Interview with Oscar Wilde
Interview with Oscar Wilde
Of all the supernatural interviews I have now conducted (see list at the end), this interview with Oscar Wilde was one of the most challenging.
Yes, I know he died in 1900 at the age of 46, but I have the unique, unexplainable power of interviewing those no longer living. It’s true. Trust me.
Why was this interview so special? Because Oscar – Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was his full name – was responsible for hundreds of unbelievably wise, witty and unforgettable epigrams or sayings that are still popular today.
And he repeated many of them in answer to my questions. You will find his actual quotes italicized. Read on and you will see what I mean.
me – Tell me about your relationship with your parents.
Oscar – “Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.”
My father, William Wilde, was an extraordinary man – successful but driven. By the time he was 28, he had become a physician and written two medical books. He was knighted for his work on the Irish Census. He founded St. Mark's Ophthalmic Hospital in Dublin which was built entirely at his own expense. He was renowned throughout Ireland for his skill as an eye surgeon. But he had slovenly habits and gross table manners.
me – Such as . . . ?
Oscar – On several occasions, I saw him taste the soup at a fancy dinner party by using his dirty thumb. (Grimaces)
me – I remember reading some scandal concerning your father before he married your mother.
Oscar – “No man is rich enough to buy back his past.”
Yes, my dad fathered three illegitimate children before he married: Henry, Emily and Mary. But he did provide financial support for all of them. He paid for Henry's education and medical studies and eventually hired him as an assistant. The two girls, unfortunately, died in a fire at the ages of 22 and 24.
me – Tell me about your mother.
Oscar – “I see when men love women. They give them but a little of their lives. But women when they love give everything.”
My mother, Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde, was a loving, passionate and brilliant intellectual.
I got my tall stature from her – she was six feet tall.
She wrote poems under the pseudonym, “Speranza,” for a weekly Irish newspaper, and was a prominent supporter for Irish independence.
She spoke several languages and translated a famous Gothic horror novel,
“Mothers, of course, are all right. They pay a chap’s bills and don’t bother him. But fathers bother a chap and never pay his bills.”
me – Did you have siblings?
Oscar – I had a brother, two years older, William "Willie" Charles Kingsbury born in 1852, and a younger sister, Isola Emily Francesca.
When she was eight, she died of meningitis.
I was deeply affected by her death, and for the rest of my life, I carried a lock of her hair sealed in an envelope.
I dedicated my poem, “Requiescat” to her memory:
"Tread lightly, she is near … Under the snow … Speak gently, she can hear … the daisies grow …”
me – I know you were home-schooled until you were nine by French and German governesses who taught you their languages. And then you attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Fermanagh County – a country village of about 15,000 where you studied the classics.
Were you a good student?
Oscar – Of course. “Anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there.”
me – What is the most important lesson you learned at Portora?
Oscar – “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known. “ Andy Warhol learned that from me.
I received the Royal Scholarship from Portora to attend Trinity College in Dublin where I shared rooms with my brother, Willie, and earned their highest honor, a Foundation Scholarship.
I also won a Gold Medal for Greek and was awarded a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford University. I also learned to lose my Irish accent.
me – Were you active in the aesthetic/decadent movement popular at the university?
Oscar – “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
I became well known and continually talked about for my role in the aesthetic movement. I wore my hair long – the Beatles learned that from me – wore a cape, and carried a fancy cane.
I didn’t care much for masculine sports although I became an excellent boxer. My rooms were decorated with lilies, art objects and blue china.
“I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” That quote of mine became famous when adopted by the aesthetes.
me – I notice you are wearing an Egyptian scarab ring on each pinkie finger. Any special significance?
Oscar – I am not particularly superstitious but I believe they aid in avoiding the “evil eye”.
“The world is divided into two classes, those who believe the incredible, and those who do the improbable.”
me – What happened when your father died in 1876?
Oscar – I learned, “It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.”
Do you remember Henry? my father’s illegitimate son? He paid the mortgage on my family's house and supported them until his sudden death in 1877.
I continued to do well in my studies at Oxford and was awarded a prestigious prize for my poem, “Ravenna.”
After graduation, I moved to London to live with my friend, Frank Miles, a popular high society portrait painter.
In 1881, I published my first collection of poetry titled appropriately but not particularly creatively, “Poems.” It received mixed reviews by the critics,
“I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.“
me – I understand you delivered a series of lectures on aesthetics in America.
Oscar – When I arrived at the New York seaport, I was asked if I had anything to declare. My response: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
My four-month 50-lecture tour was so successful it became a one-year tour with me delivering 140 lectures. I met many famous American celebrities including Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman. Walt and I became pals – pen pals, that is.
