xxxxxThe Irish playwright and dandy Oscar Wilde gained literary fame in 1891 with his The Picture of Dorian Gray - a tale of social decadence with a strong Faustian theme - but he is mostly remembered to day for the four social comedies by which he shrewdly and wittily satirized the hypocrisies of Victorian society. Among these were Lady Windermere’s Fan and his most successful and most enduring play The Importance of Being Earnest, first staged in 1895. He also wrote Salome in 1893, a verse tragedy based on the biblical character, but this was banned in Britain and was not staged, in Paris, until 1896. As a leading member of the Aesthetic Movement - wherein art was for art’s sake and was totally divorced, therefore, from moral or social matters - he gained celebrity status for his flamboyant dress, extreme affectation, and scandalous lifestyle, both at home and during his tour of North America in the early 1880s. As a journalist he wrote articles on a wide variety of subjects, and he became known for his short stories. His career as a writer came to an abrupt and sad end in 1885 when he sued for libel the Marquis of Queensbury (the father of his current lover, Lord Arthur Douglas) for accusing him of sodomy. He lost his case and this opened him up to a charge of homosexuality. He was sent to prison for two years with hard labour after being convicted of gross indecency. On his release he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol in 1898 - telling of the harsh conditions of prison life - but his literary career was at an end. He spent the last three years of his life in France, homeless and almost penniless, and died in Paris of meningitis in November 1900. A witty, talented man, he numbered among his acquaintances the art critic John Ruskin, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, and the American poets Henry Longfellow and Walt Whitman.

OSCAR WILDE  1854 - 1900  (Va, Vb, Vc)

(born Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde)


Wilde: detail, by the American photographer Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896), 1882 – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Aesthetic Movement: by the American photographer Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896), 1882, - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wilde/Douglas: 1893, photographer unknown. Beardsely: The Stomach Dance, an illustration for Wilde’s Salomé – Victorian and Albert Museum, London. Moore: by the French painter Édouard Manet (1832-1883), 1879 – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gide: by the French painter Paul Albert Laurens (1870-1934), 1924 – Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

xxxxxThe Irish playwright and dandy Oscar Wilde was a flamboyant character who dazzled London society by his scintillating wit and outrageous behaviour during the last two decades of the 19th century. He gained literary fame in 1891 with his one and only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray - a tale of moral decadence - but he is best remembered today for his play The Importance of Being Earnest of 1895, one of four social comedies, all noted for their humorous dialogue and their satirical attack upon the shortcomings of Victorian society. A leading supporter of the Aesthetic Movement - wherein art in all its forms was totally divorced from matters of morality or social purpose - he gained celebrity status by his public show of affectation and scandalous lifestyle. But the last five years of his life proved hard and cruel in the extreme. In 1895, at the height of his success, he was found guilty of homosexuality. After serving two years of hard labour in prison, he spent his remaining years in France, homeless and destitute.

xxxxxWilde was born in Dublin. Both his parents were successful writers, and from an early age he benefited from the informed literary discussions at his mother’s salon. After attending Portora Royal School at Enniskillen, he gained a place at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1871, and excelled as a classical scholar and poet. After winning the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek, he went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1874, and four years later was awarded the prestigious Newdigate Prize for his long poem about the ancient Italian city of Ravenna. And it was while at Oxford that he became an ardent supporter of the Aesthetic movement, with its pithy slogan “art for art’s sake”. To emphasise his being a man of superior culture and intelligence, he took to growing his hair long, wearing velvet knee breeches, and striking languid poses - as required for deep contemplation. He also filled his rooms with objects of beauty, such as sunflowers, lilies and peacock feathers, and cultivated a special admiration for his “blue china”. Then and in his later years, such blatant eccentricity attracted a great deal of ridicule - understandably so - but no one could deny the brilliance of his wit, his extraordinary flair, and the depth of his intellect, and these gifts won him many devotees.

