According to Dictionary.com, “Cancel culture refers to the shared attitudes and values within a particular segment of society that lead to such public rejection of particular people or groups.”
In recent years, we’ve seen celebrities fall from grace for everything from tone-deaf tweets to indecent behavior and political affiliations. While it seems like there’s a different celebrity getting “canceled” every other day, this is no new phenomenon.
Before social media turned Taylor Swift into a snake emoji or the Dixie Chicks criticized George W. Bush, there was Oscar Wilde: the Irish poet, playwright, and master of witticism, whose eccentricities, thirst for attention, and ultimate societal ousting set the stage for celebrity culture as we know it.
A Charmed Childhood
Born October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s path to fame and success was already set by his Anglo-Irish parents, who were both independently prominent in Dublin society. His father, Sir William Wilde, was knighted for his work as one of Ireland’s most renowned surgeons and philanthropists. His mother, Jane, was an ardent Irish Nationalist who wrote poetry in support of Ireland’s 1848 uprising under the pseudonym “Speranza.” Wilde’s flair for exaggeration was no doubt inherited from his mother, who was known to make unsubstantiated claims of being a descendant of Dante.
Wilde was the second of three children, with an older brother named Willie and a younger sister, Isola, who died from meningitis at age nine. Jane had high hopes for both of her sons, but only Wilde fulfilled these expectations, while Willie, who was by all accounts apathetic and lazy, became a hack journalist constantly on the hunt for a woman to provide for him.
Sir William may have been a philanthropist, but he was also a known philanderer and had three children from two women out of wedlock. Sir William acknowledged Wilde’s half-siblings as his own—a rarity in the Victorian era—and supported them financially while having his relatives care for them.
In 1855, the Wilde family moved from their home at 21 Westland Row—now the Oscar Wilde Centre at Trinity College—to No. 1 Merrion Square, where Wilde acquired a taste for high society through soirées hosted at the house.
The Scandal Before the Scandal
The family’s first real scandal took place while Wilde was away at school, decades before his personal downfall. In 1864, Mary Travers, a patient of Sir William, began writing pamphlets attacking the married couple. Allegedly, Mary and Sir William carried on an affair that Jane was fully aware of, and the accusations came after things went sour. In any case, Jane would not stand for these accusations and expressed her outrage in a letter to Travers’ father, who happened to be Sir William’s colleague. Travers then sued Lady Jane for libel.
The trial was the talk of the town due to the Wildes’ status. Travers’ legal team played toward public sympathy, ultimately winning the case when Sir William refused to stand witness. The disgraced Wildes quickly retreated to western Ireland.
Climbing Social Ranks Through Education
Wilde’s parents made sure their children had the best education available, sending him to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen for primary school, followed by Trinity College, where he flourished.
During his time at Trinity, Wilde climbed the social ladder through his association with scholars like Irish poets, Edward Dowden and Arthur Palmer, and established himself as an advocate for aestheticism and proponent of socialism as a vocal member of the University Philosophical Society.
However, the most influential person Wilde met during his studies was professor J.P. Mahaffy, whom he referred to as his “first and best teacher.” Mahaffy inspired Wilde’s passion for Greek literature, which would heavily influence his later works.
Wilde became an accomplished scholar and exceptional linguist with five languages under his belt, though he never learned a single word of Gaelic. His professors encouraged him to apply to Magdalen College at Oxford University, where he continued his studies while becoming further involved in social societies.
The theatrics of a secret society appealed to Wilde’s eccentricities, leading him to join Apollo Masonic Lodge in his third year while also becoming fascinated by the Catholic Church. Though his interest in Freemasonry only lasted his time at Oxford, he remained invested in the Catholic Church until death.
Of his 1878 graduation from Oxford, Wilde wrote, “The dons are ‘astonied’ beyond words—the Bad Boy doing so well in the end!”
The Wilde World of Aestheticism
After completing his studies, Wilde returned to Dublin for a sting. Upon returning, he reconnected with his childhood crush, Florence Balcombe, whom he hoped to wed. When Balcombe instead opted to marry Dracula creator, Bram Stoker, Wilde left Ireland behind, only returning twice more in his life.
