Oscar Wilde paid a hard price for being himself. His brilliant intellect and personal magnetism brought him fame and fortune; his passionate loves brought him pain and poverty. In his Victorian era life, he was the equivalent of tabloid fodder, complete with the requisite money, success, larger-than-life romances, scandal, and tragic ending.
Oscar was born to Lady Jane and Sir William Wilde in October, 1854. His mother was a well-known Irish poet and outspoken nationalist. She was also an avid, earthy socialite, and she didn’t host polite Victorian tea parties. Instead, she gathered a myriad of characters into her salon for infamous parties. Liquor, stories, debates, and ‘scandalous’ conversation ruled the day.
Little Oscar loved these gatherings. He would sit quietly and listen to everything being discussed. He would watch the carefree behaviors that defied rigid social norms. As he grew, he delighted in working the room, perfectly comfortable in this bohemian atmosphere.
Sir William Wilde also had a reputation for living life on his own terms. He as a successful eye and ear surgeon, but his interests went far beyond his medical practice. He studied archeology and delved into Irish folklore.
Besides his intellectual pursuits, he loved liquor and women. As a bachelor he was a ladies’ man, fathering a number of illegitimate kids. Tragically they all died young, so they didn’t figure in Oscar’s life.
Among the glittering guests at his mother’s parties was the beautiful socialite Florence Balcombe. Oscar fell hard for the lovely young woman. Many gossips predicted the two would wed soon. But another writer usurped Oscar’s place. Bram Stoker, most famous for writing Dracula, wooed Florence and stole her heart.
The love triangle became titillating fodder for Victorians in search of a good scandal. Not for the last time Oscar’s love life would be held up to public display and judgment. When he found out about Stoker, he wrote Florence a long letter.
Among other things he said he was leaving Ireland forever because of her. He spent the rest of his life apart from his Emerald Isle except for a few quick visits.
Oscar did find another lady love, Constance Lloyd. They married and had two children. Oscar delighted in being a dad, but he copied his father’s pattern of many lovers and a fondness for liquor. Constance was not his last love by any means.
The Time of His Life
At the pinnacle of his success, Oscar was toasted wherever he went. His successful writing like The Importance of Being Ernest and The Portrait of Dorian Gray earned him literary respect, fame, and wealth.
He entertained like his mother had. A lover of fashion and interior design, his drawing room boast a bright blue ceiling adorned with painted dragons and plastic walls inlaid with vibrant peacock feathers.
Oscar had the ability to win people over effortlessly. People adored his witty conversation, good looks, confidence, and charm. Lovers abounded, both male and female.
But it was this living life on his own terms that would eventually end his life tragically soon.
The Scandal of the Decade
The greatest love of Oscar’s life was the young and handsome Lord Alfred Douglas, affectionately nicknamed “Bosie.” Begun in 1891, their passionate relationship was stormy and barely hidden. Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, vehemently disapproved of the affair.
He forbade his son to see Oscar and embarked on a smear campaign, accusing Wilde of homosexuality. Against the advice of his friends, Oscar fought back and sued the Marquess for libel. He eventually dropped the charges to prevent Bosie from having to testify against his father.
But the ongoing court battles became the scandalous sensation of the decade.
The Marquess produced intimate letters Oscar had written to Bosie. Wilde was promptly arrested for homosexuality and 25 counts of gross indecency. The public followed every salacious detail of the trial, condemning Oscar as vehemently as they had praised him.
Jail and After
Oscar was sentenced to two years hard labor. When he was released, he lived in virtual poverty, subsisting on a small allowance from his ex-wife and a few donations from close friends. He moved from cheap hotel to cheaper hotel.
He died in one of these hotels in Paris on November 30, 1900 from complications of meningitis. Bosie paid for his funeral expenses.
His lavish gravestone features a sphinx like creature inspired by his poem “Sphinx.” The statue includes male anatomical parts, which probably would have delighted Wilde. In an odd tribute, fans who visited his grave kissed the stone with bright lipstick, another tribute he would have appreciated.
His descendants eventually cleaned the gravestone in 2011 and had a glass barrier erected to prevent future smooches.
Today Wilde is remembered as a brilliant author and tragic victim of a homophobic era, living true to himself in a society that could not accept him as he was.