xxxxxAfter leaving Oxford he settled in London, and in 1881, after receiving moderate success with his first collection of poems - much in the style of Rossetti, Keats and Swinburne - he embarked on a highly successful lecture tour of the United States and Canada, sponsored by Richard D’Oyly Carte, the theatrical agent for Gilbert and Sullivan. Speaking at 140 venues in the space of twelve months, and dressed to be noticed - velvet jacket, knee breeches and black silk stockings! - he extolled the virtues of the Aesthetic movement. Much of the press was openly hostile towards him, but the general public was intrigued by him, and he was well received in literary circles. On his return he turned his talents to journalism. He toured Britain and Ireland to give his “personal impressions” of North America, and wrote articles on a variety of subjects, including art, literature, fashion, and politics - many while editor of the Woman’s World from1887 to1889. At the same time he produced a series of provocative essays, notably The Truth of Masks, The Critic as Artist, The Decay of Lying, and The Soul of Man Under Socialism, a long political work in which he condemned capitalism and called for the construction of a society where poverty “will be impossible”.

xxxxxIt was during this period that Wilde began his career as a fiction writer. He produced two collections of fairy tales - The Happy Prince in 1888 and A House of Pomegranates in 1892 - and he published a number of semi-comic mysteries under the title Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories. These were quite well received, but recognition as a gifted writer - albeit a controversial one - came in 1891 with the publication of his one and only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, a chilling horror story with a strong Faustian theme. By means of a pact with the devil (in the guise of his friend Lord Henry) Dorian Gray retains his youth and good looks, leaving his portrait to record not only the effects of ageing, but also the moral decline engendered by his degenerate lifestyle.

xxxxxBy this time, however, Wilde was keen to turn his talent to the stage, and this was to prove his path to literary fame. It was during the early 1890s that he produced the series of engaging social comedies by which he has became best known. Characterised by elaborate, farcical plots and sparkling with remarkably witty dialogue and satirical epigrams, they craftily exposed the hypocrisies of late-Victorian society. Lady Windermere’s Fan was produced in 1892, followed in quick succession by A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest. All where highly successful, but the last named, first staged in 1895, proved particularly popular and has remained so until this day. Meanwhile, in 1893 Wilde produced his verse tragedy Salome, written in French. Based on the biblical character and centred around sexual passion, it was banned by the British censor and did not receive its first performance, staged in Paris, until 1896.



Aubrey Beardsley,

George Moore

and André Gide

xxxxxAn Irish novelist and dramatist who knew Oscar Wilde as a child in Ireland was George Moore (1852-1933). He studied as an artist in Paris in the 1870s, but, under the influence of the French realist novelist Émile Zola, turned to writing in the 1880s. He gained recognition as a novelist with his Esther Waters of 1894, a convincing story of a young maidservant’s struggle against poverty. In the early years of the 20th century he lived in Ireland, contributing to the literary revival there with works such as the play The Bending of the Bough and the collection of short stories entitled The Untilled Field. His later works, written in London, were mainly historical in theme, and included The Brook Kerith, a controversial story about the Crucifixion. His autobiographical works, Confessions of a Young Man and the trilogy Hail and Farewell, by their frankness, attracted a great deal of interest at the time. He also wrote two volumes of poems, and a book in defence of French Impressionism.

xxxxxAn Irish novelist, dramatist and poet who knew Oscar Wilde in his early years was George Moore (1852-1933). As children they spent summer holidays at Moytura in County Mayo. Moore chose to become an artist and, as from 1873, spent seven years in Paris. There he came to know a number of Impressionist painters, including Manet, Renoir, Monet, Pissarro and Degas, but he also met and came under the influence of the realistic novelist Émile Zola. While studying in Paris he wrote a volume of verse, Flowers of Passion, and, on returning to London - following a stay in Ireland - he turned to writing novels aimed at challenging the conventional plots and characters of Victorian literature. Three novels in the closing years of the century, Modern Lover, A Mummer’s Wife and A Drama in Muslin were realistic enough to be banned in some quarters for offending good taste, but his reputation was established in 1894 with Esther Waters, a convincing story of a young domestic servant with an illegitimate son who struggles to overcome hardship and poverty. Evelyn Innes followed in 1898 and Sister Theresa in 1901.

