L[illie] L[angtry]':

But strange that I was not toldThat the brain can holdIn a tiny ivory cell,God's heaven and hell.

Yet Wilde's tragic forebodings were constantly balanced by the growth of his comic genius. His tragedy Vera found its early drafts undermined by the hilarity induced by the evil Prince Paul's epigrams. Wilde had studied Polish and Russian literature under his mother's influence, but Vera's hidden Irish resonance, however smothered by the tsar's court and its pursuing nihilists, gave the hardbitten worldly wisdom on which the play turns. The play argued, wisely from either Irish or Russian contexts, that political intransigence ensures worse repression and worse revolution, and that political extremes induce one another's success at the expense of rational solutions. Vera was scheduled for a London production in December 1881 with Mrs Bernard Beere, née Fanny Mary Whitehead (1856–1915), a lifelong friend of Wilde, in the title role but it was cancelled since its nihilist assassination of the tsar might seem to reflect on its real-life counterpart the previous March, the murder of Tsar Alexander II.

Wilde contracted with the producer of Patience, Richard D'Oyly Carte, to lecture in the USA, whose people might otherwise fail to understand what the opera was satirizing. He sailed on the Arizona on 24 December 1881, landing in New York on 2 January 1882, delivering nearly 150 lectures throughout the USA and Canada, and receiving $6000 over the next twelve months. His lectures were entitled 'The decorative arts', 'The house beautiful', 'The English Renaissance', and 'Irish poets and poetry in the nineteenth century'. He improved in both brevity and force as he travelled from the east to the west coast. He sailed home on the Bothnia on 27 December 1882, docking in Liverpool on 6 January 1883. His was a theatre performance, and it furthered theatre links. His friendship with Dion Boucicault guided the early weeks of his tour and gave him contacts for Vera. Boucicault proved in his case as in those of all his major fellow playwrights of the Irish Renaissance the vital precursor in technique, craftsmanship, and wit. Vera was taken by Marie Prescott (1853–1923), who played the title role at the Union Square Theatre in New York from 20 August 1883 for a week (to hostile notices) with later touring in upper New York state. Wilde returned to the USA for the production (11 August to 11 September). Meanwhile Mary Anderson commissioned a play from him which he sent her from Paris in March 1883, a historical tragedy in Shakespearian verse, The Duchess of Padua. She rejected it. Her brother Joseph (1863–1943?) later married Gertrude, daughter of the American actor–manager Lawrence Barrett (1838–1891), who staged it in New York from 21 January 1891 as Guido Ferranti, with considerable success cut short by Barrett's death in March.

Wilde lived in Paris from January to May 1883, meeting Hugo, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Edmond de Goncourt, Degas, Zola, Daudet, and his own first major biographer, Robert Harborough Sherard (Kennedy) (1861–1943), a Francophile revolutionary enthusiast whom he saw almost every day, and who brings him vividly to life in these days. Wilde then resumed his lectures, adding 'Impressions of America', and performing all over the British Isles. On 25 November 1883 he became engaged to Constance Mary Lloyd (1858–1898), a protestant Dublin girl, whom he had known since 1881. They married at St James's (Church of England) Church, Sussex Gardens, Paddington, London, on 29 May 1884. The honeymoon was spent in Paris, where Sherard had to cut short private confidences on the delights of the wedding night from an ecstatic Wilde. Wilde's sexual experiences to date seem to have been entirely heterosexual. The speed with which he took up homosexual activity after introduction to it some three years later by Robert Ross is evidence in itself against any previous acquaintance with it; he astounded his later lover Lord Alfred Douglas by stating that no such thing existed in Portora. Sherard later recalled Wilde's mention of syphilis at Oxford after experience with a female prostitute. Wilde thought himself cured of this (if it ever happened) although it is possible, as Ellmann speculates, that he later feared it lingered (the enchanted portrait of Dorian Gray seems to reveal syphilis among other physical evidence for the foul life lived by its perfectly preserved original). His marriage was sexually vigorous, with his son Cyril born on 5 June 1885, at the Wildes' new home in London, 16 Tite Street, Chelsea, while his son Vivian (later altered by its owner to Vyvyan) Oscar Beresford [see Holland, Vyvyan Beresford] was born on 3 November 1886. The resultant strain on the Wildes' finances led them to abstain from sexual intercourse. Constance inherited £900 a year from her grandfather John Horatio Lloyd QC, but Wilde's earnings were entirely freelance and involved contributions to his mother's upkeep. Remembering his father's sexual infidelities (resulting in at least three bastards), Wilde recoiled from the thought of sexual solace with other women, and Ross seems to have exploited his sexual hunger and refusal to betray his heterosexual bed. Wilde never seems to have engaged in anal penetration either actively or passively.

The artist as critic, 1885–1891

From early in 1885 Wilde was a regular book critic for the Pall Mall Gazette. Under the pressure of rapid book reviewing Wilde began to make his comic genius serve his aesthetic evangelism in print, as he had been doing on the lecture platform and at the dinner table. Constance Wilde took up her husband's beliefs in dress reform, displayed rational dress to advantage, and spoke fluently on the subject. Wilde's own maturity in prose dates from his marriage. Significantly, his first timeless successes as a writer came in fields also cultivated by his wife: costume, and fairy-stories. His first major essay, 'Shakespeare and stage costume' (Nineteenth Century, May 1885) brought his prose comedy into its own. Later revised as 'The truth of masks' for inclusion in his essay collection Intentions (1891), it was Wilde's first presentation of his masque of masks whose reader can never be sure how seriously to take the author—and neither, apparently, can the author. It coincided with his best verses before the Ballad: 'To my Wife with a Copy of my Poems', a miniature of egocentric tenderness, and 'The Harlot's House', which launched the decadence of the 1890s five years early.

