How Oscar Wilde Worked

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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey. In our Lillie Langtry episode, we considered following up with a podcast on Oscar Wilde, and the response was overwhelmingly in favor of this. It's probably because Wilde is a really inspired dramatist, and he's a really talented poet and essayist. He's one of the best-loved Irish writers, which is pretty tough company, I'd say. But he's also a really amazing man. I think that's the main reason people are so interesting in hearing about him. He's this bizarre dresser. He's a public wit. He's a famously brilliant conversationalist.

Katie Lambert: Which is something that's a little bit harder to talk about, of course, than his works, but one indicator of that is that Churchill chose him as the person he would most like to talk with in the afterlife. He's also famous, of course, for his tragic downfall. A libel suit that turned against him cost him two years in prison and ruined his name and reputation for decades after his death. Since June is pride month in the United States, it seemed like the perfect time to discuss a man who was so famously persecuted because of his sexuality.

Sarah Dowdey: So we will start at the beginning as we always do. Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin on October 16th.

Katie Lambert: I don't have enough names.

Sarah Dowdey: I know. Clearly, neither of us do. He was born in 1854, and his family was of Dutch origin, and they were descended from an artist, appropriately enough. The family had been in Ireland since late 17th century. Since then, they had mostly either worked in land management or worked as doctors.

Katie Lambert: His father, Sir William Wilde, was a renowned ear and eye doctor, and even invented a surgery for cataracts. He operated on the King of Sweden. His mother was Lady Wilde, Jane Francesca Elgee, who was an Irish nationalist and wrote poems and articles under the name "Speranza."

Sarah Dowdey: Which I think I want that to be my nom de plume if I ever take one on. Oscar is the second son, and his birth is followed by that of a sister named Isola. She dies as a young girl, and it's a pretty tragic event in his early years.

Katie Lambert: Switching to a happier aspect of his childhood, Wilde is a dedicated scholar from the very start. He may have later kept a library that mingled philosophers with the silly books and French pornographic writings that we might think of, but to forget his scholarly classical training was a mistake. A fact that Sarah and I liked a lot was that he would tear off the top corner of pages in his books and eat it while he was reading, so a different kind of consumer.

Sarah Dowdey: How much paper did this man eat? He was a very avid reader.

Katie Lambert: One of Sarah's friends lent her an Oscar Wilde book and told her to be very careful with it. She retorted that Oscar Wilde ate his own books. He really didn't know what to say back to that.

Sarah Dowdey: So Wilde earns a scholarship to Trinity College Dublin, which we've talked about before because it's where the Book of Kells is kept. From there he goes to Magdalene College Oxford, and he wins prizes in English and classics, and also really comes to love the philosophies of John Ruskin and Walter Pater. I was thinking, "What English class doesn't start with some essay on Pater?" It seems requisite reading for sure.

Katie Lambert: They all do.

Sarah Dowdey: But he takes Pater's teaching to love art for art's sake a step further. As his son Vivien later describes it, he set out to idolize beauty for beauty's sake. I think that's what we can think of as Wilde's philosophy in his writing.

Katie Lambert: His dorm room was also a little different from mine. He decorated it with blue china and prints by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones, which again, big change from all the Emcee Escher I remember seeing in my friends'. He was also an aesthete, believing that beauty is the ideal that we should all strive for.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, tying back into that motto that we mentioned a second ago. But we're going to skip ahead now to London in 1879. Wilde has just arrived in the city, and he's going to be a writer and an editor, and he's going to do it in style because he dresses really flamboyantly, which is something that might be lost on modern people. You might just think it's old-fashioned, funny clothes, but people did not dress in black silk stockings. That was not your typical attire in this period. People weren't wearing fur-lined coats and knee britches. That was an Oscar Wilde exclusive.

