Friday, October 16, 2015

The Arc of a Life: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900)


1854 Born in Dublin; privately educated.

1871-74 Trinity College, Dublin; classics. Winner of the Berkeley Medal for excellence in the Greek language.

1874-78 Magdalen College, Oxford; classics. Winner of the Newdigate Prize in poetry, 1878. Graduated with a double first.

1877 Audience with Pope Pius IX; speechless. Considered converting; got over it.

1878 Wooed childhood sweetheart Florence Balcombe, who married author Bram Stoker instead.

1878-81 Moved to London, sought various Oxbridge academic posts.

1880 Wrote his first play, Vera, Or, The Nihilists, a melodrama. It ran for one week in New York in 1883.

1881 Published first collection of poems.

1882 Embarked on a sensational, year-long, 150 city lecture tour of America.

1883 Lectured in UK on his tour of America, and other topics. Wrote a five-act play, The Duchess of Padua, which ran for three weeks in New York in 1891 and has rarely been seen since.

1884 Married Constance Lloyd in London.

1885 Son, Cyril, born.

1885-87 Made a living mostly in journalism as editor of The Women’s World.

1886 Son, Vyvyan, born. Met and entered into an affair with Robert Ross.

1888 Published The Happy Prince and Other Stories.

1889-91 Published a series of long essays on aesthetics.

1891 Published Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories; A House of Pomegranates. Met Lord Alfred Douglas, then a 21-year old undergraduate at Wilde's Oxford College, Magdalen and third son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Published The Picture of Dorian Gray.

1891 Wrote his play, Salome’.

1892 Premiered his play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, in London in February.

1893 Published Salome’ in London and Paris. Premiered his play, A Woman of No Importance, in London.

1894 Wrote the play, An Ideal Husband. Confronted at his home by the Marquess of Queensberry over his affair with Queensberry's son, Lord Alfred Douglas. In October, Queensberry's son and heir, Francis, died in a hunting accident, aged 27. Widely thought to be bisexual, Francis was rumored to have been having an affair with Lord Rosebery, the Prime Minister,as whose private secretary Francis was serving. Queensberry loudly accused the PM of just that and is thought by some to have threatened to expose Rosebery if Wilde was not prosecuted for his affair with Alfred.

Rosebery, who was a compromise choice for prime minister to succeed the retiring William Gladstone, he presided, unhappily, over a party riven by dissent and resigned after losing a budget vote in 1895. He retired from politics in 1896, and is mostly remembered as the only prime minister to win the Derby two of his three times during his fifteen months in office, and for dying the richest prime minister in history, thanks to his marriage to baker Mayer de Rothschild's only daughter.

1895 Premiered his plays, An Ideal Husband, in London in January; and The Importance of Being Earnest, in February.

Queensbury's 'Somdomite' card.jpg

Four days later, the Marquess of Queensberry left his calling card at Wilde’s club, with the notation, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” [sic]. Wilde filed a libel action the next week; the Marquess was arrested. 

The trial opened April 3 amid frenzied press coverage.

After a string of rent-boy witnesses and a devastating cross-examination of Wilde by the prosecutor, Sir Edward Carson,Wilde withdrew his case. Under the Libel Act, the court found Queensberry’s accusation true as a matter of law, and Wilde liable for his legal fees and costs. 

Wilde was promptly arrested for acts of gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, jailed, and placed on trial April 26.

After a short trial, in which Wilde again did himself no favors in the witness box, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Wilde was retried, found guilty on May 25, and sentenced to two years’ hard labor.

1895-97 Wilde served his sentence at Pentonville and Wandsworth
Prisons, then at Reading Gaol.

1896 Wilde’s play, Salome; was premiered in Paris.

1897 Wilde wrote a 50,000 word letter to Douglas, entrusting it to Robert Ross, who may or may not have forwarded a copy to Douglas (who claimed he did not receive it). Wilde was released from jail in May and requested a six-month retreat at a Jesuit monastery. The request was denied.

Wilde went to France, traveling under the name Sebastian Melmoth, a forever- wandering character in a novel by his great-uncle, Charles Maturin. He spent a few months with Robert Ross, and wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

In August Wilde met Alfred Douglas at Rouen; they lived together in Naples for a few months, until both men’s families threatened to cut off their funds if the affair was not ended.

1898 Wilde moved into a cheap hotel in Paris. He drank a lot and wandered the streets. Cut by one-time friends he met in the city, he became more and more withdrawn, and his health, broken in prison, began to fail.

Constance Wilde died at 39. She had changed her and her sons’ surname to Holland, though she did not divorce him and sent him financial support conditioned on not seeing Alfred Douglas. The boys had been told their father was dead in 1895; they were given a new surname but not told why; and they were shipped off to schools where no one knew them. Their mother's family raised them grudgingly, constantly disparaging them and were relieved to get shot of them when they reached their majorities.

1900 In January, the Marquess of Queensberry died of syphilis in his club in London. He was 55. After a boisterous life of loudly proclaimed atheism, he embraced Catholicism on his deathbed. He was succeeded in the title by his second son, Percy, whom he detested; he had disowned him for marrying a clergyman's daughter in 1893; when Percy returned from gold prospecting in Australia Queensberry pretended a reconciliation; the two got into a public fight during the Wilde trials and were both bound over on a five hundred pound bond- each. When Percy visited his dying father, Queensberry spat on him. 

In February, Percy and Alfred both visited Wilde in Paris; he found them "in deep mourning and the highest spirits." So relieved was the new Marquess to bury his father, he went on a riotous spending spree and had to file for bankruptcy in December 1901.

