There’s more to Oscar Wilde than a dog-eared book of one-liners. From absinthe to dapper dressing, Andrew Lowry looks at what we can learn from the Victorian wit
There’s an Oscar Wilde for everyone. There’s the one-liner machine who’d have been a hit on every panel show going, had he been alive today. There’s the gay martyr, pivotal in crafting homosexual identity at a time when the whole notion was actively suppressed. Then there’s the serious writer and critic, who worked tirelessly and seriously to instil some class into the philistines of the Victorian age, not to mention the radical who wrote essays with titles such as The Soul Of Man Under Socialism, or the bon vivant who could drink all and sundry under the table while upturning every staid norm of the society he lived in.
But what do these Wildes offer us today? Is he a sad martyr to 19th-century prudery or a more modern figure than we realise? Whatever the answer, his legendary life offers ways you should (and shouldn’t) follow his example.
1. Hit the books
Educated at Trinity College Dublin and at Oxford, Wilde liked to pass himself off as an indolent student more into having a drink and blathering into the night than studying – basically, these days he’d have a Bob Marley poster and chew your ear off about his gap year. In reality, he worked avidly in secret, ending up with a major poetry prize and getting the top mark in his year – by the time he left, he knew his stuff, and then some. Oddly enough, Wilde also did a little boxing at university.
2. Don’t forget your roots
Wilde liked to crack wise about how the first thing he forgot at Oxford was his Irish accent, but he only really makes sense understood as an Irish writer. His play Salomé was banned from the London stage for depicting Biblical figures, prompting him to write, “I will not consent to call myself a citizen of a country that shows such narrowness in artistic judgment. I am not English. I am Irish, which is quite another thing.”
This went deeper than a tantrum: the paradox of being Irish in England – connected but foreign – was reflected in how, as he was growing up, his mother had been an active Irish nationalist as the campaign for home rule was getting into gear while his father, a prominent doctor, accepted a knighthood. This comfort with being two things at once led to the mindset that could produce all his famous paradoxical epigrams. “The way of paradoxes is the way of truth,” he wrote.
3. Dress to impress
He may have said that fashion was “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”, but Wilde was a dandy, as a young man enjoying dressing in a manner designed to wind up the fuddy-duddies he spent his life baiting. This meant a wardrobe full of capes, velvet jackets, stockings and as many brightly coloured statement pieces as he could find. As he got older (and chubbier), he’d still sport the best suits. He also liked to carry lilies with him as a young man, influencing Morrissey a century later.
4. Help make your own myth
Wilde came of age just as the modern media landscape was beginning to mature, and he sensed instinctively just how to play it to his advantage. In 1882, aged 28, he went on a year-long lecture tour of the US – yes, this is where he told customs he had nothing to declare but his genius. Consciously playing the part of the lily-toting aesthete, he attracted accusations of ‘unmanliness’ everywhere he went. This controversy paid off – the tour was a sensation, and his name was in print as much for his actions as his writing right up until his downfall.
5. Everyone needs to make a living
Needing more stability than his lectures could offer, Wilde, perhaps surprisingly, became editor of periodical The Lady’s World, renaming it The Woman’s World and taking it upmarket. It was the only salaried job he ever held. Progressive for its time in offering women more than just fashion tips, Wilde nonetheless managed to get in trouble with early animal-rights activists for advocating the wearing of fur.
6. Get political
He’s not thought of as an especially political writer, but Wilde the journalist was more than prepared to get into the scraps of his time. It wasn’t his style to be pinned down to any firm positions, but he wrote in defence of Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, and he frequently avowed his socialism at a time when to say so was genuinely edgy in polite society. Typically for Wilde, though, his politics were as much motivated by aesthetic concern as anything else, and he took Jesus Christ as his model of the perfect socialist man.
7. Screw the diet
Always a big lad (he was 6ft 3in), Wilde’s appetite was legendary, and even by Victorian standards, he wasn’t afraid of carbicide. He wrote of the then-exotic meal of risotto as a “delightful dish too rarely seen in England”. He was also a huge fan of absinthe, which suggests a pretty sturdy constitution.
