The Rise of Oscar Wilde

oscar_wilde_portrait_460Oscar Wilde is arguably one of the most famous and lasting playwrights since William Shakespeare — and his work was popular to boot. He was a celebrity in his time, known even then for being an extremely quotable master of one-liners.

He was born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. His parents, Sir William and Jane Wilde, gave him the most Irish name they could: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. Just try yelling out that entire thing when you’re mad at your kid. That’s a chore. Anyways, he was the second child of three — his older brother Willie and younger sister Isola. His parents were part of Dublin’s intellectual elite — Sir William was a doctor notable for taking care of the city’s poor and who had also written and published numerous works regarding medicine, archaeology and folklore while Jane was an Irish nationalist publishing revolutionary poetry for the Young Islanders under the pen name Speranza. They instilled a love of poetry and folklore in all of their children.

Until age of nine, Wilde was educated at home by his mother, a French nursemaid, and a German governess. As such, he became fluent in French and German very early. Then he was enrolled at the Portora Royal School — a free school. While he was there, Isola Wilde died of meningitis in 1867.

Wilde graduated from the Portora Royal School in 1871 and began attending Trinity College in Dublin. There he studied classic literature and Greek alongside his older brother Willie and joined the University Philosophical Society. Through this society, he became an enthusiastic member of the Aesthetic Movement — an intellectual movement prioritizing the appreciation of beauty over social and political themes in literature, fine art, music, and other arts.

While at Trinity, he also befriended Edward Carson — a name you’re going to want to remember for later. They stayed very close friends throughout their college years, but drifted apart in adulthood. Wilde proved to be a gifted student — coming in at the top of his class in his first year of studies and eventually winning Trinity College’s highest academic award, the Berkeley Gold Medal. In 1874, having out-nerded everyone in Ireland (and with encouragement from his teachers who were probably tired of being shown up by him), he applied for and obviously received a scholarship to Magdalen College in Oxford.

oscar_wilde_281854-1900292c_by_hills_26_saunders2c_rugby_26_oxford_3_april_1876At Magdalen College, Wilde reinvented himself. He explored several organizations, religions and philosophies. He toyed with joining Roman Catholicism — despite threats that his father would cut him off financially if he was baptized into that faith. Wilde ultimately decided, at the last minute, not to do it, and sent flowers to the ceremony in his place. He said he liked their aesthetic, rather than their beliefs. Wilde also replaced his Irish accent with an upper class British accent, began to dress in formal wear literally all of the time and lavishly decorated his room with peacock feathers. It was about this time — no surprise — that he became involved in the Decadent Movement.

As anyone who’s ever been to school knows, standing out isn’t always a popular thing. People attempted to beat up or bully Wilde on more than one occasion — but Wilde was 6’3″ and really strong — especially for someone who pretty much hated sports. He once beat up an entire group of students who attacked him, then invited onlookers to go to the room of one of his assailants where they drank all that student’s liquor. He did, at some point (before or after this, I’m unclear), take up boxing — probably not so much as a sport but as a means of self-defense.

The lifestyle he’d adopted was not conducive to studying, and Wilde did not remain the star pupil he had been at Trinity. After returning late from a trip to Greece with a professor, Wilde was even temporarily expelled. Despite this, when he graduated in November of 1878, he received double first (the highest possible honor) for his Bachelor degree in Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores (basically, literature, just made to sound fancier.) In the same year his poem “Ravenna” won the Newdigate Prize, a high honor for students at Oxford.

800px-punch_-_oscar_wildeWilde settled in London after graduating, though he spent a good amount of time in Paris. In 1881, a collection of his poems (now having been published in various places since roughly 1871) was published. The first print run of Poems was 750 copies — it sold out and had to have a second run printed in 1882. Despite the book’s undeniable popularity, reviews were mixed — the British magazine Punch was notably unenthusiastic. Their review stated: “The poet is Wilde, but his poetry’s tame.” (Don’t you sometimes wonder if people write intentionally bad reviews just so they throw in some solid gold zingers like that one?)

Because the aesthetic movement was becoming popular in the United States thanks to Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience (which features a character satirizing Wilde), talent agent Richard D’Oyly Carte booked Wilde for a lecture tour in America coinciding with the tour of Patience. The press in the United States was even more critical of Wilde than it was in Britain. T.W. Higginson wrote that Wilde’s “only distinction is that he has written a thin volume of very mediocre verse” and expressed concerns about the influence Wilde might have on people’s behavior.

Wilde was also subjected to some incredibly bigoted anti-Irish attacks in the press — on January 22, 1882 (just twenty days after he landed in the country!) the Washington Post published a drawing of Wilde next to the Wild Man of Borneo (one of P.T. Barnum’s “freak show” performers) and asked “How far is it from this to this?” Despite the press, Wilde’s actual lectures were very popular and his tour was extended from the original four months to almost a year long.

