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DIB in the news: Oscar Wilde in Paris

08 November 2016

A Paris museum gallery is currently presenting the first major exhibition on the Dublin-born Irish writer Oscar Wilde ever to be mounted in France.

Persona non grata in the UK after his conviction and imprisonment for homosexual acts, Wilde spent the last three and a half years of his life mainly in France, dying in Paris, where his tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery is a place of pilgrimage for admirers worldwide. Running till 15 January 2017, the current exhibition, in the Petit Palais, off the Champs-Élysées, covers the entire span of Wilde’s career, including his early life and education in Ireland, but with special emphasis on periods spent in France and his close association with French literature, culture and intellectual life.

Curated with the assistance of Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland (a French resident), the exhibition comprises some 200 artefacts, including editions of Wilde’s works, illustrations, manuscripts, letters, portraits and photographs, personal memorabilia, documents pertinent to his 1895 trials, and drawings and paintings illuminating his intellectual development and cultural milieu. Also included are segments depicting the ‘dance of the seven veils’ from three filmed versions of Wilde’s play Salomé (written in French and first staged in Paris), including a 2013 release directed by and starring Al Pacino, with Jessica Chastain.

Read the DIB entry on Oscar Wilde, by Owen Dudley Edwards below.

Wilde, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie (to which he, like his father and brother, later added ‘Wills’) (1854–1900), playwright, poet, and prose writer, was born 16 October 1854 in his parents’ house, 21 Westland Row, Dublin, second son of Dr William Robert Wilde (qv) and Jane Francesca Elgee (qv), who moved to 1 Merrion Square in 1855. A third and last child, Isola Francesca, was born in 1857.

Childhood and early influences The eldest child, William Charles Kingsbury Wilde (qv), seems from the first to have shown cheerful, noisy, and easy sociability, overshadowing his shy brother Oscar, whose boyhood love seems to have been strongest for his little sister. Both parents were haunted by the Great Famine, father as statistician, mother as poet, both as custodians of folklore. Childhood holidays were often spent in Connemara at Illaunroe, land bought by Dr Wilde near Lough Fee. Oscar Wilde in adult life sang Irish-Gaelic lullabies to his sons, aided in acquiring the language by his exceptional linguistic facility. Gaelic consciousness evidently fuelled his future fairy-stories, as would be shown by Patrick Pearse (qv) in drawing on Wilde's ‘The happy prince’ for his ‘Eoghainín na n-Éan’, and ‘The selfish giant’ for his ‘Íosagán’. Wilde's ‘The young king’ would contain a horrific evocation of the famine in its dialogue of Avarice and Death: Wilde hinted at its origin in saying that the book in which it appeared, his A house of pomegranates (1892), was neither to please the British child nor the British public. His mother seems to have expressed her alienation from the Irish landlord class by having her boys baptised as Roman catholics, about 1860. It had no noticeable effect on Willie, but began a lifelong romance with that faith for Oscar. It also supplied the hilarious baptismal theme for Wilde's most famous comedy, ‘The importance of being earnest’ (1895).

Wilde seems to have been excited from an early age by his mother's verse and translations, of which her Sidonia the sorceress (1849, from the German of Sidonia von Bork (1847) by William Meinhold) would be magnificently reprinted at the Kelmscott Press by William Morris in 1893 under Wilde's encouragement: he would draw on its Gothic terror, and on that of Melmoth the wanderer (1820) by her uncle by marriage, the Rev. Charles Robert Maturin (qv) – also given a new edition (1892) under Wilde's influence – for serious and for satirical effects, notably in The picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891) and in ‘The Canterville ghost’ (1887). The several Church of Ireland clerics among his parents’ siblings and their spouses, visited at holidays, gave Wilde seed-corn in biblical study which he would harvest in Salomé (1893), in his Poems in prose, and in De profundis, although his Roman catholic leanings caused him to pretend utter ignorance of Scripture to annoy examiners required by Oxford University to testify to the anglican orthodoxy of its graduates. The boy Wilde was also exposed to the stimulus of lively adversaries invited to his mother's salon, such as William Carleton (qv) and Aubrey de Vere (qv) (converts respectively from and to Roman catholicism), and fellow-scholars in antiquities with his father, such as Samuel Ferguson (qv) and J. T. Gilbert (qv). Ferguson would write a poetic elegy for Sir William Wilde, Lady Wilde would write one for Carleton: Ferguson's poem ‘The Tain-quest’, climaxing on life sacrificed for art's sake, appeared when the schoolboy Wilde was reading periodicals reflecting Irish literary preoccupations with the heroic, including his mother's.