I became a major personality full of myself, like Simon Cowell, because of my sharp wit, creative genius, and flamboyance. Once I hailed a cab in front of my New York hotel to take me to the restaurant . . . across the street. (Laughs)
“I am so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I am saying.”
Love and Marriage
me – If you don’t mind my asking, what was the story with you and the beautiful Florence Balcombe?
Oscar – “When a man has once loved a woman he will do anything for her except continue to love her.”
Florence was one of the most beautiful women I had ever met and I proposed marriage to her. She admired my sensitive, from-the-heart poetry and my colorful persona. Unfortunately, her father, Lieutenant Colonel Balcombe, saw no great value in my writing nor me.
He preferred her other suitor, Abraham Stoker, a civil servant and file clerk at the courthouse. What did he like about him? He had been sickly as a child but with strict discipline and athletic endurance “whipped himself into manhood.” That’s what her father told her.
She rejected me and married Bram. Do you know what is so ironic? He became a writer and subsequently wrote “Dracula” – it sold more copies than the Bible. Is it a wonder I became a cynic.
“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.“
me – When did you get married?
Oscar – “Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed.”
“Niagara Falls is the bride's second great disappointment.”
In 1884, I married Constance Mary Lloyd. She was four years younger than me and the pretty daughter of a wealthy Queen’s Counsel (prominent barrister) who died when she was sixteen. I admired her outspoken, independent mind as well as the fact that she was well-read and spoke several European languages – like me. We had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan.
“Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.”
me -What were you doing to earn a living?
Oscar - Now that I had a family to support, I accepted a job as editor for the “Woman's World” magazine and revitalized it by adding serious articles of advice on culture, politics and parenting.
“The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.”
me – Why did you leave the magazine?
Oscar – “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”
The initial excitement wore off and I began writing more. I published two collections of
children’s stories: “The Happy Prince and
Other Tales” (1888) and “The House of
My first and only novel was published, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The book’s implied homoerotic theme was considered very immoral by the Victorians of the time.
Writing for the Theater
me – When did you produce your first play?
Oscar – My first play, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” opened in February, 1892 and was so successful financially and critically I decided to continue to write for the theater.
“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”
In the next three years I wrote three more plays: “A Woman of No Importance” (1893), “An Ideal Husband” (1895), and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895). All three plays were highly acclaimed and firmly established me as a respected playwright. Flamboyant, colorful, but still respectable.
My clothing often verged on the outrageous. I had my clothes made by theater costumers instead of tailors.
Me – Why?
Oscar – Because costumers understood the dramatic effect I wanted to achieve. My mother had taught me to view everything in life as a performance. I may have been the first to establish a brand and the brand was ME! Coca-Cola and McDonald’s copied that strategy from me. Soon I became the talk of all England.
“The public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius.”
me – What happened on the first night that “Lady Windermere’s Fan” was presented?
Oscar – “When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.”
I was re-introduced to a handsome young Oxford undergraduate, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Homosexual feelings had surfaced in me occasionally since my schooldays. The year my second son was born, I met Robert Baldwin Ross, a young Canadian who had “the face of Puck,” who successfully seduced me and became my first lover.
“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it... I can resist everything but temptation.”
On this night, I became immensely attracted to Bosie, a beautiful, dashing and intelligent young man, and began the relationship that ultimately destroyed me. As my literary career flourished, the risk of an immense scandal grew. Victorian society was decidedly anti-homosexual.
“Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship.”
An intimate friendship began – I was infatuated with Bosie – and we were engaged in a tempestuous affair. I was finally earning excellent money from my plays and I indulged his every whim, material and sexual. Soon we became involved in the Victorian underground of gay male prostitutes.
“It was like feasting with panthers; the danger was half the excitement.”
Marquess of Queensberry
Me – How did the Marquess of Queensberry become involved?
Oscar – “A man can't be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”
The Marquess of Queensberry who created the modern rules of boxing was Bosie’s father. He was an aggressive womanizer and a violent, outspoken atheist who feuded with his son – whom he considered unmanly – on a regular basis.
Queensberry confronted Bosie and me on several occasions about our relationship and finally told me: "I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you."
I responded, “I don't know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight."
In 1895, everything was brought to a head when Queensberry stormed into my gentleman's club, The Albemarle, and left his card with the porter. It was addressed: “To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite” (sic). Imagine! He could not even spell the word correctly. I tried to remain calm but realized I was becoming ensnared in a dangerous family quarrel.
