Oscar at Oxford

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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