But when settled with his brother at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, Wilde was isolated in term-time from 1864 in an education firmly divorced from Irish culture. He was able to pursue non-Celtic enthusiasms, resulting in prizes for drawing and classics, and the Carpenter prize for Greek Testament studies (1870). He was psychologically shattered by the sudden death of his sister Isola in 1867. His elegy for her, ‘Requiescat’, composed a decade or so later, mourned: ‘Lily-like, white as snow, / She hardly knew / She was a woman, so / Sweetly she grew.’ Much of his later work was haunted by variations of the theme of what womanhood has been lost with her, her own beauty often contrasted with himself as a doomed ugly companion – Virginia and the ghost in ‘The Canterville ghost’, the Velázquez infanta and her dwarf in ‘The birthday of the infanta’, Salomé and Iokanaan (John the Baptist) in Salomé. On her own, she kaleidoscopically illuminated the innocent but forceful heroines at their threshold of love in his comedies – Lady Windermere, Hester Worsley, Mabel Chiltern, and Cecily Cardew. He carried a lock of her hair to his death.

TCD and Oxford; early drama Wilde remained relatively isolated at TCD, to which he won a scholarship in 1871, studying classics and lodging in ‘Botany Bay’ with his brother. 1873 saw his capture of the coveted foundation scholarship, and 1874 the Berkeley gold medal for Greek. He won the interest of John Pentland Mahaffy (qv), professor of ancient history, who encouraged him to seek a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford (he won a demyship), despite its solipsistic requirement that he recommence university studies as a freshman; apparently his father feared Wilde's embrace of catholicism in Dublin, a peril seldom ascribed to Trinity. Ironically it proved a serious possibility at Oxford, where Wilde heard Cardinal Manning preach, read John Henry Newman (qv), wrote verse for the Dublin Jesuit Irish Monthly, and was influenced by the future Benedictine abbot of Fort Augustus (Scotland), David Hunter-Blair (1853–1939), but did not follow him into formal Roman catholicism. Its aesthetic attractions in antiquity and mystery were partly fulfilled by entry into a Masonic Lodge (33º, Scottish Masonic Rite, 27 November 1876). Wilde travelled in Italy (1875) and Greece (1877) with Mahaffy, and was drawn by John Ruskin at Oxford towards anarcho-socialism, resonating over a decade later in his fairy stories and essay ‘The soul of man under socialism’ (1891), and by Walter Pater, with effects on his future public lectures and on Dorian Gray. Wilde was badly shaken by his father's death (1876) and the family's impoverishment. He may have assisted his mother in concluding his father's study of one Irish antiquarian artist, Gabriel Beranger (qv), and he certainly championed another, who had impressed his father, the poverty-stricken Henry O'Neill (qv). But despite further vacations in Dublin and Connemara, his career at Oxford took precedence, gaining first-class honours in classics (1876, 1878), winning the Newdigate prize with his poem Ravenna (1878), and entering ‘Historical criticism among the ancients’ in 1879 for what proved an unawarded prize; as ‘The rise of historical criticism’ it has come to be recognised as a profound, if ponderous, detailed study of historical methodology in ancient Greece and Rome.

