Published in 2001 by Scottish publisher Geddes & Grosset as part of a series called “The Irish Biographies,” this small book, “Oscar Wilde,” is one of many about one of Ireland’s most famous authors. It is a marvelous example of delightful reading in a small package.
It is out-of-print but seems to be readily available from various online sources. By chance I picked up a nice copy at the most recent Rohnert Park Library book sale.
Wilde is perhaps best known as the author of a comic and satiric play called “The Importance of Being Ernest.” Set in the late Victorian Age in Britain, the play is a standard fixture on innumerable high school and community playlists. Oscar Wilde is also well known for his biting social commentary.
He wrote literary criticism and published poems and essays that turn up frequently in English literature classes. His novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” is another example of his work.
However, in the England of his time, Wilde was ostracized by the public, condemned and imprisoned by the law for “public indecency.” He was forced to work on a treadmill, and his health collapsed under the harsh conditions. He was only 46 at the time of his death.
Oscar’s early years were spent in a historically privileged though somewhat eccentric household in Dublin. His father was a respected physician, but he also scandalized his neighbors with an extramarital affair that resulted in four illegitimate children. Oscar’s mother was in the spotlight for her gatherings of societal mavens and for her revolutionary poetry published under the name of “Speranza.”
In this biography David Pritchard briefly, but expertly, delivers a rounded portrait of Oscar from childhood through the painful end. He makes clear Wilde’s important place among other Irish literary stars like George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, and W.B. Yeats.
Oscar attended Trinity College in Dublin for his grounding as one of Ireland’s literary giants. Later he went to Magdalen College of Oxford University on a fellowship and there developed his skill as an essayist. At the same time he became an advocate of the Aesthetic Movement which incorporated artistic beauty and taste into practitioners’ daily lifestyles.
While Oscar was honing his writing skills he was also in the public eye as a popular lecturer. He conducted a successful tour of American lecture halls, including those in the “Wild West.”
Meantime he married, had two sons, and discovered in himself the homosexual leanings that would be his downfall. He made no secret of his links to young men in both upper and lower levels of society.
This lifestyle probably helped to support the attacks made by the Marquis of Queensbury, father of one of Oscar’s good friends. The attacks ultimately led to his arrest, conviction, and imprisonment for “public indecency.”
British society was strongly homophobic at the time, so Oscar was doomed when this aspect of his life became public.
This is an easy-to-read biography that lays out the facts of Oscar Wilde’s success as a man of literature and his failures as a man of his times. Author Pritchard deserves praise for an excellent introduction to a very famous man.
Berniece Owen is a retired librarian, an avid reader and a graduate from the University of South Dakota. She spent six retirement years in McMinnville, Ore., before moving to Rohnert Park.