'The Canterville Ghost' and 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime' (spring 1887) used society comedy as skilfully as Irish folklore, foreshadowing Wilde's return to playwriting. Edmund Wilson in Classics and Commercials (1950) diagnosed 'a sense of damnation, a foreboding of tragic failure' (p. 336) even in Wilde's earlier work. Lord Arthur confronts horrors of possible social disgrace and criminal trial when a fortune-teller predicts he will commit a murder; the ghost enjoys haunting American purchasers of his family home by Irvingesque theatrical performances but suffers for his life's crimes in the purgatory from where the Isola-like Virginia finally rescues him. The two stories make excellent use of modern forms, the former originating in the first of Wilde's delicate and deadly dissections of English aristocratic social gatherings, while the latter arises hilariously from Wilde's shrewd witness to British–American social confrontations.

To raise an income Wilde became editor of Cassell's monthly magazine the Lady's World, which he promptly renamed the Woman's World, serving for its issues from November 1887 to October 1889. The Happy Prince and other Tales was published by Alfred Nutt in May 1888: its origin in Irish oral narrative is affirmed by his subsequently reciting the stories to his sons, weeping for 'The Selfish Giant' when the child befriended by the giant becomes the crucified Christ who takes his protector to paradise. Their permanent place in child affections refutes the vulgarism that Wilde's literary reputation arose from his legal notoriety. In all cases they are on the child's side, celebrating the courage and generosity of the poor and vulnerable, while their satire mocks the kind of pomposity and hypocrisy children can recognize. January 1889 saw publication of his 'Pen, pencil, and poison' (Fortnightly Review), an aesthetic 'study in green' of the forger, artist, and poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright and of 'The decay of lying' (Nineteenth Century), an elegantly Platonic dialogue supposedly denouncing the renunciation of invention by modern story-tellers while actually dissecting them in a succession of hilarious but profound epigrams. The Wainewright essay startlingly reveals Wilde's criminologist credentials long before his acquisition of practical experience of prison. Forgery also dominated 'The portrait of Mr W. H.', whose first draft in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (July 1889) Wilde expanded to book length. It was not returned by its intended publisher, John Lane, when Wilde's trials put paid to its publication (realized in a limited New York edition in 1921 and a London commercial publication in 1958). A painting is forged to provide evidence for the existence of a boy actor as recipient of Shakespeare's sonnets and creator of his heroines: does the forgery impair the thesis or provide proof of its perpetrator's conviction, all the more when its discovery induces suicide? 'No man dies for what he knows to be true. Men die for what they want to be true, for what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true' (O. Wilde, Complete Works, 349). The story is gratifyingly post-modern in its doubts about scholarly certainties: the zealot loses faith having converted his target. It also points out that the place to look for a male lover for Shakespeare must initially be in his own profession, and the sonnets might be expected to have some relevance to the plays.

Wilde relinquished the Woman's World, much enlivened by his literary notes, and left book reviewing after a review-essay (The Speaker, 8 February 1890) on the fourth-century bc Chinese sage Chuang Tzŭ. He extolled the philosopher who saw perfection in ignoring oneself, divinity in ignoring action, and sagacity in ignoring reputation, silently marking the contrast from himself by thoughts on how disturbing Chuang Tzŭ would be at dinner parties (at which Wilde himself was now London's leading lion). His valedictory to criticism (Nineteenth Century, July and September 1890) was reprinted in Intentions as 'The critic as artist', where he transformed remunerative hackwork into a creative creed. The critic's response to the work of art under review should be to make another. This was set out in a gorgeous profusion of epigram and paradox, ostentation and learning, frivolity and wisdom, but few critics reached deeper into the heart of their business than Wilde's evangel.

In July 1890 Lippincott's Magazine published Wilde's first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. His critic's interest in Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ('reads dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet': 'Decay of lying') induced the idea of age and its spiritual effects expressing themselves in the portrait whose model walks free of either. 'The decay of lying' had nature imitating art: in Dorian Gray nature imitates art with—literally—a vengeance, when in knifing the portrait Dorian kills himself and becomes the final horror to which its successive changes have evolved. Dorian Gray himself became a name as immortal as those of Jekyll and Hyde, his picture in the attic baring his self-obsessed soul as vital a symbol as the ‘madwoman in the attic’, the discarded first wife established in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). The story itself, so far from vindicating art for art's sake, asks what it profiteth a man to gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul. His sexual sins, so far as we know them, are firmly heterosexual. He attracts two men, the artist Basil Hallward who has fallen in love with his appearance, and Lord Henry Wotton, whose scruples might be philosophically less nice than Hallward's but who never seems to go beyond repainting Dorian in epigrams. The fervent expression of Hallward's love (arguably the finest sentiment in the story) unleashed the venom of Wilde's Oxford classicist contemporary Samuel Henry Jeyes (1857–1911), who in the St James's Gazette (20 June 1890) demanded that the book be burnt and hinted that its author or publisher were liable to prosecution in terms which suggested more familiarity with homosexuality than his vehemence warranted; comparably, Charles Whibley in the Scots Observer accused Wilde of writing for 'none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys'. Wilde revised it, toning down a few passages for book publication, adding six new chapters to the book and about nineteen years to the action. His preface disposed of his critics in an epigram sequence. Technically the amendments are improvements. Wilde, contrary to what he liked to say, was a very hard worker when it came to revising his writings, and from Vera onwards could be ruthless in what he removed. Despite, or possibly because, W. H. Smith refused to stock it ('filthy' was his description), it was the most famous novel of its time. On its appearance in April 1891, the critics were quieter, but still confused, apart from Pater, who reviewed it enthusiastically for The Bookman (November 1891).