‘The rise of historical criticism’ shows that whatever Wilde might become, he would make mastery of the historical dimension the foundation of his thought. But neither there nor elsewhere would such foundations expose themselves. He was simultaneously at work on his first play, ‘Vera’, a tragedy supposedly preoccupied with Russian nihilism, allegedly – and anachronistically – set in 1800. But it was obviously contemporary with its author, inspired by the trial of Vera Zasulich (1849–1919) in 1878 for her attempted assassination of the governor of St Petersburg and former chief of police in Warsaw, Fedor Trepov (1812–89): Zasulich was acquitted in highly emotional scenes which moved even Dostoevsky (later employing the trial to enhance The brothers Karamazov), and got away to Switzerland, whence she made a secret if brief return in 1879, with consequent rumours. Wilde must have been struck by her comparability to his mother's famous incendiary journalism in 1848, followed by its avowal during the trial of Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) and the dropping of the treason-felony charge against him. As Richard Ellmann (qv) would show, ‘Vera’ is at heart about Irish nationalism, for all Wilde's acquisition of Russo–Polish data (he would later translate ‘A fire at sea’ by Turgenev, who had revived the word ‘nihilist’ in Fathers and sons, whence Wilde also drew the lovelessness of scientific revolutionary ideology). Wilde's Vera battles against love and stifles it in the peasant Michael, whom she converts to nihilism and who kills the tsar, but she ultimately kills herself to save the nihilist tsarevich. The play was rehearsed in London but the first performance was cancelled after the assassinations of Tsar Alexander II and, later, US president James Garfield, in 1881. It was performed in New York in August 1883 to much critical hostility, running for a week, and given some touring later by Marie Prescott (d. 1923). What distinguished the play was the brilliant heartless wit of the reactionary prime minister, Prince Paul Maraloffski, embodying the force, sparkle, and rabid conservatism of Wilde's Trinity mentor Mahaffy; it foretold what Wilde would give the theatre a decade later. ‘Vera’ harmonised with Wilde's mother's retention of romantic nationalism while repudiating its violence. Wilde told American press reporters seeking his views on the Phoenix Park murders (6 May 1882) of Chief Secretary Lord Frederick Cavendish (qv) and Under-Secretary T. H. Burke (qv): ‘When Liberty comes with hands dabbled in blood it is hard to shake hands with her’.

London, America, and marriage Wilde's year-long tour of North America throughout 1882 followed his success in becoming known in London, chiefly as publicist of the aesthetic movement which won widespread satirical comment. Wilde welcomed the best lampoon, ‘Patience’, by Gilbert and Sullivan, and agreed to lecture throughout America under the auspices of its impresario, Richard D'Oyly Carte, using the joke of the opera's theme to gain attention for his apostleship of Pater, Ruskin, Rossetti, and Whistler. He varied lectures on ‘The decorative arts’ and ‘The house beautiful’ with a San Francisco celebration of the Irish poets of 1848, notably his mother. All in all, he made $6,000 (about £1,200), and won American readers for his collected Poems(published at his own expense by David Bogue in 1881). On his return he went to Paris, starting work on a verse-drama, ‘The duchess of Padua’, for the greatest American Shakespearean actor of the day, Mary Anderson (1859–1940), who rejected the play. It would be staged in New York by Lawrence Barrett (1838–91), as ‘Guido Ferrante’, in January–February 1891; Minna K. Gale, playing the duchess, toured with it later in 1891. Too faithfully derivative from Shakespeare, it prefigured Wilde's revolutionary studies of his staging and his sonnets (‘The truth of masks’ (1885, 1891) and ‘The portrait of Mr W. H.’ (1889, 1921), which would turn on the playwright's sense of the actor's giving life to his work). In 1883 Wilde went back to lecturing, this time in Britain and Ireland, and on 29 May 1884 married an Irish girl, Constance Mary Lloyd (1858–98), daughter of Horace (Horatio) Lloyd (1828–74), QC, having proposed marriage to her in 1 Ely Place, Dublin, where she had been born; it was the house of her grandmother, Mary Hare Hemphill, whose mother was the Irish novelist Barbara Hemphill (d. 1858), mingler of intricate plot and irrepressible satire which may have appealed to Wilde. Constance shared her husband's enthusiasm for folk stories, and published her own retelling of traditional tales ostensibly from grandmaternal repertoires.