“I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect.”
Trial and Prison
me – What happened next?
Oscar – “Fathers should be neither seen nor heard. That is the only proper basis for family life.”
Bosie, understandably, hated his father and persuaded me to sue the Marquess for criminal libel. Homosexuality was illegal so Queensberry and his attorneys were able to destroy my case at the trial by calling as witnesses “rent boys” (young male prostitutes) who were willing to describe my sexual behavior in court.
"In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
I lost my libel case against Queensberry and was subsequently arrested by the Crown to defend counter charges of “gross indecency” for homosexual conduct. I was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labor, the latter part in Reading Gaol (jail).
On a railroad platform, with rain pouring down while waiting for a train to prison, I told my guards, "If the Queen can't treat her prisoners any better than this, she doesn't deserve to have any."
My cell measured 13 by 7 feet with wooden planks for a bed and I was assigned menial duties while being ridiculed by the guards.
“Ridicule is the tribute paid to the genius by the mediocrities.”
me – Did Constance, your wife, visit you in prison?
Oscar – I had only one visit from my wife. She came to the prison to inform me that my mother had died. Then I lost custody of my two sons when she took them to Switzerland and changed the family name to Holland. She hoped I would give up Bosie who was now in exile and return to the family.
“The one charm about marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.”
I was released from prison in 1897 and tried to comply with my wife's wishes. I sent Bosie a long emotional letter explaining why I could never see him again. (Note: This letter was later published by Robert Ross as an essay, “De Profundis,” in 1905).
“One of the many lessons that one learns in prison is, that things are what they are and will be what they will be.”
me – Did you see Bosie again?
Oscar – “What we have to do, what at any rate it is our duty to do, is to revive the old art of Lying.”
I was unable to resist temptation, left England and spent time first with Bosie and then with Ross traveling in Italy and France, staying with friends and living in cheap hotels. My relationship with Bosie ended when my wife and his mother put a stop to our affair by threatening to withdraw our respective allowances.
“When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is.”
me - Did you see your wife again?
Oscar - No, Constance fell, underwent spinal surgery, and died in 1898. I was now penniless and in poor health living in Paris. I used the pseudonym, Sebastian Melmoth, the name of my favorite martyr, began to drink heavily, and shunned society and artistic circles as avidly as I had once sought them. One of my most famous poems which I had written in prison, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” was published.
For several years I had suffered from serious, painful ear infections exacerbated by being untreated in prison. After surgery, I contracted meningitis and was confined to my seedy hotel room with its seedy wallpaper.
"My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go."
One of the last statements I made on my deathbed – while sipping champagne – “And now, I am dying beyond my means.” I left this world on November 30, 1900.
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Wilde was buried in Bagneaux Cemetery but his friend, Robert Ross, had the remains moved to the prestigious Paris cemetery, Pere Lachaise.
His tomb was sculptured by the famous American artist, Jacob Epstein. Fifty years later, the remains of his longtime friend, Ross, were placed in his tomb.
The elaborate headstone – a winged, naked and initially well-hung angel – was considered so offensive that the cemetery's chief administrator “castrated” it and for several years used the genitalia as a paperweight. (Oscar would have loved this gesture.)
The object in question was later restored to the angel, but stolen during the 60s.
In the early 90s, the family of Wilde's executor, Robert Ross, paid for restoration work and a plaque at the base of the tomb which reads (in English and French): “Respect the memory of Oscar Wilde and do not deface this tomb. It is protected by law as an historical monument and was restored in 1992."
Two exceptional films were made about Wilde’s life: “The Trials of Oscar Wilde” (1960) starring Peter Finch, and “Wilde” (1997) starring Stephen Fry as Wilde and Jude Law as Bosie.
Numerous books and articles have been written about Oscar Wilde, reflecting on the life and contributions of this unconventional author since his death more than a hundred years ago.
A celebrity in his own time, Wilde’s indelible influence remains as strong as ever and his quips, quotes, poems, plays, epigrams and essays still shine.
Among my many Wilde favorites are: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.”
“The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.”
"It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you place the blame."
Belford, Barbara. "Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius." 2000. Ellman, Richard. ”Oscar Wilde.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. Jullian, Philipe. “Oscar Wilde.“ New York: The Viking Press, 1969. McKenna, Neil. “The Secret Life of Oscar Wild.” Century: Random House. 2003.
© Copyright BJ Rakow Ph.D. 2011. All rights reserved. Author, "Much of What You Know about Job Search Just Ain't So."