Magdalen College, Oxford
My English teacher used to tell me that religion was necessary to provide morality. Without religion we would just have to make it up as we went along. The dominant people in society would decide on morality and "might would be right". Being an earnest youth, I dwelt on this. Instinctively I felt that we couldn't keep religion just because it gave convenient morals. But I didn't feel eloquent enough to answer my teacher.
I wish I'd read more Oscar Wilde at school. He would have had the words that I lacked. Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance, one of Wilde's favourite books, suggested that morality was indeed something we make up as we go along. Wilde said that Pater's book was wonderful, but that the last trumpet of the Apocalypse should have sounded when it was written. Wilde, like my English teacher, felt the loss of our old ideas about morality, but he also knew that a fixed sense of right and wrong also caused as many problems as it solved. Our ideas about crime and punishment are not fixed. For example it is no longer a crime to be homosexual, as it was in England at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1895 Judge Sir John Bright said of Wilde's homosexuality: "No worse crime than this existed."
Today that worst crime in existence is no crime. Morality turns around. Oscar Wilde, a man who served two years hard labour for an offence that no longer exists, was able to say: "Personality is a very mysterious thing. A man cannot always be estimated by what he does. He may keep the law and yet be worthless. He may break the law and yet be fine. He may be bad, without ever doing anything bad. He may commit a sin against society, and yet realise through that sin his own perfection." (Quoted in Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann) To me, Oscar Wilde's life and work would be an answer to my English teacher, a confirmation that the loss of an old conception of morality is not really a loss at all.
Oscar Wilde's father William was a leading eye and ear physician in Ireland. He was an energetic man, who apart from his medical work, was also a collector of Irish folklore. William's collection of antiquities had a great influence on the poet Yeats. William's wife, Jane, who he married in 1851, was a colourful character, making up romantic names for herself, Sperenza for example, and writing nationalistic poetry. In a strange anticipation of Oscar Wilde's own life, court cases figured prominently in the lives of both parents. Jane contributed to the radical Nation magazine. When Jane's editor Gavan Duffy was jailed for seditious articles in 1849, Jane wrote editorials in his absence. In these editorials she said clearly what Duffy had only hinted at, that war between England and Ireland had begun. This got poor Duffy into even more trouble. At the trial Jane tried to take the blame from the public gallery, but the judge ignored her. Theatrical Jane seemed to feel it was all a wonderful drama. Her editor was, thankfully, acquitted. As for William Wilde, in 1864 he was accused of raping a woman patient whilst she was under the influence of chloroform. After a trial Mary Travers was awarded a farthing damages, and William's reputation was somewhat sullied if not ruined.
William had three illegitimate children before marrying Jane. Then William and Jane had three children of their own, William, Oscar, born on 16th October 1854, and Isola. Oscar attended Portora school in Dublin and soon proved a brilliant student. He won prizes for Greek, and moved onto Trinity College Dublin in 1871. He was similarly brilliant at Trinity, making an impression with his academic prowess, and his colourful clothes. His was a lively and generally happy childhood, though he had to face the tragedy of his sister Isola dying at the age of nine in February 1867.
Magdalen College from High Street
In October 1874 Oscar arrived at Oxford after Magdalen College offered him a scholarship. Oxford was "the most beautiful thing in England," and his time there was "the most flower-like time in my life". An English accent was cultivated, cricket was watched, and a stint on the college rowing team ended with a steadfast refusal to continue exertion to the point of exhaustion. Rowing seemed to bring an end to any interest in exercise: "I am afraid I play no outdoor games at all. Except dominoes. I have sometimes played dominoes outside French cafes."
Study continued, usually late at night, so that days could be spent in a more casual manner. In early 1877 Oscar travelled in Europe, visiting Greece, Genoa, Brindisi and Rome. He called the grave of Keats "the holiest place in Rome". This irritated his catholic friend Hunter Blair, who perhaps was already suspicious of Oscar's interest in Catholicism: it was the colourful ritual that seemed to be the real attraction. Nevertheless even Oscar's refreshingly superficial interest in Catholicism had already put the university authorities on their guard. Anti-catholic feeling was still strong in Oxford; so when Oscar found that his trip to Europe had made him two days late for the beginning of Easter term, he was suspended from the university - or "rusticated" - for two terms. Visiting Greece whilst on a Classics course was not a valid excuse. The harsh punishment stood: "I was sent down from Oxford for being the first undergraduate to visit Olympia."