Homosexuality and other identities Since Wilde's name later became synonymous with homosexuality, we may note the judgment of his grandson Merlin Holland (Wilde album (1997), 113): ‘ no one but a cynic could read the sole surviving letter he wrote to her . . . six months after the wedding and still maintain that the marriage was a sham’ (Wilde himself had defined a cynic as one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, quoted in innumerable future economic textbooks): Wilde shared his father's ardent heterosexuality for most of his adult life, as was demonstrated by the birth of two sons, Cyril and Vivian (who later adopted the form ‘Vyvyan’), within the first two-and-a-half years of marriage. Economy dictated sexual abstinence thereafter; memories of paternal mistresses forbade betrayal of his wife with another woman, and Wilde seems to have taken up homosexuality in what his grandson calls ‘a Faustian thirst for experience’ (ibid., 126). He probably began it with a young but experienced friend, Robert Baldwin Ross (1869–1918), and thereafter the thirst became so insatiable that it suggests the unlikelihood of premarital homosexuality (Wilde knew of no such activity at his boarding school, the usual theatre). It became yet another identity to be generally concealed without being wholly denied, along with Irishness and catholicism.

Holland sees Wilde's marriage as reasserting his Irishness: ‘Wilde's childhood Ireland spilled out on paper’, particularly with the creation of The happy prince and other tales (1888), and of ‘Lord Arthur Savile's crime’ and ‘The Canterville ghost’ (1887). In the former, ‘The devoted friend’ has been read as a Parnellite critique of Irish–landlord–tenant (or indeed of Anglo–Irish) relations, with its little boy Hans endlessly exploited by his ‘friend’ on the promise of a damaged wheelbarrow: the story is told by a linnet, Irish folksong code for Michael Davitt (qv) in the 1880s. Coding sometimes simply inverted Wilde's maternal inheritance: Lady Wilde's verse honouring Irish rebels of 1798 was transmuted into the lament in the dean's daughter's letter in ‘Lord Arthur Savile's crime’ – ‘Papa says liberty was invented at the time of the French revolution. How awful it seems!’ – and thence to Lady Bracknell's verdict in ‘The importance of being earnest’: ‘To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to?’ Wilde had been a fascinated spectator during the Parnell commission hearings of 1888–9, in which Irish landlord polemicists against Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) seemed frequently to prefigure the Bracknell logic, and the Richard Pigott (qv) forgeries were alleged to be genuine as having come from a black bag variously linked with Dublin, London, Paris, and America, but never produced. This was inspiration, rather than coding or allusion – the ‘Earnest’ handbag took the Pigott fictions to their logical conclusion by containing at different times ‘a three-volume novel of more than unusually revolting sentimentality’, and a male infant. The latter freight could also have been prompted by the press attacks on Parnell after the O'Shea divorce, attacks which Wilde scathingly denounced in his political evangel ‘The soul of man under socialism’ (Fortnightly Review, Feb. 1891).

Wilde turned the necessity for hidden identities into a philosophy, partly articulated in ‘The decay of lying’ (1889, 1891); similarly he preached criticism as artistic response to creativity in ‘The critic as artist’ (1890, 1891). He wrought these ideas and others into his longest fiction, The picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891), which responded to Pater and to Dante with art of its own, making a portrait the physical embodiment of a soul in self-destruction; for which he was condemned as immoral by critics of less art, though perhaps greater dissimulation. The 1890s were defined by that book, as they were also defined by the discovery of the Celt; and Wilde, whose social comedies ‘Lady Windermere's fan’ (1892) and ‘A woman of no importance’ (1893) made him the most conspicuous Irishman since Parnell, headed the Irish renaissance. W. B. Yeats (qv), folklore pupil of Wilde's mother and literary protégé of Wilde, reviewing Lord Arthur Savile's crime and other stories (1891) in Parnell's United Ireland on 26 September 1891, held that English readers of Wilde suffered from ‘a complete inability to understand anything he says. We should not find him so unintelligible – for much about him is Irish of the Irish. I see in his life and works an extravagant Celtic crusade against Anglo-Saxon stupidity.’ George Bernard Shaw (qv), reviewing An ideal husband in Frank Harris's (qv) Saturday Review on 12 January 1895, declared Wilde ‘our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything . . . Ireland is of all countries the most foreign to England, and . . . to the Irishmen (and Mr Wilde is almost as acutely Irish an Irishman as the Iron Duke of Wellington) there is nothing in the world quite so exquisitely comic as the Englishman's seriousness’. Yeats, Shaw, and the other new Irish writers in Britain saw their own status enlarged by the force of Wilde's prowess and challenge to social and literary conventions; they were also to profit by the alienation in which he had led them, and by its increase when Wilde was, literally, convicted and imprisoned. Post-colonial Ireland imprisoned itself in prolonged Victorian respectability disguised as religion, but Wilde meant more to his Irish contemporaries, caught in their own battles against obscurantist censorship, than he would mean for the male chauvinist literary virilities of the Irish Free State, all too ready to deny Wilde's Irishness.

