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The Fantastic Life of Oscar Wilde

Nov 30, 2021
Arts & Culture
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25
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"To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all" - Oscar Wilde.

He was one of the most famous writers of the 19th century, yet his literary career was cut short after being thrown in prison for homosexuality.

In this episode, we'll explore the fantastic life of this iconic writer, and how "the love that dare not speak its name" would ultimately cost him his life.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Fantastic Life of Oscar Wilde.

[00:00:30] He was a playwright, a journalist, an intellectual, a wit, an academic, a husband, a father, and a lover. 

[00:00:39] He was one of the great writers of the 19th century, along with the novelist Charles Dickens, one of the first literary celebrities, but his work was overshadowed by his private life, culminating in his trial for homosexuality and subsequent imprisonment.

[00:00:58] So, in this episode we are going to talk about his fantastic life, from his early childhood as the son of two prominent Dublin intellectuals, his boy genius stage at university, finding his own identity and the Aesthetic Movement, becoming a famous playwright and the talk of the town right through to his double life, his eventual trial and imprisonment and his tragic final years.

[00:01:27] He only lived to the age of 46, but he managed to achieve a lot in a relatively short space of time. 

[00:01:35] So, without future ado, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:42] Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin on the 16th of October 1854 to a prominent Anglo-Irish family of intellectuals.

[00:01:55] Anglo-Irish, by the way, is a term that’s used for Irish people with English roots, English heritage. It doesn’t mean half-Irish, half-English, it means Irish with English heritage.

[00:02:09] Wilde’s father was a prominent surgeon, and a regular contributor to medical journals.

[00:02:16] Wilde’s mother was a poet with the pen name “Speranza”, which the Italian speakers will know is Italian for “hope”.

[00:02:26] Both Wilde’s parents were very clever, witty people, and Wilde grew up in a privileged environment full of intellectual conversation. 

[00:02:37] Oscar was clearly a talented boy from a young age. As a teenager he claimed he could read two opposite pages of a book at the same time, and he would be challenged by his classmates to read long passages of text in very short periods of time. 

[00:02:56] He wrote that he would be able to read a three-volume novel, so that would be around 900 pages, in half an hour, and to be able to give an accurate summary of the story. 

[00:03:09] If he had an hour to read it then he would be able to give a narrative of the most important scenes.

[00:03:17] He was clearly a very gifted child, and he knew how to please his audience.

[00:03:24] His academic talents led to a scholarship to study Classics, meaning the language and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome, at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland’s most prestigious university, at the age of 16. 

[00:03:39] Now, of course this was impressive, but it wasn’t completely unheard of for students to start university at a much younger age than students currently do.

[00:03:52] Charles Darwin, for example, also started when he was 16.

[00:03:57] Wilde, however, was anything but a normal student. He excelled academically, and came top of his class in his first year, then won another scholarship to Oxford University, where he again studied Classics from 1874 to 1878. 

[00:04:18] While at Oxford he became particularly well-known to other students. He would wear flamboyant clothes, had long hair, and decorated his room with flowers.

[00:04:32] Remember, this was in Victorian England, where men of a certain class had short hair, they wore dark suits, and lived pretty plain, non-ostentatious lives. 

[00:04:46] Although it was Sigmund Freud who was to popularise the term repression to mean sexual repression in the first years of the twentieth century, this was a highly repressed society.

[00:05:00] Wilde was at the forefront of a movement called Aestheticism, which emphasised how something looked and felt, it put a focus on beauty. Victorian norms, especially with masculine values, put an emphasis on practicality or morality, and there was limited value placed on how beautiful something should be.

[00:05:27] A quote you may have heard associated with this movement is “art for art’s sake”, meaning that art should be created for its own beauty and qualities, it shouldn't try to serve something else.

[00:05:43] Because of Wilde’s unorthodox beliefs and behaviour, he often became a target at Oxford, and there are reports of other students bursting into his room with the intention of beating him up.

[00:05:57] But, Wilde was a big man, he was 1 metre 90, and quite chunky too. He was able to fight off a group of 4 undergraduates, he was certainly no pushover.

[00:06:11] His extravagant lifestyle of flowers, fancy clothes, porcelain china and beautiful objects came at a high price though, Wilde lived an expensive life.

[00:06:23] He was supported by scholarships and by an allowance from his parents, but after his father’s death in April of 1876 not only did the money dry up, his allowance stopped, but it was discovered that his father was deeply in debt.

[00:06:44] With an expensive lifestyle to support, Wilde needed to find a source of income. 

[00:06:50] Although he would have certainly been capable, he didn’t want to be an academic.

[00:06:56] He wrote. “ I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow, or other, I’ll be famous, and if not famous, notorious”.

[00:07:07] Well, he ended up famous and notorious

[00:07:11] Shortly after his graduation from Oxford he returned to Ireland, partly to see a woman it’s thought that he was in love with, a lady named Florence Balcombe. 

[00:07:23] But, to his disappointment, she was engaged to another man, Bram Stoker, a name you may recognise as he was the author of the Gothic horror novel Dracula.

[00:07:36] Wilde packed his bags and moved to London, where he began publishing poems and short stories for literary magazines. He was the Victorian equivalent of a newspaper columnist, really.

[00:07:51] Although he made a decent amount of money from this, it was to be a lecture tour of the United States that was the real money-maker for the young Wilde. In 1882, aged 27, he embarked on a year-long tour of America where he lectured on Aestheticism, this new movement that was taking much of the literary world by storm.

[00:08:19] He was very well aware of his own talents, and he was certainly not a modest man. 

[00:08:26] You may be aware of one of his most famous quotes, where he is reported to have said to a customs official when he arrived in the US, “I have nothing to declare except my genius”.

[00:08:41] While on tour in the US and after returning home, a rich man, he loved the attention and fame that followed him.

