Born in Dublin, Ireland on October 16, 1854, Oscar Wilde is a literary and cultural giant whose works continue to inspire artists of all kinds more than a century after his death. As a playwright, a poet, an essayist, a journalist, and a novelist, Wilde—despite his enthusiasm for aestheticism—effectively plumbed and critiqued social concerns of the time with his masterful prose and his acerbic wit. Remembered best for his outrageous and flamboyant demeanor, many details of Wilde’s life are overlooked in casual discussions of the man and his work; so, in honor of his one hundred and sixty-third birthday, here are a few facts you may have forgotten or that you may have never even known about everyone’s favorite late-Victorian thrower of shade.
His first love ended up marrying Bram Stoker
His parents, Sir William and Lady Jane Wilde, were active in the Dublin social scene and their salon hosted novelists, poets, physicians, archaeologists, politicians, and philosophers. Oscar, having clearly inherited his mother’s outgoing and colorful personality, spent a great deal of time mingling with his parents’ guests as he matured and, in the course of some such social event, met Florence Balcombe, an Irish socialite. Apparently, Oscar’s courting of “Florrie,” as he called her, was intense enough that many were convinced they were altar-bound. Florrie, though, fell for another Irish author in the social scene, Bram Stoker, and the two were married in December of 1878. After this rejection, Wilde left Ireland permanently, only returning for a couple of visits.
He fathered two children
On top of his literary achievements, Wilde also traveled and gave numerous lectures ranging in topics from aestheticism to dress to his impressions of other places to which he’d traveled. He was briefly introduced to Constance Lloyd—the daughter of a wealthy Queen’s Counsel—in London, but it was not until his visit to Dublin—where she was also visiting at the time—to give a lecture that he proposed to her; they were wed not long after. The couple welcomed their first child, Cyril, after having been married one year. Vyvyan, their second son, was born the following year. In his 1954 memoir, Son of Oscar Wilde, Vyvyan wrote that Wilde—until his forced separation from his family when the boys were ten and nine years-old, respectively—was a devoted and loving father to both children.
He was imprisoned for his sexuality
Most folks are quite aware that Oscar Wilde was no straight dudebro, if for no other reason than the inclusion of some rather homophobic jokes and comments sprinkled throughout art and literature. It’s also why a lot of folks have been surprised to learn that he had a wife and children. A lot of people, though, are unaware that he was imprisoned for his sexuality.
11 years after he married Constance Lloyd, Wilde sued the father of his extramarital lover for libel after he left a public note to Wilde accusing him of sodomy. During the trial, more evidence of Oscar’s sexual proclivities was produced, leading him to drop the charges against the Marquess of Queensberry and, ultimately, ending with his being charged with sodomy and gross indecency. After all kinds of salacious court proceedings, he was eventually convicted of the charges and sentenced to two years of hard labor. After his conviction, his wife reclaimed her maiden name and passed it on to their two sons whom Oscar would never see again. Though, when he was given access to pen and paper, he continued writing during his imprisonment, the sentence proved a deadly one: at one point during his imprisonment, weak and hungry, he collapsed. His right ear drum ruptured in the fall. His physicians surmised that the meningitis that caused his death likely stemmed from years of having tried to treat that injury.
He was posthumously pardoned this year under the Alan Turing law contained within Policing and Crime Act of 2017.
In an effort to not leave this on a total downer note, though…
He and Walt Whitman more than likely got it on
Two years before proposing to Constance Lloyd, Oscar embarked on a speaking tour of the United States, largely focusing on aestheticism, design, and the importance of pleasure and beauty. This tour was originally planned to last approximately four months but, due to the commercial success of his lectures, it was extended to nearly a full year. While stateside, Wilde was pretty intent on meeting Whitman, a man he considered to be “America’s living poet.” Though, Whitman initially declined to meet, his tune changed and he invited Oscar and a mutual friend to his home. The mutual friend left, leaving the two poets who could not be more different—save in a few very important ways—alone to dive into a bottle of elderberry wine.
“’I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.’” Awwwwwww yissssss! Get you some! Happy birthday to you!