A rebel martyr? And yet, as an Irish-American nurse is reputed to have told an enquiring child, Irish people might think Wilde imprisoned ‘for doing something against the English’ (communicated to the present writer by the US historian Kenneth Wiggins Porter); apart from the nationalism he clearly inspired in the Shaws and Yeatses in his days of glory, his fall had eerie echoes of the Sheareses, Emmets, and Smith O'Briens beloved of his mother and himself – all were men of social position in protestant Ireland who forfeited it by deliberately inviting legal response. Wilde's infant excitement in his mother's verse and sense of nobility on trial in the martyrs she glorified (however doubtful she and he might be about armed insurgents after 1850) and the thought of similar martyrdom (not necessarily on Irish political grounds) seem to have prompted a youthful fantasy of standing trial. What he had not predicted, presumably, was that he would pit himself against the most successful crown prosecutor of Parnellite agitators in the late 1880s – his contemporary at Trinity, Edward Henry Carson (qv). But Carson did not miss its political significance. In a fairly recent encounter Wilde had made his sympathies with Carson's victims pleasantly clear. His social success, while overwhelming, lay chiefly among liberals such as the Asquiths, but his avowed socialism and his dissection of political hypocrisy in ‘An ideal husband’ were not conducive to their fidelity. As the supreme talker of his time he was in overwhelming demand for aristocratic dinner-tables, but his Ibsenite comedies ‘Lady Windermere's fan’ (essentially Ibsen's ‘A doll's house’ kaleidoscoped twenty years after) and ‘A woman of no importance’ (the same plot reworked with disturbing variations) held ominous condemnations of a society whose openly exaggerated charms were shown to cover intrinsic corruption. Wilde's epigrammatic iconoclasm might be funny enough to stall the anger of its interpreters, but anti-Ibsenites, anti-socialists, anti-Parnellites with their own agenda would be ready enough to destroy a vulnerable enemy who obligingly embraced their pet aversions. If the 1890s welcomed the Celtic artist, they rejected the political Celts who under Parnell had held the 1880s in subjection. That Wilde was vulnerable was shown by the chorus of hatred against The picture of Dorian Gray, some of whose reviewers came close to demanding criminal prosecution, with strong hints that the story had promoted homosexuality (it had in fact merely domesticated it: Dorian's male admirers stay well outside the bedroom, and Dorian's own sins of the flesh, where evident, are heterosexual – his damnation in any case is for sins of the soul). Wilde's play in French, ‘Salomé’ (very resistant to translation) was banned by the lord chamberlain for production in England in 1892 because its portrayal of biblical subjects on stage violated reformation anti-catholic statutes against miracle plays; but the ban was taken to be for reasons of blasphemy, obscenity, pornography, etc. Arguably it proclaims Salomé a spoiled innocent, attracted to the prophet who denounces her purely for the sins of her mother and uncle/stepfather; but, as Wilde said of Dorian Gray, the play was denounced for sins its traducers brought to their visions. The sphinx (1894), Wilde's poetic record of the counterpulls of paganism and Christianity (ending in adoration of the cross of Jesus), was taken to be turpitude.

