The Family of Oscar Wilde — Dr Michael Collins — 5th February 2018

We all knew that Oscar Wilde was a bit of a lad, and those of us who enjoyed Mike Collins’s enthralling talk about the Irish poet and play­wright now also know that he was some­thing of a chip off the old block. For while Oscar played a cent­ral part in the story, Mike’s present­a­tion – sub­titled Genius, Eccentricity and Tragedy — helped us under­stand how Wilde’s char­ac­ter was to a large extent shaped by his intel­lec­tual and upper middle class family.

Oscar was born in 1854 to William (later Sir William) Wilde, a prom­in­ent Dublin ear and eye sur­geon, and his wife Jane Elgee, a noted poet, fem­in­ist and social­ite. He was home edu­cated to the age of nine, with French and German gov­ernesses, and became fluent in both lan­guages. After uni­ver­sity in Dublin and Oxford, where Wilde proved him­self an out­stand­ing clas­si­cist, he moved to London and into fash­ion­able cul­tural and social circles.

He embraced the rising philo­sophy of aes­thet­i­cism, a lit­er­ary and artistic move­ment which was devoted to ‘art for art’s sake’ and which rejec­ted the notion that art should have a social or moral pur­pose. He pub­lished a book of poems, and lec­tured in the United States and Canada on the new English renais­sance in art, before return­ing to London where he worked pro­lific­ally as a journ­al­ist.

Known for his biting wit, flam­boy­ant dress and glit­ter­ing con­ver­sa­tional skill, Wilde became one of the best known per­son­al­it­ies of his day.

Oscar’s wife Constance, with their son Cyril

He had been intro­duced in 1881 to Constance Lloyd, daugh­ter of a wealthy QC. She happened to be vis­it­ing Dublin in 1884 when Wilde was lec­tur­ing at the Gaiety Theatre. He pro­posed to her, and they were mar­ried at the Anglican St James’s Church in Paddington, London.

But Wilde was lead­ing a double life. At the height of his suc­cess, Wilde had the Marquess of Queensberry pro­sec­uted for crim­inal libel after the latter had left a call­ing card at Wilde’s club, the Albemarle, on which he scribbled: “For Oscar Wilde, posing as Somdomite (sic).” The Marquess was the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The libel trial unearthed evid­ence that caused Wilde to drop his charges and led to his own arrest and trial for gross inde­cency with men. After two more trials he was con­victed and sen­tenced to two years’ hard labour from 1895 to 1897.

Upon his release from Reading Gaol, Wilde left imme­di­ately for France, never to return to Ireland or Britain. There he wrote his last work, the Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), and he died des­ti­tute in Paris from cereb­ral men­ingitis at the age of just 46.

Mike Collins gradu­ated from University College, Galway, in 1973, and his interest in Wilde and his family stems largely from the fact that he grew up in the same town, Castlerea, Co Roscommon, as William Wilde, him­self the son of a prom­in­ent local med­ical prac­ti­tioner.

Mike drew com­par­is­ons between Oscar and his father. For although Sir William became pre-eminent in his field, becom­ing wealthy enough to open his own private hos­pital in Dublin, St Mark’s Opthalmic Hospital, in 1844, and being appoin­ted as Oculist-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria, his later life was also mired in con­tro­versy.

Sir William Wilde, Oscar’s father

His repu­ta­tion suffered irre­par­able damage when Mary Travers, a long-term patient of Wilde’s and the daugh­ter of a col­league, claimed that he had seduced her two years earlier. She wrote a pamph­let crudely par­ody­ing Sir William and Lady Wilde and por­tray­ing him as the rapist of a female patient anaes­thet­ised under chlo­ro­form.

 

Jane, Lady Wilde (sketch attrib­uted to George Morosini)

Lady Wilde com­plained to Mary’s father, Robert Travers, which res­ul­ted in Mary bring­ing a libel case against Lady Wilde. Mary Travers won the case but was awar­ded a mere farth­ing in dam­ages, while legal costs of £2,000 were awar­ded against Lady Wilde.

Then, three years later, the Wilde’s daugh­ter Isola died of fever at the age of nine. In 1871, the two ille­git­im­ate daugh­ters of Sir William burned to death in an acci­dent, and in 1876 Sir William him­self died. The family dis­covered that he was vir­tu­ally bank­rupt.

Lady Wilde, who wrote under the pseud­onym Speranza, was an early advoc­ate for women’s rights and gained a repu­ta­tion for pro-Irish inde­pend­ence and anti-British writ­ing. She wrote an art­icle for The Nation call­ing for armed revolu­tion in Ireland, as a result of which the magazine was per­man­ently closed down by the author­it­ies.

Oscar and Constance Wilde had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). After Oscar’s impris­on­ment, Constance changed her sur­name to Holland and, although not seek­ing a divorce, denied par­ental rights to Oscar.

According to Vyvyan Holland’s accounts in his auto­bi­o­graphy, Son of Oscar Wilde, Oscar was a devoted and loving father to his two sons and their child­hood was a rel­at­ively happy one.

At the start of his present­a­tion Mike had run a few of Oscar Wilde’s wit­ti­cisms past us, includ­ing one of the best known: “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of noth­ing.” Personally, the one I like the best was reputedly uttered as he lay dying in a dingy hotel room in Paris. “My wall­pa­per and I are fight­ing a duel to the death. One of us has to go.”