Wilde interacted a lot with Irish-Americans during this tour. They were, perhaps, the most critical of him out of everyone in America for abandoning his Irish accent. As a result, he actually did reconnect with his Irish roots (though not his accent) and began to get more involved in politics. He was a staunch supporter of Irish independence (despite not going back to Ireland much). He also spoke out on behalf of socialism, although his actual beliefs — which he described as anarchy — were probably closer to communism than anything. (Apparently, for all his studying, Wilde never read the Communist Manifesto.)

Between the tour and publishing The Duchess of Padua, Wilde was making a good amount of money by 1883. In that same year his first play, Vera, was produced in New York City. As his celebrity grew so — of course — did rumors that he might be a sodomite — probably more because of his entire lack of romantic attachments and his super flamboyant clothes. Some historians suggest, therefore, that it is not a coincidence that he started seeing Constance Lloyd — a woman and fellow Decadent writer who he met at a lecture in Dublin. They married on May 29, 1884. Because of the philosophical and literary values they both represented, they spent tons and tons of money on having an incredibly stylish house in London. Like, even though they were both well-off, they ended up having basically no money.

Lloyd and Wilde had two sons — Cyril (born in 1885) and Vyvyan (born in 1886) — proving beyond any doubt that celebrities have always given their kids bizarre names. During the second pregnancy, their marriage began to fall apart. According to the biography written by Daniel Mendelsohn, Wilde became “physically repelled” by his wife. It was also about this time that Wilde met Robert “Robbie” Ross — a seventeen year old university student who was pretty much openly and unashamedly gay. That was a really big deal at the time. Robbie was determined to seduce Wilde — he had recognized allusions to “Greek love” (that’s a classy way of saying gay sex) in Wilde’s work and had decided to introduce Wilde to it. And he was very successful at that. While Ross and Wilde had a fairly short-lived romantic affair, they remained very close lifelong friends. Wilde’s marriage continued to devolve, although they never divorced.

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Wilde’s star as a writer continued to rise after this. Over the next several years, he published a number of short stories — most of which alluded to “Greek love” more openly than his works had before. In 1890, Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray — a novel that catapulted him to an even higher degree of fame. (Incidentally, Dorian Gray was likely inspired — at least in name, if nothing else — by Wilde’s next ex-lover, John Gray. Gray did his best to deny this rumor.) It was publicly trashed by critics, particularly for the hedonism depicted in the novel — and the rather obvious references to homosexuality. It was heavily edited, some of the more transparent homo eroticism taken out and six new chapters added, and re-released in 1891. It was in this year, Wilde was introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas (aka “Bosie” to his friends), a student at Oxford at the time but with a great interest in literature — and the two struck up a friendship. This friendship would ultimately change the trajectory of Wilde’s life — and impact the entire underground queer community of Europe.

….for the thrilling conclusion, click here.

Lord Byron

This one is going to be long — can’t help it, he did a lot. (In fact, I have cut out so much of this it’s kind of embarrassing. I was just trying to focus in on the gay stuff and the sexy stuff.) He’s also kind of my historical crush — spoiler: I have the worst taste in men. I give you: the poet Lord Byron. Now, he’s from a time before we really had the understanding of sexuality that we have now, but I can say three things for certain. Lord Byron was not heterosexual. Lord Byron was not homosexual. Lord Byron was very sexual.

(c) Newstead Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Lord Byron was born on January 22, 1788 CE in London to parents Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron Gordon and Catherine Gordon — Mad Jack’s second wife. They named their son George Gordon Byron. Between a rocky relationship with his unstable mother, his dad leaving them and then dying in France in 1791 (although, honestly, having read about the dad they were probably better off), and being born with a deformed foot, he definitely wasn’t winning any awards for greatest childhood ever. In 1798, at ten years old, George inherited the title of Baron Byron from his great-uncle (on his father’s side). The title came with very little money — and two properties, one of which his great-uncle had illegally sold (and most of the money Byron inherited was spent on a legal battle concerning that) and the other of which, Newstead Abbey, was run-down to the point of being practically ruins.

As he reached adolescence he was sent to the school of William Glennie. Glennie and Catherine fought constantly, particularly over control of Byron’s schedule. It was around this time (1800) that Byron first started to dabble in poetry — and, not so coincidentally, also around this time he discovered some of his distant cousins were like really pretty.