Politics and the theatre: the years of mastery, 1891–1895

Wilde moved more fully into social criticism with his 'The soul of man under socialism' (Fortnightly Review, February 1891), perhaps the most memorable and certainly the most aesthetic statement of anarchist theory in the English language. In 1891 Wilde was hard at work on a play, and also published Intentions and Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and other Stories. In November came A House of Pomegranates—more ornate fairy-stories than the Happy Prince collection and more directly socialist: the happy prince wanted to use his adornments to relieve suffering but the young king discovers his to be the cause of it. The general effect is more tragic, the infanta's dwarf dying of grief when he realizes she likes him only as an object of ridicule for his ugliness, the fisherman and his soul corrupted in their separation, the star-child's expiation for his snobbery and cruelty ending in his life as ruler cut short and his successor ruling evilly. The elegiac, doom-laden note accords with the new spirit of fin de siècle which a character in Dorian Gray had equated with fin du globe.

Lady Windermere's Fan opened under George Alexander's direction and lead male performance at the St James's Theatre, London, on 20 February 1892. It anticipates Ibsen's A Doll's House twenty years after. Ibsen was the crucial influence that turned Wilde from a melodramatist into a dramatist: Wilde was as much his pupil as was Shaw, with whom he linked himself as playwright. Mrs Erlynne, like Ibsen's Nora, has left her husband and offspring and returns to blackmail Lord Windermere, her son-in-law, on the threat of self-disclosure to her daughter who believes her to have died a loving wife. Lady Windermere, led by suspicion that her husband's payments to Mrs Erlynne are recompense to his mistress, leaves her home to elope with Lord Darlington, from which decision Mrs Erlynne rescues her at further cost to her own reputation. Mrs Erlynne is a figure of potential tragedy, but she is also much the wittiest person in the play and ultimately deals herself a happy ending with an infectious cynicism. She endangers her own future to save her daughter from the brittle, loveless life into which her bid for freedom had enmeshed her. The play was revolutionary in its mingling of the vocabulary of comedy, the potential of tragedy, and the insistence on realism.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree was actor–manager for Wilde's next play, A Woman of No Importance, after Lady Windermere's Fan had run to delighted audiences and enraged critics (save for the Ibsenite William Archer) in London and on tour through almost all of 1892. The title role for Tree's production described an unmarried mother doing exactly what Mrs Erlynne denied modern life would permit: to become a dowdy, having been victimized by a dandy. Mrs Bernard Beere played Mrs Arbuthnot while Tree played Lord Illingworth, the treacherous dandy, who encounters his former mistress and their son twenty years after, while he is conducting a flirtation with Mrs Allonby (played by Mrs Tree), who recalls Mrs Erlynne's conversation without her complication. Tree had more in common with Wilde than any other actor and thus may have been more alive to the dangers of his more liberated epigrams, some of which were deleted, notably when Tree sidetracked a seventeen-year-old blackmailer named Alfred Wood, for which Wilde gratefully gave Mrs Allonby the entrance line 'The trees are wonderful, Lady Hunstanton. But I think that is rather the drawback of the country. In the country there are so many trees one can't see the temptations', that is, one could not see the Wood for the Trees. Only the first four words remained in the text, which may be all Wilde intended to happen: uttered by Mrs Tree, they must have raised a fine laugh from the regular customers at the Haymarket Theatre, where the play opened on 19 April 1893, running until 16 August. For all of Wilde's cult of the dandy, Illingworth is defeated and discredited at the play's end, at the hands of the somewhat absurd American puritan girl who makes a man of Illingworth's bastard. Wilde assigned his savage indictments of modern society to her, answered by the elegant English society ladies in the finest feline form; but at the play's end they are hollow and she is victrix. William Archer was once again its sole defender.

