Oscar Wilde – One of the Most Iconic Figures of Victorian Society

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

On October 16, 1854, the famous Irish poet and writer Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde aka Oscar Wilde was born. He is considered to be one of the most iconic figures from late Victorian society. Enjoying a meteoric rise to the top of society, his wit, humour and intelligence shines through his plays and writings. However, because of his sexual orientation for a long time his name was synonymous with scandal and intrigue. Today, nevertheless he is remembered with great affection for his biting social criticism, wit and linguistic skills.

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, where his parents were well known and attracted a degree of gossip for their extravagant lifestyles. His father Wille Wilde even was knighted for his services to medicine, although overshadowed by a scandalous allegation of rape by one of his patients, while his mother was a writer and literary hostess. Oscar proved to be a student of great talent and was awarded a scholarship to Trinity College Dublin, where he studied the classics, in particular developing an interest in the Greek philosophers and the Hellenistic view of life.

From Trinity College he won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford University, where he developed his poetic sensibilities and love of literature becaming involved in the aesthetic movement. But, after a while he lost interest in pursuing an academic career in Oxford and moved to London. It was in London that he was able to skillfully enter into high society, soon becoming well known as a playwright and noted wit. Oscar Wilde became one of the early “celebrities” – in some respects he was famous for being famous. His dress was a target for satire in the cartoons, but Wilde didn’t seem to mind. In fact he had learnt the art of self-publicity.

His literary output was diverse. A first volume of his poetry was published in 1881 but as well as composing verse, he contributed to publications such as the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’, wrote fairy stories and published a nowadays famous novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray‘ (1891). His greatest talent was for writing plays, and he produced a string of extremely popular comedies including ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan‘ (1892), ‘An Ideal Husband (1895)’ or ‘The Importance of Being Earnest‘ (1895). But also in his private life drama and tragedy did take turns. He married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and they had two sons, but in 1891 Wilde began an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed ‘Bosie’. In April 1895, Wilde sued Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, for libel, after the Marquis had accused him of being homosexual. Wilde lost and, after details of his private life were revealed during the trial, was arrested and tried for gross indecency. He was sentenced to two years of hard labour.

While in prison he composed a long letter to Douglas, posthumously published under the title ‘De Profundis‘. When released, his health was irrevocably damaged and his reputation ruined. He spent the rest of his life in Europe, publishing ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in 1898. He died in Paris on 30 November 1900.

Learn more about Oscar Wilde’s trial in the lecture of Prof. Brian Lewis from McGill University.

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