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Born to be Wilde

I couldn’t let a trip to Ireland go by without paying homage to an Irish writer. I had a lot to choose from, as the little emerald isle has churned out a substantial number of linguistically brilliant people. There’s James Joyce, Yeats, and George Bernard Shaw, and Sam Beckett, Maeve Binchy and CS Lewis, to name a few. After much consideration, I’ve chosen Ireland’s most famous aesthete, Mr. Oscar Wilde.

Although many assume Oscar Wilde was British, by virtue of his long term residence in London’s Chelsea district, he was, in fact, about as Irish as they’re made. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born into Dublin high society in 1854. Wilde was a clever child. He was fluent in French and German before even leaving for university. After studying at Dublin’s prestigious Trinity College, he went to Cambridge, where he continued his studies in classical literature. Upon graduating, he moved to London and earned his living writing reviews and articles for various aesthetic magazines.

Wilde was a prolific writer. Aside from the works he is best known for, he also wrote numerous short stories and critical essays. But, even though he was to receive acclaim in his own lifetime for his works, it was his scandalous private life that generated the most popular attention.

Despite being married at the age of 30 and fathering two children, Wilde was a homosexual. He had a long-term relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, a writer some sixteen years his junior. Douglas’s father, the 9th Marquess of Queensbury (as in boxing’s Queensbury Rules!) was deeply troubled by the relationship and took it upon himself to smear Wilde’s reputation. In his defense, Wilde had the marquess civilly arrested for libel, but things were about to unravel. To defend himself against the libel charge, the marquess had only to prove that Wilde was indeed a sodomite, which was easy to do. Wilde’s flamboyance was well known in high society, and there was no shortage of witnesses prepared to come forward and testify. Realizing his mistake, Wilde dropped the charge, but the marquess was not quite done. He immediately had Wilde arrested for sodomy and gross indecency; a crime for which Wilde served two years hard labor. By the time he was released, his health shattered, Wilde exiled himself to Paris, where he died a bankrupt at the age of 46 in 1900.

However scandalous Oscar Wilde’s private life may have been, this is first and foremost a literature blog, so any mention of Wilde has to include his remarkable 1890 novella The Picture of Dorian Gray, a philosophical novel about selling one’s soul in exchange for youthful beauty, and his 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest, which is a biting satire about Victorian propriety.

If you’ve never ventured into Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic world-view, I highly recommend you do. Both these texts are worth the read, as they are just as relevant today as they were back in the late-Victorian era, and the good news for busy readers is they’re bite-sized. That being said, they will leave you questioning the value of social mores and the value society puts on youth and beauty, and who doesn’t love a book that makes you think?

What stories have stayed with you over the years? Stories that made you question some previously held belief? Take a few moments to share them below. I’m always looking for my next great read.

In the meantime, I’m off for a tot of Jameson and a Guiness chaser, so I’ll see you on the other side of Ireland. Erin Go Bragh!

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