Though he is perhaps most famous for comic social satire, there is an important strand of political thought in Oscar Wilde’s work. ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’, an essay first published in 1891, criticises a society in which ‘man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him – in which, in fact he misses the true pleasure and joy of living’. After his imprisonment, he campaigned against the treatment of inmates – particularly children – in British prisons. The influences on the relation of art and politics in his work include William Morris (1834–1896), the critic of society and art John Ruskin (1819–1900), and the author of this book.
Who was ‘Speranza (Lady Wilde)’?Jane Francesca Agnes, (1821–1896), was Wilde’s mother. She became Lady Wilde in 1864, when her husband, Dr William (1815–1876), a surgeon, was knighted for his involvement with recording births and deaths in Ireland. In 1846, she had begun contributing poetry and prose to The Nation – the journal of Young Ireland, a revolutionary movement for Irish independence from England. The radicalism of The Nation was such that, in 1848, it was shut down for sedition, and Jane used the pseudonym ‘Speranza’ (‘Hope’) to avoid embarrassing her family. Some of these poems are reproduced in this book; ‘The Famine Year’, for example protests at the injustices of food being exported to England while millions of Irish people died in the potato famine of the 1840s: ‘the stranger reaps our harvest – the alien owns our soil’. She was also an early campaigner for women’s rights, accomplished literary translator, and, like her husband, published expert on Irish folklore.
What part did she play in Oscar’s life?First in Dublin, and then in London, Jane ran ‘salons’ to which the literary great and the good were invited, Oscar included; the poet W B Yeats said of her that ‘London has few better talkers’. She wrote constantly to Oscar, and, in financial difficulty after her husband died, ruined by a sexual assault case, Oscar helped when he could. When prison loomed in 1895, she persuaded Oscar to face the charges rather than run away: ‘If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son, it will make no difference to my affection, but if you go, I will never speak to you again’. On her deathbed in 1896, she asked, but was refused permission to be visited by her imprisoned son.
- Article by:
- Greg Buzwell
- Fin de siècle, The Gothic, London
Dark desires and forbidden pleasure are at the centre of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Greg Buzwell examines the interplay between art and morality in Oscar Wilde’s novel, and considers its use of traditional Gothic motifs as well as the theories of the new aesthetic movement.