Today is the birthday (1854) of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, noted poet and playwright. Although he wrote in in different forms throughout the 1880s, the early 1890s saw him become one of the most popular playwrights in London. Wilde’s parents were Anglo-Irish intellectuals in Dublin. The young Wilde learned to speak fluent French and German, and at university he proved himself to be an exceptional classicist, first at Trinity College Dublin, then at Oxford. He became associated with the emerging philosophy of aestheticism, led by two of his tutors, Walter Pater and John Ruskin.
After university, Wilde moved to London and was successful in fashionable cultural and social circles (which he savagely lampooned in his plays). As a principal spokesman for aestheticism, he engaged in various literary activities including publishing poetry, and was then invited to tour the United States in 1882. Aestheticism was sufficiently in vogue to be caricatured by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience (1881). Richard D’Oyly Carte, a Gilbert and Sullivan’s impresario, invited Wilde to make a lecture tour of North America, simultaneously priming the pump for the US tour of Patience and selling Wilde as a most charming aesthete to the American public. The tour was originally planned to last four months, but continued for almost a year due to its commercial success
Wilde then returned to London where he worked prolifically as a journalist where he became known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and conversational skill, transforming into one of the best-known personalities of his day. At the turn of the 1890s, he refined his ideas about the supremacy of art in a series of dialogues and essays, and incorporated themes of decadence, duplicity, and beauty into what would be his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The opportunity to construct aesthetic details precisely, and combine them with larger social themes, drew Wilde to write drama. He wrote Salome (1891) in French while in Paris but it was refused a license for England due to an absolute prohibition on the portrayal of Biblical subjects on the English stage. Instead, Wilde produced four society comedies – Lady Windemere’s Fan, The Importance of Being Earnest, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband – in the early 1890s, which made him one of the most successful playwrights of late-Victorian London.
At the height of his fame and success, while The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) was still being performed in London, Wilde prosecuted the Marquess of Queensberry for criminal libel. The Marquess was the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The libel trial unearthed evidence that caused Wilde to drop his charges and led to his own arrest and trial for gross indecency with men. After two more trials he was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour, the maximum penalty, and was jailed from 1895 to 1897.
During his last year in prison, he wrote De Profundis (published posthumously in 1905), a long letter which discusses his spiritual journey through his trials, forming a dark counterpoint to his earlier philosophy of pleasure. On his release, he left immediately for France, never to return to Ireland or Britain. There he wrote his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), a long poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life.
Bankrupted by his trials and broken by his imprisonment, Wilde left England for Paris where he died at the age of 46.
The sparkle of his wit lives on in his writing. These are just a small sampling:
Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.
It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.
The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.
The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
You can never be overdressed or overeducated.
Here is my small self-condemnation for quoting Wilde at all:
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.
Wilde’s eating habits were not remarkable. He is said to have enjoyed roast duck in particular, but was not inordinately fond of food. He was more consumed with the conversation at table than with the food itself:
A man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world.
After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.
But . . .
I can’t stand people who do not take food seriously.
On that note, the obvious choice of dish to celebrate Wilde is cucumber sandwiches. If you do not know why read The Importance of Being Earnest. At my college at Oxford, cucumber sandwiches were the afternoon tea staples in Trinity term (anchovy toast for Michaelmas and Hilary). They were a great Victorian favorite, although, strangely, I could not find them listed in Mrs Beeton. Also, in looking up recipes on the internet, all I could find were concoctions that included cream cheese and other outlandish fillers. Nonsense. My recipe is traditional.
Slice white bread thinly and cut off the crusts.
Peel a cucumber and use a mandolin to make paper thin slices. (Your choice whether you remove the seeds).
Lightly butter one piece of bread, layer on the cucumber slices and cover with an unbuttered slice (or buttered if you want to be indulgent). Cut diagonally on both diagonals to form small triangles, and arrange decoratively.