In late 1891 Wilde wrote Salomé, partly in Paris. Sarah Bernhardt had begun rehearsals of it at the Palace Theatre in London by June 1892 but the play was banned from performance by the lord chamberlain for infringing protestant Reformation legislation against medieval miracle or otherwise religious plays. The play's censor, Edward Frederick Smyth Pigott (1824–1895), was in no doubt that however pagan Wilde might currently be feeling, he was too Catholic to be staged. That the play was in French no doubt made matters worse: that was half-way to Latin. It is apparently untranslatable into English: various attempts were made by Lord Alfred Douglas, Aubrey Beardsley, Wilde himself revising Douglas, Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland, Jon Pope, Steven Berkoff, and others, but it demands reading and performance in French to make its impact. Beardsley illustrated the French text in a series of drawings proclaiming the decadence of the day. Both Wilde and Beardsley privately belittled one another's work for the published play (February 1893) but their impact was mutually inspirational. They seem in accord as to Herodias and Herod: her no longer irresistible voluptuosity, his predatory, questing eyes. Beardsley's sophisticated Salomé in toilette and dance is far removed from Wilde's idea of terrifying innocence enraged, and even befouled, by the prophet obsessed by the omnipresence of guilt (as Émile Vernadakis has established). Yet Beardsley's hungry devourer of Iokanaan and vampirical ascendant with his head seems the vital stimulus for Richard Strauss in creating his opera in 1905, and Beardsley's experienced Salomé rather than Wilde's virgin child dominated most subsequent performances of the play. It was Beardsley more than Wilde who followed the tradition of Flaubert and Maeterlinck on the theme. Wilde's Salomé is a human being, as opposed to a sex object in (or out of) seven veils. Bernhardt toyed with the idea of a Paris production, but dropped it when Wilde's scandal overtook him. Salomé was first produced on 11 February 1896 by Aurélien Marie Lugné-Poe (1869–1940), who played Herod to Lina Munte's Salomé, for the Théatre de l'Œuvre in Paris. News of it rescued the imprisoned Wilde from utter despair.

From October 1893 Wilde worked on An Ideal Husband, whose highly political plot he elaborated from an anecdote told by Frank Harris. Sir Robert Chiltern, saved by his friend Lord Goring from blackmail over his sale of a cabinet secret in the remote past, leaps at the first chance of forbidding Goring's marriage to his sister because Goring had entertained the lady from whom he obtained the document. Although now known to Goring as thief and traitor, Chiltern once secure becomes the House of Commons moralist, reclaiming moral superiority regardless—or perhaps mindful—of what Goring must think of him. Shaw, now the Saturday Review theatre critic, hailed Wilde as 'our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre' (12 Jan 1895). Lewis Waller played Chiltern in his production at the Haymarket, with Julia Neilson as his wife: they opened on 3 January 1895. Charles Brookfield (playing Goring's valet, Phipps), helped gather evidence that might implicate Wilde in recently criminalized homosexual relations. Wilde had found the theatre a haven where homosexuality found acknowledgement if not acceptance. It also meant that enemies could discover more, quicker.

Wilde's last play, The Importance of being Earnest, opened at the St James's on 14 February 1895 with George Alexander as John Worthing and Allan Aynesworth (E. Abbot-Anderson; 1865–1959) as Algernon Moncreiff. Although hurriedly reduced from four acts to three because of Alexander's insistence on a curtain-raiser, it won critical unanimity of applause (save for Shaw) and the twentieth century in general, when permitted to view it, hailed it as the greatest English comedy of all time. Wilde's first two comedies had been published in November 1893 and October 1894 respectively, but their successors had to await his release, and The Importance of being Earnest was published by Leonard Smithers in February 1899, by which time Wilde's sufferings had caused him to lose all his regard for the play, to which he gave little annotation and no hint of the original four-act text, which did not appear until 1956. Wilde's notes for An Ideal Husband, published by Smithers in July 1899, included likening of its characters to models for appropriate painters, to culminate in the blackmailer Mrs Cheveley: 'A work of art, on the whole, but showing the influence of rather too many schools'. These notes were the last creative work Wilde ever wrote.

Imprisonment and De Profundis, 1895–1897

On 28 February 1895 Wilde received a card at his club, the Albemarle, ten days after it had been left by John Sholto Douglas, ninth marquess of Queensberry, accusing Wilde of being 'ponce and somdomite' or of 'posing as somdomite'. Wilde took out a warrant against him for criminal libel. Queensberry entered a plea of justification on 30 March. Having belatedly assembled evidence found for Queensberry by very recent recruits, it declared Wilde to have committed a number of sexual acts with male persons at dates and places named. None was evidence of sodomy, nor was Wilde ever charged with it. Queensberry's trial at the central criminal court, Old Bailey, on 3–5 April before Mr Justice Richard Henn Collins ended in Wilde's attempt to withdraw the prosecution after Queensberry's counsel, Edward Carson QC MP, sustained brilliant repartee from Wilde in the witness-box on questions about immorality in his works and then crushed Wilde with questions on his relations to male youths whose lower-class background was much stressed. Collins demanded that Queensberry be found not guilty and Queensberry's solicitors sent the plea of justification and its supporting evidence to the public prosecutor, on which Wilde was arrested at 6.10 p.m. and lodged in Holloway prison. Next day, 6 April, Wilde was charged with offences under the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885), section XI together with Alfred Taylor, owner of a male brothel Wilde had used, and who went to penal servitude rather than inform against Wilde. Bail was refused. Of ten alleged sexual partners Queensberry's plea had named, five were omitted from the indictment at Wilde's first trial (26 April – 1 May) before Mr Justice Arthur Charles (1839–1921), where a sixth was dismissed for perjury, a seventh denied any impropriety, and an eighth required a verdict of not guilty during Wilde's second trial. The trial under Charles ended in jury disagreement after four hours. Wilde was granted bail, for £5000; his case was separated from Taylor's on 20 May. Taylor was found guilty on 21 May; Wilde was tried on 22–25 May, and found guilty on 25 May. Both prisoners were sentenced by Mr Justice Alfred Wills to two years' penal servitude with hard labour. The two known persons with whom Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency were male prostitutes, one of them the blackmailer Wood. Wilde was also found guilty on two counts charging gross indecency with a person unknown on two separate occasions in the Savoy Hotel. These may in fact have related to acts committed by Queensberry's son, Lord Alfred Douglas, who had also been Wood's lover. But Wilde had had sexual relations in 1893–4 with the remaining prostitute, Charles Parker (now a soldier), on which he was found guilty on four counts.

