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Oscar Wilde: A Life


Oscar Wilde: A Life

What more can be said about one of the greatest writers and most legendary wits, Dublin’s own Oscar Wilde? Well, quite a lot. As preparation for this biography, author Matthew Sturgis immersed himself in all things Wilde for seven years.

As a fellow Irishman, I have grown up on Oscar Wilde and his work. Later in life, I came to fully appreciate his countless quips, which have not lost any of their luster. You can probably pass by an Irish or British pub and see one of his sayings written on the chalk board, such as “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” The challenge in writing a review of a 700-page book on Wilde is to avoid making it sound like a book report. Any worthwhile book report on this tome would be dozens of pages long. As such, I have captured a few key points in Wilde’s life, along with some of the updated material that is presented here.

Oscar Fingal O’Fflahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin. He grew up on what he referred to as English table talk, listening to all the various educated guests his parents entertained in their home: “He came to consider ‘that the best of his education in boyhood was obtained from this association with his father and mother and their remarkable friends.’” At the end of January 1864, Wilde and his older brother were sent away to boarding school. Oscar was an extremely bright but somewhat distant child; slight, imaginative, independent and dreamy, he drifted to the edge of things.

"All of this tremendous detail is deftly put together by Matthew Sturgis, who goes far deeper than I am highlighting here.... Thankfully, we have this splendid work from Sturgis that hopefully will lure more readers to Wilde’s classic output."

Long summer holidays were spent at Moytura, their Dublin home. Under his father’s instruction, Wilde learned to be not merely an Irishman but a countryman and a Celt. Back at school, he took to English literature and read Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens. He also had an extreme fondness for poetry thanks to William Shakespeare, and he especially enjoyed Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred Tennyson and Walt Whitman.

Wilde matriculated in 1871 at Trinity College Dublin, where he excelled in Greek and history. He had an eye for comic detail and shared his mother’s gift for dramatic overstatement, as well as her delight in shocking bourgeois sensibilities. He studied at Oxford: “My very soul seemed to expand within me to peace and joy,” he would remember. “Oxford was paradise to me.” He later had an opportunity to travel with one of his favorite instructors, Professor Mahaffy, and a few other scholars. They visited Italy and Greece, which he just loved.

After graduating, Wilde took his own hand at writing poetry and won the Newdigate Prize in 1878 for his poem “Ravenna.” He traveled to London hoping to rub shoulders with other literary types. He loved the London stage and fell for such great actors as Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry and Ellen Terry. He sought out more experienced writers as mentors, including James McNeill Whistler, with whom he had a love/hate relationship.

In 1882, Wilde set off on a tour of the United States, which kicked off in New York City, where reporters were eager to grill “the great English exponent of Aestheticism.” While visiting Philadelphia, he took a side trip to Camden, a town across the water where he met one of his heroes in person: Walt Whitman. He was particularly taken by the American South, seeing a bond between the Confederacy and the Irish: both had risen in arms to achieve “self-government,” and both had been defeated. While there, he even met with Jefferson Davis at his plantation. On the flip side of that encounter, he spent time in the New York/Long Island region and at one point met former President Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union forces during the Civil War.

Wilde had denied his own love life and urges until he returned to London and began writing again. He met the first love of his life, Constance Lloyd, whom he courted; eventually they married and had a family together. She called him her “hero” and “God.” However, her brother Otho was not so enamored with him and had heard inklings of his proclivities for the same sex. Though married, he took on his first male lover and most enduring friend --- Robbie Ross, who was only 17 when they met.

Wilde loved children, and the feeling was mutual. He enjoyed spinning tales for groups of kids and went on to write many famous fairy tales, such as “The Happy Prince” and “The Selfish Giant.” He found his first big fiction breakthrough with “The Canterville Ghost.” He was frequently, and not unfavorably, compared to Dutch writer Hans Christian Andersen. As his reputation and fame grew, so did talk in certain London circles about his time spent in the company of several young men. Perhaps his biggest success on the fiction front was the release of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, which saw worldwide fame.

Next, Wilde decided to conquer the stage, which he had always loved. His first big play was “Lady Windermere’s Fan” in 1892, and it would be the start of several successful plays that are still being performed today. Others included “A Woman of No Importance,” “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “An Ideal Husband.” However, all of this success would not be enough to prepare Wilde for what came next. The Lord Queensbury, taking particular exception to Wilde’s relationship with his son, went after him in the courts on the grounds of indecency.

Wilde survived the first court battle, but it would be the second one at the Old Bailey, which included him being put on the stand, that saw the jury come back with unanimous guilty verdicts. The judge sentenced him to a maximum of two years of hard labor. After doing his time, he set off on a self-imposed exile to France. Though in the company of some of his longtime male companions, he still asked for Constance and his children to join him --- a request that was denied due to Constance’s health issues. Wilde passed away in Paris on November 30, 1900.

All of this tremendous detail is deftly put together by Matthew Sturgis, who goes far deeper than I am highlighting here. I am proud to say that Oscar Wilde’s wit and incredible body of work are still quite relevant today. A statue of him stands in Dublin, which is somewhat of a triumph as for many years his hometown spurned his name due to the indecency and sodomy allegations. Thankfully, we have this splendid work from Sturgis that hopefully will lure more readers to Wilde’s classic output.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 23, 2021

Oscar Wilde: A Life
by Matthew Sturgis

  • Publication Date: October 12, 2021
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 864 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0525656367
  • ISBN-13: 9780525656364