Oscar Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland. He was educated at Trinity College in Dublin and at Magdalen College, Oxford, and settled in London, where he married Constance Lloyd in 1884. In the literary world of Victorian London, Wilde fell in with an artistic crowd that included W. B. Yeats, the great Irish poet, and Lillie Langtry, mistress to the Prince of Wales. A great conversationalist and a famous wit, Wilde began by publishing mediocre poetry but soon achieved widespread fame for his comic plays. The first, Vera; or, The Nihilists, was published in 1880. Wilde followed this work with Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Although these plays relied upon relatively simple and familiar plots, they rose well above convention with their brilliant dialogue and biting satire.
Wilde published his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, before he reached the height of his fame. The first edition appeared in the summer of 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. It was criticized as scandalous and immoral. Disappointed with its reception, Wilde revised the novel, adding a preface and six new chapters. In 1891, the same year that the second edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray was published, Wilde began a homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, an aspiring but rather untalented poet.
On February 28, 1895, two weeks after The Importance of Being Earnest’s opening night, Lord Alfred’s belligerent, homophobic father, the Marquess of Queensberry, publicly accused Wilde of “posing as a somdomite.” The nobleman meant “sodomite,” of course, an insulting and potentially defamatory term for a homosexual. Queensberry had for some time been harassing Wilde with insulting letters, notes, and confrontations and had hoped to disrupt the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest with a public demonstration, which never took place. Against the advice of his friends, Wilde sued for libel and lost. Wilde probably should have fled the country, as the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 had made homosexual acts punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. However, Wilde chose to stay and was arrested. Despite information about Wilde’s private life and writings that emerged at the trial, the prosecution initially proved unsuccessful. However, Wilde was tried a second time, convicted, and sentenced to prison for two years.
Wilde may have remained in England for a number of reasons, including self-destructiveness, denial, desperation, and a desire for martyrdom. However, some historians have suggested that Wilde’s relentless persecution by the government was a diversionary tactic. Lord Alfred’s older brother was reportedly also having a homosexual affair with Archibald Philip Primrose, Lord Rosebery, the man who would become prime minister. Queensberry was apparently so outraged that he threatened to disclose the relationship, and the government reacted by punishing Wilde and his lover in an effort to assuage the marquess. In any case, Wilde served his full sentence under conditions of utmost hardship and cruelty. Following his release from prison, his health and spirit broken, he sought exile in France, where he lived out the last two years of his life in poverty and obscurity under an assumed name. He died in Paris in 1900.