Oscar Wilde: elusive ego, extraordinary wit and enduring genius

“ …over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happened, of things that are not and that should be.” From The Decay of Lying (1889)
On this day, October 16, in 1854 was born one of the world’s most magical and compelling literary writers, an artist of extraordinary wit and learning, whose genius would be countered by his humanity and reckless quest for love and perfection. Oscar Wilde paid a heavy price for his romantic urges and belief in beauty. A wry fatalism certainly stalked him throughout his short life which ended in a hotel room in Paris in 1900, as did an eloquent defiance which he simply could not help. The epigrams flowed. Yet his rich and diverse legacy is as full of sorrow as it is of humour, insight and observation. It is as difficult to move through a day without hearing at least some reference to Wilde – be it a quote from his work or a paraphrase – as it is of Shakespeare or Yeats. Wilde endures as do the respective works of an Elizabethan dramatist and an Irish poet born less than 11 years after Wilde. This trio infiltrate our consciousness; their words shape our responses.
For many readers the first encounter with Wilde could be having once listened as children to a grown-up reading from The Happy Prince. It was published in 1888 in a collection which also includes The Nightingale and the Rose; The Selfish Giant; The Devoted Friend; and The Remarkable Rocket. Wilde speaks to every one, adult or child.
In celebration of Wilde on this the 161st anniversary of his birth, one could return to The Happy Prince or to The Selfish Giant and wonder anew at the art, or, even better, make this the moment to introduce a son or daughter, niece or nephew to the poignant wonder that is Wilde. The Selfish Giant is an all-time favourite. Should your preference move to non-fiction, Notting Hill editions, champions of the essay form, have just published an elegant selection of Wilde’s writings, Beautiful and Impossible Things, which takes its title from The Decay of Lying (1889) which features along with The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891) and The House Beautiful (1882). It casts a sharp light on Wilde’s overwhelming sense of justice. Not surprisingly, Wilde defended Parnell in print. As mercurial as Mozart, Oscar Wilde is quick-fire and worthy of pursuit. Not for nothing did one of his most distinguished admirers, biographer Richard Ellmann, concede that writing his study, Oscar Wilde, which was published in 1987, was very difficult as Wilde was elusive: “He belongs more to our world than to Victoria’s. Now beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, so right.”
Flamboyance, theatricality, arch playfulness, a bizarre innocence and dazzling self-belief all share a role in his tragedy. As an artist he has an unusual appeal. Read anything by Oscar Wilde, be it an essay or a children’s story; experience his outstanding novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), or simply absorb his fabulous comedies and it is immediately apparent – he is a complete writer as well as a profound thinker. Central to his marvellous rise and squalid fall is his uncommon genius and his ironic parade of his ego. There is also his apparent confidence that everything was his for the taking, yet even more importantly – consider his humanity; he loved, he suffered, he tried to survive.
Personifying the artificiality of the 1890s, he took immense pleasure in parodying the Englishness of the English. In spite of the charade Wilde remained consciously Irish, and enjoyed satirising English class snobbery. He also lampooned the Americans, but secretly admired them. Ever the creative artist, he was capable of conferring glamour on the large body and plain face inherited from Jane Francesca Elgee, Lady Wilde, his dynamic and impetuous mother.
His parentage played its part in creating the phenomenon that is Oscar Wilde. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a distinguished surgeon with a bluntly colourful personality tainted by sexual rumour and scandal, while also being generous and committed to the poor. He was a pioneering gentleman antiquarian and, confident of his meticulous organisational skills, took on and completed the three-volume cataloguing of the Royal Irish Academy’s archaeological collection in a remarkable five months, as it was obvious that the well-intentioned but hopelessly disorganised antiquarian, musician and painter, George Petrie (1790-1866), would never complete the task. Sir William was among the first of the 19th-century visitors to Newgrange on the banks of the Boyne in Co Meath. An able writer, he published material ranging from travelogues to a study of Swift’s final years, surgical texts and, of course, antiquarian topics.
Wilde’s mother, known to history mainly by her pen name, Speranza, was the daughter of a solicitor and the granddaughter of Archdeacon Elgee. On attending the funeral in 1845 of Young Irelander Thomas Davis, a co-founder of The Nation, Jane Elgee, then 19, read his poetry and promptly became an ardent nationalist. It was as Speranza that she began contributing poems and articles to The Nation.
In 1851 she married Dr Wilde, whose services to the census would earn him his knighthood in 1864. In that same year Wilde senior, by then Sir William, featured in a trial bought by one of his former female patients, Mary Travers, who had accused him of rape. The volatile Speranza complicated matters by ill-advisedly writing a libellous letter about Travers, whose defence lawyer was Isaac Butt. Ms Travers emerged as deranged, but Sir William, in an eerie foreshadowing of his younger son’s fate in a very different, if equally nasty, case, left the court with a damaged reputation.
Oscar Wilde grew up in a household full of rhetoric, books, folklore and interesting personalities. From Trinity College, he set off to Magdalen College, Oxford, winning the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. His flair got him noticed as did his “art for art’s sake” philosophy. Marriage to Constance Lloyd followed in 1884 and he proved an affectionate if distracted husband. By then, he had already lectured throughout North America on aesthetics. Returning to London he established himself as a reviewer. Wilde’s insatiable appetite for books matched his needs in other areas. His restlessness may have been fed by his desire – half-insecure, half-egotistical – for idealised love.
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