[00:08:50] There were reports of him walking down Piccaddily, a famous street in London, carrying a lily flower and with his long hair flowing. When he was asked whether he actually did this or not he responded, "It's not whether I did it or not that's important, but whether people believed I did it".

[00:09:13] While he was a wealthy man by many people’s standards, he had very expensive tastes, and he needed to find another source of income to support his lifestyle.

[00:09:26] He found one, or rather, he fell in love with a rich woman, a lady called Constance Lloyd, who was the daughter of a wealthy lawyer. 

[00:09:36] Luckily for Wilde, she had similarly expensive tastes, and after they married and moved in together in 1884 their London house was decorated to exceptionally high standards.

[00:09:52] Oscar Wilde was now married, and within the period of two years they had two children in quick succession. Wilde was, by all reports, a devoted father and husband, and it looked like he might put his eccentric days of Aestheticism behind him.

[00:10:13] But there was another side to his character that he perhaps hadn’t fully discovered by that point.

[00:10:20] Remember, Wilde had spent almost 7 years studying Classics at two of the most prestigious universities in the British Isles. 

[00:10:30] He had studied Roman and Greek literature in depth, and became very interested in the idea, prominent amongst the early Greeks in particular, of older men having close, perhaps even intimate, relationships with younger men.

[00:10:48] His entire philosophy was about doing what felt right, and that one shouldn’t repress one’s feelings.

[00:10:57] What’s more, homosexuality, if you were wondering where this is going, homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain, it was literally a crime to engage in homosexual acts.

[00:11:10] This wasn’t to be an obstacle to Oscar Wilde. It’s not clear exactly when and with whom his first homosexual relationship was with, but it’s thought to be with a Canadian-British journalist in 1886, the year after Wilde’s second child was born.

[00:11:31] The late 1880s saw Wilde spending an increasing amount of time away from his wife and family. In terms of his literary output, he wrote a few short stories and essays, but nothing that brought him serious fame

[00:11:48] It wasn’t to be until 1890, with the publication of A Picture of Dorian Gray that he was really catapulted to fame.

[00:11:59] A Picture of Dorian Gray, if you haven’t read it, is a novella or short novel about a beautiful man who stays young while his portrait grows old and ugly. Throughout the book there is a theme, an undercurrent of male beauty, and you can sense Wilde’s appreciation of and love for the male form when you read it.

[00:12:27] Wilde knew that the book would be controversial, and in the preface to the book he wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

[00:12:44] Shortly after the publication of A Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde met a young man by the name of Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, otherwise known as Bosie.

[00:12:57] When they met, in 1891, Bosie was 20 and a student at Oxford University, while Wilde was 37, a famous author and a married father of two children.

[00:13:12] They immediately fell in love, beginning a passionate relationship. Wilde was spending less and less time with his wife and children, instead moving from hotel room to hotel room with Bosie.

[00:13:27] Although Wilde was an eccentric, flamboyant individual, he did his best to keep the relationship quiet - homosexuality was, remember, still a crime at the time.

[00:13:40] Bosie’s father, however, soon found out and he took exception to his son’s relationship with Wilde, he hated the fact that his son was openly gay, and he claimed that Wilde was distracting him from his studies. 

[00:13:58] Bosie came from an aristocratic family, and his father was the Marquis of Queensberry. If you are a boxing fan and the name Queensberry rings a bell, well that’s because Bosie’s father invented the rules of modern boxing, Queensberry Rules.

[00:14:19] The Marquis of Queensberry did everything possible to try to disrupt his son’s relationship with Wilde. He threatened him privately and publicly.

[00:14:31] On the opening night of what would be one of Oscar Wilde’s most successful plays, The Importance of Being Earnest, the Marquis of Queensbury even turned up at the theatre with a basket of rotting vegetables that he intended to throw at Wilde to embarrass him.

[00:14:50] Later on that week the Marquis would do something that would change Wilde’s life forever.

[00:14:58] He turned up at Wilde’s private members club, a place called the Albemarle in London, and left a card at the reception. 

[00:15:08] On it he had written “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite”. A sodomite is an old-fashioned derogatory word for homosexual.

[00:15:20] Although these words might have been true, and it was no secret that Oscar Wilde and Bosie were engaged in a sexual relationship, Wilde was deeply offended that Bosie’s father had publicly accused him of a crime.

[00:15:36] Instead of dropping it, of ignoring the matter, or breaking off the relationship, he accused Bosie’s father of libel, the crime of stating in writing a false statement about someone that can affect their reputation.

[00:15:53] This meant that Bosie’s father was arrested, and he faced up to two years in prison. The only way that he could avoid prison would be if he could show that what he had claimed was true.

[00:16:09] Of course, both Bosie and Wilde denied it, but the Marquis had hired private detectives to dig deep into Wilde’s private life. They found several male prostitutes who were ready to testify that they had had sexual relationships with Wilde, and therefore the accusation was true.

[00:16:32] What’s more, Wilde didn’t help himself during the trial, and he certainly enjoyed the spectacle of it.

[00:16:42] When Wilde was asked whether he had ever kissed one particular boy, Wilde responded, "Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it."

[00:16:57] Of course, if you are trying to convince a courtroom that you are not gay then saying that the reason you didn’t kiss a boy was because he was ugly isn’t a very good way of going about it.

[00:17:11] When it became clear that the libel case was going nowhere, and that the Marquis had evidence that Wilde had hired male prostitutes, Wilde dropped the case.

[00:17:23] The Marquis was free to go, but now the spotlight turned to Wilde.

[00:17:30] He was arrested, and put on trial on the charges of homosexual activity. On these charges, he was certainly guilty. It emerged that Wilde would frequently hire young, male prostitutes. He would pay for them to have lavish dinners with him, then they would return to his hotel room, often with Bosie.