xxxxxHe lived in Ireland from 1901 to 1910 where he contributed to the Irish literary revival with such works as his play The Bending of the Bough, his collection of short stores entitled The Untilled Field, and his psychological novel The Lake. After 1911 he lived mainly in London, but in 1913 he travelled to Jerusalem to gather material for The Brook Kerith, a novel about the Crucifixion. His later novels were mainly historical and included Heloise and Abelard in 1921 and his last work Aphrodite in Aulis.

xxxxxHis autobiographical works Confessions of a Young Man - which included a frank account of his bohemian life in Paris during the 1870s - and the trilogy Hail and Farewell, attracted a great deal of interest at the time. He also produced a second volume of poetry, Pagan Poems, in 1881, and in 1893 wrote Modern Painting, a defence of French Impressionism. (The portrait of Moore is by the French Impressionist painter Édouard Manet.)

xxxxxInx1895 however, at the height of his success, Wilde - then in a homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (nicknamed “Bosie) (1870-1945) - had his career and life shattered. It was in that year that the Marquis of Queensbury (1844-1900), Douglas’ father, having long abused and threatened Wilde over his liaison with his son, openly accused him of sodomy. Urged on by Bosie, Wilde brought a libel action against Queensbury but, following one of the most sensational trials of the century - during which Wilde’s private life was disclosed in much detail - Queensbury’s accusation was found to be “true in substance and in fact”. This left Wilde open to a charge of homosexuality, and he was sentenced to two years hard labour in May 1895. This brought an end to his promising career as a playwright, and led to his social and financial ruin.

xxxxxFollowing his downfall, Wilde only wrote two other works: De Profundis (From the Depths), an apology for his life - written as a letter to Bosie but not published until 1905 -, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a long poem about the harshness of prison life, completed in 1898. On his release he spent the remaining three years of his life in France, homeless and almost penniless, but he was reunited with Douglas for a short while. He died of meningitis in Paris in November 1900, and was buried in the city’s Père Lachaise Cemetery.

xxxxxWilde’s reputation - having outlived the prudery of the Victorian era - rests mainly upon his brilliance as a social commentator of that period. A brilliant conversationalist and a man of scintillating wit, he numbered among his acquaintances the English art critic John Ruskin (who, along with William Morris, strongly opposed the aesthetic movement), the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, and the American poets Henry Longfellow and Walt Whitman, both of whom he met during his lecture tour in the United States.

xxxxxIncidentally, a plaque on the esplanade at Worthing marks the site of the house where he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. He was staying at this English seaside town in the summer of 1894, and was inspired to write the play after reading an article in the Worthing Gazette about a baby who had been found in a hamper at London’s King’s Cross Station. He wrote the play in three weeks and named the hero Jack Worthing in honour of the town. ……

xxxxx……xxPatience, the comic light opera by Gilbert and Sullivan (librettist and composer), first performed in 1881, was a powerful satire on the aesthetic movement. The main character, the aesthetic sham Bunthorne, was mainly intended as a skit upon the English poets Swinburne and Rossetti, but Wilde did not escape ridicule. At one time, as the play records, he did “walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in his medieval hand”! The comical periodical Punch also poked fun at him on a number of occasions, andxthe satirical novel Green Carnation, published in 1894 by the English writer Robert Smythe (1864-1950), was a satire on his mannerisms.

xxxxx……xxIn 1895, at the height of his row with Wilde, the Marquis of Queensbury planned to throw a bouquet of rotten vegetables onto the stage at the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde got to hear about this and had him banned from the theatre. Today Queensbury, an enthusiastic patron of sport, is mostly remembered as the man who gave his name to the modern rules governing boxing, introduced in 1867. …...

