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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Oscar Wilde

Anglo-Irish playwright, poet and wit, the most famous exponent of the lifestyle of the *Aesthetic movement and victim of the resulting clash with the morality of his day. Born in Dublin, son of a leading surgeon, he was christened with a string of names seeming to predestine him for a life of flamboyant affectation – Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. By 1882 he was sufficiently famous to make a very successful lecture tour of the United States as a living example of an aesthete. Legend relates that he told the customs officer 'I have nothing to declare except my genius'; the story may well be true, but was not reported at the time.

In the 1880s he produced a steady stream of essays, reviews, unsuccessful historical plays and successful fairy stories (The Happy Prince 1888), but his great literary success was compressed into a brief 4-year period preceding his downfall. His comedies delighted audiences with their wit (Lady Windermere's Fan 1892, A Woman of No Importance 1893, An Ideal Husband and The *Importance of Being Earnest, both 1895).

A verse drama, Salome, showed that he could also shock (banned by the *lord chamberlain in Britain in 1893, it was performed in Paris in 1896 and is best known now in the operatic version of 1905 by Richard Strauss); and his only novel, The *Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), proved that he could delight and shock at the same time. But he was now causing much deeper offence by his personal behaviour, being seen openly in public with his young lover, Lord Alfred *Douglas.

Disaster struck in 1895, the direct result of a campaign against Wilde by Douglas's outraged father, the marquess of Queensberry. He left at Wilde's club an ill-spelt card saying 'To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite'. Wilde sued him for libel and lost the case. The inevitable result was Wilde's arrest and prosecution for homosexuality, an illegal act at the time. He was sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour. From the prison at Reading he wrote *De Profundis to Douglas, and his experiences there were the basis of his *Ballad of Reading Gaol.

After his release in 1897 Wilde lived the few remaining years of his life in France and Italy, often using an assumed name, Sebastian Melmoth. St Sebastian was his favourite martyr (and his uniform as a convict had been decorated with arrows), while Melmoth was the satanic hero of a Gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), written by one of Wilde's ancestors. But even in ill health and in destitution Wilde was able to coin an aphorism which has long survived him, describing himself as 'dying beyond my means'.

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