[00:17:54] During the trial, Wilde spoke passionately about the beauty of true love and passion, and of “the love that dare not speak its name”. But the judge was having none of it, and Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison.

[00:18:13] By this time Oscar Wilde was pretty much the most famous living playwright in the country. He was flamboyant and controversial but he was incredibly talented and well-known. And just like that he was locked up, shut up in a prison, even denied any writing materials for the majority of his time in prison.

[00:18:39] Now, for anyone, prison must be a terrible experience, but for Wilde it was almost a death sentence.

[00:18:48] Imagine, this is an incredibly talented playwright who had spent his afternoons and evenings in literary salons, had met Victor Hugo, Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, who was used to a life of considerable luxury.

[00:19:05] Then in an instant he was forced to wear prison clothes and walk on a treadmill for 5 hours a day, with no contact with anyone from the outside world.

[00:19:18] When he was freed, two years later, he emerged a broken man. The same evening of his release from prison he set sail for France, and never returned again to the British Isles.

[00:19:34] His wife had left him, too embarrassed to be married to the country’s most public homosexual. He was bankrupt, as he had had to pay all of the Marquis’s legal fees when he lost the libel case.

[00:19:50] And the rest of the life of Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was, I’m sorry to say, a pretty sad affair.

[00:20:00] He was released from prison in 1897, and three years later he was dead at the age of 46.

[00:20:09] He died, in fact, on November 30th, exactly 121 years from when this episode was released.

[00:20:17] His last years had been spent mainly in Paris and Northern France, where he could be found drifting from one cafe to another, begging friends and acquaintances for more money to buy another drink and a hot meal.

[00:20:33] He only wrote one more poem after leaving prison, a long poem called “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, in which he wrote of the harsh treatment prisoners face in jail.

[00:20:45] Even on his deathbed he retained his trademark wit and humour. He was lying in bed, dying from meningitis.

[00:20:56] His last words were, reportedly, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

[00:21:07] The wallpaper won, and Wilde died penniless and disgraced in France, exiled from the country he had come to call home, Britain.

[00:21:19] Now, when it comes to the legacy of Oscar Wilde, although he produced some brilliant plays and novels, his legacy is certainly one of wasted talent.

[00:21:31] Wilde was someone who was persecuted and criminalised for the crime of being gay. 

[00:21:38] Spending time in prison destroyed him, and although he wasn’t directly killed for his homosexuality, his literary career and perhaps even life was cut drastically short because he spent time in prison.

[00:21:55] It’s worth pointing out that Wilde was given a posthumous pardon, he was pardoned for being sent to prison for homosexuality, but this came in 2017, somewhat too late. 

[00:22:10] In terms of how people think about Wilde today, he is best known for his wit and humour. He was evidently an incredibly intelligent, sharp and funny man, a “wit” in the classic sense of the word.

[00:22:26] He is one of the most quoted authors not just of the 19th century, but really ever. He knew the power of a well-put-together sentence, the power of words to amuse and insult.

[00:22:41] His literary legacy is huge, with his play The Importance of Being Earnest being regularly produced. 

[00:22:50] Above all, perhaps, he is considered a gay icon and is much celebrated by popular and prominent gay celebrities, such as the polymath and TV presenter, Stephen Fry.

[00:23:03] Ultimately, he was a victim of his time, a victim of a cruel law that not only meant he had to live part of his life in hiding, but when he was challenged meant he was thrown in prison.

[00:23:19] Wilde once said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

[00:23:28] Well, his life may not have been long, but it’s undeniable that Oscar Wilde did a lot more than simply “exist”. 

[00:23:39] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Fantastic Life of Oscar Wilde.

[00:23:45] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that it might even have inspired you to pick up a Wilde poem, novel or play, and see what all of the fuss is about.

[00:23:58] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:24:02] Have you read any Oscar Wilde, or seen any of his plays performed, both in English or in your native language? What did you think of them?

[00:24:12] What were the laws around homosexuality like in your country? Were they as cruel as those in the UK?

[00:24:20] Let’s get this discussion started - you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:24:31] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:24:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Fantastic Life of Oscar Wilde.

[00:00:30] He was a playwright, a journalist, an intellectual, a wit, an academic, a husband, a father, and a lover. 

[00:00:39] He was one of the great writers of the 19th century, along with the novelist Charles Dickens, one of the first literary celebrities, but his work was overshadowed by his private life, culminating in his trial for homosexuality and subsequent imprisonment.

[00:00:58] So, in this episode we are going to talk about his fantastic life, from his early childhood as the son of two prominent Dublin intellectuals, his boy genius stage at university, finding his own identity and the Aesthetic Movement, becoming a famous playwright and the talk of the town right through to his double life, his eventual trial and imprisonment and his tragic final years.

[00:01:27] He only lived to the age of 46, but he managed to achieve a lot in a relatively short space of time. 

[00:01:35] So, without future ado, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:42] Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin on the 16th of October 1854 to a prominent Anglo-Irish family of intellectuals.

[00:01:55] Anglo-Irish, by the way, is a term that’s used for Irish people with English roots, English heritage. It doesn’t mean half-Irish, half-English, it means Irish with English heritage.

[00:02:09] Wilde’s father was a prominent surgeon, and a regular contributor to medical journals.

[00:02:16] Wilde’s mother was a poet with the pen name “Speranza”, which the Italian speakers will know is Italian for “hope”.

[00:02:26] Both Wilde’s parents were very clever, witty people, and Wilde grew up in a privileged environment full of intellectual conversation. 

[00:02:37] Oscar was clearly a talented boy from a young age. As a teenager he claimed he could read two opposite pages of a book at the same time, and he would be challenged by his classmates to read long passages of text in very short periods of time. 