Already Oscar Wilde seemed to be the victim of stupidity dressed up as rectitude.
Broad Street, outside Balliol College, Oxford
Two terms worth of unexpected free time was spent in London. Oscar bought a nice coat, wandered around art galleries, trying out the role of art critic. He sent an article on Correggio to Walter Pater who was at Balliol College, Oxford. The article spoke approvingly of beautiful Greek boys, an attitude which Pater admired. When Oscar returned to Oxford in October, he and Pater became close friends.
Some time in 1878 Oscar contracted syphilis, apparently from a woman prostitute. Mercury treatment turned his teeth black. Young Oscar was very conscious of how he looked, and the upset of this time seemed to bring back thoughts of becoming a catholic. Once again it was the ritual that seemed to be the real comfort and attraction. Ellmann suggests that perhaps now the story of Dorian Gray began to form, a tale of a beautiful and immoral young man who stays young while his portrait ages. Dorian says of Catholicism: "Roman ritual had a great attraction to him... But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of a night in which there are no stars and the moon is in travail." (The Picture 0f Dorian Gray P148)
Things move on. Young Oscar clearly was attracted to the apparent certainties offered by a religious world view, but already he seemed to believe that morality, religious or otherwise, could be seen as an inn, which gives temporary shelter on a stormy night. As Lord Wotton says in The Picture of Dorian Gray: "Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one's age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality" (P90). Lord Wotton is not a nice man, and yet in his words is a truth that is difficult to deny. It is easy to look back on any age and see immorality in ideas that were once considered right and proper.
Oscar graduated from Oxford with a double first, and entered a vague period as he wondered what to do next. An affair with renowned beauty Lillie Langtry offered a way into the world of late nineteenth century celebrity, but he always had to defer to Lillie's other more famous lovers, such as the Prince of Wales. Perhaps in reaction to this, and to other comments that he was nothing more than a professional celebrity, Oscar was now thinking of writing his own plays. The sale of some inherited property allowed him to set up in lodgings just off the Strand, and in 1880 Vera; or the Nihilists was written, although no performance seemed imminent. A collection of poetry was published the following year, which brought more notoriety than fame, and led to his flatmate being warned off the young poet. The poems were about a coming together of opposites into a whole; but the coming together of opposites such as Paganism and Catholicism was too much for some. Oscar returned to being a professional celebrity, and in 1882 he travelled to America to spread his theory of aestheticism. The idea of aestheticism had been bandied about since Oxford days, but now it was necessary to work out exactly what it meant. Oscar Wilde's instinctive distrust of creed and systems extended to aestheticism, and he decided to work out what it was all about on the boat. Arriving in America in January 1882 he is supposed to have said at customs, " I have nothing to declare but my genius" - though sadly it is doubtful he ever said this. He then charmed the journalists, who found him a much bigger and burlier chap than they imagined. It still wasn't quite possible to say what aestheticism was, although it had something to do with finding beauty in unexpected places. One journalist pointed to a grain silo and asked if that was beautiful. Oscar said he was short sighted and therefore couldn't comment.
A long journey across America followed. He fell in love five times with various young ladies, but his business manager kept him moving. Walt Whitman chatted him up. He met Keats' niece. He talked to miners in Leadville in the Rocky Mountains, who so enjoyed his company that they named a new mine shaft after him. They then invited him to a whisky supper in the mine. Oscar Wilde could talk to anyone. Because the miners mined for silver, Oscar read to them from the autobiography of eminent silversmith Benvenuto Cellini. "I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me. I explained that he had been dead for some little time, which elicited the enquiry: 'who shot him?' " Oscar enjoyed himself in America, as did the huge range of people he met. He brought the thoughtfulness of art to unlikely places, presented with wit and charm. If aestheticism was anything it was probably Oscar Wilde in full flow chatting wittily to an audience.
A period living in Paris followed the end of the tour in October 1882, and another play The Duchess of Padua was written here. Mary Anderson who was to have taken the lead turned the play down. Oscar returned to London once his American money ran out. Time was then spent toying with the idea of marriage, a plan hindered by rejections and doubts. Nevertheless Constance Lloyd, daughter of a family the Wildes had known in Dublin seemed to enjoy Oscar's attentions. Following the first staging, and short run, of his play Vera in New York, the flirting with Constance continued, and finally a wedding took place on 29th May 1884 at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens. The couple moved to 16 Tite Street, Chelsea, and two sons were born, Cyril in 1885 and Vyvyen in 1886. Oscar was initially a dutiful, yet restless husband, until 1886 when he began an affair with Robert Ross, who he met in Oxford. Constance it seems did not suspect, or if she did she accepted the situation. The marriage continued in a business-like way.
