Born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Irish writer Oscar Wilde is best known for the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and the play The Importance of Being Earnest.
Wilde was a bright and bookish child. He attended the Portora Royal School at Enniskillen where he fell in love with Greek and Roman studies. He won the school’s prize for the top classics student in each of his last two years, as well as second prize in drawing during his final year. Upon graduating in 1871, Wilde was awarded the Royal School Scholarship to attend Trinity College in Dublin. At the end of his first year at Trinity, in 1872, he placed first in the school’s classics examination and received the college’s Foundation Scholarship, the highest honour awarded to undergraduates.
Upon his graduation in 1874, Wilde received the Berkeley Gold Medal as Trinity’s best student in Greek, as well as the Demyship scholarship for further study at Magdalen College in Oxford. At Oxford, Wilde continued to excel academically, receiving first class marks from his examiners in both classics and classical moderations. It was also at Oxford that Wilde made his first sustained attempts at creative writing.
In 1882, Wilde travelled from London to New York City to embark on an American lecture tour, for which he delivered a staggering 140 lectures in just nine months.
On May 29, 1884, Wilde married a wealthy Englishwoman named Constance Lloyd. They had two sons: Cyril, born in 1885, and Vyvyan, born in 1886.
The Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel is a cautionary tale about a beautiful young man, Dorian Gray, who wishes (and receives his wish) that his portrait ages while he remains youthful and lives a life of sin and pleasure.
The Happy Prince and Other Tales, a collection of children’s stories.
Wilde’s first play, Lady Windermere’s Fan
Over the next few years, Wilde produced several great plays—witty, highly satirical comedies of manners that nevertheless contained dark and serious undertones. His most notable plays were A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), his most famous play.
Personal Life and Prison Sentence
Around the same time that he was enjoying his greatest literary success, Wilde commenced an affair with a young man named Lord Alfred Douglas.
On February 18, 1895, Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, who had gotten wind of the affair, left a calling card at Wilde’s home addressed to “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite,” a misspelling of sodomite. Although Wilde’s homosexuality was something of an open secret, he was so outraged by Queensberry’s note that he sued him for libel. The decision ruined his life.
When the trial began in March, Queensberry and his lawyers presented evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality—homoerotic passages from his literary works, as well as his love letters to Douglas—that quickly resulted in the dismissal of Wilde’s libel case and his arrest on charges of “gross indecency.” Wilde was convicted on May 25, 1895 and sentenced to two years in prison.
Wilde emerged from prison in 1897, physically depleted, emotionally exhausted and flat broke. He went into exile in France, where, living in cheap hotels and friends’ apartments
Death and Legacy
Wilde died of meningitis on November 30, 1900 at the age of 46.
More than a century after his death, Wilde is still better remembered for his personal life—his exuberant personality, consummate wit and infamous imprisonment for homosexuality—than for his literary accomplishments. Nevertheless, his witty, imaginative and undeniably beautiful works, in particular his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and his playThe Importance of Being Earnest, are considered among the great literary masterpieces of the late Victorian period.