Oscar Wilde

Oscar WildePhoto: perpendum.com
Oscar Wilde
Photo: perpendum.com

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was an author and playwright best known for The Picture of Dorian Gray (novel) and The Importance of Being Earnest (play). Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland on 16 October 1854. His father, Sir William Wilde, was an eye and ear surgeon knighted in 1864 for work on the Irish census (Sloan 1-2). His mother, Jane (Elgee) Wilde, was a poet and translator. She wrote under the name “Speranza,” meaning “hope” in Italian, for the Nation, a journal of the revolutionary Young Ireland movement during the famine. Jane became a national heroine for her writings (Sloan 1).

Oscar Wilde was raised Protestant but died a baptized Roman Catholic on 30 November 1900 in Paris, France. He attended primary school at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland (Sloan 3). He then won a scholarship to study Greek literature and culture in 1871 at Trinity College, Dublin. There, he met John Pentland Mahaffy, a Greek classicist and historian, who became a mentor (Sloan 3-4). It was here that Wilde began attracting notice as a devotee of the English Aesthetic Movement, which was mostly regarded with ridicule as too flamboyantly avant-garde.

Under Mahaffy’s tutelage, Wilde won a scholarship in classics to Magdalene College, Oxford on 17 October 1874, where he continued to develop a love for avant-garde aesthetics. At Oxford, one of Wilde’s models was John Ruskin, whose ethical ideas about art inspired Wilde (Sloan 7). Wilde graduated from Oxford in 1878 with the Newdigate Prize for his poem “Ravenna.” In 1882, having built a reputation as a voice for the Aesthetic Movement, he travelled to Canada and America to deliver three lectures: “The English Renaissance,” “The Decorative Arts,” and “The House Beautiful.” By the time Wilde reached the Maritimes, the lectures had been re-worked so much that he was only presenting “The Decorative Arts” (Belier 29).

Canada and the Maritimes were relatively prosperous in 1882 and the whole country held an air of national optimism. The economy was doing well, Canadians had the leisure to focus on art, and it was common for people to attend lectures of the sort that Wilde gave (O’Brien 47). Wilde’s visit was thus highly anticipated because Canadians were reading news from England and knew a fair bit about the Aesthetic Movement already. Wilde visited seven Maritime cities in ten days, including Fredericton, Saint John, and Moncton in New Brunswick. He said of New Brunswick that it “lent itself readily to art,” referring to the tree and hill-saturated landscape, as well as the literary focus of the University of New Brunswick (Belier 31).

Wilde’s first Maritime stop was Fredericton on 4 October 1882. Five minutes into his lecture a group of twenty-five students from the University of New Brunswick marched in procession into the hall and disturbed some guests already there. They applauded loudly, stomped, mocked, and interrogated Wilde on his main points. Wilde, however, did not react adversely, saying rather that “they were highly intelligent looking boys, all of them. They had their fun and I did not mind them” (qtd. in O’Brien 118). The overall reception of Wilde in Fredericton after the lecture was one of disappointment, though. Fredericton lecture-goers seemed unimpressed by Wilde’s doctrine because they had heard it before. In fact, a professor Walter Smith from Boston had lectured in Fredericton the year before on topics very similar to Wilde’s, but did an apparently better job because he brought along examples and articles to illustrate his points (O’Brien 119). H.A. Cropley, the editor of the Fredericton Evening Capital stated the matter succinctly: “much of [Wilde’s lecture Frederictonians had] heard before from Prof. Smith, and the rest [could] be found scattered through the writings of Ruskin” (Cropley 2). Furthermore, Wilde dressed in a rather gaudy manner for the tastes of Frederictonians. Many people found that, clad in a velvet suit, he was “attracting attention ‘solely by means of his dress and personal grooming’” (qtd. in Belier 31). Many also found it annoying that Wilde attracted such large audiences on reputation and appearance alone, and specifically that his methods and dress were similar to the “extraordinary methods used by the Salvation Army people to draw a crowd” (Cropley 2). In addition to his showy appearance, Wilde used very flowery language to make his points on the importance of beauty, offering exaggerated statements like “I have seen wallpaper which must lead a boy brought up under its influence to a career of crime” (qtd. in Belier 31).

Wilde was better received in Saint John, arriving on 5 October 1882 and welcomed by a city that was the fourth-largest shipping centre in the world at the time. Wilde’s lecture inspired many letters to the editor, one of which accused him of being a “‘Fraud,’ ‘conceited coxcomb,’ and ‘knight errant of taste’” (qtd. in O’Brien 123). Overall, though, he was thought to be entertaining and was invited back again to give “The House Beautiful” lecture (O’Brien 125).

Wilde was not initially scheduled to lecture in Moncton, but the newly elected representatives of the Y.M.C.A., A.J. Williams and A.M. Hubly, wired Wilde’s manager asking if he could lecture on 13 October. They received no answer, Wilde accepting a competing offer from E.M. Estey, a Moncton drug manufacturer. This resulted in the Y.M.C.A. executives hiring a lawyer, Barry Smith, to recover damages (O’Brien 137). Wilde thus arrived in Moncton from Charlottetown on 12 October 1882 in a tense environment. Smith had obtained a writ to hold Wilde for breach of contract. Wilde was told that if he did not meet the demand for one hundred dollars in a contribution to the Y.M.C.A. something “unpleasant would happen” (qtd. in O’Brien 137). Wilde dismissed this without much concern. Ultimately, his sponsors covered thirty-five dollars of the hundred. The majority of people were on Wilde’s side throughout the affair, and Wilde left Moncton on 13 October for Saint John for his second lecture there (O’Brien 138).

Oscar Wilde visited Canada, said a later observer, “to make one person love beautiful things a little more” (qtd. in Belier 29). Among the controversies and criticisms, he made a lasting impression on New Brunswick and the Maritimes as a whole, dispelling, for a time, the myths of provincialism and isolation that characterize the region.

Emma Rhodes, Fall 2018
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Wilde, Oscar. Intentions. London: Unicorn Press, 1945.

---. Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime; The Portrait of Mr. W.H. and Other Stories. Boston: Aldine Pub., 1910.

---. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1890. New York: Millennium Pub., 2014.

---. The Poems of Oscar Wilde. Toronto: Musson, 1909.

---. The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Essays. New York: W.H. Wise, 1927.

Wilde, Oscar, and Everett Shinn. The Happy Prince: And Other Tales. Philadelphia: J.C. Winston, 1940.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Belier, Patricia. “Passing Through: Oscar Wilde in Fredericton.” The Officer’s Quarterly 12.4 (1996): 29-31.

Cropley, H.A. “Oscar Wilde at the City Hall.” Fredericton Evening Capital 5 Oct. 1882: 2.

O’Brien, Kevin. Oscar Wilde in Canada: An Apostle for the Arts. Toronto: Personal Library Pub., 1982.

Sloan, John. Authors in Context: Oscar Wilde. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.