Oscar Wilde left a body of literature that continues to entertain generation after generation of readers, but for many of his fans his life leads to his work, not the other way around. Its latest retelling, Oscar Wilde: A Life by Matthew Sturgis, came out in the United States just this past week. “Universally heralded as a genius” when his play The Importance of Being Earnest premiered in London in 1895, he was just a few months later “bankrupt and about to be imprisoned. His reputation was in tatters and his life was ruined beyond repair.” This is how Alain de Botton tells it in “The Downfall of Oscar Wilde,” the animated School of Life video above.
Wilde was imprisoned, as even those who’ve never read a word he wrote know, for his homosexuality. This de Botton described as “the swift fall of a great man due to a small but fateful slip,” a result of the social and legal conditions that obtained in the time and place in which Wilde lived. Having fallen for “a beguiling young man named Lord Alfred Douglas,” known as “Bosie,” Wilde found himself on the receiving end of threats from Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury. Their conflict eventually provoked the Marquess to publicize Wilde and Bosie’s relationship all throughout London, and since “homosexuality was illegal and deeply frowned upon in Victorian society, this was a dangerous accusation.”
Though Wilde fought a valiant and characteristically eloquent court battle, he was eventually convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of imprisonment and hard labor. “For someone of Wilde’s luxurious background,” says de Botton, “it was an impossible hardship.” This time inspired his essay De Profundis, and later his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but according to most accounts of his life, he never really recovered from it before succumbing to meningitis in 1900. He had plans, writes The New Yorker’s Clare Bucknell, “for a new social comedy, a new Symbolist drama, a new libretto.” But as his lover Bosie put it, Wilde’s life of post-release continental exile was “too narrow and too limited to stir him to creation.”
The United Kingdom has since pardoned Wilde (and others, like computer scientist Alan Turing) for the crimes committed in their lifetimes that would not be considered crimes today. More than a century has passed since Wilde’s death, and “our society has become generous towards Wilde’s specific behavior,” says de Botton. “Many of us would, across the ages, want to comfort and befriend Oscar Wilde. It’s a touching hope, but one that would be best employed in extending understanding to all those less talented and less witty figures who are right now facing grave difficulties.” Wilde might have come to a bleak end, but the life he lived and the reactions it provoked still have much to teach us about our attitudes today.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.