Oscar Wilde’s Literary Inheritance

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By Gerard Hanberry

An Ideal Husband opened in London’s Haymarket Theatre on 3 January 1895 and six weeks later on St Valentine’s Day the curtain went up on The Importance of Being Earnest at St James’ Theatre. With two successful plays running in the West End, Oscar had silenced his critics and fortune was sure to follow. His ageing mother, Lady Jane Wilde, was delighted. She wrote to Oscar saying, “You have been a splendid success and I am so glad …”

How tragic then to consider that within a few short months all was lost when Oscar Wilde found himself in the dock at the Old Bailey being sentenced to two years’ hard labour for committing ‘indecent acts’. He would later record his emotions on that terrible first night as a convict when he sat “amidst the ruins of my wonderful life, crushed by anguish, bewildered with terror, dazed through pain”.

Towards the end of his sentence the newly appointed warden at Reading, Major J. O. Nelson, allowed Oscar improved access to pen and ink. From January to March 1897 Oscar wrote a long autobiographical reflection on the events leading to his ruinous trials and the resulting anguish of his incarceration. The text, which was eventually published as De Profundis, was written in the form of a letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Later, writing to his loyal friend Robbie Ross, Oscar revealed one of his motives for composing such an emotionally charged work: “I am not prepared to sit in the grotesque gallery they put me into for all time; for the simple reason that I inherited from my father and mother a name of high distinction in literature and art, and I cannot for eternity allow that name to be degraded. I do not defend my conduct, I explain it.”

Oscar was not exaggerating his parents’ stature and reputation. Sir William Wilde and his flamboyant wife Lady Jane Wilde, the poet ‘Speranza’, were extraordinary people in their own right. In their time both were authors of note and Sir William’s book on Lough Corrib’s antiquities is still in print. ‘Speranza’ was adored by the Irish masses and her carriage was often cheered in the streets. She had stirred a whole nation with her fiery verses for the rebellious Young Ireland movement in the 1840s when her thumping rhymes and anthems were published regularly in The Nation, the organ of the Young Ireland movement, and were eagerly devoured on both sides of the Atlantic.

Later, as the wife of Dublin’s leading eye and ear surgeon, she would be the mistress of one of the city’s finest mansions at No 1 Merrion Square. It was here that a young Oscar and his brother Willie learned the art of conversation at first hand when they were allowed to sit in silence at the end of their parents’ dining table and listen to leading figures of the day discuss matters both weighty and trivial.

Jane Wilde, or Jane Elgee as she was known before her marriage, always had a keen interest in literature. The clergyman Charles Maturin, author of many gothic plays and novels, was married to Jane’s aunt Henrietta. He died when Jane was a baby but she would have heard all about his eccentricities. Maturin’s greatest success was Melmoth the Wander, published in 1820. He was a definite influence on Jane who emulated many of his habits and Oscar was also influenced by Maturin’s tales, something that is particularly evident in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Sebastian Melmoth, the hero of Maturin’s novel, exchanged his soul for 150 years of life. He returns to his native Wicklow where his youthful features disappear. Meanwhile his brother’s descendent comes across a strange portrait and feels compelled to destroy it after feeling its sinister powers. All the ingredients for Dorian Gray are there. During Oscar’s final distressing years in exile he regularly used the name Sebastian Melmoth to conceal his true identity and was registered under that name in the Hotel d’Alsace when he died.

In February 1846 The Nation published the first poem by ‘Speranza’, her translation of a German poem called ‘The Holy War’. She would go on to publish many more poems and prose pieces in The Nation, all expressing pity or outrage at the terrible suffering of the native Irish poor. She became a hero of the rebellion with her bellicose anthems and was remembered for generations by nationalist Irish. When Oscar was lecturing in America many years later, he was, at first, surprised to be so warmly welcomed by Irish Americans as the son of the great ‘Speranza’.

Jane was also a gifted linguist and when the Young Ireland movement was crushed, she turned her talents to the more sedate art of translation. Jane Wilde published six novels in all including an English translation of the strange German tale Sidonia the Sorceress,a book much loved by a young Oscar.  

Years later, as an ageing widow living in London, distracted by bills and demands, Lady Wilde augmented an uncertain income by publishing articles and essays in any organ willing to accept them. She also published two books on Irish legends and superstitions as well as a memoir of her visits to Scandinavia and two collections of essays. She is still remembered today, particularly for her publications on Irish folklore.

Oscar’s father, Sir William Wilde, was also a remarkable individual. He was a true Victorian polymath, a wonderful public speaker and a writer of no little talent. His first book, an account of his travels to the Holy Land as a young ship’s doctor, was so successful that it funded his postgraduate ophthalmic studies in London and Vienna. In 1843 he published his second book, a detailed account of his time as a student in Austria. Settled in his practice in Dublin, William continued to write and publish articles which he later gathered and published in book form. These books reflect his interest in medicine, antiquarian research and the popular folklore of the native Irish.

William’s account of his antiquarian explorations along the Boyne and Blackwater valleys was published in 1850 and in 1852 he dedicated Irish Popular Superstitions to his new wife ‘Speranza’. His bookObservations on Aural Surgery (1853)became, for years, the standard textbook on the subject. Other medical works included a book on Dean Swift’s death mask (1849) and a collection of essays,Congenital Diseases of the Organs of Sight (1863).

In 1867 Sir William published what is today regarded as his best work, Lough Corrib – Its Shores and Islands. It is still in print and first editions are very valuable. And as if that was not enough, Sir William took on the task of cataloguing the artefacts in the Royal Irish Academy’s museum, publishing the results in three enormous volumes. He was also the Medical Officer for the Irish Census and published detailed reports for every decade from 1841 to 1871.

Sir William died a relatively young man at the age of sixty-one while Oscar was still at Oxford. Lady Wilde lived to enjoy her son’s great success but sadly also saw his terrible fall.

About the author

(c) Gerard Hanberry February 2012

Gerard Hanberry’s poetry has been published widely in many literary journals and newspapers and as been shortlisted for many of Ireland’s top poetry prizes including a Sunday Tribune/Hennessy Award in 2000, Strokestown Prize 2003 and RTÉ’s Rattlebag Poetry Slam 2003. Gerard won the Galway City and Co. Council’s Poetry Award for National Poetry Day 2009, the poem can be read at the external link for Advertiser below. In 2000 he won the Originals Short Story prize in Listowel Writers Week. An early draft of his biography of Oscar Wilde and his extraordinary family ‘More Lives Than One’ was shortlisted for the Kingston University Non-Fiction Prize.A fourth collection of poems will be published by Salmon in 2012. He has been invited to read and deliver workshops at many literature festivals and been broadcast on Lyric FM, Galway Bay F.M., Newstalk, Cape Cod Radio in US and RTE. His poems have appeared on Dublin’s Dart , the Irish equivalent of Poetry on the Underground.

Hanberry holds an MA in Writing from the National University of Ireland, Galway where he teaches a Creative Writing course to undergraduates. He is also a teacher of English at St. Enda’s College, Salthill. He was a journalist during the 1980s and 1990s, writing a weekly column for the Galway Observer under the name ‘Joe Barry’. In addition he performs regularly as a singer-songwriter on the Connacht circuit and runs occasional creative writing and poetry appreciation workshops.

More Lives Than One – The Remarkable Wilde Family Through the Generations by Gerard Hanberry is published by The Collins Press, price €24.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online from www.collinspress.ie.


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