While living in London, Wilde used his inheritance from his father’s passing two years before to get himself situated as a bachelor in society. He utilized his network of aristocrats from Oxford to edge his way in, becoming known for his flamboyant fashion and penchant for carrying flowers around town. Often referred to as the first person to be “famous for being famous,” Wilde’s wit and good nature made everybody adore him long before contributing any literary works to the world.
Wilde was so well-liked, he inspired a character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 opera, Patience, a satire about the Aesthetic Movement that was gaining traction at the time for its premise of “art for art’s sake.” As a leading figure in the movement, Wilde’s life works are regarded as prime examples of aestheticism, full of contradictions about art and morality.
When the show was picked up to tour the United States in 1882, producer Richard D’Oyly Carte extended an offer for Wilde to hit the road with them. During the tour, the 26-year-old would give lectures before the show opposing Dickensian literature and the idea of writing needing a political or religious purpose.
Wilde loved being in the spotlight, offering autographed photos of himself anywhere he went and attending upward of 200 parties as an esteemed guest. He relished in rubbing elbows with the likes of Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Jefferson Davis, and even Ulysses S. Grant, as he became a bona fide celebrity.
Love(rs) and Marriage
Before leaving for the States, Wilde was introduced to Constance Lloyd, a children’s writer and daughter of an Irish barrister. After two years of courtship, much of while he was away, Wilde proposed. The couple married in 1884 and had two sons in the following two years: Cyril and Vyvyan.
Around the time of Vyvyan’s birth, Wilde began his first affair with 17-year-old Canadian journalist, Robbie Ross. Wilde reportedly moved Ross into his family home, and the two remained friends until Wilde’s dying day.
The affair was a turning point for Wilde, who began openly enjoying the company of young men, causing a societal scandal with frequent displays of public affection. Though, how his wife felt about this lifestyle remains unclear.
During this time, Wilde worked as a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette before becoming editor of Woman’s World. In 1988, Lloyd released a book of children’s stories called There Was Once, while Wilde wrote and published a separate children’s book called The Happy Prince and Other Tales.
While writing the children’s stories was a huge step away from the aestheticism he was becoming famed for, he couldn’t resist mocking Victorian narcissism in one of his stories.
Bosie Douglas Was a Bad Decision
By 1891, Wilde was really hitting his stride as a successful writer with the release of a slew of projects, including the sequel to The Happy Prince and Other Tales, A House of Pomegranates, a collection of comic-murder stories called Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, a book of essays, Intentions, and his first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
In the same year, he found himself in the throws of passion with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, a 21-year-old Oxford student who became Wilde’s lover, muse, and eventual downfall. Douglas also happened to be the son of John Douglas, the ninth Marquess of Queensberry and creator of the Queensberry rules of boxing.
The four-year relationship was tumultuous, to say the least, rife with arguments, breakups, and reunions as Douglas used Wilde for his fame and fortune. Douglas was volatile, selfish, and reckless, but Wilde was in love.
By 1894, Queensberry had become suspicious of the relationship and confronted Wilde with the threat of, “If I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant, I will thrash you!” By far the wittier of the two men, Wilde responded nonchalantly with, “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on-site.”
Things came to a head in February 1895, at the height of Wilde’s career with the release of his play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Queensberry had continued his threats, once leaving Wilde a calling card that read “For Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite” at London’s Albemarle Club—spelling wasn’t his strong suit.In another attempt to end the relationship, the Queensberry planned to attend Wilde’s play to make his accusations public and do so while throwing rotten vegetables at him. Wilde got wind of the plan and denied him a ticket.
Wilde took a page from his family history and sued Queensberry for libel, which is not recommended if you’re guilty of an accusation.
As it goes, Wilde’s wit and charm proved to be no match for the copious evidence brought forth by Queensberry and his private investigators, including proof of Wilde hiring male prostitutes and bringing former lovers as witnesses. At one point, Wilde had to remind the court that he was the prosecutor.
Ultimately, Queensberry left the courtroom victorious, while Wilde left with a warrant out for his arrest. Talk about a plot twist.
