Oscar Wilde: An Extraordinary Tale by Martin Burns

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By Martin Burns

Oscar Wilde House at 1 Merrion Square North in Dublin will host the very first edition of Oscariana – A Wilde Dublin Festival, from Saturday October 14 to Monday October 16, the inimitable Mr. Oscar Wilde’s birthday.

Oscar Wilde is known for his fairytales, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. But he is probably most celebrated today for his tragic life story and his epigrams. His life story and his work are inextricably linked. Oscar constantly betrayed himself in his essays, his novel and especially in his four hit society plays.

When he landed a double first in his Classics degree at Oxford the young poet believed he was destined for glory. But his pride was soon wounded by the savage reviews of his first collection, Poems. Punch famously wrote ‘The poet is Wilde, but his poetry’s tame’. A librarian at Oxford even returned the book to Oscar citing plagiarism.

His first attempts as a playwright also failed. His tragedies Vera (The Nihilists) and The Duchess of Padua were flops. Undeterred, he was willing to take on criticism and do whatever it took to get a play into production. He turned to comedy and struck gold. As his success grew, so did Oscar’s ego and with it, his reckless abandon. He began to detest criticism and surrounded himself with a group of young sycophants. Oscar’s story is the ultimate tale of pride before a fall.

Oscar had married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and the couple had two sons. At the very height of his fame, Oscar, began an affair with Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas. This led to the biggest sex scandal of the age. Oscar was put on trial and in May 1895, sentenced to two years hard labour. Bosie escaped prosecution because the authorities said there was ‘insufficient evidence’. When Oscar was released, he changed his name to Sebastian Melmouth and fled to France.

Oscar Wilde

But this epic journey began in Dublin. Number One Merrion Square North was the home in which Oscar spent his formative years. His parents were famous across Ireland and beyond, long before Oscar was born. His father William was a brilliant eye and ear surgeon, author, statistician and archaeologist. His mother Jane, who wrote under the name Speranza, was part of the Young Ireland movement during the Famine. She was also a gifted translator, a writer, poet and journalist.

At the age of 10, Oscar and his brother Willy were sent to boarding school in Co Fermanagh. The move was motivated by a scandal surrounding his parents. In 1864, the newly-knighted Sir William Wilde and the now Lady Jane Wilde were embroiled in a sex scandal concerning one of William’s patients, a young woman called Mary Travers. William had a long affair with Mary which turned sour. Their libel case ended up in the Four Courts of Dublin. The Wildes lost the case and paid huge costs. There were no winners in the trial. The all-male jury awarded Mary just one farthing in damages, the value they put on her chastity. Three years later, Isola died of meningitis just short of her tenth birthday and the family was devastated. Oscar wrote Requiescat, one of his most beautiful poems about Isola’s death.

At the age of 17, Oscar moved back to Merrion Square when he began his studies at Trinity College Dublin. He then moved into rooms at Botany Bay. During this time he was frequently back at Merrion Square for dinners and salons. He then transferred to Magdalen College Oxford. But in 1876 he returned to Dublin as his father was ill. When Sir William died the family was shocked to find themselves in a dire financial position. Speranza had to sell up and move to London, to a small house a half a mile from where Oscar was living with his family. She then witnessed his glittering rise in the West End, followed by his rapid fall from grace and imprisonment.

Oscar found himself in the hell of the Victorian prison system and he had a complete nervous breakdown. After a fall in the prison chapel he developed an abscess in his ear which plagued him for the rest of his life.

His mother could not cope with the disgrace and died during the first winter of his incarceration. Constance travelled to England to tell Oscar that his mother had died. During this meeting there was a reconciliation and Constance said that when Oscar got out, he could see his sons again.

Oscar served the full two-year sentence then moved to Dieppe. There he waited to see his sons but there was a miscommunication with his wife and they failed to show. At this point, Bosie arrived in France and Oscar took him back.

When Constance heard the news, she was devastated. Oscar and Bosie travelled to Naples in Italy for a decadent summer of young men and alcohol but when the money ran out so did Bosie. Oscar then received a telegram that Constance had died in Genoa. Oscar travelled to the cemetery. There was no mention of Wilde on the headstone.

Oscar then moved to Paris. By now he was drinking enormous amounts of alcohol because he was in constant pain from the abscess. During this period he was a frequent visitor to the Moulin Rouge and he became friends with the painter Toulouse Lautrec. Oscar took ill and had to have two operations on his ear in his hotel room. The irony is that his father, the great ear surgeon, may have been able to help him, but he was long dead.

Three years after his release from prison, Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900. He was 46 years old.  His two boys grew up in England, and both fought in The Great War. His first born, Cyril, died in the trenches. His second son Vyvyan survived the war, became a translator like Speranza and joined the BBC in the 1920s. He has a son called Merlin Holland who is still alive. The Holland family never again used the Wilde name. Oscar continues today to be a divisive character. Love him or loathe him it is impossible to ignore him. And what is not up for debate is that the story of his life is an extraordinary tale.

(c) Martin Burns

See here for further information on Oscariana – A Wilde Dublin Festival.

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