His mother pulled him from William Glennie’s school and enrolled Byron at Harrow in 1801. It was while he was attending Harrow that he met his cousin Mary Chaworth — and he fell for her hard. She did not return the feelings at all. In September of 1803, Byron refused to return to school because of this rejection. When he finally did return to school (the next year) he rekindled friendships with a number of boys there. He also began writing letters to his half-sister Augusta Leigh (from his dad’s first marriage). In 1805, Byron’s final year at Harrow, he began a romantic relationship with John Thomas Claridge and he would return to Harrow more than once after his graduation to visit Claridge.

After graduating Harrow, Byron began attending Trinity College in Cambridge. There he met John Edleston — who he became close to. While Byron almost certainly had romantic feelings for Edleston, it is unclear from his writings whether or not that friendship was sexual. He may have kept things PG out of respect for Edleston’s supposed innocence — or maybe he just kept his letters PG because England was getting stricter about penalizing anyone even suspected of engaging in “buggery”. The two had planned on living together, they never did.

In 1809, Byron left on “the Grand Tour” which was basically a trip around continental Europe that young British men would take when they finished college — if they could afford it. (Byron could not afford it but he managed to make it happen anyways.) His Grand Tour was a little less grand than most because the Napoleonic Wars were not great for tourism, so his tour focused primarily on the Mediterranean. Byron had a lot of motivations for escaping England at the time — he was jealous that Mary Chaworth was marrying another man, he was being pursued by creditors that he owed money to, and — according to letters written to his friend (and fellow lover-of-men) Charles Skinner Matthew — because he wanted to sleep with men somewhere less uptight than England. (And like all of Europe was pretty much less uptight than England at this point.) They ended up in Greece where Byron reportedly encountered over 200 male lovers, including Eusthathius Georgiou and a 14-year old boy named Nicolo Giraud. Details about the actual relationships are scarce but he sent Giraud to school, and bequeathed him an inheritance of 7,000 pounds (which he later canceled). He eventually wrote in a letter to his friend John Hobhouse that he was tired of “pl and opt Cs” (a code he used for homosexual intercourse), “the last thing I could be tired of”. (I can’t find any evidence that Hobhouse was even the slightest bit gay, so he was either very open-minded for the time or better at keeping his own secrets than he was at keeping Byron’s.)

After returning from his Grand Tour in 1811 and learning that Edleston had died from consumption, Byron attempted to resume his relationship with John Claridge but discovered that Claridge had grown up to be — of all terrible things — boring. Byron wrote in a letter to Hobhouse that Claridge was “a good man, a handsome man, an honourable man, a most inoffensive man, a well informed man, and a dull man, & this last damn epithet undoes all the rest.”

In 1812, the first two cantos of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” were published and Byron became something of a celebrity. He also became — essentially — the premier male sex symbol in England at the time. He is known to have had several affairs in this time, and while I’m sure some are just rumor, I’m equally sure some happened that nobody ever heard about (especially some affairs with men!) One that definitely happened was a tumultuous affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb. For months, they wrote letters to each other. Byron started calling Lady Caroline “Caro”, and she started using that as her public name — but that was the only public sign of their feelings each other. In public they feigned hatred and Caroline even described Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” — which is possibly the single greatest epithet ever uttered. Unfortunately bumper stickers didn’t exist yet so Caroline couldn’t cash in on her genius. (I, however, am thinking of getting t-shirts made.) Eventually Byron broke up with her. Caroline’s husband took her away to Ireland so she could recover, but like, you know that saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? That turned out to be true and also terrible. She became obsessed with Byron. When she came back to London in 1813, she made many very public advances to try to win him back.

Public life also brought Byron back to attention of the various people to whom he owed money. In order to solve this problem, he thought of turning back to the old Byron family book of tricks — marrying for money. He ultimately settled on marrying Annabella Millbanke who was strictly religious and seemed from the beginning to be an ill-suited match for Byron. Furthermore, she was a cousin of Caroline Lamb’s husband. (I don’t know if that was on purpose but if it was, that’s an impressive level of pettiness.) While he was going through the courting and marriage process, he was also becoming reacquainted with his half-sister Augusta and rumors that they were having an incestuous affair began to circulate. The amount of time that he and Augusta spent alone together would end up destroying his marriage, so, y’know, make of that what you will.

Millbanke brought her daughter to London in January of 1816 — leaving Byron behind — and proceedings for an official divorce began. This separation was just one of several scandals plaguing Byron’s life — rumors circulated about his crushing debt, extramarital affairs with actresses, and of course of his incestuous relationship with Augusta. In February, Lady Caroline Lamb added one more devastating scandal to the mix: she started spreading word of Byron’s sexual encounters with men. On February 12, Hobhouse brought news of the rumors to Byron’s attention. Up until this point, Byron had been planning to defend himself in court and prove that his divorce was not his fault. Hobhouse advised him this would be a massive mistake amid the rumors of sodomy. If it had come out in court that Byron had engaged in “buggery”, he might have been executed. Instead, Byron settled on a self-imposed exile. By April 25, 1816 Lord Byron left England for the rest of his life.