Even the case which would ruin Wilde was undertaken from altruism. He had fallen in love with the student poet Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945), third son of John Sholto Douglas, the mad 8th marquess of Queensberry (1844–1900), whose persecution of his own family caused them to pressurise Wilde into suing Queensberry for criminal libel, the marquess having left an open card at Wilde's club calling Wilde a ‘somdomite’ (sic). In fact, when the case came to court, Wilde's lawyers privately insisted that evidence on Queensberry's depravity as husband and father would be irrelevant, and Carson as Queensberry's counsel turned the case on Wilde's writings (on which Wilde ably defended himself) and on Wilde's homosexual relationships (on which too much had been discovered by detectives in Queensberry's employ). Wilde, under Douglas's influence, had moved from homosexual friendships to homosexual prostitutes, who were subsequently ready to imply their relative innocence defiled by an older man. Carson probably took the brief initially because of its political implications: Queensberry had previously charged Rosebery, now prime minister, with seduction of his eldest son, now dead, and unionist interests at least would have counselled Carson's gaining the marquess's confidence, in a token defence. But the discovery of Wilde's secret life changed that, and Carson, to gain a reputation for forensic mastery, had only to play as long as possible with Wilde in a cross-examination he was certain to win. After two days, Wilde threw up the case on 5 April 1895 (possibly with some assurance of safety), but the Liberal government did not dare ignore it, given the danger of Queensberry resuming attacks on Rosebery, and Wilde was arrested, to be charged with non-penetrative sexual offences with male prostitutes and unknown male partners. He was tried on 26 April (Queensberry, demanding his legal costs, had already forced a sale of his possessions for ludicrously small sums). On 1 May the jury disagreed. On 25 May, after a second trial, Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. His wife and family changed their name to Holland, having taken refuge with her family and friends in Genoa and Monaco; his neglect of them during his years of infatuation with Douglas was much the most serious moral offence he had committed. On 19 February 1896 Constance Wilde came to Reading gaol (to which Wilde had been transferred from Wandsworth on 20 November): she travelled to break the news of his mother's death on 3 February 1896. It was their last meeting, since she would die in Genoa on 7 April 1898 of creeping spinal paralysis. Their sons never saw Wilde again. In the first world war the boys fought for the country which had indifferently destroyed their lives, Cyril being killed. In bitter irony, their father's condemnation for his works and in the criminal courts turned partly on the cult of youth variously hymned by him from the early elegy for Isola to Dorian Gray. Carson abused him for it, but it was shared by their fellow Irish contemporaries (it helped make Parnell) and by Scots such as Stevenson and Barrie, with whom Wilde also shared fear of predestination (e.g. in ‘Lord Arthur Savile's crime’, where as usual Wilde mingles hilarity with horror inextricably).

Prison and final years Wilde's first year in prison was one of utter despair, made worse by a fall in Wandsworth which probably began the middle-ear disease from which he is believed to have ultimately died. He was given books, after the intervention of the Liberal MP R. B. Haldane, and from 27 July 1896 was also allowed writing materials in his cell. News of the first production of ‘Salomé’ (in Paris, by A.-M. Lugné-Poe (1869–1940) on 11 February 1896) gave him his first hint of hope. He ultimately commenced work on the long letter to Douglas to become known after his death as De profundis, and while excessive in its denunciation of Douglas (who had been appallingly self-centred but also highly courageous) the self-indictment was profound and the spirituality extraordinary. Robert Ross published a fragment, without mention of Douglas, in 1905, and it played a major part in Wilde's rehabilitation; the letter in full only appeared in 1949, and in accurate form only in (Sir) Rupert Hart-Davis's edition of the Letters (1962). Wilde became deeply concerned about his fellow-prisoners, and his last prose works were letters to the Daily Chronicle on prison conditions, written after his release and published there on 28 May 1897 and on 24 March 1898. After his release on 14 May 1897 he worked for several months on The ballad of Reading gaol, published on 13 February 1898. It helped in the continuing struggle for prison reform and John Redmond (qv) quoted it in the house of commons on 28 March 1898. Declan Kiberd would see all Wilde's poems as demonstrating ‘what many have long suspected, that the dandy was at heart a moralist’ but nowhere was this clearer than in the Ballad. It also reasserted his Irishness, building on his mother's images of famine, and his catholicism, in seeking the divine Christ as Redeemer of all, rather than simply the human Jesus in De profundis inspiring one; the poem sank Wilde's own suffering into that of all prisoners, ‘God's eternal laws are kind / And break the heart of stone’. It was one of Wilde's more startling legacies to his fellow Irish catholic intellectuals to make God their liberator rather than their licence-endorser.