8. Don’t be afraid of a fight
It doesn’t tally with our image of him as the avuncular drawing room wit, but Wilde’s journalism could be very catty. He was unafraid to be brutal in his book reviews and had a lengthy, only-half-in-jest feud with the painter and rival wit James McNeill Whistler, who found Wilde superficial and accused him of stealing his gags. Tellingly, Whistler went on to write a book called The Gentle Art Of Making Enemies.
9. You only need to strike gold once
Wilde only completed one novel – but The Picture Of Dorian Gray is one of the best ever. Drawing together many of his ideas on aesthetics and decadence, it’s also creepy as anything – and contains many then-shocking coded hints at gay sexuality edgy enough for WH Smith to refuse to stock it.
10. A double life is dangerous
Wilde married the wealthy Constance Lloyd in 1884, but he claimed to have had his first same-sex sexual experience in 1886 with precocious student Robert Ross. This was before what we now see as a gay social identity existed, let alone a recognisable gay community, but we can be pretty certain Wilde wasn’t into women. He began a series of flings with younger men and often visited rent boys – a parallel life that fired his imagination.
11. Don’t preach
As Wilde developed beyond his safe-ish journalism, his ideas were moving into territory shocking to many. Wilde wrote to a hostile reviewer of Dorian Gray, “Your reviewer suggests that I do not make it sufficiently clear whether I prefer virtue to wickedness or wickedness to virtue. An artist, sir, has no ethical sympathies at all. Virtue and wickedness are to him simply what the colours on his palette are to the painter. They are no more, and they are no less. He sees that by their means a certain artistic effect can be produced and he produces it.”
This was a time when literature was expected to have a moral and improve the reader, rather than offer a coded manifesto for pleasure-seeking. To make his position clear, he added some epigrams to the beginning of Dorian Gray, including, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.”
12. Ignore convention
Wilde’s turn to theatre in the 1890s came at a time when George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen were delivering heavy plays about social issues – naturally, he wrote four feather-light comedies, dripping with zingers, where the plots are deliberately insubstantial. Where Dorian Gray had slotted nicely into the decadent literature of the fin de siècle and included vice and murder, these plays – culminating in The Importance Of Being Earnest in 1895 – mock the very idea of being serious in itself. Shaw found it “heartless”, HG Wells loved it, and the proceeds made Wilde very wealthy.
13. Know your audience
Wilde was never shy about playing up to his public image, actively courting the cartoonists who lampooned him and cemented his reputation in the eyes of the public. After the first performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892, he went on stage and said, “Ladies and gentlemen. I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendition of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.”
14. Love hurts
In 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas and they began a turbulent and recklessly public affair. The two were by turns inseparable and at loggerheads, with Douglas (‘Bosie’) squandering Wilde’s money and playing mind games with the older man. Bosie’s father was the volatile Marquess of Queensberry (yes, he of the boxing rules), who grew increasingly furious at the affair. Once, he confronted Wilde, saying, “I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you.” Wilde’s answer? “I don't know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”
15. And so does the British justice system
The story of how Wilde ended up in prison for ‘gross indecency’ is complicated, but the saga began when he took the Marquess to court for libel in 1895, after he accused Wilde of “posing as a somdomite” [sic]. This backfired, and enough evidence of his use of rent boys was produced at this trial for a second trial, this time prosecuting Wilde. The jury was divided, but Wilde was found guilty at a second trial and served two years in prison.
16. Let history be your judge
Prison ruined Wilde’s health and he spent the final three years of his life in exile, before dying in 1900, aged only 46. This period was known for one of his most moving and heartfelt pieces of writing – De Profundis, a long letter to Bosie begun in prison that functions as a quasi-autobiography and summation of his ideas. Only published in full in 1962, it’s the most raw Wilde ever was, excoriating himself for his failings while forgiving those who wronged him. It’s an unbearably frank piece of work but also unfailingly generous. Showing us the compassionate soul that in the end lay behind all Wilde’s poses and paradoxes, it stands as a fitting final monument.