[00:02:56] He wrote that he would be able to read a three-volume novel, so that would be around 900 pages, in half an hour, and to be able to give an accurate summary of the story. 

[00:03:09] If he had an hour to read it then he would be able to give a narrative of the most important scenes.

[00:03:17] He was clearly a very gifted child, and he knew how to please his audience.

[00:03:24] His academic talents led to a scholarship to study Classics, meaning the language and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome, at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland’s most prestigious university, at the age of 16. 

[00:03:39] Now, of course this was impressive, but it wasn’t completely unheard of for students to start university at a much younger age than students currently do.

[00:03:52] Charles Darwin, for example, also started when he was 16.

[00:03:57] Wilde, however, was anything but a normal student. He excelled academically, and came top of his class in his first year, then won another scholarship to Oxford University, where he again studied Classics from 1874 to 1878. 

[00:04:18] While at Oxford he became particularly well-known to other students. He would wear flamboyant clothes, had long hair, and decorated his room with flowers.

[00:04:32] Remember, this was in Victorian England, where men of a certain class had short hair, they wore dark suits, and lived pretty plain, non-ostentatious lives. 

[00:04:46] Although it was Sigmund Freud who was to popularise the term repression to mean sexual repression in the first years of the twentieth century, this was a highly repressed society.

[00:05:00] Wilde was at the forefront of a movement called Aestheticism, which emphasised how something looked and felt, it put a focus on beauty. Victorian norms, especially with masculine values, put an emphasis on practicality or morality, and there was limited value placed on how beautiful something should be.

[00:05:27] A quote you may have heard associated with this movement is “art for art’s sake”, meaning that art should be created for its own beauty and qualities, it shouldn't try to serve something else.

[00:05:43] Because of Wilde’s unorthodox beliefs and behaviour, he often became a target at Oxford, and there are reports of other students bursting into his room with the intention of beating him up.

[00:05:57] But, Wilde was a big man, he was 1 metre 90, and quite chunky too. He was able to fight off a group of 4 undergraduates, he was certainly no pushover.

[00:06:11] His extravagant lifestyle of flowers, fancy clothes, porcelain china and beautiful objects came at a high price though, Wilde lived an expensive life.

[00:06:23] He was supported by scholarships and by an allowance from his parents, but after his father’s death in April of 1876 not only did the money dry up, his allowance stopped, but it was discovered that his father was deeply in debt.

[00:06:44] With an expensive lifestyle to support, Wilde needed to find a source of income. 

[00:06:50] Although he would have certainly been capable, he didn’t want to be an academic.

[00:06:56] He wrote. “ I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow, or other, I’ll be famous, and if not famous, notorious”.

[00:07:07] Well, he ended up famous and notorious

[00:07:11] Shortly after his graduation from Oxford he returned to Ireland, partly to see a woman it’s thought that he was in love with, a lady named Florence Balcombe. 

[00:07:23] But, to his disappointment, she was engaged to another man, Bram Stoker, a name you may recognise as he was the author of the Gothic horror novel Dracula.

[00:07:36] Wilde packed his bags and moved to London, where he began publishing poems and short stories for literary magazines. He was the Victorian equivalent of a newspaper columnist, really.

[00:07:51] Although he made a decent amount of money from this, it was to be a lecture tour of the United States that was the real money-maker for the young Wilde. In 1882, aged 27, he embarked on a year-long tour of America where he lectured on Aestheticism, this new movement that was taking much of the literary world by storm.

[00:08:19] He was very well aware of his own talents, and he was certainly not a modest man. 

[00:08:26] You may be aware of one of his most famous quotes, where he is reported to have said to a customs official when he arrived in the US, “I have nothing to declare except my genius”.

[00:08:41] While on tour in the US and after returning home, a rich man, he loved the attention and fame that followed him.

[00:08:50] There were reports of him walking down Piccaddily, a famous street in London, carrying a lily flower and with his long hair flowing. When he was asked whether he actually did this or not he responded, "It's not whether I did it or not that's important, but whether people believed I did it".

[00:09:13] While he was a wealthy man by many people’s standards, he had very expensive tastes, and he needed to find another source of income to support his lifestyle.

[00:09:26] He found one, or rather, he fell in love with a rich woman, a lady called Constance Lloyd, who was the daughter of a wealthy lawyer. 

[00:09:36] Luckily for Wilde, she had similarly expensive tastes, and after they married and moved in together in 1884 their London house was decorated to exceptionally high standards.

[00:09:52] Oscar Wilde was now married, and within the period of two years they had two children in quick succession. Wilde was, by all reports, a devoted father and husband, and it looked like he might put his eccentric days of Aestheticism behind him.

[00:10:13] But there was another side to his character that he perhaps hadn’t fully discovered by that point.

[00:10:20] Remember, Wilde had spent almost 7 years studying Classics at two of the most prestigious universities in the British Isles. 

[00:10:30] He had studied Roman and Greek literature in depth, and became very interested in the idea, prominent amongst the early Greeks in particular, of older men having close, perhaps even intimate, relationships with younger men.

[00:10:48] His entire philosophy was about doing what felt right, and that one shouldn’t repress one’s feelings.

[00:10:57] What’s more, homosexuality, if you were wondering where this is going, homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain, it was literally a crime to engage in homosexual acts.

[00:11:10] This wasn’t to be an obstacle to Oscar Wilde. It’s not clear exactly when and with whom his first homosexual relationship was with, but it’s thought to be with a Canadian-British journalist in 1886, the year after Wilde’s second child was born.

[00:11:31] The late 1880s saw Wilde spending an increasing amount of time away from his wife and family. In terms of his literary output, he wrote a few short stories and essays, but nothing that brought him serious fame

[00:11:48] It wasn’t to be until 1890, with the publication of A Picture of Dorian Gray that he was really catapulted to fame.