Meanwhile Oscar Wilde the writer seemed to have taken on a new lease of life. He worked on a ground breaking magazine The Woman's World, suggesting layout and content to publisher Wemyss Reid. Wilde suggested that there should be articles on education of women, on all the things they do in their daily lives, and a serial story. These suggestions continue to be reflected in women's magazines today. Wilde renamed The Lady's World - a name considered too feminine and not sufficiently womanly - The Woman's World and took over as editor in November 1887. Sadly perhaps, after this great start, the magazine's restless editor lost interest, and he left in October 1889. But he was writing what was to be one of his most memorable works, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was to be published between June and July 1890 in Lippincott Monthly Magazine. In a time of such momentous change, the idea of a young man staying young while a portrait of him took all the punishment meted out by time, must have had great resonance. But the security that the mysterious portrait provided did not bring happiness to Dorian as he raged through his immoral life, free of any consequence. The book seems to me to paint a picture of an immoral modern age, at the same time as describing the dangers of trying to hang onto apparent past certainties. If Dorian had been forced to move on through life, coping with its dangers and unpredictability, he would have been better off.
Haymarket Theatre, London
The few years that now followed were times of great professional success for Oscar Wilde. Lady Windermere's Fan was written during the summer of 1891, and opened at St James's Theatre on 20th February 1892 to popular acclaim. Then Salome was rejected by the censor, bringing disappointment severe enough to cause illness. But the play was defiantly published in book form in February 1893. Another huge success followed when A Woman Of No Importance opened at the Haymarket in April 1893. Meanwhile, however, in Oscar Wilde's private life there were serious problems. A relationship had begun with Oxford student Lord Alfred Douglas, who had written to him in the spring of 1892 asking for help with a blackmailer who had an indiscreet letter in his possession. Wilde put his solicitor onto the problem, which was quickly dealt with by means of a pay off. The relationship developed from there, Alfred becoming "Bosie". Bosie was extravagant and unrestrained, introducing Wilde to a promiscuous sexual world, and putting him in much greater danger. Britain only accepted homosexuality as long as it remained hidden. But success brought a feeling of invulnerability.
Douglas's father the Marquess of Queensberry, a volatile man, hated his son's relationship with Wilde. Queensberry's hostility combined with his son's reckless behaviour even had Oscar worried. But while Douglas continued in his recklessness, and spent all Oscar's money, the relationship continued. Wilde escaped his fraught personal life by taking refuge in his work. The fifteen months from December 1893 saw the writing of An Ideal Husband, most of La Sainte Courtisaine, and finally in August and September 1894 his last and greatest play The Importance of Being Earnest. Behind this success the relationship with Douglas kept ticking like a time bomb. Unfortunately an effort to stay away from Douglas failed. Finding his letters unanswered the tempestuous young man threatened suicide. Wilde knew that Douglas' uncle and grandfather had committed suicide and feared the threat might be carried out. A meeting was arranged in Paris, and by April 1894 Oscar and Douglas were both back in London. The Marquess of Queensberry spotted them in a restaurant, and furious telegrams were exchanged between father and son: "What a funny little man you are" (Douglas). "You impertinent young jackanapes. I request you will not send such messages to me by telegraph. If you send me any more such telegrams, or come with any impertinences, I will give you the thrashing you deserve" (Queensberry). On 30th June 1894 Queensberry confronted Wilde at Tite Street. There was a furious row. Wilde was shaken. Douglas continued taunting his father, and in a fit of amateur dramatics started carrying a gun. This accidentally went off in the Berkeley Hotel, which added to the scandal.
Queensberry's attacks continued, and egged on by a ferocious Douglas and a solicitor who saw money in a celebrity case, Wilde decided to press charges for libel. Unfortunately as all of Queensberry's accusations of homosexuality were true, the case was always going to be shaky. Frank Harris and George Bernard Shaw met Wilde at the Cafe Royal and tried to talk him out of proceeding. As he was about to be swayed, Douglas used his malign influence to once again egg his friend on towards taking legal action, even though it was Wilde taking all the risks. Perhaps though Wilde intentionally walked into danger. Somehow it seemed virtually a moral duty to court controversy. The trial opened on 3rd April 1895 at the Old Bailey. Letters attesting to the nature of Wilde's relationship with Queensberry's son had been found at Douglas's lodgings. Not surprisingly Queensberry won the case. Wilde's arrest was now inevitable. There were a few hours during which escape to the continent would have been possible. But he didn't go, and was arrested.
