Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Wilde’

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in 1882

Oscar Wilde was a flamboyant personality and a prolific writer towards the end of the nineteenth century, writing many plays, poems, fiction pieces and other essays. His writing is peppered with wit, humour and shows a great depth of understanding about the way people behave within society. He married Constance Lloyd in 1884, and had two sons (in 1885 and 1886).

Unfortunately, his glittering career was destined for a tragic and untimely end when he was accused of homosexuality.

…nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all.

In 1891, Wilde had met  a 21-year-old man called Lord Alfred Douglas and, becoming infatuated with him, began a stormy affair. Douglas was a spoilt, vain, extravagant young man, who was often insolent and demanding, and Wilde lavished large amounts of money and gifts on him. Their relationship was quite tumultuous, and was frequently punctuated with fights and disagreements, but always ended with reconciliations.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893

Whilst Wilde’s previous homosexual associations had been within his own social circle, Douglas began to introduce him to the underground gay prostitution scene in London. Soon he was regularly meeting and consorting with young, working class men, which was a sharp diversion from his previous pattern of behaviour, and probably indicates the level of influence that Douglas had over him, despite the 16-year age difference.

The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation.

Douglas was reckless in public with his lack of discretion about his homosexual tendencies, and in this very conservative Victorian era it was an invitation for trouble. He and his father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had never had a good relationship, and the Marquess was vehemently opposed to his son’s lifestyle. After a while, the Marquess began to suspect that there was more than a mere friendship between Douglas and Wilde, and – in his brusque manner – began to make some very confronting allusions to his suspicions.

Exhibit A in the Trial: The Marquess of Queensberry's calling card

Wilde had managed to fend of several of these confrontations, but on 18th February, 1885, the Marquess of Queensberry left his card for Wilde at a club that he often frequented. It was inscribed with “For Oscar Wilde, posing Sodomite”. Wilde, at the insistence of Douglas and against the advice of several other friends, decided to sue the Marquess for libel. In order for the Marquess to be acquitted of this charge, he was required to prove that his statement was correct, so he hired private detectives to unearth any evidence of Wilde’s homosexual associations.

The subsequent evidence that was revealed led Wilde to drop his case against the Marquess, and the next day he was arrested and charged with gross indecency, a term then used to describe homosexual acts with other men. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years hard labour. His resulting legal costs decimated his fortune, and he never recovered financially.

Of course, once I had put into motion the forces of society, society turned on me and said, “Have you been living all this time in defiance of my laws, and do you now appeal to those laws for protection? You shall have those laws exercised to the full. You shall abide by what you have appealed to.” The result is that I am in gaol.

Wilde wrote De Profundis in 1897, while he was in prison, intending it as a letter to Douglas, however it is unclear whether he ever received it. De Profundis means “from the depths” and is taken from the first line of Psalm 130 of the Bible. Wilde’s writing provides an insight into the pain and suffering that he was feeling during this perilous period of his life.

For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow. The very sun and moon seem taken from us. Outside the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly muffled glass of the small iron barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always twilight in one’s heart. And in the sphere of thought, no less than the sphere of time, motion is no more. The thing that you personally have long ago forgotten, or can easily forget, is happening to me now, and will happen to me again tomorrow.

His mother, whom he was very close to, died whilst he was in prison, and his wife left him and refused to allow him to see his sons, whose surnames she changed to Holland. He also lost some friends and had to endure the jeering laughter of the public. He describes his despair in his moments of sorrow, but also reveals how he managed to move beyond the pain and bitterness to come to a greater understanding of himself and the world.

I am completely penniless, and absolutely homeless. Yet there are worse things in the world than that. I am quite candid when I say that rather than go out from this prison with bitterness in my heart against the world, I would gladly and readily beg my bread from door to door. If I got nothing from the house of the rich I would get something at the house of the poor. Those who have much are often greedy; those who have little always share.

