Biography

By Merlin Holland

By the time Oscar Wilde's father was twenty-eight, William Wilde had graduated as a doctor, completed a voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe, North Africa and the Middle East, studied at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, written two books, and been appointed medical advisor to the Irish Census of 1841. When the medical statistics were published two years later they contained data which had not being collected in any other country at the time and as result, William became Assistant Commissioner to the 1851 Census. He held the same position for the two succeeding Censuses and he was knighted for his work on them in 1864 at the age of forty-nine.  When William opened Dublin practice specializing in ear and eye diseases, he felt he should make some provision for the free treatment of the city's poor.  In 1844, St. Mark's Ophthalmic Hospital was founded entirely at his expense. 

Before his marriage, William produced three illigimate children.  Henry Wilson in 1838, Emily in 1847, and Mary in 1849.  To William's credit, he provided financially for all of them.  He paid for Henry's education and medical studies and took him into St. Mark's Hospital as his assistant.  Emily and Mary were raised by William's brother but both died in a fire and age 24 and 22.

Oscar's mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, first gained attention in 1846 by writing revolutionary poems under the pseudonym 'Speranza' for an Irish weekly newspaper called The Nation.  As the famine (in Ireland) worsened and the Year of Revolution (1848) took hold of Europe, the newspaper offices were raided and closed down. A gifted linguist with a working knowledge of the major European languages, Jane translated Wilhelm Meinhold's gothic horror novel Sidonia the Sorcess, which Oscar would later read with relish and draw on for the darker elementsof his on work.  Jane's first child, William Charles Kingsbury, was born on September 26, 1852 and her second was christened Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Willson on October 16, 1854 .   The daughter that Jane longed for, Isola Emily Francesca, was delivered on April 2, 1857 but died ten years later on February 23, 1867 from a sudden fever. Oscar was profoundly affected and kept a lock of her hair sealed in a decorated envelope until the end of his life

Willie and Oscar both attended the Protora Royal School at Enniskillen and Oscar excelled at Classics taking top prize his last two years and second prize in drawing. In 1871, Oscar was awarded a Royal School Scholarship to Trinity College in Dublin. Again, he did particulary well in Classics, earning first in his examinations in 1872 and earning the highest honour the College could bestow on an undergraduate - a Foundation Scholarship. In 1874, Oscar crowned his successes at Trinity with two final achievements.  He won the College's Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek and was awarded a Demyship (scholarship) to Magdalen College, Oxford.

Oscar's father died on April 19, 1876 and the family's finances were not well.   Henry Wilson (William's eldest son) paid the mortage on the family home and continued to  financially support Jane, William, and Oscar until his sudden death in 1878.  Accademically, Oscar did very well at Oxford and was awarded the Newdigate prize for his poem Ravenna and "First In Greats" by his examiners.  After graduation, Oscar moved to London with his friend Frank Miles, a well- known and society connected portrait painter.  In 1881, he published his first collection of poetry. Poems was well received by the critics and helped to push Oscar's career ahead.

In December 1881, Oscar sailed for New York to travel across the United States and deliver a series of lectures on "the aesthetics".  The fifty-lecture tour, originally planned to last four months eventually stretched to nearly a year, with 140 lectures given in 260 days.  In between lectures he made time to meet Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman.  He also arranged for his play Vera to be staged in New York the following year.  When he returned from America, Oscar moved to Paris to write a blank-verse tragedy that had been commissioned but enjoyed the social life and the prose was refused.  He than set off on a lecture tour of Britain and Ireland.

On May 29, 1884, Oscar married Constance Lloyd. Constance was four years younger than Oscar and the daughter of a prominent Irish barrister who had died when she was sixteen.   She was well-read, spoke several European languages and had an outspoken, independent mind. Oscar and Constance had two sons in quick succession, Cyril in 1885 and Vyvyan in 1886.  With a family to support, Oscar accepted a position in 1887 to revitilize a magazine called The Woman's World. Oscar left the publication in October 1889 and over the next two years, wrote about the folklore and superstition of Ireland and published The Happy Prince And Other Tales in 1888 and The House Of Pomegranates in 1892.  Oscar's first play Dorian Gray open in 1890 and was later expanded and published as a book. It's subject of crimminal deviance and lack of morality caused a successful public outrage but made very little money.  In Febuary 1892, Oscar opened Lady Windermere's Fan and with its financial success continued to write in the play format.  His plays A Woman Of No Importance (1892), An Ideal Husband (1893), and The Importance Of Being Earnest (1893) were all successes and firmly established Oscar a playwright.

In the summer of 1891, Oscar met Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas, the third son of the Marquis of Queensberry.  Bosie was well aquanited with Oscar's novel, Dorian Gray and was an undergraduate at Oxford. They soon became lovers and were inseparable until Wilde's arrest three years later.  In April 1895, Oscar sued Bosie's father for libel on the charge of homosexuality.  Oscar withdrew his case but was himself arrested and convicted of gross indecency  and sentenced to two years of hard labour.  Constance took the children to Switzerland and reverted to an old family name of Holland.   Upon his release from prison, Oscar wrote The Ballad of Reading Goal, his cry of prison agony and it was published shortly before Constance's death in 1898.  Oscar briefly returned to Bosie but spent the last two years of his life wandering Europe, staying with friends, and occasionally writing for different Parisian newspapers.  In 1900, a recurrent ear infection became serious, meningitis set in and Oscar died on November 30.

For more reading on Oscar Wilde, read The Wilde Album by Merlin Holland (Oscar Wilde's grandson)