Table of Contents
1. Parents and Family
3. Life as a Writer, Family Man and Lover
4. The Fall
5. Exile and Final Curtain
“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue.
It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and rebellion.”
Oscar Wilde – The Soul of Man under Socialism
This homework will deal with the biography of Oscar Wilde. It is perhaps rather unusual for a homework in a course in literature to deal predominantly with the life of a writer. Usually, academic treatment of literature tries not to give too much attention to the mere biographical background of any writer whose works are discussed. But certainly the case of Oscar Wilde would be one to call for an exception from the rule.
As to the reasons for the unusual treatment of a writer in this respect, it can – first of all – be stated that the dates and events in Oscar Wilde’s life are very well documented. Seemingly, the life of Oscar Wilde has, on the whole, been of greater interest to scholars than the synoptic analysis of his works. One scholar comments on the disproportion in academe between sifting through the life and analysing the works: “Es besagt viel, wenn man feststellt, wie wenig über sein Werk gesagt und wie ausführlich über sein Leben fabuliert wurde. [...] Das zahlenmäßige Missverhältnis zwischen Biographien und Werkuntersuchungen bestätigt nur die Beobachtung, dass sein Leben stets stärker die Aufmerksamkeit des Publikums auf sich gezogen hat als das, was er geschrieben hat.” He adds that such an approach is rather inappropriate: “Dies geriet einer gerechten Beurteilung seines oeuvre nicht zum Vorteil, sondern hat ihr eher geschadet.“
Be that as it may, any research will certainly reveal many significant links between the life and the works of Oscar Wilde. And here we have the second reason for the discussion of his biography in this homework: even the most superficial glance at the life will reveal that it is hardly possible to deal with life or oeuvre separately. One can find the anarchistic dandy, trying to live up to the principles of aestheticism, in both of them. In Oscar Wilde’s lifetime, his contemporaries of the Victorian age experienced “Oscar Wilde’s complex personality [, which] was full of contrasts, inner tensions and excesses”, as well as most of his works. It is not surprising that, being for the most part dramatic, Wilde’s works also contain many “contrasts, inner tensions and excesses” – if only in the form of a finely wrought bon mot of one of the notorious characters. It is both his life, i. e. his public as well as his private life, the turns he took, his behaviour, his attitudes, and the reactions to it, as well as his works that demanded a lot of attention from Victorian society.
To pay due respect to a great author, one has to say that the works still demand that attention today. The works have been part of the canon for a long time. The dramas share one rank with those of Wilde’s contemporary George Bernard Shaw, although they differ in form quite a lot, and also in attitude. Especially the society comedy “An Ideal Husband” has been popular with directors, and has been staged repeatedly, with the dark secret of Sir Robert Chiltern brought up to date, to give the work an immediate relevance. The novel “Dorian Gray” has been very popular with the general public, and has been sold in an impressive number of copies. The last film about Oscar Wilde as topic dates back to 1997, starring Steven Fry and Jude Law.
One of the biographers to whom the facts of Oscar Wilde’s life have been of such immense interest was Richard Ellmann. Ellmann wrote the most volumi-nous and detailed biography and seems to have specialised in treating the important Irish writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Oscar Wilde.
This homework will rely on the eminent biography of Ellmann, as well as on John Sloan’s hybrid biography. Overcoming Kohl’s complaints (footnote two), Sloan’s work blends a brisk biography with extensive treatment of general issues like “The Fabric of Society”, “The Literary Scene”, social and intellectual issues, and the process of re-contextualization, always trying to incorporate an analysis of the works. In addition to the these two volumes of biography, two terse and even pointed essays dealing with both Oscar Wilde and the reception of Wilde will also be used. The first of these essays is the one written by Norbert Kohl, cited above, the other Gore Vidal’s “Oscar Wilde: On the Skids Again”. Being a ‘gay icon’ and an outstanding writer among many other things, Oscar Wilde has attracted this eminent American writer, who took the opportunity to comment on both Wilde and his biographer Ellmann in the essay, on occasion of the publication of Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde.