Katie Lambert: This, and his work, and his larger-than-life personality got him satirized in the periodical Punch, and Gilbert and Sullivan added him to the routine basing their character, Bunthorne, on him. He didn't mind being linked to the aesthetic movement. He published poems in 1881 with his own money to help enhance this connection.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, he didn't even mind if it was a mocking connection in some cases. He has a pretty good sense of humor himself. He writes a play, "Vera," shortly thereafter this, which essentially - and this is putting it in a nice way - it's no "Importance of Being Earnest," and it only runs in New York City for one week, not at all in London. By 1882, he's on a lecture tour in the United States and Canada, and this is really how he builds up his fame. When he arrives in New York, he famously declares that he has nothing to declare but his genius, which is going to go down in history books for sure. Then he makes a name for himself touring, giving lectures, having conversations with people, and becoming famous.

Katie Lambert: Coming back from it a star, he got to work in Paris on his next play, "The Duchess of Padua," and it's a commissioned work for the actress Mary Anderson, but she turns it down and doesn't like it, which of course isn't good for business, so he picks up the lecture tour circuit again, this time in England. But it doesn't last long. By 1884, he's settled down in London to marry Constance Lloyd, and despite his later trial and Constance's distancing of her family from her husband, she changes her and her son's last names. "We shouldn't see their marriage as a sham," Vivien wrote about it. Oscar was romantically in love with his beautiful young wife, and for some years, he was ideally happy.

Sarah Dowdey: They have two sons together, Vivien, as we mentioned in '86, and a year before that, Cyril. Oscar works a day job of sorts, first as reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette, and then as an editor for Women's World until 1889. Another important point to make her is that marriage marks a pretty big shift in his working style, and he had mostly written poetry before it. After it, he turns almost exclusively to prose. We have a quote from biographer, Boris Brasol, noting that he began his literary career as a composer of sonorous and pleasing verses in which, however, as he himself admitted; there was more rhyme than reason. Yet as he grew older, he seemed to have lost all taste for poetry. I also think it's important to note that his only major, major poem written after his marriage is "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."

Katie Lambert: His major literary years where he's known so much for his literary brilliance is a pretty short span. It's from 1888 to 1894. His first major piece is The Happy Prince in 1888. That's a collection of fairy tales but very poetical despite being prose. They're for kids and adults, and Sarah and I would like a copy. There are more stories in 1891, Lord Arthur Savie's Crime and Other Stories, and later, A House of Pomegranates and The Sphinx. Also in 1891, he has his first novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which first appeared in Lippincott's magazine and was condemned by reviewers.

Sarah Dowdey: The idea for the novel was actually based in fact. He had gotten it a few years before when he visited the studio of the painter, Basil Ward. Ward was paining this really lovely young man, and after the sitter left, the two agreed that it was too bad this man's beauty would eventually fade and die. They wished that the painting itself could age, and the man could remain forever young. Wilde obviously believes this sounds like the makings of a great story. He also collects some of his philosophical essays eventually into intentions. This is a really, really productive span of a few years for Wilde.

Katie Lambert: Of course, he's also writing drama, like 1891's Lady Windermere's Fan, which he described as one of those modern drawing room plays with pink lampshades.

Sarah Dowdey: It's the epitome of a well-built play, although Katie admitted she was not as much -

Katie Lambert: It's not one of my favorites. But he was called for after his debut performance and gave a bit too smug of a speech speaking to the actors. He said, "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."

Sarah Dowdey: So not terribly modest there. He then heads off to Paris to write Salome in French. Sarah Burnhardt, one of the greatest actresses of her day, wants to start in it. She sends it into rehearsals, but the play is stopped by the censor because no Biblical characters are allowed on the English stage. Wilde is really upset by this, really annoyed, and even considers renouncing his citizenship and moving to France.

Katie Lambert: He probably should have.

Sarah Dowdey: It's unfortunate that he doesn't, but he continues writing these funny plays that are great hits in England. In 1892, he puts out "A Woman of No Importance." This time when the audience cries for author on the stage, he's a little cooler with his speech.

Katie Lambert: By January 1895, he hits the big time when "An Ideal Husband" debuts and is attended by the Prince of Wales, and royalty does not come to a play on opening night, so it's a big deal.

