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Thursday, 30 November, 2000, 16:08 GMT
Wilde at heart
Oscar Wilde
The legend endures: Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde
A century after his death, who is the real Oscar Wilde - a witty Irishman abroad, or a political subversive as relevant now as 100 years ago? BBC News Online's Olive Clancy looks for an answer.

"To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance," he said.

Indeed, Oscar Wilde's witty self-praise underpins a long-running, if chequered love affair between the Irish writer and his public.

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde's grave in Paris still attracts visitors
Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 to Sir William Wilde, known as a good - if grubby - surgeon and even more so as a womaniser.

His wife, Lady Jane, was a political intellectual and socialite who wrote poetry under the pen-name Speranza.

The relationship between Wilde and his mother was close but difficult, and careered between resentment and outright adoration.

Wilde was a brilliant student at both Dublin's Trinity College and at Oxford in England and went on to become the toast of London at the close of the 19th Century.

He was known as much for his flamboyant dress sense as his writing.


The English country gentleman galloping after a fox - the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable

A Woman of No Importance, 1893
As such, he was an international celebrity long before he wrote the sinister The Picture of Dorian Gray, or Lady Windermere's Fan, a social comedy which was far more successful with the public than his first play.

Comic veneer cloaking sharp analysis of class, society and human nature was a feature of his best-known work like The Importance of Being Earnest and A Woman Of No Importance.

A relentless self-publicist, Wilde jokingly compared the modern press to the medieval rack.

But he was so shrewd in using newsmen to build the cult of his own personality that his press interviews and recollections run to two volumes.

But his life took a shocking downturn towards its end.


Every good man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography

The Critic as Artist (1891)

Instead of remaining a witty Irishman in London society, Wilde came to be seen as a subversive.

When he died on November 30, 1900, it was in a dingy Paris hotel room, and his reputation was as sullied as his diseased corpse.

Though it was an ear infection that finally killed him, his career and, some say, his spirit was broken by a prison sentence for "gross indecency" as a result of his homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas.

Friends deserted him and publishers refused to touch his work. He became an outcast from the society he so adored.

These attitudes remained in play till surprisingly recently.

Writing in 1948, the lawyer Sir Patrick Hastings declared that the name Oscar Wilde "typifies all that is degraded in human life".


Education is an admirable thing, but it is as well to remember that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught

Critics argued that the whole of Wilde's life and work was little more than an elaborate pose.

In 1962, for instance, the late Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that if it were not for his position as a homosexual martyr Oscar Wilde would have "taken a relatively obscure place in literary history".

But then as Wilde himself used to say, "the first duty in life is to assume a pose".

Feminists also find much to criticise in his lifestyle and writing.

He married in 1884 but never showed any great love or loyalty for his wife, Constance, as he drove her to misery by embarking on open homosexual affairs.

The couple did have two children, who Wilde managed to ignore for the most part.

Oscar Wilde
Wilde's attitudes to women have been questioned in recent years

It seems that he was also something of a misogynist.

"Love for women is intellectually sterile, for women are receptive only. They take everything and give nothing," he wrote.

In short Wilde was and remains as controversial a figure as ever.

His grandson Merlin Holland agrees that his legacy is a very difficult thing to put a finger on.

He has said that, as well as a writer of stature his grandfather was also "a convict, a homosexual, a bankrupt ... and a charismatic figure prepared to stand up for what he believed in".

Here was an astute critic and commentator, a writer at odds with the stuffiness of his age and a man who amused but finally enraged his tight-laced Victorian contemporaries.


The truth is rarely pure and never simple

Whatever one thinks of Oscar Wilde, his celebrity or notoriety clearly endures.

Exhibitions, plays, films and books about his life appear regularly and are avidly received.

Though born in the middle of the 19th Century, Oscar Wilde is a quintessentially modern figure.

With his cutting wit, contempt for morality and obsessions with fame and fashion, he seems completely in tune with our age.

It is an irony that Wilde himself would surely enjoy that he is now admired by actors and academics, gay activists and Catholic priests alike.

And as he famously said, "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. "

See also:

01 Dec 00 | Entertainment
The wit of Wilde
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