[00:11:59] A Picture of Dorian Gray, if you haven’t read it, is a novella or short novel about a beautiful man who stays young while his portrait grows old and ugly. Throughout the book there is a theme, an undercurrent of male beauty, and you can sense Wilde’s appreciation of and love for the male form when you read it.

[00:12:27] Wilde knew that the book would be controversial, and in the preface to the book he wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

[00:12:44] Shortly after the publication of A Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde met a young man by the name of Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, otherwise known as Bosie.

[00:12:57] When they met, in 1891, Bosie was 20 and a student at Oxford University, while Wilde was 37, a famous author and a married father of two children.

[00:13:12] They immediately fell in love, beginning a passionate relationship. Wilde was spending less and less time with his wife and children, instead moving from hotel room to hotel room with Bosie.

[00:13:27] Although Wilde was an eccentric, flamboyant individual, he did his best to keep the relationship quiet - homosexuality was, remember, still a crime at the time.

[00:13:40] Bosie’s father, however, soon found out and he took exception to his son’s relationship with Wilde, he hated the fact that his son was openly gay, and he claimed that Wilde was distracting him from his studies. 

[00:13:58] Bosie came from an aristocratic family, and his father was the Marquis of Queensberry. If you are a boxing fan and the name Queensberry rings a bell, well that’s because Bosie’s father invented the rules of modern boxing, Queensberry Rules.

[00:14:19] The Marquis of Queensberry did everything possible to try to disrupt his son’s relationship with Wilde. He threatened him privately and publicly.

[00:14:31] On the opening night of what would be one of Oscar Wilde’s most successful plays, The Importance of Being Earnest, the Marquis of Queensbury even turned up at the theatre with a basket of rotting vegetables that he intended to throw at Wilde to embarrass him.

[00:14:50] Later on that week the Marquis would do something that would change Wilde’s life forever.

[00:14:58] He turned up at Wilde’s private members club, a place called the Albemarle in London, and left a card at the reception. 

[00:15:08] On it he had written “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite”. A sodomite is an old-fashioned derogatory word for homosexual.

[00:15:20] Although these words might have been true, and it was no secret that Oscar Wilde and Bosie were engaged in a sexual relationship, Wilde was deeply offended that Bosie’s father had publicly accused him of a crime.

[00:15:36] Instead of dropping it, of ignoring the matter, or breaking off the relationship, he accused Bosie’s father of libel, the crime of stating in writing a false statement about someone that can affect their reputation.

[00:15:53] This meant that Bosie’s father was arrested, and he faced up to two years in prison. The only way that he could avoid prison would be if he could show that what he had claimed was true.

[00:16:09] Of course, both Bosie and Wilde denied it, but the Marquis had hired private detectives to dig deep into Wilde’s private life. They found several male prostitutes who were ready to testify that they had had sexual relationships with Wilde, and therefore the accusation was true.

[00:16:32] What’s more, Wilde didn’t help himself during the trial, and he certainly enjoyed the spectacle of it.

[00:16:42] When Wilde was asked whether he had ever kissed one particular boy, Wilde responded, "Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it."

[00:16:57] Of course, if you are trying to convince a courtroom that you are not gay then saying that the reason you didn’t kiss a boy was because he was ugly isn’t a very good way of going about it.

[00:17:11] When it became clear that the libel case was going nowhere, and that the Marquis had evidence that Wilde had hired male prostitutes, Wilde dropped the case.

[00:17:23] The Marquis was free to go, but now the spotlight turned to Wilde.

[00:17:30] He was arrested, and put on trial on the charges of homosexual activity. On these charges, he was certainly guilty. It emerged that Wilde would frequently hire young, male prostitutes. He would pay for them to have lavish dinners with him, then they would return to his hotel room, often with Bosie.

[00:17:54] During the trial, Wilde spoke passionately about the beauty of true love and passion, and of “the love that dare not speak its name”. But the judge was having none of it, and Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison.

[00:18:13] By this time Oscar Wilde was pretty much the most famous living playwright in the country. He was flamboyant and controversial but he was incredibly talented and well-known. And just like that he was locked up, shut up in a prison, even denied any writing materials for the majority of his time in prison.

[00:18:39] Now, for anyone, prison must be a terrible experience, but for Wilde it was almost a death sentence.

[00:18:48] Imagine, this is an incredibly talented playwright who had spent his afternoons and evenings in literary salons, had met Victor Hugo, Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, who was used to a life of considerable luxury.

[00:19:05] Then in an instant he was forced to wear prison clothes and walk on a treadmill for 5 hours a day, with no contact with anyone from the outside world.

[00:19:18] When he was freed, two years later, he emerged a broken man. The same evening of his release from prison he set sail for France, and never returned again to the British Isles.

[00:19:34] His wife had left him, too embarrassed to be married to the country’s most public homosexual. He was bankrupt, as he had had to pay all of the Marquis’s legal fees when he lost the libel case.

[00:19:50] And the rest of the life of Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was, I’m sorry to say, a pretty sad affair.

[00:20:00] He was released from prison in 1897, and three years later he was dead at the age of 46.

[00:20:09] He died, in fact, on November 30th, exactly 121 years from when this episode was released.

[00:20:17] His last years had been spent mainly in Paris and Northern France, where he could be found drifting from one cafe to another, begging friends and acquaintances for more money to buy another drink and a hot meal.

[00:20:33] He only wrote one more poem after leaving prison, a long poem called “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, in which he wrote of the harsh treatment prisoners face in jail.

[00:20:45] Even on his deathbed he retained his trademark wit and humour. He was lying in bed, dying from meningitis.

[00:20:56] His last words were, reportedly, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

[00:21:07] The wallpaper won, and Wilde died penniless and disgraced in France, exiled from the country he had come to call home, Britain.

