Oscar Wilde—we have only to hear the name to anticipate that what will be quoted as his will change conventional solemnities to frivolous insights. So it was in his lifetime, and so it is eighty-four years after his death. Wit, grace, unexpectedness: these are his essence, yet what attracts us too is, as Borges declares, that Wilde is almost always right.
In the process by which Oscar Wilde became Oscar Wilde, his parents must be allowed to have given their impetus. The family into which he was born was intellectually distinguished, and it was also exciting. Sir William Wilde, his father, started the first eye and ear hospital in Great Britain, and as a surgeon developed these specialties beyond anyone before him. He also trained his own eye on Irish archaeological remains, and his ear on folklore, so that he brilliantly classified and cataloged the antiquities now in the National Museum of Ireland, and collected superstitions and folk tales that might otherwise have been lost. Along with his distinctions and honors went something else: as a young man, before his marriage, he had begotten like some Regency rake three illegitimate children. The secret of who their mothers were was well kept. Oscar Wilde knew his father’s children, a fact that accounts for the many foundlings and mysteries of birth in his writings. There was nothing predictable about the Wildes’ family life.
As for his mother, Lady Wilde, she had broken with her family’s Unionist politics by writing vehement poetry in support of the Irish nationalist movement. Her name was plain Jane, her pen name was Speranza, because of a high-flown genealogical fantasy that her family, the Elgees, were related to Dante’s family, the Alighieris. In writing to Longfellow, Dante’s translator, she signed herself Francesca Speranza Wilde. Later on she became less perfervid as a nationalist; she refused to read the proofs when some of her poems were republished, saying, “I cannot tread the ashes of that once glowing past.” But she remained immoderate. At her salon in Dublin, and later in London, she cut a figure in increasingly outlandish costumes, festooned with headdresses and heavy jewelry, and always capable of making extravagant statements. As her son commented later, “Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.” This must serve as a general defense for her conscious rhetoric, and his too. When she moved to London, and was asked about her poetry, she sighed, “My singing robes are trailed in London clay.” When someone asked her to receive a young woman who was “respectable,” she replied, “You must never employ that description in this house. Only tradespeople are respectable.”
Oscar Wilde remembered this when, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell asks, “Is this Miss Prism a female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education?” Canon Chasuble replies indignantly, “She is the most cultivated of ladies, and the very picture of respectability.” “It is obviously the same person,” says Lady Bracknell. Oscar Wilde once announced that his mother and he had decided to found a society for the suppression of virtue, and it says something for their kinship of minds that either of them might have originated the idea. Lady Wilde delighted Sir William Hamilton, the mathematician, when he was showing her through his big house in Dublin, by saying, “I hope it’s haunted.” In a more serious moment, when Sir William Wilde was accused in court of having sexually misconducted himself with a woman patient, Lady Wilde—asked why she had taken no notice of the woman’s charges against her husband—replied majestically, “Because I was not interested.”
That the son of such flamboyant parents should himself have been flamboyant is no surprise. Wilde was kept at home until he was nine, under private tutors, and then was sent to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, where he remained until he was sixteen. About these seven years he had nothing to say later, except to reduce them by admitting to only “about one year” at Portora. He must have felt like Mrs. Cheveley in An Ideal Husband, who says, “I have forgotten my schooldays. I have a vague impression that they were detestable.” Detested Portora nevertheless schooled him in Latin and Greek and sent him on, like other Protestant boys, to Trinity College, Dublin. There he distinguished himself in classics under the tutelage of two rival eminences, Professors Mahaffy and Tyrrell. But after two and a half years Wilde suddenly broke with the expected pattern by taking an examination for a demyship (scholarship) at Magdalen College, Oxford, and winning it. Professor Mahaffy is reputed to have remarked to him, “You’re not quite clever enough for us here, Oscar. Better run up to Oxford.”
And so, in October 1874, Wilde traveled from Dublin to the most ancient of British universities. He remained at Oxford for the four years of the Greats course, and a little longer, studying classical history and philosophy as well as literature. An amorphous twenty-year-old boy when he arrived, he was a formed young man of twenty-four when he left. “I have never sowed wild oats,” he wrote in a notebook, “I have planted a few orchids.” The flower metaphor took firm root.
For Irishmen, Oxford is to the mind what Paris is to the body. Wilde was as receptive as anyone else to this fabled equation. The university, gathering in a disproportionate number of the best talents, treated them with a mixture of tenderness and rigor, and dispatched them into life forever classified as brilliant, clever, or just average, but Oxford average. The students felt at once affection for this mighty mother and awe of her power to define their lives.
