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Oscar: Only the Shallow Know Themselves

I

IT is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

Oscar: Only the Shallow Know Themselves

Oscar Wilde’s dramatic portrayals of the human condition came during the height of the Victorian Era that swept through London in the late 19th century. At a time when all citizens of Britain were finally able to embrace literature that the wealthy and educated could only once afford, Wilde wrote many short stories, plays and poems that continue to inspire millions around the world.

Oscar Wilde was born on October 16, 1854. In 1871, Oscar was awarded the Royal School Scholarship to attend Trinity College in Dublin. He did particularly well in his classics courses, placing first in his examinations in 1872 and earning the highest honor the college could bestow on an undergraduate. In 1874, Oscar crowned his successes at Trinity with two final achievements. He won the college’s Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek and was awarded a Demyship scholarship to Magdalen College in Oxford. Oscar continued to do well at Oxford and after graduation he moved to London to live with his friend Frank Miles, a popular high society portrait painter. In 1881, he published his first collection of poetry. “Poems” received mixed reviews by critics, but helped to move Oscar’s writing career along.

In December 1881, Oscar sailed for New York to travel across the United States and deliver a series of lectures on aesthetics. The 50-lecture tour was originally scheduled to last four months, but stretched to nearly a year, with over 140 lectures given in 260 days. In between lectures he made time to meet with Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman.

When he returned from America, Oscar married Constance Lloyd. Constance was four years younger than Oscar and the daughter of a prominent barrister who died when she was 16. She was well-read, spoke several European languages and had an outspoken, independent mind. They had two sons in quick succession; with a family to support, Oscar accepted a job revitalizing the Woman’s World magazine, where he worked from 1887-1889. The next six years were to become the most creative period of his life. He published two collections of children’s stories, The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), and The House of Pomegranates (1892). His first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in an American magazine in 1890 to a storm of critical protest. He expanded the story and had it published in book form the following year. Its implied homoerotic theme was considered very immoral by the Victorians and played a considerable part in his later legal trials. Oscar’s first play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, opened in February 1892. Its financial and critical success prompted him to continue to write for the theater. His subsequent plays included A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). These plays were all highly acclaimed and firmly established Oscar as a playwright.

In the summer of 1891, Oscar met Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, the third son of the Marquis of Queensberry. Bosie was an undergraduate at Oxford and already well acquainted with Oscar’s novel Dorian Gray. They soon became lovers and were inseparable until Wilde’s arrest four years later. In April 1895, Oscar sued Bosie’s father for libel after the Marquis accused him of homosexuality. Oscar withdrew his case but was himself arrested and convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Constance took the children to Switzerland and reverted to an old family name, “Holland.”

Upon his release from prison, Oscar wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a response to the agony that he had experienced in prison. It was published shortly before Constance’s death in 1898. He and Bosie reunited briefly, but Oscar mostly spent the last three years of his life wandering Europe, staying with friends and living in cheap hotels. Sadly, he was unable to rekindle his creative fires. Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900.

The Life and Times of Oscar Wilde

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