[00:21:19] Now, when it comes to the legacy of Oscar Wilde, although he produced some brilliant plays and novels, his legacy is certainly one of wasted talent.

[00:21:31] Wilde was someone who was persecuted and criminalised for the crime of being gay. 

[00:21:38] Spending time in prison destroyed him, and although he wasn’t directly killed for his homosexuality, his literary career and perhaps even life was cut drastically short because he spent time in prison.

[00:21:55] It’s worth pointing out that Wilde was given a posthumous pardon, he was pardoned for being sent to prison for homosexuality, but this came in 2017, somewhat too late. 

[00:22:10] In terms of how people think about Wilde today, he is best known for his wit and humour. He was evidently an incredibly intelligent, sharp and funny man, a “wit” in the classic sense of the word.

[00:22:26] He is one of the most quoted authors not just of the 19th century, but really ever. He knew the power of a well-put-together sentence, the power of words to amuse and insult.

[00:22:41] His literary legacy is huge, with his play The Importance of Being Earnest being regularly produced. 

[00:22:50] Above all, perhaps, he is considered a gay icon and is much celebrated by popular and prominent gay celebrities, such as the polymath and TV presenter, Stephen Fry.

[00:23:03] Ultimately, he was a victim of his time, a victim of a cruel law that not only meant he had to live part of his life in hiding, but when he was challenged meant he was thrown in prison.

[00:23:19] Wilde once said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

[00:23:28] Well, his life may not have been long, but it’s undeniable that Oscar Wilde did a lot more than simply “exist”. 

[00:23:39] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Fantastic Life of Oscar Wilde.

[00:23:45] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that it might even have inspired you to pick up a Wilde poem, novel or play, and see what all of the fuss is about.

[00:23:58] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:24:02] Have you read any Oscar Wilde, or seen any of his plays performed, both in English or in your native language? What did you think of them?

[00:24:12] What were the laws around homosexuality like in your country? Were they as cruel as those in the UK?

[00:24:20] Let’s get this discussion started - you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:24:31] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:24:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Fantastic Life of Oscar Wilde.

[00:00:30] He was a playwright, a journalist, an intellectual, a wit, an academic, a husband, a father, and a lover. 

[00:00:39] He was one of the great writers of the 19th century, along with the novelist Charles Dickens, one of the first literary celebrities, but his work was overshadowed by his private life, culminating in his trial for homosexuality and subsequent imprisonment.

[00:00:58] So, in this episode we are going to talk about his fantastic life, from his early childhood as the son of two prominent Dublin intellectuals, his boy genius stage at university, finding his own identity and the Aesthetic Movement, becoming a famous playwright and the talk of the town right through to his double life, his eventual trial and imprisonment and his tragic final years.

[00:01:27] He only lived to the age of 46, but he managed to achieve a lot in a relatively short space of time. 

[00:01:35] So, without future ado, let’s get right into it.

[00:01:42] Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin on the 16th of October 1854 to a prominent Anglo-Irish family of intellectuals.

[00:01:55] Anglo-Irish, by the way, is a term that’s used for Irish people with English roots, English heritage. It doesn’t mean half-Irish, half-English, it means Irish with English heritage.

[00:02:09] Wilde’s father was a prominent surgeon, and a regular contributor to medical journals.

[00:02:16] Wilde’s mother was a poet with the pen name “Speranza”, which the Italian speakers will know is Italian for “hope”.

[00:02:26] Both Wilde’s parents were very clever, witty people, and Wilde grew up in a privileged environment full of intellectual conversation. 

[00:02:37] Oscar was clearly a talented boy from a young age. As a teenager he claimed he could read two opposite pages of a book at the same time, and he would be challenged by his classmates to read long passages of text in very short periods of time. 

[00:02:56] He wrote that he would be able to read a three-volume novel, so that would be around 900 pages, in half an hour, and to be able to give an accurate summary of the story. 

[00:03:09] If he had an hour to read it then he would be able to give a narrative of the most important scenes.

[00:03:17] He was clearly a very gifted child, and he knew how to please his audience.

[00:03:24] His academic talents led to a scholarship to study Classics, meaning the language and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome, at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland’s most prestigious university, at the age of 16. 

[00:03:39] Now, of course this was impressive, but it wasn’t completely unheard of for students to start university at a much younger age than students currently do.

[00:03:52] Charles Darwin, for example, also started when he was 16.

[00:03:57] Wilde, however, was anything but a normal student. He excelled academically, and came top of his class in his first year, then won another scholarship to Oxford University, where he again studied Classics from 1874 to 1878. 

[00:04:18] While at Oxford he became particularly well-known to other students. He would wear flamboyant clothes, had long hair, and decorated his room with flowers.

[00:04:32] Remember, this was in Victorian England, where men of a certain class had short hair, they wore dark suits, and lived pretty plain, non-ostentatious lives. 

[00:04:46] Although it was Sigmund Freud who was to popularise the term repression to mean sexual repression in the first years of the twentieth century, this was a highly repressed society.

[00:05:00] Wilde was at the forefront of a movement called Aestheticism, which emphasised how something looked and felt, it put a focus on beauty. Victorian norms, especially with masculine values, put an emphasis on practicality or morality, and there was limited value placed on how beautiful something should be.

[00:05:27] A quote you may have heard associated with this movement is “art for art’s sake”, meaning that art should be created for its own beauty and qualities, it shouldn't try to serve something else.

[00:05:43] Because of Wilde’s unorthodox beliefs and behaviour, he often became a target at Oxford, and there are reports of other students bursting into his room with the intention of beating him up.

[00:05:57] But, Wilde was a big man, he was 1 metre 90, and quite chunky too. He was able to fight off a group of 4 undergraduates, he was certainly no pushover.

