Oscar Wilde’s Role in Literature’s “Aesthetic Movement”

From a Lecture Series presented by Professor Patrick Allitt, Ph.D.

The Aesthetic Movement was an artistic expression of “art for art’s sake.” Disavowing notions of literature’s societal necessity, Oscar Wilde wrote in opposition to Dickensian literature—and influenced generations.

Oscar Wilde c. 1882, Photograph taken by Napoleon Sarony
Oscar Wilde c. 1882, Photograph taken by Napoleon Sarony

Walter Pater in England and Theophile Gautier in France influenced the movement with their theorizing about it. Gautier in France said:

Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless. Everything useful is ugly for it expresses a need, and the needs of men are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor, weak nature. The most useful place in the house is the lavatory.

One of the English literary exponents of the Aesthetic Movement was Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde was one of the first great celebrities who was famous for being famous. He was already a famous person before he had any literary achievements at all. He was a deliberate debunker of Victorian gravity and solemnity. He was Irish, born in Dublin in 1854. He made a great success of his studies at Trinity College, Dublin, and won a scholarship to go to Magdalen College, Oxford. When he was there, he got a first class degree in the classics and won a Newdigate Prize for poetry. While he was at Oxford, he joined up with a lot of aristocratic young men who helped him get an entrée into London society.

He went into London society wearing the most outrageous clothes he could possibly find, the sort of things everybody else would wear at a costume party. He would be wearing clothes that were already 90 years out of date. For one period, he dressed up as Prince Rupert, the man who had been the commander of King Charles I’s cavalry forces in the English civil war of the 1640s. He was famous for wearing knee-length breeches when they had totally gone out of fashion and white silk stockings. In other words, he looked rather remarkable. He would have an orchid. He was madly high-spirited. Apparently, he was one of the most wonderful companions you could possibly imagine. Nearly everybody who met him found him mesmeric, delightful to be with, very witty, good-natured, just a wonderful friend to have. This kind of dandyism, especially his great talking, made him famous.

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When he was only 26, he became thinly fictionalized in one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas, Patience, which came out in 1881. He is the character called Bunthorne. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company which produced Gilbert and Sullivan went on tour to the United States. D’Oyly Carte himself said to Wilde, “Why don’t you come along as well? You can give some lectures on the afternoons of the evenings that we are going to perform the opera.” He said that was a great idea. So, he made this early lecture tour in his mid-twenties of the United States. Very often the character Bunthorne would appear on stage, and Wilde himself would come in dressed in exactly the same way, as a way of underlining to the theater audience that it was meant to be him.

The title page of the 1891 print of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
The title page of the 1891 print of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

He loved literary paradox. Listen to the preface to his book, The Picture of Dorian Gray in the 1890s. Actually, the preface is really just a series of little aphorisms, but they are all contradictory to the standard wisdom of the time. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” And, “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.” You could hardly imagine a more flagrant violation of the Dickensian idea what literature was for.

He wrote a super little essay in 1889 called the “Decay of Lying,” and one of his characters, Vivian, talks about how you can’t find a good liar anymore and that it is no easy matter being a good liar. Listen to this:

People have a callous way of talking about a born liar just as they talk about a born poet, but in both cases they are wrong. Lying and poetry are arts. They require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion. As one knows the poet by his fine music, so one can recognize the liar by his rich, rhythmic utterance. In neither case will the casual inspiration of the moment suffice. Here, as elsewhere, practice must precede perfection.

It is very deadpan about how to practice to become a really accomplished liar.

He became a significant literary figure in the early ’90s with the production and performance of a series of great plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, The Ideal Husband, and above all, The Importance of Being Earnest, which came out in 1895 and ever since then has been regarded as one of the great comic masterpieces of English theater.

It would be very easy to share the whole thing, but I can’t do that, so just let me give you a couple of samples from it. The most ferocious figure in the play is Lady Bracknell whose daughter, Gwendolen, Jack Worthing wants to marry. So there is a conversation between Jack Worthing and Lady Bracknell to see whether he is really deserving of Gwendolen’s hand in marriage. Lady Bracknell says, “Do you smoke?” and Worthing says, “Yes, I must admit I do smoke.” She says, “I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.”

A little bit later, Lady Bracknell says:

“I have always been of the opinion that a man who decides to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?”

“I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.”

“I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.”

A little bit later, he describes how he was an orphan and he had been found in a shopping bag in one of the London railway stations. Jack says to Lady Bracknell, “Yes, I lost both my parents.” And she says, “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness. Who was your father? He was evidently a man of some wealth. Was he born in what the radical papers call The Purple of Commerce, or did he rise from the ranks of the aristocracy?”—a lovely reversal of class position.

Photo of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893

One of the reasons he was writing all these plays, a great burst of creativity, was because he had a very expensive boyfriend (He was a homosexual.). His boyfriend was Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he called Bozie. They met in 1890 and became very close friends. Bozie was being blackmailed after a series of extremely indiscreet homosexual love affairs, which was strictly illegal at the time. It was Bozie who introduced Wilde to the London underworld of gay prostitutes.

Bozie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, knew what was going on and hated Oscar Wilde bitterly, whom he regarded as perverting his son. So, the Marquis sent a series of insulting letters to Wilde, one of which accused him of being “a posing sodomite.” In reaction, Wilde sued him for criminal libel. This is in 1895, the year The Importance of Being Earnest had come out. Wilde apparently didn’t realize the seriousness of a prosecution of this kind. The Marquis of Queensberry hired a very high-powered legal talent, a man called Edward Carson, who later was to have a big British political career. Carson began collecting evidence from these teenage boy prostitutes to find that, in fact, Queensberry’s allegations could be substantiated. This trial had been going on for many days before Wilde’s own counsel said to him, “You must drop this case because evidence is now accumulating which is going to lead to your conviction, not his.” Sure enough, Wilde was arrested and charged with “Gross Indecency Between Males.” That was the charge.

He has often been depicted by his sympathizers as a martyr. In a way, that is true, but in a way, it is not, because the legal system was a little bit reluctant to hold a trial of this kind and notified them in advance that they were going to arrest him. Then they gave him some time to escape to continental Europe. There had been several previous cases where this had been the pattern they followed. In other words, they didn’t really want to arrest him and put him on trial, but when he refused to move, essentially, they went ahead and did it.

His first trial ended in a hung jury. Again, there was a decent interval in which he was, in effect, notified “If you want to go to Europe, you may do so.” He didn’t. He stayed. The second time, he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor. He went first to Pentonville, one of these model prisons I mentioned earlier, and then to Reading Gaol, where he wrote the poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” He got out of prison after two years and spent the remainder of his life living in France in exile and died young, in 1900.

Keep reading:
Late Victorian Literature: Sherlock Holmes’ Enduring Legacy
Late Victorian Literature: Thomas Hardy’s Bleak England

From the Lecture Series: Victorian Britain
Taught by Professor Patrick N. Allitt
Images courtesy of:
Oscar Wilde c.1882, by Napoleon Sarony
Title Page of The Picture of Dorian Gray, CC BY-SA 4.0 
Wilde and Douglas, See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons