Emer O'Sullivan's The Fall of the House of Wilde: Oscar Wilde and His Family is an impressively comprehensive biography that's equal parts political history, literary criticism, and Shakespearean tragedy. O'Sullivan selects 10 details from her book.
Everyone’s heard of Oscar Wilde – cultural icon and homosexual martyr, and one of the first modern celebrities. What few know is he owed his most outstanding qualities – his advanced intellectualism, his ostentation, his hedonism, his hauteur, his progressive sexual values – to his parents. Here are some facts from my biography, The Fall of the House of Wilde, you might not know.
1. America was where the young Irishman became “Oscar Wilde.” He went there in his 20s to lecture on Aesthetics, it was an empowering experience. The American media ridiculed him – for his clothes, his effete mannerisms. He never flinched, he was fearless. Indeed, he learned to use the constant glare of the press to his advantage. His eloquence, wit, and theatrics made excellent copy. He triumphed in the end. He returned with the confidence of a superstar and was thereafter a transatlantic celebrity. One of the first to become famous for nothing other than being himself.
2. Oscar’s father, Sir William Wilde, was the subject of a scandalous court case. One of the most accomplished Victorian men of his generation (eye and ear surgeon, historian, archaeologist), Sir William was accused of rape by Mary Travers, a long term patient. Travers used every trick in the book to humiliate Sir William. She wrote a pamphlet presenting him as a misfit of a doctor, one who used chloroform to numb his patients into sexual submission. The pamphlet, together with extracts from love letters he wrote her, were distributed by newspaper boys all over Dublin, into the letter box of the Wilde home for the children to see, into the homes of patients and friends, sold on the streets for a penny, they even followed Sir William into to the Metropolitan Hall, where he had come to deliver a prestigious annual lecture on Ireland’s history. Mary kept up this campaign until the trial six months later, tarnishing Sir William’s reputation.
3. Oscar’s mother, Lady Jane Wilde, was involved in Ireland’s 1848 uprising. A journalist, poet, literary critic and translator, Jane penned a notorious editorial in the Nation calling on the country to rise up against British colonialism. She stood outside her conservative, Protestant background and reminded the British government that Catholics too were entitled to human rights. She dared to say what was then scarcely thinkable – that imperialism could not survive as it was exploitative and self-serving. As a consequence, she too had her moment in court.
4. One of Oscar Wilde’s role was that of Victorian husband and father. In his late 20s Oscar married the beautiful Constance Lloyd, Anglo-Irish like himself. They produced two gorgeous boys, Cyril and Vyvyan. For a few years, Oscar charmed parties with his witty wordplay and lived in a bubble of beauty and domestic harmony, so was to all appearances a happy family man. But Oscar was a master at artificiality. He had no appetite for the domestic or for stability. Two years into the marriage, Oscar met Robbie Ross, then a 17-year-old Canadian, and they became lovers. Robbie moved into the Wilde home in Chelsea, where he stayed for a few months, as friend to Constance and lover to Oscar.
5. It was Lord Alfred Douglas, not Oscar, who coined the famous phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name.” Homosexuality was then typically clothed in euphemisms like Greek love. The technical term “homosexuality” was coined as recently as 1869. It then became the focus of physicians and lawyers. Many countries in the 1870s introduced or revised their legal codes governing sexual congress between consenting adults. Britain revised its laws to make them more stringent. Those convicted of “acts of gross indecency between men” were sentenced to two years in prison and hard labour. Oscar would be caught by a legal gesture.
6. Oscar instigated his own trial. It was Oscar who took the Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas’s father, to court, not the reverse. Queensberry accused Oscar of posing as a sodomite. He could have ignored the slander – after all he was engaged in homosexual liaisons. But Oscar stupidly sued. Inevitably he lost his case. The image of an aggrieved father, trying to shield his son from moral corruption, together with evidence of Oscar’s priapic pursuits, won the day for Queensberry. With rude suddenness, Oscar went from being the celebrated playwright of the day, then with two hits running in London’s west-end, to being stigmatised as a criminal.
7. Oscar’s brother, Willie Wilde, married one of the most formidable American women of her generation, Mrs. Frank Leslie. A barrister-cum-journalist, Willie had no appetite for work. He sought refuge in marriage and thought his fortunes blessed when he became the fifth husband of Mrs. Frank Leslie, a newspaper magnate, best known as the owner of the Popular Monthly. Mrs. Leslie was a blend of 18th century grande dame and 20th century business executive. Energetic, self-promoting, dynamic, and 15 years Willie’s senior, Mrs. Leslie and Willie were hopelessly mismatched. The marriage was over in a year. Willie, in her words, refused to work. He thought what America needed most of all was a leisure class. Willie returned to London and sunk lower into debauchery and apathy, until drink brought on an early death.
8. Oscar had three illegitimate siblings, a brother and two sisters. Sir William fathered three children by two separate women, their identities remain unknown. The first, Henry Wilson, was 13 when William married Jane. He was commonly referred to as William’s nephew. His two daughters, Emily and Mary, were reared by William’s eldest brother. The women were burnt to death in their early 20s. Emily’s crinoline dress caught a flame from an open fire. Mary tried to save her sister, but her dress also went up in flames. It is not known whether Jane, Oscar or Willie knew Sir William was their father.
9. Oscar was one of the most vilified men of his generation. The American press frequently treated Oscar as a freak. One of the most brutal snipes appeared in the Washington Post in 1882: a cartoon comparing Oscar to a simian figure identified as the Wild Man of Borneo. Oscar holds a sunflower, the monkey a coconut. The accompanying piece asks, "If Mr. Darwin is right in his theory, has not the climax of evolution been reached and are we not heading down the hill toward the aboriginal starting point?" From reading this few would have guessed that Oscar was one of the best classicists of his generation, having achieved the rare feat of a double first at Oxford.
10. The details of Oscar’s priapic pursuits were aired in court, making his trial one of the most scandalous of the nineteenth century. The evidence given by Charles Parker, one of the most brash of Oscar’s "rent" boys, stands as a model. Parker told the Victorian court: "I was asked to imagine that I was a woman and that he was my lover. I used to sit on his knees and he used to play with my privates as a man might amuse himself with a girl." Lest we forget, the Victorians were still uncomfortable with the public display of a woman’s ankle. Little wonder the curtain came down on the age of decadence and a new age of intolerance set in.