These events had changed Byron. He considerably more serious — and more political — but he was also more discreet. In fact, that I can’t find any records of him being sexually involved with any men from this point on although I think we can all agree that he was probably still having same-sex affairs. (I suspect, had his memoirs not be destroyed, we’d probably know a lot more about his relationships during the next few years of his life.)

By the summer of 1816, Byron had settled at Lake Geneva with a motley crew — his personal physician John William Polidori, Percy Shelley, Shelley’s future wife Mary Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. Claire and Byron had a brief affair, which resulted in his illegitimate daughter Allegra being born in 1817. His stay at Lake Geneva is mostly important, though, because of the other writers who were there: chiefly, Mary Godwin created a draft of what would become Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Also, Byron and Polidori pretty much invented the modern idea of the vampire as a sexy blood-drinker.

By the winter, Byron had moved on — settling down in Venice. He stayed in a house belonging to Marianna Segati — a married woman with whom he was having an affair. He broke it off, and started an affair with another married woman named Margarita Cogni — though he continued staying in Marianna’s house. Anyways, Cogni left her husband and moved in — a bad move because she and Byron argued constantly (and also, not his house. His ex lover’s house. Seriously.) He finally asked her to move out, and she responded by throwing herself in the canal and drowning herself.

Around 1819, he encountered the young Italian countess Teresa Guiccioli. She fell in love with Byron — despite it being three days after her wedding to the Count Guiccioli — and he asked her to elope. The two lived together in Ravenna until moving to Pisa in 1821. Around that time, Byron and Shelley worked with Leigh Hunt to create a newspaper that they called The Liberal.

In 1823, advocates for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire approached Byron looking for support. They hoped his fame would prove a valuable asset. Byron was hesitant — he did not want to abandon the Countess Guiccioli. Circumstances in her family, however, forced her to abandon him. So, Byron set sail for Greece. Byron also planned to give generously to the cause of Greek independence. To that end, he sold his remaining estate in Scotland — Rochdale Manor — for 11,250 pounds. Translated into today’s money, Byron would have been a multimillionaire — and at the time there weren’t people with Jeff Bezos’ wealth so that was way more impressive. Byron intended to spend it all on the effort to free Greece. Virtually every Greek leader wanted Byron’s money. Only one won his favor —  while others vied through a variety of tactics. Byron put his support behind Alexandros Mavrokordatos.

Meanwhile, Byron had a few distractions of his own. He pursued a relationship with his page Lukas Chalandritsanos — though Lukas was very seriously not interested and kept things very professional. Byron wrote Lukas a bunch of poems and lavished Lukas with basically anything he wanted — to no avail. But Lukas wasn’t the only person Byron was spoiling — he had begun doting on a nine year old Turkish Muslim girl named Hato, whose father had been killed by the Greeks. He considered adopting her, spent quite a bit of money on dresses for her — and when things began to get dangerous for her and her mother, he sent them away to the island of Cephalonia.

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Lord Byron on His Deathbed, by Joseph Denis Odevaere

Mavrokordatos and Byron began planning an assault on Lepanto, a fortress held by the Ottoman Empire. Although Byron had no military experience, he planned to lead the attack himself. Before they could actually follow through with this plan, however, Byron became very ill with malaria. Doctors decided bloodletting would help, because that was a thing they did back then. It didn’t help — surprise! — in fact, it made things worse. Especially because no one sterilized their medical tools. (That wasn’t so much a “medicine used to suck” thing as “Byron’s doctor sucked” thing.) He developed sepsis and a fever, and then died on April 19, 1824.

Upon his death, Byron was firmly solidified as a national hero in Greece — and his reputation in England instantly became one of reverence. The reaction caused some alarm for his friends — who wanted him to be respected in his death — and so Hobhouse, Thomas Moore, and John Murray promptly burned the only copy of his memoirs instead of publishing them. His body was embalmed in Greece (though rumors circulate that the Greeks kept his heart) and then returned to England. Massive crowds came out to view his coffin. Despite efforts by Murray’s publishing firm (and later by way too many historians) to hide Byron’s sexuality, many religious and cultural institutions of the country refused to honor Byron — Westminster Abbey did not memorialize Byron in their Poets’ Corner until 1969.

If you made it this far, congratulations. Like I said, I really cut a lot out of this so I definitely encourage you all to read up on him some more! He’s iconic, and — despite the best efforts of historians — he’s undeniably queer.