Ill, Wilde summoned Ross by telegram October 12. Another friend who stuck with him, Reggie Turner, tended Wilde; Ross arrived November 29. A priest was summoned; Wilde was received into the Catholic Church. The last rites were administered November 30, just before Wilde died of cerebral meningitis. He was 46
years old.

He was buried in the Cimitiere de Bagneaux in Paris. Douglas, who had come into his inheritance and, while sending occasional checks, declined a pension for Wilde- who was still a bankrupt to Douglas' father's legal fees- was chief mourner at the funeral, and got into a row with Robert Ross.

1902 Alfred Douglas- “Bosie” to friends- having set up as a gentleman poet, married and fathered a child. He and his wife converted to Catholicism, but had a stormy marriage marked by frequent separations. After the 1920s they lived apart but never divorced.

1905 Excerpts of De Profundis, the long letter Wilde wrote to Douglas from prison, were first published.

1907 Bosie Douglas, playing at magazine editing, had an affair with artist Romaine Brooks, who was also bisexual (the main love of her life, Natalie Clifford Barney, also had an affair with Wilde's niece Dorothy and even, in 1901, with Douglas' future wife Olive Custance, the year before the couple married), that ran off and on until 1910.

1908 With financial contributions from friends, Robert Ross commissioned sculptor Jacob Epstein to carve a tomb for Wilde. The choice caused a scandal as Epstein’s only executed commission, for the British Medical Association building, was considered too sexual for public viewing.

1909 Wilde’s remains were moved to the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

1912 Epstein completed the tomb, a vast winged figure, a messenger swiftly moving with vertical wings, giving the feeling of forward flight, the conception was purely symbolic, the conception of a poet as a messenger, from a 20-ton block of stone.

French officials refused to accept the tomb as a work of art and levied substantial import duties on it, which delayed its installation and caused a new scandal over the fact the mythic winged figure was cared with genitalia. It was finally unveiled in August 1914.

Scholar Arthur Ransome published a critical study of the work of Wilde.

wilde tomb.jpg

1913 Alfred Douglas, hard up for money, sued Ransome for libel. He lost. Like Wilde, who was bankrupted by the Marquess of Queensberry’s legal fees in 1895, Douglas was ruined financially by Ransome’s fees and costs.

1914 Douglas published his own memoir of his life with Wilde, using a ghostwriter. He strove mightily to distance himself from his one-time love.

1915 Wilde’s elder son, Cyril, was killed in action in World War I

1918 Alfred Douglas testified as a defence witness in a libel case against a right-wing MP, Noel Billington, who published an article accusing actress Maud Allen- then performing Salome’- of being part of a nationwide homosexual network- including Ross- seeking to undermine the British war effort. He denounced Wilde as the most wicked man to live in England in the preceding 350 years, and testified he wished he had never known him. Douglas was feeling his oats after receiving fifty pounds and an apology from both the Oxford and Cambridge University magazines for libeling him in articles about Wilde.

Robert Ross- Oscar’s “Robbie”- died in November at the age of 49. He had acted as Wilde’s executor and remained a close friend of Wilde’s sons.

1923 Alfred Douglas went on trial for libeling Winston Churchill, claiming that during World War II Churchill issued false reports of a British defeat at the naval battle of Jutland in order to benefit Jewish speculators on the London stock exchange. He was sentenced to six months in prison, during which he wrote a very long poem and after which he bitterly complained over how prison conditions had broken his health.

1931 Douglas published his memoirs, doing a volte-face on his relationship with Wilde.

1940 Douglas published another memoir of his life with Wilde, rather more charitably disposed toward his former love.

1945 Douglas died at the home of friends, aged 75. They established a prize at Oxford, in his honor, for the best Petrarchan sonnet.

1950 Honoring his request, Robbie Ross’ ashes were placed inside Wilde’s tomb on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

1961 Wilde’s tomb was vandalized, and the scandalous genitalia removed.

1962 De Profundis was published, in full, for the first time.

1967 Vivian Holland, Wilde’s second son, died. His 1954 biography of his father, was revised by his son, Merlin, who, as literary executor, has made a career in Wilde scholarship to recover the memory of the grandfather whose memory erased by his family.

1989 Historian Richard Ellmann won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Wilde, which set off a row with Merlin Holland over Ellmann’s claim Wilde died of complications of syphilis.

1997 Oscar Wilde’s great-grandson, Lucian, entered Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was assigned Oscar’s rooms in the High Street (he is now a computer programmer in London). 

A film starring Stephen Fry was the first to treat Wilde’s life as a whole, where previous films and plays had been highly sanitized. 

Moises Kaufman's play, Gross Indecency, drew on the transcripts of Wilde's trials and continues in performance to this day.

2000 Leon Johnson, an artist, installed a silver prosthesis to replace the portion of Epstein’s tomb vandalized in 1961.

Ireland celebrated the centenary of Wilde’s death with public events and a postage stamp in his honor.

2011 After years of a tradition among visitors to don lipstick and kiss Wilde's tomb, cemetery officials announced the cumulative effect was severely damaging the limestone, and placed a glass barrier around it.

2013 Queen Elizabeth II, responding to a public campaign, issued a posthumous pardon to Alan Turing, the World War II codebreaker with turning the tide of British fortunes in World War II. Convicted of indecent acts in the 1950s, Turing was stripped of his security classification and subjected to “chemical castration; he committed suicide in 1954.

No action has been taken to grant pardons to Wilde, or an estimated 75,000 other men convicted under the same statutes.

2015 On May 22, the voters of the Irish Republic approved same-sex marriage by a 62-38% margin.

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