Sarah Dowdey: I guess they're waiting to find out if it's good before they bother.

Katie Lambert: His last play was the best of all, "The Importance of Being Earnest," which debuted February 14th, 1895. That also when his troubles come to a head!

Sarah Dowdey: The root of all this trouble dates back to the start of this big literary success, actually. In 1891 when he met the 22-year-old poet, Lord Alfred Douglas, who was known as Bosie, which was originally derived from his mother's nickname, Boysie! They meet at a tea party, and they become really good friends. They dine together. They stay at each other's houses. They travel together. The first issue with this relationship comes up when Douglas gives one of his friends an old suit, and the friend discovers letters in the pocket.

Katie Lambert: Always check your pockets.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, don't leave your incriminating letters behind. So Wilde is blackmailed because these are rather incriminating letters. This still isn't too big of a problem though. The big issue comes later when Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who absolutely hates the friendship between these two men and may have been a little mentally unhinged himself, goes after Wilde.

Katie Lambert: Aside from his involvement in this whole affair, he's best known for the Queensberry rules of amateur boxing, so perhaps not a great man to get in a tangle with.

Sarah Dowdey: Risky guy to have trouble with for sure.

Katie Lambert: As we mentioned, he didn't like this friendship, but he feels a little better about it after he meets Wilde, who managed to woo him over a long lunch. But in 1894, right when Wilde's fame is reaching its heights, he's angry again with the whole thing and demands his son stop seeing him. He says, "Your intimacy with this man Wilde must either cease, or I will disown you and stop all money supplies. I am not going to try to analyze this intimacy and I make no charge, but to my mind, to pose as a thing is as bad as to be it." Douglas replies rather witheringly, "What a funny little man you are."

Sarah Dowdey: In a telegram too. You can just imagine how his blustery father must've taken that. So Queensberry starts to get pretty menacing after this, and he threatens hotel managers and restaurant managers who may be entertaining the man, harboring the man, and he shows up at the house of Oscar Wilde with a prizefighter. Oscar tells him, "I do not know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight," which is a very menacing warning from this poet whose motto is "beauty for beauty's sake."

Katie Lambert: In 1895 at the opening night of "The Importance of Being Earnest," Queensberry attempts to disrupt the show, so Wilde orders additional protection around the theater, and Queensberry is left outside for the course of the performance. The final blow is when he leaves a card at the club that Wilde and his wife belong to that says, "To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite," I'm not saying that incorrectly. He spelled it incorrectly, and Wilde was grossly offended. He wrote, "I don't see anything now but a criminal prosecution. My whole life seems ruined by this man. I don't know what to do."

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. He's worried that his reputation is going to be affected. He's at the pinnacle of his fame right now. Douglas, who really hates his father, urges Wilde to sue for libel. A lot of his friends think this is a terrible idea. They tell him that he'll have no hope winning it, and that he should just get out of the country, move to France where it's more tolerant, and continue his writing career.

Katie Lambert: But he decides to go ahead with the suit and engages Edward Clark to prosecute and swears to him that there's no basis to this libel. That brings us to our trial, April 3rd, 1895. Wilde is incredibly confident with his suit. He testifies that, "I said to him, 'How dare you say such things as you do about your son and me?'" He also faces off Queensberry's key piece of evidence, a letter from Wilde to Douglas. Clark urges the people to remember that Wilde is a poet and that they should take this letter as the expression of true poetic feeling and nothing more than that.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. So while this letter may seem really out there to you regular people, this is normal stuff for a poet. Wilde is really confident, as you said a second ago. He's sure that his fame and his popularity are going to carry him through this.

Katie Lambert: Are going to prevail.

Sarah Dowdey: This even extends to his cross-examination by Edward Carson, who's representing Queensberry. Wilde's responses make for really, really good reading. They're witty. They're sharp. Sometimes they contradict each other, so maybe it's not the best stuff to be saying on the stand, but it does make for a great entertaining read.

