wildeOscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin. After achieving high honors at Dublin’s Trinity College and at Oxford, Wilde moved to London, where he became a vocal proponent of Aestheticism—a movement of artists and intellectuals who believed that art’s highest purpose was beauty of form and expression, and should not be subject to moral,
social or philosophical conventions or constraints. From 1882-1884, Wilde traveled the United States, England and Ireland, delivering lectures on Aestheticism. By the end of his tours, Wilde was widely known as a public intellectual for his epigrammatic wit and flamboyant personality. In 1884, Wilde married Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons: Cyril, born in 1885, and Vyvyan, born in 1886. From 1888 to1895, Wilde produced nearly all of his great literary works including several children’s books, essays, and his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which critics condemned for its lack of morality, causing Wilde to defend himself and his philosophy of art in the preface, writing: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. . . . The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.” Over the next few years, Wilde produced several great and wildly successful plays, including Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and A Woman of No Importance (1893), which combined comedy of manners and serious themes that satirized and interrogated Late Victorian society. In 1895, at the height of his fame and success, with both An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest running simultaneously in London, Wilde began an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensbury began to harass Wilde. In response, Wilde filed an ill-fated suit for libel against Lord Queensbury which resulted in Wilde’s eventual arrest, conviction and imprisonment for his homosexuality. His plays were pulled from production and his name became anathema in London. After two years of hard labor, Wilde emerged from prison in 1897, ill, exhausted and bankrupt. He went into exile in France, where he wrote a poem about his experiences in prison, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898). He died in 1900 of cerebral meningitis. Beginning immediately after Wilde’s death, his friend and the executor of his estate Robbie Ross worked to restore Wilde’s works and reputation. 1901 saw the first of the decade’s many professional revivals of Wilde’s most popular play, The Importance of Being Earnest. In 1908, Ross published a collection of Wilde’s works. By 1920, Wilde was the most read British author in Europe after Shakespeare. Wilde’s ability to see beauty in the whole of the human condition—the privileged and the outcast, the heroic and the broken, the serious and the trivial—gives his work its enduring resonance.