Far more severe than any court verdict was the utter social destruction of Wilde. His blameless, and somewhat neglected, family were utterly innocent sufferers. His entertainment of homosexual friends in hotels and abroad had sometimes coincided with economic privation and credit embarrassment for his wife and children. The house at 16 Tite Street was given over to the bailiffs at Queensberry's demand (non-payment of costs awarded him after his trial), and Wilde's family possessions, library, art collection, autographed gifts, and even children's toys including a rabbit hutch were put up for auction with a view to selling as much as possible for as little as possible. Constance Wilde took the children, Cyril and Vivian, to her brother Otho Holland Lloyd (1856–1943) in Switzerland. She decided against divorcing Wilde, whom she visited in prison in September 1895 and February 1896, but changed her children's and her own surname to Holland. She was dying from spinal injury caused by a fall in Tite Street.

Wilde's first prison month was in Pentonville, where R. B. Haldane (on a Home Office committee under Herbert Gladstone investigating prison conditions) saw him on 12 June 1895. Haldane managed to get books for Wilde (to be read through the prison library). Wilde was transferred to Wandsworth (from 4 July to 20 November) before being sent to the much smaller Reading gaol (administered by the Berkshire authorities). Robert Sherard visited Wilde first in Wandsworth where he supported Constance Wilde's anxiety that he repudiate his homosexual friends. But when Wilde was taken to the bankruptcy court in Carey Street for his first hearing at Queensberry's suit on 24 September 1895, Robert Ross (now returned after a self-protecting flight to the continent during the Wilde trials) waited in a corridor to raise his hat, which moved the friendless convict to the heart. Arthur Clifton (1862–1932), a solicitor friend of both, saw Wilde during these hearings (resumed on 12 November when Wilde was declared bankrupt), and Ross's friend William More Adey (1858–1942) became a consultant, visiting Wilde on 30 November ten days after Wilde's horrific experience in being transferred to Reading when he was subjected to half an hour of mobbing, including being spat upon, although handcuffed and guarded, while waiting for a change of trains. Ross now became Wilde's most constant prison visitor, turning Wilde's desire to repudiate his former lifestyle into a rejection of the lover who had supplanted Ross and who for fear of indictment was still on the continent, Lord Alfred Douglas, to whom the letter posthumously named De Profundis, was written between December 1896 and March 1897.

Wilde's prison experience was physically and psychologically destructive, particularly between November and July when the Reading governor was Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Bevan Isaacson (1842–1915): not a Jew, as commentators assumed. He had a kindlier successor, Major James Osmond Nelson (1859–1914), but Reading was dominated by its doctor, Oliver Calley Maurice JP (1838–1907). Governors came and went: Maurice was a permanent power-broker. Wilde's medical condition had become dangerous from a fall in Wandsworth which exacerbated middle-ear disease, from which he died five years later. Maurice dismissed any anxieties, and Wilde's petitions to the home secretary asking for release on medical grounds were ignored on Maurice's advice. As the son of one of the world's greatest aurists, Wilde knew his ear condition was serious, and that Maurice's diagnosis was faulty. But when on release Wilde denounced existing prison conditions in the Daily Chronicle (28 May 1897) he highlighted other prisoners in mortal danger from Maurice ('It is a horrible duel between himself and the doctor. The doctor is fighting for a theory. The man is fighting for his life. I am anxious that the man should win') as well as children and other tragic victims of the system.

This transition was made possible by Wilde's spiritual regeneration, which worked its way out in De Profundis. It did not deny his own culpability for the wreck of his and his family's lives, but it made his obsession with Douglas the leading count in his own self-indictment. It attacked Douglas for hatred of his father, acknowledged his love for Wilde, but saw that love, like Wilde himself, enslaved in the work of hate. Ross was held up as a model of friendship and stimulus. Yet the power and profundity of De Profundis itself asserted Douglas's far more cataclysmic inspirational effect. Nor was the contrast accurate in all respects. Both Ross and Douglas were demanding, self-centred, and indiscreet, and Wilde's relationship to both of them was more that of an indulgent but exploited uncle than of the physical lover he seems to have been for a relatively brief time in each case. Both Ross and Douglas were homosexual liberationists, Ross more constructively, Douglas more flamboyantly: De Profundis justly denounced the egotism of Douglas in using Wilde's imprisonment to publicize the launch of his own book of verse, but Douglas also tried to show the utter injustice of Wilde's fate in particular and the punitive legislation in general. But De Profundis is also an extraordinary record of a man hurled from the pinnacle of literary success to the uttermost public degradation, and of the spiritual means by which he turned away from despair. Wilde fixed his mind on Christ, first as a person, then (in The Ballad of Reading Gaol) as a redeeming god. The sublime elimination of himself in the thought of the suffering of his fellow prisoners, in his time and in all time, permeates the letters to the Daily Chronicle and the Ballad, all written after his release. De Profundis is less reflective of this than the proof of how it was happening. Its universal quality is more evident if it is read as a man addressing himself, the Douglas of the letter being Wilde as well as Douglas.

