The Mysteries of Oscar Wilde

By Fisher, Trevor | History Today, December 2000 | Go to article overview

The Mysteries of Oscar Wilde


Fisher, Trevor, History Today


On the centenary of Oscar Wilde's death, Trevor Fisher takes a fresh look at the reasons for the writer's downfall.

A CENTURY AFTER HE DIED, Oscar Wilde has reached unprecendented heights of popularity. Recently commemorated with a window in Westminster Abbey, his plays long established as a staple of modern stage and film, Wilde has become a secular icon. His life is endlessly replayed in books, films and on television while his wit is re-cycled in anthologies and on bookmarks -- vindication indeed for a man who once said `There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.'

Yet though Wilde lived his life in a blaze of self-generated publicity, the causes of his catastrophic fall are surrounded by mystery. The events of his trials, imprisonment and early death have been exhaustively recreated in film and plays. He himself chronicled his disastrous relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas -- `Bosie' -- in the prison letter later published as De Profundis. Since his death writers of the calibre of H. Montgomery Hyde and Richard Ellman have described Wilde's fall in abundant detail.

But as Wilde himself commented, truth is rarely pure and never simple. The familiar tale of a glittering talent brought down by the actions of the Marquess of Queensberry and a homophobic government is untenable. Wilde created his own downfall by suing the Marquess for criminal libel, an action that some have seen as a deliberate act of self-destruction -- `a long and lovely suicide', for at least one writer. Yet there was a cynical rationale behind Wilde's decision to sue Queensbury. He sought to have the Scarlet Marquess imprisoned to stop allegations about his sexuality. This was a high-risk strategy with disastrous consequences.

Wilde's initial action had a reckless logic, but his actions as his gamble went disastrously wrong seem inexplicable. Despite being warned by close friends that he would lose, he staggered, as he put it in De Profundis, `as an ox into the shambles'. He repeatedly refused to flee to safety while he had the chance to do so. Strangest of all, he claimed in De Profundis, that `the sins of another were being laid to my account', and that he could have `saved myself at his expense, not from shame indeed, but from imprisonment'. Yet what Wilde meant by this has never been properly scrutinised.

The mysteries surrounding the fall of Wilde start with the notorious calling card which Queensberry left at Oscar Wilde's club on February 18th, 1895, inscribed `To Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite' (sic). This famous card was the culmination of a savage battle between the Marquess and his son Alfred into which Wilde was drawn. Queensberry was monomaniac over any cause which annoyed him, and when he suspected a homosexual relationship he became a man possessed. He was determined to destroy Bosie's relationship with Wilde. Bosie was equally determined that he would not. Wilde was caught in the crossfire.

The quarrel rose to fever pitch in the autumn of 1894, despite which Wilde finished the most sparkling of his comedies, The Importance of Being Earnest. When this opened triumphantly on February 14th, 1895, it joined An Ideal Husband in playing to packed houses. Wilde knew, however, that Queensberry was plotting against him. The Marquess planned to disrupt the opening night with rotten vegetables to publicise his accusations over Wilde's sexuality, an eventuality the theatre preempted by banning Queensberry and having police posted at the doors to keep him out. Queensberry spent three hours prowling round the building, `gibbering like a monstrous ape' as Wilde later recalled, before retiring frustrated. Four days later, Queensberry left his card at Wilde's club.

It is a mystery why Wilde took this crude provocation seriously. The famous scandal lawyer George Lewis later said that if he had been approached by Wilde he would have advised him to tear up the card and avoid giving Queensberry the legal fight he wanted.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Mysteries of Oscar Wilde
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.