Oscar Wilde: elusive ego, extraordinary wit and enduring genius
Eileen Battersby pays tribute to one of the world’s greatest writers on the 161st anniversary of his birth, assessing his literary legacy and his remarkable life
Richard Ellmann on Oscar Wilde: “He belongs more to our world than to Victoria’s. Now beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, so right.” Photograph: Napoleon Sarony/Getty Images
“ …over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happened, of things that are not and that should be.” From The Decay of Lying (1889)
On this day, October 16, in 1854 was born one of the world’s most magical and compelling literary writers, an artist of extraordinary wit and learning, whose genius would be countered by his humanity and reckless quest for love and perfection. Oscar Wilde paid a heavy price for his romantic urges and belief in beauty. A wry fatalism certainly stalked him throughout his short life which ended in a hotel room in Paris in 1900, as did an eloquent defiance which he simply could not help. The epigrams flowed. Yet his rich and diverse legacy is as full of sorrow as it is of humour, insight and observation. It is as difficult to move through a day without hearing at least some reference to Wilde – be it a quote from his work or a paraphrase – as it is of Shakespeare or Yeats. Wilde endures as do the respective works of an Elizabethan dramatist and an Irish poet born less than 11 years after Wilde. This trio infiltrate our consciousness; their words shape our responses.
For many readers the first encounter with Wilde could be having once listened as children to a grown-up reading from The Happy Prince. It was published in 1888 in a collection which also includes The Nightingale and the Rose; The Selfish Giant; The Devoted Friend; and The Remarkable Rocket. Wilde speaks to every one, adult or child.
In celebration of Wilde on this the 161st anniversary of his birth, one could return to The Happy Prince or to The Selfish Giant and wonder anew at the art, or, even better, make this the moment to introduce a son or daughter, niece or nephew to the poignant wonder that is Wilde. The Selfish Giant is an all-time favourite. Should your preference move to non-fiction, Notting Hill editions, champions of the essay form, have just published an elegant selection of Wilde’s writings, Beautiful and Impossible Things, which takes its title from The Decay of Lying (1889) which features along with The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891) and The House Beautiful (1882). It casts a sharp light on Wilde’s overwhelming sense of justice. Not surprisingly, Wilde defended Parnell in print. As mercurial as Mozart, Oscar Wilde is quick-fire and worthy of pursuit. Not for nothing did one of his most distinguished admirers, biographer Richard Ellmann, concede that writing his study, Oscar Wilde, which was published in 1987, was very difficult as Wilde was elusive: “He belongs more to our world than to Victoria’s. Now beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, so right.”
Flamboyance, theatricality, arch playfulness, a bizarre innocence and dazzling self-belief all share a role in his tragedy. As an artist he has an unusual appeal. Read anything by Oscar Wilde, be it an essay or a children’s story; experience his outstanding novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), or simply absorb his fabulous comedies and it is immediately apparent – he is a complete writer as well as a profound thinker. Central to his marvellous rise and squalid fall is his uncommon genius and his ironic parade of his ego. There is also his apparent confidence that everything was his for the taking, yet even more importantly – consider his humanity; he loved, he suffered, he tried to survive.
Personifying the artificiality of the 1890s, he took immense pleasure in parodying the Englishness of the English. In spite of the charade Wilde remained consciously Irish, and enjoyed satirising English class snobbery. He also lampooned the Americans, but secretly admired them. Ever the creative artist, he was capable of conferring glamour on the large body and plain face inherited from Jane Francesca Elgee, Lady Wilde, his dynamic and impetuous mother.
His parentage played its part in creating the phenomenon that is Oscar Wilde. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a distinguished surgeon with a bluntly colourful personality tainted by sexual rumour and scandal, while also being generous and committed to the poor. He was a pioneering gentleman antiquarian and, confident of his meticulous organisational skills, took on and completed the three-volume cataloguing of the Royal Irish Academy’s archaeological collection in a remarkable five months, as it was obvious that the well-intentioned but hopelessly disorganised antiquarian, musician and painter, George Petrie (1790-1866), would never complete the task. Sir William was among the first of the 19th-century visitors to Newgrange on the banks of the Boyne in Co Meath. An able writer, he published material ranging from travelogues to a study of Swift’s final years, surgical texts and, of course, antiquarian topics.