He realised that life does not just contain pleasure, and that there is great importance in sorrow. He describes how moments of sorrow are really holy moments, whereby a person’s realisation of life and themselves grows deeper. Sorrow became his teacher, and taught him things that Pleasure never could. For this reason he believes there to be great value in suffering.

It is difficult for most people to grasp the idea. I dare say one has to go to prison to understand it. If so, it may be worthwhile going to prison.

Oscar Wilde had hope of recovering his “creative faculty” after his release, intending to pursue his artistic talents away from the spotlight of society, but he only managed to publish one piece of poetry before his death, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He died of meningitis while living in Paris, France, in 1900, aged only 46.

Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys where I may weep undisturbed.

After Wilde had died, De Profundis was edited and published by his friend Robert Ross in 1905, and did not appear in its entirety until 1962. Whilst I find it very sad that he did not live to publish more work on this new perspective on life, I think De Profundis demonstrates that he used his sorrow in the best way he could, to develop a wider awareness of life the way life is. He discovered a deeper truth and knowledge in a way that he could not without intense grief. For no one can escape suffering, but not everyone can accept it either.

But while to propose to be a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered. And such I think I have become.

De Profundis contains some profound insights into the power that intense sorrow has to transform, and I have hardly done justice to them here. It is definitely worth reading, but be prepared to read it twice, as it is heavy going!

Do you see the purpose in sorrow?

* All quotes are from Wilde’s De Profundis (1905).

Related Posts

An Ideal Husband: Is perfection best?

Lady Windermere’s Fan: Which character are you?

Sources and Relevant Links

De Profundis (1905) – read online

The 1962 complete edition of De Profundis is only available to buy, as it is still in copyright.

The works of Oscar Wilde – a searchable index of his published works with a brief biography of his life

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Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Oscar Wilde was a prolific writer at the turn of the nineteenth century, initially as a journalist and then as a playwright. His plays were witty and light-hearted, yet also revealed some underlying truths about the social times of London during the late 1800’s. For these reasons, many of his plays continue to be popular in modern times.

My favourite Oscar Wilde play is An Ideal Husband (1895).

The story centres on a couple, Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude Chiltern, who are at the height of political acclaim in London society and who represent what is true and noble about British life. The scene opens at a political party given by the Chiltern’s at their Grosvenor Street home.

Julianne Moore as Mrs Cheveley

Mrs Cheveley, an old school acquaintance of Lady Chiltern’s, has lately arrived in London from Vienna with the specific purpose of being introduced to Sir Robert. At the party, she manages to have a private interview with him where she attempts to blackmail him with a secret from his past. She holds a letter that Sir Robert wrote when he was a secretary to a Minister of Parliament, in which he divulged a Cabinet secret to a stockbroker for money. In return for this letter, she hopes to get his public support in Parliament for a failing investment, namely her shares in the Argentine Canal scheme.

Gertrude Chiltern instinctively distrusts Mrs Cheveley and, not knowing her husbands past, she makes him refuse Mrs Cheveley’s demands in the form of a letter.

Sir Robert Chiltern: No one should be entirely judged by their past.
Lady Chiltern: One’s past is what one is. It is the only way by which people should be judged.

Sir Robert, now placed between two implacable and immoveable women, unburdens himself to his closest friend, Lord Goring, telling him the whole story. Lord Goring, a rich aristocratic bachelor, advises him to tell his wife the truth at once, but Sir Robert is afraid that it would destroy her love for him. In an attempt to help the situation, Lord Goring tries to soften Gertrude towards her husband and his unknown blemishes, and ends by pledging his assistance to her should she ever be in need of it.

A sub-plot of the emerging relationship between Lord Goring and Sir Robert’s sister, Mabel Chiltern, occurs throughout the play. It is a light and playful contrast to the deepening drama occurring with the other characters.