By and large, this homework will present the stages in the life of Oscar Wilde as they were presented in a report in the course, and as shown in the table of contents. Relevant comments on the ties between aspects of the works and biographical information will be given were appropriate, while a conclusion will sum up the findings in the very end.
1. Parents and Family
Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin as the second child of Sir William Wilde and Jane Francesca Wilde. Both parents have an eminent position in the Irish society of the Victorian Age. They were well-known, very sociable and “entertained a wide circle of professional and literary friends and welcomed foreign visitors to Dublin.”
The father, Sir William, had the profession of ophthalmologist; he was a leading expert in the field. He became founder of a specialized hospital in Dublin. He assisted with the Irish census and, as a reward, was knighted for his deeds. In 1863, he even became “Surgeon Oculist to the Queen in Ireland”.
Being highly committed to his medical profession, Sir William nevertheless had other interests, as well – literature, Irish nature and folklore. He was a successful author of books on those subjects, two well-received volumes were “The Beauties of the Boyne” and “Irish Popular Superstitions”.
Sir William was outstanding in aspects quite apart from his profession and literary ambitions, as well. Beside his family of wife and three children, he was father to three illegitimate children. Despite being the offspring of extra-marital affairs, everything but a respected position in the Victorian Age, they received considerable financial support from their father, and one of the sons even became a colleague in the medical profession later on.
The mother, Jane Francesca Wilde, born Elgee, was no less a prominent figure than the father, quite on the contrary. She was “if not larger than life, a good deal larger than average”. Jane Wilde is agreed upon to have been an extraordinary and extravagant woman. This can be seen even in her attitude towards names: she adopted a pseudonym (Speranza), changed her second name from Frances to Francesca, claimed Dante Alighieri as one of her an-cestors and it is not unlikely that she is responsible for giving Oscar Wilde his name in the long version. Her love of extravagance could also be seen in her often extraordinary and colourful clothing. “In ihrem Salon in Dublin, und später dann in London, trug sie immer ausgefallenere Kostüme, gekrönt mit Kopf-schmuck und behängt mit überdimensionalem, bizzarem Geschmeide.“ One thing leads to another: “Ihre Äußerungen korrespondierten mit ihrer Auf-machung.“
Jane Wilde was a prominent poet, translator and journalist. She worked for “The Nation”, a separatist voice of then oppressed Ireland, and showed great courage in her journalistic work. She also showed courage in a number of lawsuits where the Wildes were involved. Being that extravagant and brave, Jane Wilde had no problem with facing the public and questioning authorities. It is very easy to find those character traits re-appear in her son Oscar. It can be said that “Oscar was iconoclastic like his mother.” She must have been a shining example to her son, which is probably what Gore Vidal means when, commenting on a supposed close link between homosexual son and inspiring mother, he claims that “what he learned from his mother was not how to be a woman but the importance of being a Show-off and a Poet and a questioner of whatever quo was currently status.”
 As it is, both the literal and the general meaning of ‘case’ can be referred to, here.
 Kohl, 11
 Andela Zander in the course description of the seminar, Kommentiertes Vorlesungsverzeichnis WS 2004/05 Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik.
 The one important work explaining important aspects of his life, De Profundis, was published only in 1905, of course; five years after Wilde’s death, when also the Victorian Age was about to expire.
 See Sloan, 178
 Gilbert, Brian (director): Wilde, Columbia Tri-Star Films, 1997
 Prof. Richard Ellmann, Oxford, 1918-87, U.S. writer and scholar, Pulitzer Prize-winner for his Wilde-biography.
 William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, James Joye, and Samuel Beckett.
 The most extensive version of the name.
 Sloan, 2
 Vidal, 110
 Ellmann, 25
 Commenting on her impact as a journalist, Sloan refers to her as “the spirit of oppressed Ireland“; Sloan, 2
 Sloan, 3
 Vidal, 113, also his italics.