On this day…30 November

On 30 November 1900 Oscar Wilde died.

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 and was educated first at Portora Royal School and Trinity College before going on to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry in 1878. His first collected volume of poems was published in 1881 and he went on a lecture tour of America in 1882. He married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and they had two children. From 1887 to 1889 Wilde was editor of the Woman’s World magazine, and published a book of stories, The Happy Prince and Other Tales in 1888.

Wilde wrote a series of extended essays on his aesthetic ideas, including ‘The Decay of Lying’ and ‘The Critic as Artist,’ but two plays written in the 1880s met with little success, and another play, Salomé, written in French, was banned from production in England. The serialisation in 1890 of Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was greeted by such a storm of protests from reviewers that he revised it before its publication as a book. His next play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, was first performed in 1892 and was followed in 1893 by A Woman of No Importance and in 1895 by An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.

In April 1895 Wilde lost a libel case against the Marquess of Queensbury and was subsequently prosecuted for gross indecency. Convicted, he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. After his release in 1897 he left England for France and Italy, and died in Paris on 30 November 1900. Buried initially at Bagneux outside Paris, he was reinterred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris in 1909 in a tomb designed by Jacob Epstein.

Joyce read a number of works by Wilde, and there are numerous references to Wilde in Joyce’s works. It was outside Sir William Wilde’s house on Merrion Square that Joyce waited for Nora Barnacle on 15 June 1904, and in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen and Lynch must be passing near the house on Merrion Square at the moment when Stephen is articulating his ideas about the artist. The house is also mentioned in Ulysses.

Joyce read The Picture of Dorian Gray in Italian in in August 1906 while he was in Rome. Though he was impressed by it and compared it to Huysmans, he felt it would have been a better book if Wilde had had the courage to develop some of the allusions in it. In addition to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Joyce’s Trieste library also contained copies of An Ideal Husband, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, and A Woman of No Importance, as well as a volume of Selected Poems, and some of Wilde’s essays.

Joyce wrote an article on Wilde for Il Piccolo della Sera in 1909 on the occasion of a performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, based on Wilde’s play. The article gives a history of Wilde’s career emphasising in particular his Irishness and his use of satire against the English. Joyce depicts Wilde as following in a long line of Irish comic playwrights who had become ‘court jester[s] to the English.’ Perhaps not surprisingly, The Importance of Being Earnest was the play chosen for the first performance of the English Players in Zurich in April 1918.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. II edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

– -: Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Kevin Barry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.