Katie Lambert: Great to read, yeah. The first part of the questioning focused on his literary works, which Wilde defended against charges of immorality. He said, "There's no such thing as an immoral work. Books are well-written or badly written," but his cocky responses started to die down when Carson asks about his relationships, his presents to young men, their low intellectual capacity, and perhaps unsuitability of some of his friends, but Wilde tried to play up his love of youth, which was something he valued in his friends above education or social standing.

Sarah Dowdey: So he tries to make like he's an equal opportunity friend here. He just loves youth. Things get really serious when Carson announces that he'll be introducing a witness that had a sexual relationship with Wilde. This is very dangerous territory, and Clarke knows it. That's because in 1895, the Criminal Law Amendment act had passed, which made it illegal to commit gross indecency, which was essentially criminalizing homosexuality. It meant that this libel suit could become a criminal one with Oscar Wilde going to jail.

Katie Lambert: So Wilde's council advised him to drop the suit, and no jury will convict Queensberry. It's just time to let all of this go, but by the next afternoon, Queensberry's representation has pushed the case ahead into criminal territory, and the inspector delivers the arrest warrant to Magistrate John Bridges, who adjourns the court for a short period, which may have been his way of trying to let Wilde escape.

Sarah Dowdey: Last train to Europe.

Katie Lambert: On a train to Europe, but he doesn't, and his name comes off of "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Sarah Dowdey: Off of the playbills, off the marquee. He just feels like his life is absolutely crumbling. This suit that he felt so confident about has completely backfired on him. On April 26th, 1895, his first criminal trial begins. Wilde is accused of gross indecencies and conspiracy to commit gross indecencies. He's not prosecuted for sodomy, but male witnesses come to court and testify against him. When he himself appears, he's very different from how he was in the earlier trial. He's quiet.

Katie Lambert: Very respectful.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, respectfully denying everything. In Clarke's closing statement, he echoes most modern thoughts and said, "Clear from this fearful imputation, one of our most renowned and accomplished men of letters of today and in clearing him, clears society from a stain."

Katie Lambert: Which we interpreted as meaning that this shouldn't even be a crime and shouldn't be in court, and they shouldn't even be having to respond to it.

Sarah Dowdey: And how embarrassing to put one of your biggest, most famous citizens on trial for something like this.

Katie Lambert: So the jury can't reach a verdict, though they acquit him one charge, and he's released on bail before the second trial begins. You would think that people would let it be at this point, that that would be the end of it. Even Carson is urging people to lighten up, but the liberal government of England wants a conviction.

Sarah Dowdey: One theory is that there were political motives for pursuing Wilde with this great intensity. It's likely that the prime minister, Archibald Primrose, who is the Earl of Rosbery, had had an affair with the brother of Douglas, a man named Francis. Francis is likely to have killed himself. It's not long after he did so that his father, Queensberry started going after Oscar Wilde so intensely, starts this manic attack on him, hoping to "save his other son." It's possible that if Rosbery didn't go after Wilde and didn't try to see his prosecution through to conviction, that his own case and his own crime may have been exposed by Queensberry.

Katie Lambert: According to Douglas Linder, Rosbery had insomnia and depression during the trial, but it disappeared afterward, which perhaps gives a little more credence to that theory. This time, the prosecution is led by Solicitor General, Frank Lockwood, and Wilde describes Lockwood's treatment of him as "an appalling denunciation of me, like something out of Tacitus, like a passage in Dante, like one of Savonarola's indictments of the popes of Rom."

Sarah Dowdey: Which we all know what that's like. So the jury finds Wilde guilty on all counts but one, and he's sentences to two years of hard labor. Most of this is served at Reading gaol. His sons - this is a really sad aspect of the story - his sons are sent to Switzerland, and they never see their father again. Their last name is changed. The wife of Oscar Wilde is really doing all she can to help shore up their reputation for the future, but they're still actually discriminated against as adults because of who their father was.