xxxxx……xxWilde greatly admired the works of Keats. He considered Byron to be a rebel and Shelley to be a dreamer, but valued Keats for the calmness and clearness of his vision. ……


xxxxx……xxWilde was renowned for his witty sayings. Here are but a few: The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. There is no such thing as an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. One should never trust a woman who tells her real age. Such a woman would tell one anything. Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.

xxxxxThexoriginal version of Wilde’s verse tragedy Salome was written in French in 1891 and published two years later. Banned from being shown in Britain, the play was first staged in Paris in 1896. The English translation was published in 1894 and this version was illustrated by the English artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), a leading member of the aesthetic movement. His black and white drawings, influenced by Japanese prints, were generally considered erotic and decadent, and those drawn to illustrate Salome brought him wealth and fame. His style, noted for its sinuous lines and foliate motifs (seen earlier in the designs of the Pre-Raphaelites) was characteristic of Art Nouveau. This international movement in the visual arts, interior design and architecture, flourishing in the closing years of the 19th century, aimed to make a complete break from the art of classical times. Later, In 1905, Wilde’s Salome was produced as a one-act opera by the German composer Richard Strauss.

xxxxxAnother close friend of Oscar Wilde was the homosexual French writer, literary critic and social crusader André Gide (1869-1951). They first met in Paris and then in Algiers in 1895. In general, Gide’s works were autobiographical, concerned with the constant conflict within himself between the puritan demanding conventional behaviour and the pagan wanting to explore the desires of the flesh. In his case the puritan did not always prevail! His first major work on this theme was The Fruits of the Earth published in 1897, and this was followed, in the new century, by a stream of works, including The Immoralist, Strait is the Gate, The Vatican Cellars, The Counterfeiters, and Corydon, the last being a bold defence of homosexuality. Also worthy of mention is his The Pastoral Symphony, a psychological study of love and responsibility. As a literary critic he wrote for the New French Review, and his Journal, a set of diaries, attracted much interest. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947.

xxxxxAnother close friend of Oscar Wilde was the homosexual French writer, literary critic and social crusader André Gide (1869-1951). They first met in Paris and then in Algiers in 1895, where Wilde was accompanied by Lord Alfred Douglas.

xxxxxMost of Gide’s works were autobiographical, wherein a search for self-realization was for ever troubled by the conflict between the puritan in him, constrained by the demands of conventional behaviour, and the pagan in him, anxious to explore the desires of the flesh. In his case the puritan did not always prevail! His first major work on this theme, The Fruits of the Earth, made little impact when published in 1897, but later it became one of his most influential books, encouraging as it did the expression of individual freedom, regardless of the fabricated norms of the society to which one belonged.

xxxxxHis other works, as from 1902, included The Immoralist, Strait is the Gate, The Counterfeiters, and The Vatican Cellars, an anti-Catholic satire which brought the inevitable condemnation. His Corydon, published in part from 1911 and in full in 1924, was a bold, open defence of homosexuality and was likewise attacked. By contrast, The Pastoral Symphony of 1919 was a moving tale of love and responsibility, woven around a blind girl who eventually gains her sight. It was a simple, straight forward story on the surface, but it had a rare psychological depth and proved a popular work.

xxxxxGide’s contribution as a literary critic was primarily made in the prestigious periodical The New French Review, which he had helped to found in 1909, and his four volume Journal, covering the years 1939 to 1951, attracted worldwide interest. In addition, he also proved an able translator. He translated, among other works, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and works by the English poet William Blake and the American poet Walt Whitman.

xxxxxIn the mid-1920s, working as an envoy for the French colonial office, he visited the county’s African colonies and was appalled at the exploitation of the native people, conducted mainly by commercial companies who had been awarded trading concessions. Two reports, published as Travels in the Congo in 1929, went some way to improving the situation. And his sympathy for working people showed itself in the early 1930s, when Gide came out in favour of the communist “experiment” taking place in the Soviet Union. His allegiance was short lived however. After visiting Russia in 1936 he made clear his disillusionment with the system in his Return from the U.S.S.R. His novels and plays, together with his critical works, had a profound influence on French literature and writing further afield. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947.