Mrs Cheveley, having misplaced her diamond brooch, comes to visit Gertrude Chiltern to see if it has been found. She uses the opportunity to suggest that Gertrude should encourage Sir Robert to acquiesce to her demands, and reveals to her the origin of her husband’s wealth and career. Sir Robert enters the room during the conversation and is left no recourse but to admit the truth to his wife. Lady Chiltern is devastated.

Lady Chiltern: You were to me something apart from common life, a thing pure, noble, honest, without stain. The world seemed to me finer because you were in it, and goodness more real because you lived. And now – oh, when I think that I made of a man like you my ideal! The ideal of my life!

Lord Goring, at home in his stately apartments, receives an ambiguous letter from Lady Chiltern, imploring him for help and announcing her intention to visit him immediately. “I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you now. Gertrude.” What follows is a comedy of errors, where Lord Goring is visited by numerous people, beginning with his father, Lord Caversham. Whilst Lord Goring is being a dutiful son, Mrs Cheveley, who is mistaken by the servant as Lady Chiltern, is shown into the drawing room. To complete the picture, Sir Robert arrives as Lord Caversham departs, and Lord Goring, thinking it is Lady Chiltern concealed in the neighbouring room, begins to talk to Sir Robert about his wife in an attempt to reconcile them.

Upon discovering Mrs Cheveley listening to their conversation, Sir Robert leaves in disgust. Mrs Cheveley, who had once been engaged to Lord Goring, then announces her reason for visiting – that she desires to marry Lord Goring and will promise to give him Sir Robert’s letter in return for his self-sacrifice. Lord Goring refuses.

The conversation turns to the brooch she lost at the Chiltern’s party, which Lord Goring has found. He returns it to her, clasping it on her hand as a bracelet, and tells her that he knows who she stole it from. In a panic, she agrees to surrender Sir Robert’s letter to him, rather than being turned over to the police. However, as she leaves she steals Gertrude’s somewhat compromising letter from the desk, intending to use it to destroy the Chiltern’s marriage.

Cate Blanchett and Jeremy Northam as Lady and Sir Robert Chiltern

Lord Goring visits Lady Chiltern to apprise her of the danger she stands in, and suggests she tell her husband the situation immediately. Afraid of the consequences, she pretends that she had meant the letter to be for Sir Robert, and not Lord Goring. However, when Sir Robert refuses to allow Lord Goring to marry Mabel Chiltern because he believes him to be involved with Mrs Cheveley, Lady Chiltern has to admit writing the letter to Lord Goring in order to clear up the misunderstanding. In the end, Lord Goring and Mabel are happily engaged, Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern are happily reconciled, and Sir Robert has a new position in the Cabinet of the Government!

The play contrasts the notion of private moral integrity with public moral integrity, where private integrity is how you conduct yourself behind closed doors, and public integrity is how your conduct appears to others. Sir Robert Chiltern has exceptional public integrity and is celebrated for his appearance of upright character, yet his private decisions in his past demonstrate a moral code that has been unduly influenced by temptation.

Sir Robert Chiltern: …Gertrude, public and private life are different things. They have different laws, and move on different lines.
Lady Chiltern: They should both represent man at his highest. I see no difference between them.

Lord Goring, in contrast, has a solid private integrity, refusing to marry Mrs Cheveley even to save his friend. He even refuses to agree with Sir Robert’s reasons for making his disastrous choice, whilst still being sympathetic to his friend’s predicament. Yet his father, Lord Caversham, believes him to have very poor public integrity, comparing him negatively to Robert Chiltern on a number of occasions.

Lord Caversham: I wish you would go into Parliament.
Lord Goring: My dear father, only people who look dull ever get into the House of Commons, and only people who are dull ever suceed there.
Lord Caversham: Why don’t you try to do something useful in life?
Lord Goring: I am far too young.
Lord Caversham: I hate this affectation of youth, sir. It is a great deal too prevalent nowadays.
Lord Goring: Youth isn’t an affectation. Youth is an art.