Two Wilde-ly Public Trials
The defeated Wilde had a decision to make: would he follow his old friend Robbie Ross’ advice and flee to France before being arrested, or would he listen to his mother and face the music?
On April 6, 1895, Wilde was arrested and charged under the Labouchere Amendment, which criminalized same-sex acts until the 1960s. Ever the trendsetter, Wilde was the first famous person to be tried under the Amendment.
The first trial began 20 days later, with Wilde pleading not guilty. Over the next month, Wilde would be cross-examined about his affairs, as well as homoerotic undertones in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the line “the love that dare not speak its name,” from one of Douglas’ poems.
Despite receiving cheers for his response referring to the writings of Plato, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare, the trial resulted in an undecided jury. The idea was presented to drop the case, with some believing that Wilde was being treated horribly by both the press and the courts.
In the end, Solicitor General Frank Lockwood deemed the case too publicized to let it go, and Wilde was retried and given the maximum sentence of two years of hard labor at Pentonville Prison.
The Imprisonment of Oscar Wilde
Wilde bounced around prisons, first leaving Pentonville for Wandsworth, before winding up at Reading Gaol by November 1895. During one of the transfers, he was spotted by someone on Clapham Junction’s platform and subjected to abuse as he was handcuffed to a warden. The experience was a stark contrast from the public adoration he had experienced just months prior.
Still married, Lloyd visited him in prison to tell him of his mother’s death and to inform him that she had changed both her last name and her sons’ to spare them from public scrutiny.
Spending up to 23 hours a day in his cell, Wilde had plenty of time to write while detained, penning letters to Douglas, who had fled the country fearing charges against him. In the last few months of his sentence, Wilde began writing a letter called De Profundis—or “from the depths” in Latin—which detailed his thoughts about Christianity. The letter was eventually released by Robbie Ross in 1905 and again by Wilde’s son Vyvyan in 1949.
Life and Death After Prison
Upon being released from prison in 1897, Wilde was a different person. Aside from having no money, his health was failing, having contracted meningitis during detainment.
He retreated to France, where he reunited with Douglas, but only for a brief time. Douglas had inherited his father’s wealth by this point and refused to give Wilde an allowance, even though he put Wilde in debt in the first place.
Wilde spent the rest of his life exiled in Paris under the name Sebastian Melmoth, after Saint Sebastian, a martyr, and the titular character of Charles Maturin’s novel, Melmoth the Wanderer. Though he was left with nothing, other than a financial stipend from his estranged wife, Wilde still had his famous wits about him.
His sole work, post-incarceration, was an essay called The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a scathing criticism of the Victorian justice system originally released under his prisoner identification number. He is reported to have told a friend, “I can write, but have lost the joy of writing.”
Living alone and often suffering humiliation when recognized in public, Wilde’s health continued to deteriorate until November 30, 1900, when he died from meningitis at Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris. Surrounded by a few close friends, including Robbie Ross and a Catholic priest, who baptized him before his passing, Wilde’s final words were a perfectly on-brand one-liner, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has got to go.”
Naturally, Douglas stole the role of most tragically upset by Wilde’s death, even allegedly getting into a fight with the ever-faithful Robbie Ross at Wilde’s gravesite. It was Robbie, however, who commissioned Wilde’s tomb at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, complete with a small compartment for his own ashes, which were added in 1950.
A Legacy of Wit and Lit
Oscar Wilde once remarked, “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my books.” A man of many talents who marched to the beat of his own drum, Wilde is now regarded as one of the most prolific Irish writers in history. His writings and cultural legacy continue to impress and empower those who are just a bit different from what society would like.
According to his grandson, Merlin Holland, Wilde could not be summed up as simply a writer, referring to him also as “a convict, a homosexual, a bankrupt… and a charismatic figure prepared to stand up for what he believed in.”
Though Wilde’s cancellation cannot be taken back, he, and over 50,000 other men convicted of homosexuality, were posthumously pardoned by the UK government in 2017.
Fortunately, quips were a core part of Wilde’s appeal, and he left us with one zinger of a quote: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
We’re not sure if this sentiment applies in death, but if it does, Oscar Wilde is one happy ghost.
By Meghan Yani, contributor for Ripleys.com