9 Fascinating Facts About Oscar Wilde

Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Playwright, poet, and novelist Oscar Wilde was passionate about creating art for art’s sake. Wearing his heart extravagantly on his sleeve, he lived a colorful life and frequently caught the attention of gossipers, especially during his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. But as Wilde himself once wisely remarked, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Wilde would surely approve of the fact that he remains a widely discussed literary figure today. Here are nine facts about the flamboyant artist you might not have known.

1. Oscar Wilde’s mother was an Irish revolutionary.

Wilde’s mother Jane Francesca Elgee, a poet, published under the pseudonym “Speranza” for a weekly Irish nationalist newspaper. The word means “hope” in Italian, and she chose it because she believed that she was descended from the Italian poet Dante. Elgee supposedly used a pen name to avoid embarrassing her family by revealing her real identity when she published her work.

Speranza’s writing, which focused on controversial issues like the suffering during the Irish Famine, made her a household name in Ireland. She also shaped her son’s character. Later on, according to the Irish Times, “Speranza's considerable influence was brought to bear on Oscar to ensure that he did not back down from the infamous trial which centered on his homosexuality.”

2. Oscar Wilde edited a women’s magazine in the 1880s.

While working on his essays and short stories, Wilde had a successful career as editor of a women’s magazine called The Woman’s World. The publication was originally called The Lady’s World, but Wilde renamed it, intending that it “deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel.”

3. Critics slammed Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Wilde’s famously decadent novel is commended as a classic today, but at the time of its initial publication in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890, the reception for the work was lukewarm. The novel tells the story of a handsome man who is able to enjoy eternal youth and beauty, despite committing moral transgressions, because a portrait of him degenerates in his place. Many criticized the book’s homoerotic overtones, branding it “effeminate,” “unmanly,” and “leprous.”

4. Oscar Wilde told fairy tales at dinner parties.

Wilde published two collections of original fairy tales: The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891). Though they were put forth as material for children, Wilde told these stories at dinner parties, where he was always the star raconteur—suggesting that the stories (which contained themes of martyrdom and homosexual love) were in fact intended for an adult audience. When asked if he had meant for children to appreciate them, Wilde said, “I had about as much intention of pleasing the British child as I did of pleasing the British public.”

5. One of Oscar Wilde's plays was banned by the Lord Chamberlain.

Between 1879 and 1894, Wilde wrote nine plays, four of which cemented his reputation as a witty observer of Victorian mores: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, The Importance of Being Earnest, and An Ideal Husband. But another play, Salomé, struck a darker tone in its depiction of a lustful woman who seduces her stepfather, King Herod, by performing the dance of the seven veils and demanding the head of John the Baptist.

Salomé is considered by many to be Wilde's most decadent work, but it was some time until English audiences could enjoy the production in all its glory. In Victorian Britain, the Lord Chamberlain—the most senior officer of the Royal Household of the United Kingdom—was responsible for licensing stage performances. He banned Salomé because it portrayed biblical characters, which had been forbidden since the Protestant Reformation. As a result, Salomé was not performed in England until the early 20th century.

6. Oscar Wilde thwarted a plan to disrupt the opening night of his play The Importance of Being Earnest.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, a.k.a Bosie
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, a.k.a Bosie / British LIbrary, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Wilde became close to Lord Alfred Douglas (nicknamed Bosie), a young Oxford student he met at a tea party, beginning in 1891. Bosie’s father, the ill-tempered Marquess of Queensberry, became obsessed with their relationship and vowed to stop it. He plotted to disrupt the London premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895, but Wilde was wise to the plan and arranged for police to be at the venue. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of Wilde’s escalating troubles with him; the marquess also left a card at Wilde’s club accusing him of [sic] “posing as somdomite.”

With Bosie’s encouragement, Wilde decided to sue the marquess for libel. During the trial, Queensberry’s defense suggested that Wilde solicited 12 male prostitutes. Wilde eventually withdrew the libel charge, but the damage was done. He was soon back in court for a criminal trial, The Crown v. Wilde, facing 25 counts of “gross indecency” and conspiracy to commit gross indecencies, a vague term usually interpreted to mean sexual activity between men that falls short of actual sex. He pleaded not guilty and was released on bail when the jury could not reach a verdict. In the retrial, Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labor.

7. Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, was repurposed for art.

During his term of imprisonment at Reading Gaol, Wilde was forced to endure unsanitary conditions and perform grueling physical labor. The miserable two-year sentence inspired his famous poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he completed after his release. The facility (later HM Prison Reading), located about 40 miles west of central London, was operational until 2013. In 2016, it was repurposed for an art exhibition as part of a two-month project featuring readings and installations on themes connected to imprisonment and separation.

8. Oscar Wilde converted to Catholicism on his deathbed in a Parisian hotel room.

The Catholic Church still maintains that practicing homosexuality is a sin. But Wilde (who was raised in a Protestant family) decided to convert to Catholicism shortly before he died in Paris in 1900, three years after his release from prison. Wilde had a lifelong fascination with Catholicism, remarking that it was “the highest and the most sentimental” of faiths, and enjoyed an audience with Pope Pius IX in 1877. Earlier in life, Wilde had quipped, "I'm not a Catholic. I am simply a violent Papist.”

9. Admirers once covered Oscar Wilde’s tomb in kisses.

Wilde’s tomb, with its famous monument by sculptor Jacob Epstein, is located in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France. It’s a popular draw for literary-minded tourists visiting the city. In the late 1990s, visitors began leaving lipstick kisses on the stone as a mark of admiration—but the trend eventually left Wilde’s monument looking more like Jim Morrison’s, on the opposite side of the same cemetery. Because the grease from the lipstick and repeated cleanings began eroding the stone, the French and Irish governments paid for a glass barrier to be erected around Wilde’s monument in 2011.