Wilde’s mother, known to history mainly by her pen name, Speranza, was the daughter of a solicitor and the granddaughter of Archdeacon Elgee. On attending the funeral in 1845 of Young Irelander Thomas Davis, a co-founder of The Nation, Jane Elgee, then 19, read his poetry and promptly became an ardent nationalist. It was as Speranza that she began contributing poems and articles to The Nation.
In 1851 she married Dr Wilde, whose services to the census would earn him his knighthood in 1864. In that same year Wilde senior, by then Sir William, featured in a trial bought by one of his former female patients, Mary Travers, who had accused him of rape. The volatile Speranza complicated matters by ill-advisedly writing a libellous letter about Travers, whose defence lawyer was Isaac Butt. Ms Travers emerged as deranged, but Sir William, in an eerie foreshadowing of his younger son’s fate in a very different, if equally nasty, case, left the court with a damaged reputation.
Oscar Wilde grew up in a household full of rhetoric, books, folklore and interesting personalities. From Trinity College, he set off to Magdalen College, Oxford, winning the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. His flair got him noticed as did his “art for art’s sake” philosophy. Marriage to Constance Lloyd followed in 1884 and he proved an affectionate if distracted husband. By then, he had already lectured throughout North America on aesthetics. Returning to London he established himself as a reviewer. Wilde’s insatiable appetite for books matched his needs in other areas. His restlessness may have been fed by his desire – half-insecure, half-egotistical – for idealised love.
His literary career began with The Happy Prince and other stories which as already noted, was published in 1888. It seems appropriate that an individual, who for all his sophistication was to retain an element of the child throughout his life, would begin his career with children’s stories and fairy tales. His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was poorly received on publication in a magazine in 1890, and in novel form the following year. In this Gothic parable Wilde articulates the restlessness and ambivalence which undercuts his life and his work, played out as they were amidst the cynically jaundiced sexuality and opulent decadence of the 1890s. With its echoes of Poe and Baudelaire, it is a remarkable novel based on a Faustian pact struck by an anti-hero who fears the ravages of old age and is prepared to make a deal at any cost. For all the horror of the tale, Wilde exerts immense restraint. It is a skilled performance of imagination and daring. One would almost be tempted to say his literary immortality could rest on it alone, were it not for the fact that Wilde was so gifted, an inspired comic with a sophisticated grasp of tragedy. His comedies are bright and shining, fast moving and hilarious. It is fascinating that even while watching classic contemporary British comedy such as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, or the same duo enacting PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, Wilde appears to inform their timing. Fry was to portray Wilde in the 1997 film. The wit is always present, the sharp retort. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) remains one of the funniest plays ever written, Wilde’s epigrammatic humour is brilliantly served by the high-speed dialogue. It is a play actors invariably admit to loving. He remains one of the masters of cerebral, wordplay humour.
Yet Wilde was essentially serious. A Woman of No Importance (1893), although not as dark as The Picture of Dorian Gray, is nonetheless a sombre work. Wilde believed he was an artist writing for posterity. This self-image dominates his most powerful literary utterance, De Profundis, a long letter written in prison between January and March 1897 and addressed to Wilde’s treacherous lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, degenerate son of the Marquis of Queensberry.
Published posthumously in 1905, De Profundis is an angry manifesto which details the greed of Douglas, his vicious slights and most of all, his ingratitude. “While you were with me,” writes Wilde, “you were the absolute ruin of my art.” The relationship – which as Wilde stresses throughout he repeatedly attempted to end – drained him emotionally, artistically and financially. Wilde’s tone is formal and dramatic. Written, a page a day, on prison notepaper, the letter looks beyond a destructive affair, and reveals Wilde reaching an understanding about life, his response to it and his awareness of the time and gifts he had wasted. He was aware, and history agrees, that he could have achieved far more had he lived longer. His heartfelt letter also serves as a metaphysical meditation about the role of the artist.
“I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age... Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged. It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away. With me it was different. I felt it myself, and made others feel it…The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring; I made art a philosophy and philosophy an art; I altered the minds of men and the colours of things… to truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction.”
Tragedy does surround the life of Oscar Wilde, there is pathos and sympathy for a victim of love and betrayal, yet where there is Wilde there is humour and imagination, a joy in language and in its poetry. One of Ireland’s, and international literature’s, finest artists continues to smile at the world through a body of work which shimmers.
Eileen Battersby is literary correspondent