Who were Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas? What great scandal made their names so memorable in English Literary history? What were the infamous ‘Wilde Trials’ all about? Discover the answers in this lesson.
Learn about the life and works of both men and their relationship, and test your knowledge with a quiz.
Oscar Wilde: Life and Works
Oscar Wilde, famous for his witty writing and social commentary together with his scandalous private life, is one of the most well-known Irish playwrights of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Wilde was born in Dublin on October 16, 1854 to Dr. William Wills Wilde and Jane Francesca Wilde, who had written Irish nationalist poetry under the pseudonym Speranza. In 1864, Wilde entered the Portora Royal School and in 1871 he enrolled in Trinity College, where he developed an interest in Greek art and culture while studying under Reverend John Pentland Mahaffy.
In 1873 Wilde earned a scholarship to Magdalen College at Oxford, where he enrolled in 1874.
While at Oxford, Wilde became enamored of the teachings of two faculty members: John Ruskin and Walter Pater, whose theories of art heavily influenced Wilde’s work. He was particularly influenced by Ruskin’s theory that the creation of art and beauty must inevitably serve a moral purpose to improve humanity. Pater’s theory that art must explore all aspects of the human experience, even the capacity for sin and evil, also impacted Wilde. Wilde received Oxford’s Newdigate Prize in June 1878 for his poem Ravenna, and by the time he completed his degree that year had published several poems in periodicals. He also expressed a brief interest in the Roman Catholic faith during his time at Oxford, but abandoned it when the death of his half-brother left him a sum of 100 pounds and a share in their father’s cottage only if Wilde remained Protestant.After graduating from Oxford, Wilde moved to London, where he wrote his first play, Vera. In 1881 he published his first collection of poems.
In 1884, Wilde married Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a London lawyer; the couple had two sons, Cyril (born in 1885) and Vyvyan (born in 1886). Wilde’s first homosexual affair occurred in 1887 with Cambridge student Robert Ross, the son of Canada’s Attorney General; the affair lasted two years. In 1891, shortly after the publication of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, his friend and fellow poet Lionel Johnson introduced him to Lord Alfred Douglas, then a student at Magdalen College, and the two quickly began an affair. Between 1891 and 1895, Wilde reached the height of his literary success, despite often complaining that tending to his demanding lover interfered with his writing.
After being educated at the Wixenford School, Douglas attended Winchester College from 1884 to 1888 and Magdalen College at Oxford from 1889 to 1893, leaving without completing a degree.
While at Oxford, he edited an undergraduate journal, the Spirit Lamp. His father disapproved of this and of his leaving Oxford before obtaining a degree. He later disowned his son and divorced Sibyl, supposedly to prevent giving birth to future sons afflicted with homosexuality.
Following Douglas’s tumultuous relationship with Wilde and Wilde’s death in 1900, Douglas became friends with English poet Olive Custance, whom he married in 1902. The couple’s marriage lasted only ten years, but they remained friends until Olive’s death in 1944. In 1911, he converted to Roman Catholicism and later founded Plain English, a strongly anti-Semitic magazine.
Throughout his later years, he maintained several close friendships with literary contemporaries, one of the most notable being George Bernard Shaw. Douglas died of congestive heart failure on March 20, 1945 in Sussex, England. His body of works includes several volumes of poetry, an autobiography, a book about his relationship with Wilde (Oscar Wilde and Myself), and Oscar Wilde: a Summing up.
The Wilde Trials
The Marquess of Queensberry, long suspicious of his son’s relationship with Wilde, confronted Wilde about the affair at Wilde’s home in June of 1894. ON February 18, 1895, Queensberry left a calling card at Wilde’s gentleman’s club, inscribed with the words, ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite’ (believed to be a misspelling of sodomite).
Wilde, with Lord Alfred Douglas’s encouragement, sued Queensberry for Criminal Libel. Queensberry avoided the libel charge by giving evidence that his accusation was true. At the trial, beginning in April 1895, letters between Wilde and Douglas and evidence of liaisons with male prostitutes were used against Wilde to prove Queensberry’s case.
Wilde dropped his case against Queensberry, but was held legally responsible for Queensberry’s legal expenses, which left him bankrupt.Following the trial, Wilde was arrested on charges of Sodomy and Gross Indecency. Regina VS Wilde began on April 26, 1895.
Wilde pleaded not guilty, but was eventually found guilty and sentenced to two years hard labor. He was imprisoned first in Pentonville Prison and then Wandsworth Prison in London before eventually being transferred to Reading Prison, which formed the basis of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Wilde wrote and published the poem about his experiences at Reading following his release under his prison ID number C.3.3.
During his imprisonment, Wilde also wrote a long letter to Douglas in which he reflected on their relationship. He was not permitted to send the letter, but he entrusted the manuscript to Robert Ross following his release in 1897. The letter was published as De Profundis, partially in 1905 and fully in 1962. Douglas later denounced Wilde in his account of their relationship, Oscar Wilde and Myself, though he reportedly later regretted it.