The second hearing began on 11th April, with Wilde now accused of homosexuality. Wilde hoped for bail but judge Sir John Bridge thought "no worse crime than this existed". He said this even though all lawyers at the trial had been to public school, where no doubt they knew that homosexuality was fairly common place. Wilde denied the charges against him, but when asked to define the "love that dare not speak its name" he gave a famous speech: "The love that dare not speak its name in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathon, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare..." The jury in the second trial could not reach a verdict, and inspite of the judge's comments bail was granted on 7th May. No hotel would then take Wilde, as Queensberry's hired thugs threatened reprisals on any establishment that took him in. He was forced to stay with his brother Willie. Once again there was a chance for escape which was not taken. On 25th May following a third trial Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour.
Sleeping on a bed of bare boards in Newgate Prison Wilde suffered sleep deprivation, cold, hunger and diarrhoea caused by his diet. There were no toilets in the cells to which prisoners were confined all evening and all night. The small tin vessel provided was inadequate, which meant that by morning the cell was in a terrible state. Wilde described three occasions when warders vomited on opening his cell door in the morning. Many years before, Wilde had written in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism: "As one reads history, not in the expurgated editions written for schoolboys and passmen, but in the original authorities of each time, one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes the wicked have committed, but by the punishment the good have inflicted."
De Profundis was written in the form of a letter to Douglas towards the end of the sentence, which following a move was spent in Reading jail, where conditions were a little easier. The Ballad of Reading Goal was written soon after his release. Leaving jail Oscar tried to go on a catholic retreat, but the Church would not have him. He settled into a life of poverty in Paris. In July 1899 Frederick Boutet saw Wilde in the Boulevard St Germaine sitting outside a cafe in the pouring rain. The waiter, trying to get rid of his last customer, had piled up all the chairs and wound up the awning. Wilde remained sitting in the rain because he could not pay for the drinks he had taken to avoid going back to his lonely, squalid lodgings.
Oscar Wilde died in Paris on November 30th 1900 at the age of forty six. Alexander Ross who was with Wilde in his last illness wrote to a friend: "He was very unhappy, and would have become more unhappy as time went on." Oscar Wilde never recovered from prison. He was buried at Parc Lachaise where there is a memorial by Jacob Epstein. The inscription on the memorial is from the Ballad Of Reading Goal:
And alien tears will fall for him
Pity's long broken urn
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn
Much has happened since I sat in a classroom, and listened to my teacher tell me that morality requires religion, and can't be made up as we go along. But as Oscar Wilde showed, morality is not fixed. He lived in a century when many old certainties were passing. The scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century showed that the old view of an unchanging Earth was incorrect. Study of geology showed planet Earth not as something created in its finished form by God, but as something constantly changing. Similarly the species of animal life were shown by Darwin to be infinitely malleable rather than fixed in their identities. Naturally such a world view was hard to accept. In The Importance of Being Earnest Miss Prism has very clear ideas about morality. "As a man sows, so shall he reap." She wrote a three volume novel where the good end well, and the bad end badly, announcing: "That's what fiction is for."
But good Jack and bad Earnest are actually the same person using different names, and Cecily and Gwendolen are attracted to the dark reputation of Earnest. Cecily says: "I have never met any really wicked person before. I feel rather frightened. I am so afraid he will look just like everyone else." Miss Prism wanted to deny such ambiguity. Like Dorian Gray she wanted to paint life as a portrait where everything was held perfectly in place.
I left school, went to university, did not want to leave, had a precarious career in catering, and retail pharmacy, fortunately got married and had a daughter. One evening I read my daughter a story about Henry the Green Engine who had a lovely shiny coat of new paint. Henry wanted to keep the paint beautiful, so he stopped in a tunnel and wouldn't come out. The Fat Controller was furious and bricked up the entrance of the tunnel trapping Henry inside. Eventually after being given time to learn his lesson the wall was taken down and Henry was allowed out. He was grimy and stiff from his time in the tunnel. Henry attempted, like Dorian Gray, to stay young and beautiful, to shut out the unpredictability of the world. But the story of Henry the Green Engine, written by a clergyman, makes clear, there was no future hiding in tunnels. Oscar Wilde saw that people could not live this way. Henry's paint stayed shinier out in the wind, rain and sunshine of the changing world.