Katie Lambert: While he's in jail. Wilde writes De Profundis, a letter to Douglas. When Douglas receives it, he destroys it after the first few pages. Sarah, you read some of that.

Sarah Dowdey: It's pretty brutal. I think Douglas thought it was the only copy and he could just get this really detailed account of their relationship and all the things that went wrong just erased from history. It's not just a regretful letter because the result ended in Wilde being in jail - after all, he's writing this from prison - but he's regretful because he feels like Douglas cost him his art, and he's ashamed of how much money they spent. He accuses Douglas of loving his life, loving all the glamorous sides of it.

Katie Lambert: The celebrity writer.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. The play premiers, and the parties, and the fame, but not having any respect for the quiet labor that actually went into all the writing!

Katie Lambert: The daily drudgery of sitting down and actually getting it on paper. Wilde had also sent this manuscript to his publisher, Robert Ross, intending to revise it later. Parts of it were published in 1905.

Sarah Dowdey: Wilde and Douglas reunited for a time after prison, but after Wilde's death, Douglas tried to get the manuscript from Ross, but he instead presented it to the British museum and embargoed its contents for 60 years.

Katie Lambert: I imagine when this came out in 1960, it was a big deal.

Sarah Dowdey: It made quite a splash. Wilde is bankrupt when he comes out of jail. He comes out of France to try to kick start his writing career again, but the only thing he really produces is The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He writes letters to editors in concern about prison condition, though, so he's still out there. He's just not producing at anywhere near the same frequency as he was before his trial.

Katie Lambert: Oscar Wilde died of acute meningitis from an ear infection November 30th, 1900 in Paris. On his deathbed, he was received into the Catholic Church, which he'd long been interested in, along with mysticism, and he's buried at Pere Lachaise in Paris.

Sarah Dowdey: Interestingly, on the same trip, I saw the memorial to him at Reading and his tomb in Paris. It's a pretty crazy contrast. The Paris memorial is this huge winged figure, and it is covered with lipstick kisses. There's a little sign discouraging people to go kiss Oscar Wilde's tomb, but clearly, most people are not following that. It's surrounded by flowers. He's definitely got a lot of very devoted fans still.

Katie Lambert: At least don't wear that indelible lipstick if you feel like you have to.

Sarah Dowdey: Pick a nice shade too. Eventually it turns into a grease spot.

Katie Lambert: Something that Wilde would like. He was very concerned with beauty. We'd like to end on a note that's a little less sad. Sarah found a pretty cool article in The New York Times that's about Wilde and copyright law.

Sarah Dowdey: Weirdly enough. You know the famous photo of him where he's wearing the fur-lined coat, and the knee britches, and the silk stockings, it was taken by a celebrity photographer named Napoleon Sarony. It did play a very important role in copyright law in the United States. That's because the photo had been reproduced as part of this New York department store's campaign after he got so famous on his American tour. Sarony sued, and eventually the Supreme Court ruled that his photo should fall under constitutional copyright protection. The rule is still cited today in disputes over copyright law.

Katie Lambert: Right, the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company versus Sarony.

Sarah Dowdey: That's a little-known Oscar Wilde fact for you.

Katie Lambert: Speaking of things of beauty, that brings us to listener mail.

Sarah Dowdey: Our beautiful objects for today are two bookmarks that we received from listener Mary in Austin, who is five days shy of turning 13, so I guess she's 13 by now. Happy birthday, Mary! She wrote suggesting we do a little bit of history on Texas, specifically the Battle of the Alamo, and a few other things. She even suggested Texas might be ripe for a series, so let us know what you think.

Katie Lambert: I really liked the part on the back where she wrote, "Texas loves you," so I'm just going to go around today saying we're big in Texas. If you would like to send us email, you can at can also follow us on Twitter and see what we're up to on a daily basis at MissedinHistory. You can also join our Facebook fan page and give us your ideas on what you think we should cover. As always, feel free to check out our home page at For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit Want more How Stuff Works? Check out our blogs on the home page.