- 1 1. ‘Oscar’ is the best-known ‘Wilde’
- 2 2. He was homosexual from his schooldays
- 3 3. He coasted through university, with a reputation for langorousness and a love of lilies
- 4 4. Apart from writing a couple of plays, a few children’s stories, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and The Picture of Dorian Gray he doesn’t seem to have done much
- 5 5. Being Irish was just an accident of birth; he was an English author, surely?
- 6 6. ‘Earnest’ was a code-word for ‘gay’ and wearing a green carnation was a ‘secret’ sign of homosexuality
- 7 7. Oscar Wilde’s arrest was delayed by several hours to allow him to catch the last boat-train and escape to the continent
- 8 8. Once Oscar Wilde was arrested, tried and imprisoned, Lord Alfred Douglas, who essentially got him into the mess, abandoned him
- 9 9. Oscar Wilde died of syphilis
- 10 10. Oscar Wilde was merely a hedonist who, as he admitted, put his genius into his life but only his talent into his works
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Merlin Holland is Oscar Wilde’s grandson and the sole executor of his estate. He is the author of Irish Peacock & Scarlet Marquess, the first unabridged publication of the famous libel trial.
1. ‘Oscar’ is the best-known ‘Wilde’
True, but unfairly so. His father, Sir William, was a remarkable Dublin doctor whose medical work on the 1851 and 1861 censuses earned him his knighthood, and is still referred to today as essential source material for 19th century Irish history. Sir William also published important contributions to the study of Celtic antiquities and Irish folklore. Oscar’s mother, Jane, was a prominent Irish Nationalist and poet who was nearly imprisoned for her inflammatory anti-English writing in 1848. As Oscar would write from prison in 1897: “She and my father had bequeathed me a name they had made noble and honoured not merely in literature, art, archaeology and science, but in the public history of my own country in its evolution as a nation.”
2. He was homosexual from his schooldays
This is most unlikely, to judge from his correspondence. He seems to have been infatuated with Florence Balcombe (who later married Bram Stoker) for two years until he left Oxford in 1878, and had previously flirted with other young women in Dublin. He married Constance Lloyd in 1884, swiftly had two children with her and, by his own account, was blissfully happy in the first few years of his marriage. His ‘conversion’ to homosexuality probably came about in 1886/7 with a young man who was to remain a lifelong friend, Robert Ross.
3. He coasted through university, with a reputation for langorousness and a love of lilies
Oscar was certainly influenced by the aesthetic theories of John Ruskin and Walter Pater while at Oxford, and he adopted the pose of an effete young man, but he went up as a scholar to Magdalen and came down with a double first in classics and the Newdigate prize for poetry. This took considerable application as his contemporaries later testified and his surviving Oxford notebooks demonstrate.
4. Apart from writing a couple of plays, a few children’s stories, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and The Picture of Dorian Gray he doesn’t seem to have done much
Oscar’s ‘serious’ side is often overlooked. He spent a year in the US in 1882 lecturing about the decorative arts; he edited a high-profile woman’s magazine for two years; he wrote thought-provoking and controversial critical essays as well as many art exhibition, theatre and book reviews. He also applied twice, unsuccessfully, to become an Inspector of Schools; his effect on English education could have been startling.
In the sense that The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Winderemere’s Fan are archetypically ‘English’ plays – perhaps; but there is a profound Irishness underlying much of what Oscar wrote and thought, especially in his correspondence. He may have remarked that the first thing he forgot at Oxford was his Irish accent, but when his play Salomé was banned he openly accused the English of being narrow-minded saying, “I am not English; I’m Irish which is quite another thing.”
6. ‘Earnest’ was a code-word for ‘gay’ and wearing a green carnation was a ‘secret’ sign of homosexuality
Both explanations seem to have been conveniently invented years later with little or no foundation in fact. ‘Earnest’ was supposedly a corruption of ‘Uraniste’ or one who practices Uranian or homosexual love, and the green carnation was said to be the badge of Parisian pederasts. If either had been true, Edward Carson, the Marquess of Queensberry’s defence lawyer in the libel trial, would certainly have pinpointed them, as he did the overtly gay passages in the magazine publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray (which were later suppressed in the book.)
7. Oscar Wilde’s arrest was delayed by several hours to allow him to catch the last boat-train and escape to the continent
When Oscar’s libel action against Queensberry collapsed, Queensberry’s lawyers sent all their papers to the director of public prosecutions, who consulted the solicitor-general and the home secretary and then immediately applied to the magistrates for a warrant. Oscar was arrested at 6.20pm, though there were still four more trains to Paris that night. He was then twice prosecuted by the crown. The jury failed to agree on the first occasion, and the crown, though not obliged to do so, tried him again – hardly the action of a government anxious to see him escape.
8. Once Oscar Wilde was arrested, tried and imprisoned, Lord Alfred Douglas, who essentially got him into the mess, abandoned him
‘Bosie’ Douglas, in a devoted but often muddle-headed way, was remarkably supportive when the crash came. He visited Oscar on remand in Holloway every day and only went to France before the first trial at the insistence of his brother and Oscar’s lawyers. After Oscar’s conviction he wrote a defence of their love for a French journal, which would have done more harm than good, and was never published. He also helped Oscar financially after his release from prison.
9. Oscar Wilde died of syphilis
This is an old canard which has been doing the rounds for nearly a century, and was lately championed on the flimsiest of evidence by his best modern biographer, Richard Ellmann. Killing Oscar off with the classic ‘disease of the decadents’ has always seemed a suitably sensational way of rounding off a sensational life, but modern medical opinion agrees almost universally that it was an ear infection and meningitis which did for him in the end.
10. Oscar Wilde was merely a hedonist who, as he admitted, put his genius into his life but only his talent into his works
At his trial Wilde said that his aim in life had been self-realisation through pleasure rather than suffering. Later, in his long prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis, he recants and admits that only through pain and sorrow can true nobility of soul be achieved. He was undeniably a first-rate funny-man, but the jury is still out on whether Wilde belongs in the top division of literature, a paradox which is part of his enduring appeal.
Source: The Guardian
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