The elimination of self had its apogee in The Ballad of Reading Gaol which Wilde began to write at the end of May, the month in which he was released, completing it in October, and seeing it published by Smithers in February 1898, initially signed C. 3. 3. Its theme was the man hanged in Reading while Wilde was there, Charles Thomas Wooldridge (1866–1897), trooper of the Royal Horse Guards, who had murdered his wife in what today seems a clear attack of mental illness. With high dramatic sense Wilde turned the sufferings of all the other convicts into a subordinate but supportive chorus. The poem made no denial of guilt, although its hanged prisoner ultimately suffered more than the rest, and embodied their agonies more intensely. The Ballad followed the advice of De Profundis to Douglas, and sustained itself by love, ultimately the redeeming love of Christ, rather than hatred of custodians such as Maurice (though he figured prominently enough to worry the printers about a possible libel action). Hatred of the prison system and of the human oppression that created it animated the Ballad: but the poem confronted that cruelty with the love of Christ against which it offended. Chesterton would see the Ballad as 'a cry for common justice and brotherhood very much deeper, more democratic' than the most radical protest of the age (G. K. Chesterton, Victorian Age in Literature [1913], 227).

Wilde was released from Reading on 18 May, being handed De Profundis by Nelson, and was transferred for a night to Pentonville, where he was met by Adey. He travelled to Dieppe, where he was met on 20 May by Ross. For some months Wilde called himself Sebastian Melmoth (d. 288?), after the Christian martyr under Diocletian—transfixed by arrows, whence a cult figure in homoerotic art—and the doomed hero of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by his mother's maternal uncle-in-law Charles Maturin, which had influenced The Picture of Dorian Gray and which Ross had re-edited in 1892. Wilde settled for a time in Berneval, near Dieppe, but left for Naples in September, having been reconciled with Douglas, who advised on final revisions and additions to the BalladDouglas was a poet, after all. They did not, apparently, discuss De Profundis, which Wilde evidently thought Douglas had read (Ross was to have sent it to him after having had it typed: if Douglas ever got it, or any part of it, he destroyed that text without reading much of it). The withdrawal of their incomes by Wilde's wife and Douglas's mother ended their Naples Indian summer. Wilde returned to Paris in February and on 23 March 1898 the Daily Chronicle published his last public prose work, a second prison letter (signed as the Ballad's author) intervening in the current debate on the Prisons Bill.

Apart from passing his plays for the press, Wilde's writing life was over. Constance had been very moved by the Ballad and by both prison letters, but she died on 7 April 1898. Wilde's life became a helpless drift from place to place, centring on Paris. From London, with limited resources and occasionally guilt-ridden impatience, Ross struggled to manage his survival. Wilde went to Rome and received the blessing of Leo XIII in April 1900. His medical condition became worse and he was rescued from dying in a Paris street by a former landlord, Jean Dupoirier, proprietor of the Hôtel d'Alsace, rue des Beaux-Arts, where he died on 30 November 1900. An Irish priest, Cuthbert Dunne, obtained by Robert Ross, had conditionally baptized him, and given him extreme unction and absolution, being satisfied that Wilde, although now speechless, understood and approved. Wilde was buried at Bagneux on 2 December 1900 by Ross, Douglas, Dunne, Dupoirier, and a few other friends. In 1909 his uncorrupted body was moved to Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris, with a monument by Jacob Epstein over the grave. Ross's ashes were placed in the grave at his request after his death in 1918.

Posthumous reputation

Although still unmentionable in most circles at the time of his death, Wilde had an obituary in The Times and a notice in the Dictionary of National Biography. Sherard published a touching memoir, Oscar Wilde: the Story of an Unhappy Friendship (1902), followed by The Life of Oscar Wilde (1906) and The Real Oscar Wilde (1915). Ross issued less than half of De Profundis in 1905, shorn of any allusion to Douglas although occasionally addressing an unspecified friend identifiable with Ross. Douglas reviewed it favourably, and others proclaimed it a classic. Wilde's reputation soared from the depths, and Ross planned and brought out a comprehensive fourteen-volume edition of Wilde's known published writings with the aid of Christopher Sclater Millard in 1908, emended in 1909, followed by many republications in cheap editions by the publisher, Methuen. Millard under the name Stuart Mason produced an invaluable, if somewhat ragbag, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (1914), abounding in instructive tangents; several other Mason volumes covered the Dorian Gray controversy (Art and Morality, 1907, 1912, reproducing the major reviews from Jeyes to Pater and the ensuing correspondence), and further bibliographical problems. Anonymously Millard issued an edition of the trial transcripts, Oscar Wilde Three Times Tried (1912). Ross, as Wilde's named literary executor, cleared the estate of bankruptcy in July 1906 and administered it for the sons of Wilde, both of whom served in the First World War, in which Cyril was killed (1915). Vyvyan Holland took over the estate after Ross's death in 1918. Wilde's vast sales were unaccompanied by critical assessment of much value: academic respectability, masquerading as integrity, dominated intellectual opinion to insist that Wilde would have been forgotten had it not been for the scandal. The First World War was made an excuse to argue that Wilde fostered a cult of national degeneracy which the Germans would exploit for blackmailing, morale, and other purposes, climaxing in the sensational and ludicrous trial R. v. Billing (1918). The British Isles alone pursued this thesis: Wilde was by now a major literary figure in Europe, North America, and ultimately Asia. His reputation in Latin American countries would follow, with significant influence on writers such as Jorge Luis Borges. Biographies of varying degrees of unreliability kept his story before the public, though significantly the two most substantial up to the Second World War were by a Frenchman, Léon Lemonnier (1931), and a Russian, Boris Brasol (1938). In 1946 Hesketh Pearson produced the best Life of Oscar Wilde to date, a collage of memoirs and memories by a former actor drawing on many personal recollections given him over thirty years. More impressionistic than scholarly, it remains a sparkling narrative, a fine introduction to the theatre world of Wilde, and a stimulating, sympathetic critique from the polarity of an English, agnostic, heterosexual tory.