[00:06:11] His extravagant lifestyle of flowers, fancy clothes, porcelain china and beautiful objects came at a high price though, Wilde lived an expensive life.

[00:06:23] He was supported by scholarships and by an allowance from his parents, but after his father’s death in April of 1876 not only did the money dry up, his allowance stopped, but it was discovered that his father was deeply in debt.

[00:06:44] With an expensive lifestyle to support, Wilde needed to find a source of income. 

[00:06:50] Although he would have certainly been capable, he didn’t want to be an academic.

[00:06:56] He wrote. “ I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow, or other, I’ll be famous, and if not famous, notorious”.

[00:07:07] Well, he ended up famous and notorious

[00:07:11] Shortly after his graduation from Oxford he returned to Ireland, partly to see a woman it’s thought that he was in love with, a lady named Florence Balcombe. 

[00:07:23] But, to his disappointment, she was engaged to another man, Bram Stoker, a name you may recognise as he was the author of the Gothic horror novel Dracula.

[00:07:36] Wilde packed his bags and moved to London, where he began publishing poems and short stories for literary magazines. He was the Victorian equivalent of a newspaper columnist, really.

[00:07:51] Although he made a decent amount of money from this, it was to be a lecture tour of the United States that was the real money-maker for the young Wilde. In 1882, aged 27, he embarked on a year-long tour of America where he lectured on Aestheticism, this new movement that was taking much of the literary world by storm.

[00:08:19] He was very well aware of his own talents, and he was certainly not a modest man. 

[00:08:26] You may be aware of one of his most famous quotes, where he is reported to have said to a customs official when he arrived in the US, “I have nothing to declare except my genius”.

[00:08:41] While on tour in the US and after returning home, a rich man, he loved the attention and fame that followed him.

[00:08:50] There were reports of him walking down Piccaddily, a famous street in London, carrying a lily flower and with his long hair flowing. When he was asked whether he actually did this or not he responded, "It's not whether I did it or not that's important, but whether people believed I did it".

[00:09:13] While he was a wealthy man by many people’s standards, he had very expensive tastes, and he needed to find another source of income to support his lifestyle.

[00:09:26] He found one, or rather, he fell in love with a rich woman, a lady called Constance Lloyd, who was the daughter of a wealthy lawyer. 

[00:09:36] Luckily for Wilde, she had similarly expensive tastes, and after they married and moved in together in 1884 their London house was decorated to exceptionally high standards.

[00:09:52] Oscar Wilde was now married, and within the period of two years they had two children in quick succession. Wilde was, by all reports, a devoted father and husband, and it looked like he might put his eccentric days of Aestheticism behind him.

[00:10:13] But there was another side to his character that he perhaps hadn’t fully discovered by that point.

[00:10:20] Remember, Wilde had spent almost 7 years studying Classics at two of the most prestigious universities in the British Isles. 

[00:10:30] He had studied Roman and Greek literature in depth, and became very interested in the idea, prominent amongst the early Greeks in particular, of older men having close, perhaps even intimate, relationships with younger men.

[00:10:48] His entire philosophy was about doing what felt right, and that one shouldn’t repress one’s feelings.

[00:10:57] What’s more, homosexuality, if you were wondering where this is going, homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain, it was literally a crime to engage in homosexual acts.

[00:11:10] This wasn’t to be an obstacle to Oscar Wilde. It’s not clear exactly when and with whom his first homosexual relationship was with, but it’s thought to be with a Canadian-British journalist in 1886, the year after Wilde’s second child was born.

[00:11:31] The late 1880s saw Wilde spending an increasing amount of time away from his wife and family. In terms of his literary output, he wrote a few short stories and essays, but nothing that brought him serious fame

[00:11:48] It wasn’t to be until 1890, with the publication of A Picture of Dorian Gray that he was really catapulted to fame.

[00:11:59] A Picture of Dorian Gray, if you haven’t read it, is a novella or short novel about a beautiful man who stays young while his portrait grows old and ugly. Throughout the book there is a theme, an undercurrent of male beauty, and you can sense Wilde’s appreciation of and love for the male form when you read it.

[00:12:27] Wilde knew that the book would be controversial, and in the preface to the book he wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

[00:12:44] Shortly after the publication of A Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde met a young man by the name of Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, otherwise known as Bosie.

[00:12:57] When they met, in 1891, Bosie was 20 and a student at Oxford University, while Wilde was 37, a famous author and a married father of two children.

[00:13:12] They immediately fell in love, beginning a passionate relationship. Wilde was spending less and less time with his wife and children, instead moving from hotel room to hotel room with Bosie.

[00:13:27] Although Wilde was an eccentric, flamboyant individual, he did his best to keep the relationship quiet - homosexuality was, remember, still a crime at the time.

[00:13:40] Bosie’s father, however, soon found out and he took exception to his son’s relationship with Wilde, he hated the fact that his son was openly gay, and he claimed that Wilde was distracting him from his studies. 

[00:13:58] Bosie came from an aristocratic family, and his father was the Marquis of Queensberry. If you are a boxing fan and the name Queensberry rings a bell, well that’s because Bosie’s father invented the rules of modern boxing, Queensberry Rules.

[00:14:19] The Marquis of Queensberry did everything possible to try to disrupt his son’s relationship with Wilde. He threatened him privately and publicly.

[00:14:31] On the opening night of what would be one of Oscar Wilde’s most successful plays, The Importance of Being Earnest, the Marquis of Queensbury even turned up at the theatre with a basket of rotting vegetables that he intended to throw at Wilde to embarrass him.

[00:14:50] Later on that week the Marquis would do something that would change Wilde’s life forever.

[00:14:58] He turned up at Wilde’s private members club, a place called the Albemarle in London, and left a card at the reception. 

[00:15:08] On it he had written “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite”. A sodomite is an old-fashioned derogatory word for homosexual.