This issue of dual areas of morality in character is not clearly resolved. Wilde instead presents them as both important, even though both are treated differently. In private life, it is the people you love who extend arms of forgiveness for moments of error. However, in public life there awaits scandal and humiliation that crush a man for his moments of error. These different consequences of essentially the same moral decisions means that the characters have to deal with them differently. It is therefore appropriate that Sir Robert confesses fully to his wife, but it is not appropriate that he confess to the public.

The title “An Ideal Husband”, represents two very different types of “ideal” in the play. Lady Chiltern makes an ideal of her husband, Sir Robert, putting him on a pedestal and worshiping his goodness. Unfortunately, this type of relationship allows no room for any imperfections and therefore there is no space for forgiveness. Lady Chiltern is required to change her view of “an ideal husband” in order to be reconciled to Sir Robert.

Lord Goring, as a rich and eligible bachelor, would make a very ideal husband and is even sought after by two of the principal characters, Miss Mabel and Mrs Cheveley. However, both Lord Goring and Mabel are well aware of each others faults and are happy to accept and live with them.

Lord Caversham: And if you don’t make this young lady an ideal husband, I’ll cut you off with a shilling.
Mabel Chiltern: An ideal husband! Oh, I don’t think I should like that. It sounds like something in the next world.

Wilde seems to appreciate that life is not perfect. Problems arise in any relationship, but if love remains constant then forgiveness is always possible.

Related Posts

Lady Windermere’s Fan: Which character are you?


De Profundis: The Dark Side of Oscar Wilde

Relevant Links

Read “An Ideal Husband” online

“An Ideal Husband” – the movie (1999)

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Mrs Erlynne: …You are devoted to your mother’s memory, Lady Windermere, your husband tells me.

Lady Windermere: We all have ideals in life. At least we all should have. Mine is my mother.

Mrs Erlynne: Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they’re better.

Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 4, by Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde wrote a number of plays toward the end of the 19th century, many of them satires on the fashionable world in the ‘ton’ of London. “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is a satire about marriage in this setting.

Lady Windermere and her fan. From the movie, A Good Woman, starring Scarlett Johannsen

In this play there are many views presented on marriage, each from the different perspectives of the players. In this segment, the principal character, Lady Windermere, has just been saved from making a ruinous decision to run off with another man. This saviour was Mrs Erlynne. This excerpt of their conversation takes place the next morning, as Mrs Erlynne is about to bid farewell to the Windermere’s.

Unbeknownst to her, Lady Windermere is actually the daughter of Mrs Erlynne. Mrs Erlynne had run away and left her husband and daughter in order to pursue an affair with another man. Yet, Lady Windermere’s ” ideal” is her mother, because she believes her mother to have died soon after she was born. She believes that her mother would have been a good woman, and that her mother would have wanted her to be a good woman too. The notion of a “good woman” in the early 19th century revolves largely around being a good wife: submissive, malleable, one who relies on her husband.

Mrs Erlynne, in contrast, believes in “realities”. She thinks that, even though realities “wound”, they are still to be preferred than ideals. This difference in perspective may come from her different view of marriage. She has been once divorced, amidst scandal, and is now looking to be re-married. Her decision to leave her husband and daughter all those years ago had many repercussions for her in the 19th century world, and she has lost those ideals to which her daughter aspires. She prefers to work with what IS -with the reality in her world – rather than what COULD BE.

So, my question today is… Which is better?

Ideals push us to be better than we are, so we can aspire to greater things.

Reality helps us deal with where we are, so we can hopefully move on from there to improve ourselves.

Or is idealism merely the language of the young and inexperienced, and realism just becomes the vernacular of the old and embittered?

Which one are you?

Related Posts

An Ideal Husband: Is perfection best?

De Profundis: The Dark Side of Oscar Wilde

Relevant Links

Oscar Wilde’s play: Lady Windermere’s Fan to read online

A Good Woman: the movie (2004)

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