Wilde's critical reputation in the British Isles came into its own when Rupert Hart-Davis published his authoritative edition of The Letters of Oscar Wilde (1962). It included the first reliable text of De Profundis, whose status as a letter to Douglas had become known when a Ross-inspired work, Oscar Wilde: a Critical Study (1912) by Arthur Ransome, led Douglas to sue for libel against implications of having betrayed Wilde. Douglas was then forced to listen in the witness-box to Wilde's laceration of him. This was read from the manuscript which Ross had given to the British Museum (now the British Library) in 1909 on condition of its remaining closed for fifty years; there, after being called in evidence in 1913, it remained. Douglas pursued a vendetta against Ross thereafter, denouncing Wilde in R. v. Billing but renewing affection in his Oscar Wilde: a Summing-Up (1941). Portions of De Profundis had been republished in the USA and as appended matter to Frank Harris's Oscar Wilde: his Life and Confessions (1916, 1918, 1938) whose vivid pages and largely invented conversations (Wilde's supposed reiteration of ‘Frank’ is one obvious inauthenticity) added their plenty to the inventions in circulation, complicated by some endorsement from Harris's one-time drama critic on the Saturday Review, Shaw, which allowed the book's publication in Britain for the first time in 1938. After Douglas's death Vyvyan Holland published the full text of De Profundis (1949) from a transcript copy, and it replaced the fragment of 1905 in most editions of Wilde's works. Only when Hart-Davis and his future wife, Ruth Simon, scrutinized the British Museum manuscript did it become clear that Ross had not had a true copy made, nor had he employed an accurate typist. Hart-Davis at last established the true text, and Wilde's life swam into full focus in his own narration from his Oxford days when the letters began.

Wilde still awaited a satisfactory biographer, and it seemed that in Richard Ellmann he had found him. Ellmann was a brilliant critic of Wilde's and his mother's protégé William Butler Yeats, and a definitive biographer of Wilde's posthumous scrutinizer, James Joyce. Ellmann pursued Wilde's life for several decades, but the onset of fatal illness obliged him to publish his (posthumous) biography in unrevised form. Ellmann had been anxious to let the multitude of divergent voices be heard on Wilde, and sought what now seems a post-modernist approach, in harmony with Wilde's exuberant denunciation of the tyranny of fact in 'The decay of lying' but without the distillation of possibility from probability in all cases which he would have wished. Nor was Ellmann able to incorporate his own final researches or those most recently communicated to him. He became preoccupied by what is now known to be a baseless thesis of Wilde suffering from continued syphilis. The result is a work of towering artistic insight, elegant prose, critical genius, but not the authoritative biography in all respects. Since Ellmann, his pupil Declan Kiberd has greatly advanced awareness of Wilde's Irish heritage in his books Inventing Ireland and Irish Classics and his student Jarlath Killeen has greatly advanced understanding of Wilde as a Catholic author in his doctoral dissertation (2001). Among many other academic studies may be singled out Émile Vernadakis Les prétextes de Salomé (3 vols., Paris, 1987), showing the origins of Wilde's French play in his English writing as well as in his French studies.

Visually Wilde has been before the public since 1936 when Robert Morley starred in the play Oscar Wilde by Leslie Stokes and Sewell Stokes (1936) in a version of which he starred in the eponymous film (1960). He was perhaps a little too remote, but he captured Wilde's dignity and, more unusually, his slightly pedagogic manner. Peter Finch in The Trials of Oscar Wilde gave a more orthodox version, stressing Wilde's self-possession and coolness under threat, if rather less of the artist. The classic realization will always be that in Mícheál Mac Liammóir's The Importance of being Oscar (1961), a work of genius, bringing together man, work, reputation, and above all performance, sometimes being Wilde, sometimes his creations from Herod to Lady Bracknell. The film starring Stephen Fry (1997) made for a more English Wilde but met with interest and appreciation, especially because the relaxation of censorship enabled more unrestrained depiction of aspects of Wilde's private life. A fine bust of Wilde by the sculptor Patrick O'Connor (1955) survives in the best private collection of Wildeana, that of Donald Hyde and Mary Hyde at Princeton. The best collection in the world is that at the William Andrews Clark Library of the University of California at Los Angeles.