Wilde had no reason to regard himself as a Lucien de Rubempré come from the provinces to find in Oxford the great world. Dublin was not Skibbereen. He already knew many Englishmen—talented people from England were always attending his mother’s Saturday afternoons—and his family name was English. Many of his relations lived in England, and so did friends like Bunbury, who would unwittingly lend his name to Algernon’s Bunburying shenanigans in The Importance of Being Earnest. The antiquity of Oxford could not have overwhelmed a young man who had accompanied his father in the inspection of prehistoric cromlechs and barrows. Yet Oxford still seemed to be, in Dryden’s words, Athens, and everywhere else Thebes. “The most beautiful spot in England,” Wilde said of it. Henry James, after a visit there the year before Wilde came up, commented on “the peculiar air of Oxford—the air of liberty to care for intellectual things, assured and secured by machinery which is in itself a satisfaction to sense.” Wilde put it more lyrically: he said that being at Oxford was for him “the most flower-like time” in his life.
Still, nostalgia is one thing, and the student world of old Etonians and Wyckhamists and Harrovians and inchoate Tories another. Wilde presents himself in his writings with a high polish which has been the envy of young people since. But at the start he committed his gaucheries. A friend of his at Balliol, Courtenay Bodley, whom he had met the summer before starting Oxford, drew a malicious but probably accurate portrait of Wilde’s early days as an undergraduate. The first time that Wilde dined in hall, according to Bodley, he happened to be seated next to a guest from another college—an athlete in his third year and therefore someone not to be taken lightly. Wilde talked well, and feeling that he had ingratiated himself, as soon as the meal was over presented the athlete with his card, containing his name and college newly printed. By the unsurmisable rules of Oxford, this was something that was not done.
Rebuffed on this occasion, and no doubt on others, Wilde determined to be ahead of rather than behind the English. His Dublin accent disappeared in favor of that stately and distinct English, phrased in perfect sentences, which so astonished Yeats and others later. He developed a great appetite for formal wear, and told a friend, “If I were alone on a desert island and had my things, I should dress for dinner every night.” (Who would cook for him he did not consider.) For daytime, he put aside his Dublin clothing and became sportier than his friends by donning tweed jackets with even larger checks than theirs, bird’s-eye-blue neckties, tall collars, curly-brimmed hats balanced on one ear. His thick brown hair was cut acceptably short at Speirs’ Barber Shop in the High. This was only the first phase of his sartorial revolution; it would be succeeded a couple of years later by a more sophisticated dandyism, involving a coat cut to resemble a cello and similar flourishes.
His appearance and his conversation quickly made Wilde conspicuous. He annoyed thereby those who hated conspicuousness, but amused and pleased his friends, who recognized in him an element of self-mocking excess. There are many examples of his conviviality with contemporaries and of his insolence to his putative superiors. One report by a proctor, dated November 1, 1875, complained that Wilde and three other men had been found dining at the Clarendon—evidently a heinous offense. The proctor took their names and instructed them to finish their meal as quickly as possible and report to his college, Jesus. They kept asking him, “Shall we report to Jesus?” until he departed, much annoyed. He returned a quarter of an hour later to find them still there. “They were, if possible, still ruder than before,” he noted. “Wilde strutted about the room with his hat on”—no doubt one of those curly-brimmed ones of which he was proud—until the proctor instructed him to remove it. The proctor proposed that they should all be gated, that is, confined to their colleges.
Wilde seems to have enjoyed subverting authorities. At the examination in Divinity which he had to take at the end of his second year, he went up to the proctor to obtain the examination paper. The proctor inquired, “Are you taking Divinity or Substituted Matter?” (The substituted matter was for non-Anglicans.) “Oh, the Forty-Nine Articles,” Wilde replied indifferently. “The Thirty-Nine, you mean, Mr. Wilde,” said the proctor. “Oh, is it really?” asked Wilde in his weariest manner. (He would talk later of the Twenty Commandments; by miscounting them he discounted them.) The examiner on this occasion was W.H. Spooner, later Warden of New College. Spooner reproved Wilde for being late, to which Wilde replied airily, “You must excuse me. I have no experience of these pass examinations,” meaning that an examination where one simply passed or failed was beneath his notice.
Spooner, himself in orders and a nephew of the Archbishop of Canterbury, reprimanded him by telling him to copy out the twenty-sixth chapter of Acts in Greek. After a time, seeing that Wilde was toiling away industriously, Spooner relented, “You have done enough.” But Wilde continued to write. Spooner said, “Did you hear me tell you, Mr. Wilde, that you needn’t write any more?” “Oh yes, I heard,” said Wilde, “but I was so interested in what I was copying that I could not leave off. It was all about a man named Paul, who went on a voyage and was caught in a terrible storm, and I was afraid that he would be drowned; but do you know, Mr. Spooner, he was saved; and when I found that he was saved, I thought of coming to tell you.”