Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. Portrait photograph by Napoleon Sarony.
Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony, British Library

Biography

Born in Dublin on 16 October 1854, Oscar Wilde was a flamboyant and sparklingly witty Anglo-Irish playwright, poet and critic. ‘I put all my genius into my life, I put only my talent into my books’, he said to the French writer André Gide.

Wilde shone at both Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford. In London, he was a famous proponent of aestheticism, the controversial theory of art. A collection of poems (1881) was followed by The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) as well as lectures and essays promoting his ideas of art and beauty. In 1884, he married Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons.

He published his Faustian novel The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890, and fell in love with the much younger Lord Alfred Douglas. He then began a double life: winning fame and fortune with three hugely successful society comedies, Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), but secretly spending time in male brothels. ‘The danger was half the excitement,’ he recalled in his great apologia, a long letter to Douglas entitled De Profundis.

In February 1895, Douglas's father, the Marquis of Queensberry, accused Wilde of being a ‘somdomite’ [sic]. Wilde sued him for libel, lost, and was subsequently found guilty of gross indecency. He spent two years in prison, most of it in Reading Gaol, where he wrote De Profundis; in the month of his release he composed The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Both were published posthumously. Bankrupt and shunned by society, his health broken by imprisonment, he spent the rest of his life in Europe. He died in Paris on 30 November 1900 aged 46.