The popular and critical successes of Wilde in the twentieth century interplayed significantly with the struggle for decriminalization and social acceptance of homosexuality. Homosexual or bisexual actors found their self-respect reaffirmed by direction or performance of Wilde's plays, obvious instances being John Gielgud's John Worthing in The Importance of being Earnest (1922, 1930, 1939, 1942, 1947), Michael Redgrave's in Anthony Asquith's film of that play (1952)—whose conquest of mass audiences owed more, however, to Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism—and Mac Liammóir in Dublin Gate Theatre productions of Wilde including his dramatized Dorian Gray (1956) when he played Lord Henry Wotton. Mac Liammóir designed the bilingual marble plaque affixed to Wilde's birthplace at his birth centenary, and supported the London centenary commemoration, led by Sir Compton Mackenzie. Growing police persecution of homosexual offences met increasingly angry protest after 1954, as did the failure to implement the Wolfenden report's demand for decriminalization. Wilde, as the most conspicuous UK victim at the cost of many more possible works of genius, was a clear rallying point, and the widespread popular dissemination of his writings by Collins (1948), Penguin (1954), and others undoubtedly made converts otherwise unready to bestir themselves for such legal reform. The Letters and consequent critical re-evaluation in the UK strengthened such sentiment, and facilitated the achievement of substantial though not total removal of legal penalties for homosexual intimacies (by the Wilson government). Gay liberation in 1971 in the USA obtained rapid UK discipleship and the growth in academic study of sexuality necessarily made much of Wilde as a well-known and now well-recorded case whose literary achievement continued to pose its mysteries as well as its revelations. Gay bookshops in various cities in USA and UK frequently made use of his name; amateur plays about him and productions of his works became more and more numerous in theatre festivals led by Edinburgh Festival Fringe (annually in August); Ellmann's biography led the literary fare for general consumption, winning a mass audience for academic criticism on the highest level. Various Wilde societies and symposia continued to flourish, and to encourage both greater liberalism in public attitudes and greater promiscuity among devotees. As cultural hero and literary icon, Wilde beguiles scholars and fascinates the public at large; this ability shows no signs of abating in the twenty-first century.


  • R. H. Sherard, Oscar Wilde: the story of an unhappy friendship (1902)
  • R. H. Sherard, The life of Oscar Wilde (1906)
  • [C. S. Millard], Oscar Wilde three times tried (1912)
  • R. H. Sherard, The real Oscar Wilde [1916]
  • L. Lemonnier, La vie d'Oscar Wilde (1931)
  • B. Brasol, Oscar Wilde: the man, the artist (1938)
  • H. Pearson, The life of Oscar Wilde (1946)
  • A. Douglas, Oscar Wilde: a summing-up (1941)
  • R. Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (1987)
  • D. Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (1995)
  • D. Kiberd, Irish classics (Cambridge, MA, 2001)
  • J. Killeen, PhD diss., University College Dublin, 2001
  • É. Vernadakis, Les prétextes de Salomé, 3 vols. (Paris, 1987)
  • The complete letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. M. Holland and R. Hart-Davis (2000)
  • M. Holland, The Wilde album (1997)
  • V. Holland, Son of Oscar Wilde (1954)
  • I. Small, Oscar Wilde revalued (1993)
  • I. Small, The aesthetes: a sourcebook (1979)
  • N. Page, An Oscar Wilde chronology (1991)
  • H. Montgomery Hyde, The trials of Oscar Wilde (1948)
  • H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde: a biography (1982)
  • R. Merle, Oscar Wilde (1948)
  • V. O'Sullivan, Aspects of Wilde (1936)
  • W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (1955)
  • H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde: the aftermath (1962)
  • L. Finzi, Oscar Wilde and his literary circle: a catalogue (1957)
  • private information (2004)


  • Bodl. Oxf., legal corresp. and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., papers relating to his literary estate
  • Hunt. L., letters, literary MSS
  • L. Cong., corresp., literary MSS, and papers
  • NYPL, letters and literary MSS
  • Ransom HRC, papers
  • U. Cal., Los Angeles, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, corresp., literary MSS and papers
  • BL, corresp. with Society of Authors relating to his estate, Add. MSS 56854–56859
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to various members of the Lewis family and others
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., telegrams to A. Leverson
  • Magd. Oxf., letters to R. Harding [copies]
  • Magd. Oxf., letters to William Welsford Ward


  • Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1881, NPG [see illus.]
  • N. Saromy, photograph, 1882, U. Texas
  • N. Saromy, two photographs, 1882, NPG
  • Twym [A. S. Boyd], pencil drawing, 1883, NG Ire.
  • S. P. Hall, pencil sketch, 1888–9, NPG
  • W. & D. Downey, photograph, woodburytype, 1891, NPG
  • A. Beardsley, caricature, 1894, Tate collection
  • M. Beerbohm, drawing, 1894, AM Oxf.
  • M. Beerbohm, drawing, 1898, Princeton University Library
  • photograph, 1898, NPG
  • M. Beerbohm, drawing, 1916, Tate collection
  • M. Beerbohm, drawing, 1926, U. Texas
  • Ape [C. Pellegrini], caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (24 May 1884)
  • J. A. MacNeill Whistler, pen-and-ink drawing, U. Glas.
  • J. A. MacNeill Whistler, two pen-and-ink sketches, U. Glas.
  • F. Pegram, pencil sketch, V&A
  • O. Wilde, self-portrait, drawing, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Cabinet des Estampes