[00:15:20] Although these words might have been true, and it was no secret that Oscar Wilde and Bosie were engaged in a sexual relationship, Wilde was deeply offended that Bosie’s father had publicly accused him of a crime.

[00:15:36] Instead of dropping it, of ignoring the matter, or breaking off the relationship, he accused Bosie’s father of libel, the crime of stating in writing a false statement about someone that can affect their reputation.

[00:15:53] This meant that Bosie’s father was arrested, and he faced up to two years in prison. The only way that he could avoid prison would be if he could show that what he had claimed was true.

[00:16:09] Of course, both Bosie and Wilde denied it, but the Marquis had hired private detectives to dig deep into Wilde’s private life. They found several male prostitutes who were ready to testify that they had had sexual relationships with Wilde, and therefore the accusation was true.

[00:16:32] What’s more, Wilde didn’t help himself during the trial, and he certainly enjoyed the spectacle of it.

[00:16:42] When Wilde was asked whether he had ever kissed one particular boy, Wilde responded, "Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it."

[00:16:57] Of course, if you are trying to convince a courtroom that you are not gay then saying that the reason you didn’t kiss a boy was because he was ugly isn’t a very good way of going about it.

[00:17:11] When it became clear that the libel case was going nowhere, and that the Marquis had evidence that Wilde had hired male prostitutes, Wilde dropped the case.

[00:17:23] The Marquis was free to go, but now the spotlight turned to Wilde.

[00:17:30] He was arrested, and put on trial on the charges of homosexual activity. On these charges, he was certainly guilty. It emerged that Wilde would frequently hire young, male prostitutes. He would pay for them to have lavish dinners with him, then they would return to his hotel room, often with Bosie.

[00:17:54] During the trial, Wilde spoke passionately about the beauty of true love and passion, and of “the love that dare not speak its name”. But the judge was having none of it, and Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison.

[00:18:13] By this time Oscar Wilde was pretty much the most famous living playwright in the country. He was flamboyant and controversial but he was incredibly talented and well-known. And just like that he was locked up, shut up in a prison, even denied any writing materials for the majority of his time in prison.

[00:18:39] Now, for anyone, prison must be a terrible experience, but for Wilde it was almost a death sentence.

[00:18:48] Imagine, this is an incredibly talented playwright who had spent his afternoons and evenings in literary salons, had met Victor Hugo, Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, who was used to a life of considerable luxury.

[00:19:05] Then in an instant he was forced to wear prison clothes and walk on a treadmill for 5 hours a day, with no contact with anyone from the outside world.

[00:19:18] When he was freed, two years later, he emerged a broken man. The same evening of his release from prison he set sail for France, and never returned again to the British Isles.

[00:19:34] His wife had left him, too embarrassed to be married to the country’s most public homosexual. He was bankrupt, as he had had to pay all of the Marquis’s legal fees when he lost the libel case.

[00:19:50] And the rest of the life of Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was, I’m sorry to say, a pretty sad affair.

[00:20:00] He was released from prison in 1897, and three years later he was dead at the age of 46.

[00:20:09] He died, in fact, on November 30th, exactly 121 years from when this episode was released.

[00:20:17] His last years had been spent mainly in Paris and Northern France, where he could be found drifting from one cafe to another, begging friends and acquaintances for more money to buy another drink and a hot meal.

[00:20:33] He only wrote one more poem after leaving prison, a long poem called “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, in which he wrote of the harsh treatment prisoners face in jail.

[00:20:45] Even on his deathbed he retained his trademark wit and humour. He was lying in bed, dying from meningitis.

[00:20:56] His last words were, reportedly, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

[00:21:07] The wallpaper won, and Wilde died penniless and disgraced in France, exiled from the country he had come to call home, Britain.

[00:21:19] Now, when it comes to the legacy of Oscar Wilde, although he produced some brilliant plays and novels, his legacy is certainly one of wasted talent.

[00:21:31] Wilde was someone who was persecuted and criminalised for the crime of being gay. 

[00:21:38] Spending time in prison destroyed him, and although he wasn’t directly killed for his homosexuality, his literary career and perhaps even life was cut drastically short because he spent time in prison.

[00:21:55] It’s worth pointing out that Wilde was given a posthumous pardon, he was pardoned for being sent to prison for homosexuality, but this came in 2017, somewhat too late. 

[00:22:10] In terms of how people think about Wilde today, he is best known for his wit and humour. He was evidently an incredibly intelligent, sharp and funny man, a “wit” in the classic sense of the word.

[00:22:26] He is one of the most quoted authors not just of the 19th century, but really ever. He knew the power of a well-put-together sentence, the power of words to amuse and insult.

[00:22:41] His literary legacy is huge, with his play The Importance of Being Earnest being regularly produced. 

[00:22:50] Above all, perhaps, he is considered a gay icon and is much celebrated by popular and prominent gay celebrities, such as the polymath and TV presenter, Stephen Fry.

[00:23:03] Ultimately, he was a victim of his time, a victim of a cruel law that not only meant he had to live part of his life in hiding, but when he was challenged meant he was thrown in prison.

[00:23:19] Wilde once said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

[00:23:28] Well, his life may not have been long, but it’s undeniable that Oscar Wilde did a lot more than simply “exist”. 

[00:23:39] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Fantastic Life of Oscar Wilde.

[00:23:45] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that it might even have inspired you to pick up a Wilde poem, novel or play, and see what all of the fuss is about.

[00:23:58] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:24:02] Have you read any Oscar Wilde, or seen any of his plays performed, both in English or in your native language? What did you think of them?

[00:24:12] What were the laws around homosexuality like in your country? Were they as cruel as those in the UK?

[00:24:20] Let’s get this discussion started - you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:24:31] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:24:36] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]