Wilde left England for ever on the day of his release, but the Ballad sold 6,000 copies in London within a few weeks of its publication (Constance read it a month before her death, finding it ‘exquisite’). His only other works were correction of his last two plays for the press. The Old Bailey trial of his fatal suit against Queensberry had begun when ‘An ideal husband’ had been running to packed houses for three months, and ‘The importance of being earnest’ for seven weeks, but the dazzling pyrotechnics of the latter meant little to Wilde now, although it would prove itself the favourite comedy of the twentieth century. He had written it as a four-act play, reduced to three acts to accommodate its actor-manager for the first production, (Sir) George Alexander (1858–1918), and the four-act version remained unrevised since Wilde after Reading thought of it as ‘essentially an acting play: it should have been a classic for the English theatre, but alas! the author was struck by madness from the moon’, as he wrote on 20 March 1899 to his faithful friend Reginald Turner. ‘An ideal husband’, with its grim prophecies of human destruction by ‘our modern mania for morality’, and its beneficiary's betrayal of his benefactor, harmonised more easily with what he himself had subsequently experienced. Wilde added charming character descriptions for its readers, linking roles to famous painters. Apart from letters, they were his last creative writing, and the play appeared in July 1899. He died destitute in Paris, on 30 November 1900, having received the last sacraments of the Roman catholic church. In his last days he spoke of taking the mailboat, the Munster, evidently imagining himself back in the Ireland of his childhood.

Wilde's works were edited by R. B. Ross (1908, 1909) and are most conveniently assembled in Complete works of Oscar Wilde (1994; introduction by Merlin Holland with Vyvyan Holland's introduction to the 1966 edition, and introductions to ‘Stories’ (Owen Dudley Edwards), ‘Plays’ (Terence Brown), ‘Poems’ (Declan Kiberd, quoted above, from p. 742), and ‘Essays &c.’ (Merlin Holland)). The best Bibliography of Oscar Wilde is that by Christopher Sclater Millard writing as Stuart Mason (1914). The publication of the Letters (1961) transformed Wilde's critical status in English-language countries; the latest edition (2000) by Merlin Holland and Sir Rupert Hart-Davis is much expanded.

R. H. Sherard [Kennedy], Oscar Wilde: the story of an unhappy friendship (1902); R. H. Sherard [Kennedy], Life of Oscar Wilde (1906); Anna Comtesse de Brémont, Oscar Wilde: a critical study (1911); Arthur Ransome, Oscar Wilde: a critical study (1912); R. H. Sherard, The real Oscar Wilde (1915); G. J. Renier, Oscar Wilde(1933); Boris Brasol, Oscar Wilde: the man, the artist (1938); Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde: a summing-up(1941); Hesketh Pearson, The life of Oscar Wilde (1946); H. Montgomery Hyde (ed.), Trials of Oscar Wilde(1946); Vyvyan Holland, Son of Oscar Wilde (1954); id., Oscar Wilde (1960); Micheál Mac Liammóir, The importance of being Oscar (1963); Karl Beckson (ed.), Oscar Wilde: the critical heritage (1970); H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde (1976); E. H. Mikhail, Oscar Wilde: interviews and recollections (1979); Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (1987); Horst Schroeder, Additions and corrections to Ellman's Oscar Wilde (1990); Ian Small, Oscar Wilde revalued (1993); Davis Coakley, Oscar Wilde – the importance of being Irish (1994); Richard Pine, The thief of reason: Oscar Wilde and modern Ireland (1995); Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (1995); Sos Eltis, Revising Wilde (1996); Merlin Holland, The Wilde album (1997); Karl Beckson, Oscar Wilde encyclopedia(1998); Jerusha McCormack (ed.), Wilde the Irishman (1998); Tomoko Sato and Lionel Lambourne (ed.) The Wilde years (2000); Neil Sammels, Wilde style (2000); Merlin Holland (ed.), Oscar Wilde: a life in letters (2000); Merlin Holland (ed.), Irish peacock and scarlet marquess: the real trial of Oscar Wilde (2003)

Image credit: 'Oscar Wilde en Merrion', taken by Carlos Luna, CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

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