The Fall of the House of Wilde

BOOK: The Fall of the House of Wilde



Oscar Wilde and His Family

Emer O'Sullivan

To Martin Dewhurst




Lust for Knowledge


Rising High

The Bourgeois Rebel

Flirtations, Father Figures and Femmes Fatales


Merrion Square

The Wildean Missionary Zeal

Wider Horizons

Open House

1864: The End of Bliss

Honour and Ignominy

Love, Hatred and Revenge: The ‘Great Libel Case'

Times are Changing

More Highs, More Blows

Transience and Poetry

The Unravelling

Dabbling with Options and Ideas

Openings and Closings

Literary Bohemia

Divergent Paths

Looking to America

‘Mr Oscar Wilde is “not such a fool as he looks”'

Marriage: A Gold Band Sliced in Half

‘The Crushes'

Aesthetic Living

Momentous Changes

Colonial Resistance

The Picture of Dorian Gray
: A ‘tale with a moral'

‘It is personalities, not principles that move the age'

High Life, Low Life and Little Literary Life

: The Breaking of Taboos

‘Truly you are a starling'

Fatal Affairs

An Un-Ideal Husband

Letting Rip

‘It is said that Passion makes one think in a circle'

Facing Fate

Impotent Silence

The ‘Disgraced' Name

Author of a Legend

‘We all come out of prison as sensitive as children'

‘I have fiddled too often on the string of Doom'

‘I am really in the gutter'






A Note on the Author

Plate Section


Biographies of Oscar Wilde typically treat him in isolation. He is seen as an outsize personality and everything tends to be reduced to personal terms. What gets overlooked is the vibrant and tumultuous milieu in which he grew up. Oscar was the son of two immense personalities who were at the centre of Irish society. More than most children, he was imbued with the loyalties and loathings of his parents, their politics, their erudition, their humour and, one might add, their predisposition to calamity.

The Fall of the House of Wilde
is a diptych of two cultural milieus, Victorian Dublin and
London, which together explore the story of one family. At a seminal time in Ireland's political and social history, Sir William Wilde was one of the initiators of a new vision, rightly called the Celtic Revival. The Celtic Revival as a cultural force is usually attributed to the generation of W. B. Yeats and Douglas Hyde, the first president of Ireland. This overlooks the fact that the revival started two generations earlier, with the collecting, cataloguing and writing of the first history of the country's antiquities by Sir William Wilde. Establishing the framework for cultural revival was only one of Sir William's many accomplishments. He was a Victorian polymath – a travel writer, archaeologist, ethnologist and, by profession, a scientist and surgeon – honoured internationally for his contribution to medicine, science and Celtic history. Above all, he was a ‘genius', thirsting and reckless for knowledge for its own sake and at any cost – a Romantic as much as he was a scientist. Biographies have not given him his due. The only biography of Sir William is T. G. Wilson's
Victorian Doctor
in 1942. As its title suggests, it concentrates on the public man and his medical achievements.

His companion Jane Wilde, neé Elgee, was a bluestocking: a poet, journalist, translator and a public figure in her own right. To her surprise and alarm, she caused a national outrage during Ireland's 1848 uprising with her written attacks on the political regime, and was hailed a hero by the Catholic underdogs whose cause she, as a Protestant, was championing. Throughout her life, she spoke of the arrogance of imperialism at a time when it went largely uncontested. Biographies have been written of Jane Wilde and most ridicule her: her political stance derided as militant, her emancipation as a woman frowned upon, her one-liners misunderstood. Not until
Mother of Oscar
, 1994, by Joy Melville, do we meet her as an intellectual who was one of the most prominent women in nineteenth-century Ireland.

Cultural theorists speak of how significant the family was and often still is in its oppression of women; how hard it is to hear a woman's voice within a familial framework that typically privileges a male head. But the Wildes were not a typical patriarchal Victorian family. William and Jane enjoyed a companionate marriage. The Wilde home was one where equality was respected and individuality fostered. The children enjoyed a close friendship with their parents, to whom they were devoted, and were educated at home for the first decade of their lives. Oscar acknowledged his father and his father's library as the source of all his learning. Oscar and his elder brother, Willie, grew up among their parents' friends and profited enormously from an Anglo-Irish circle of loquacious, passionately intellectual people whose chief recreation was conversation. William Wilde's weekly suppers were gatherings for national and international scholars, dubbed ‘Athenian symposia' for combining liveliness with erudition. Jane Wilde's salon at Merrion Square was a city institution, drawing as many as a hundred guests on an afternoon, from all classes. It is to No. 1 Merrion Square we need to look for the formation of Oscar's mind, for his love of learning, for his progressiveness, for his drawing-room comedies and their ability, in witty one-liners, to satirise Victorian England.

In many biographies of Oscar Wilde, Jane and William are not given their due. This does not square with the eminence Jane and William enjoyed in Ireland. Neither does it fit with Oscar's view of them. Each
of his parents is central to an understanding of his life. Their reputation and importance was a source of great pride to Oscar; it shaped his personal identity, and gave him the authority, confidence and appetite to rise quickly to international fame.

Oscar's imprisonment after a sensational trial made the Wilde name unspeakable in many polite circles. It brought his parents' reputation into disrepute. They became victims of censorship and their histories went unwritten. Only by knowing the extraordinary achievements of Sir William Wilde, and Jane Wilde's prominence in Ireland, can we understand Oscar. Coming from an idyllic home where the children were idolised, he went to enormous lengths to obtain this same central position, the same applause and devout attention in adult life. He was, perhaps, always trying to re-enact his golden childhood.

This biography would not be complete without Willie Wilde. He provides an interesting contrast to Oscar. Equally bright and witty, he never worked out what he wanted to do or how he wanted to live. Renowned for his brilliance, his high spirits, his profligacy and his laziness, over time he became a black sheep. The Wilde name brought expectations he could not meet. Indeed, it seemed as if he were crushed beneath its weight. Yet he might have done so much had things been otherwise.

In the end this book is a narrative, a piece of biographical storytelling. It tries to capture something of human nature and the inner dynamic of a family, its impact on the heart as well as on the mind. But it draws in many other lives, and is interrupted by many episodes of high adventure and mishaps so characteristic of the Wildean spirit. Finally, also, it is an attempt to put Oscar in the context of his family and the family in the larger context of the history of Ireland.

The political and cultural campaign William and Jane fought was fought again years later, in 1916, with bloody results. Ireland did not embrace independence in the way the Wildes had hoped. Instead, Ireland dug in against the British over what was a radically retrogressive period. The victors wrote the history, and the contributions of many eminent mid-century Victorians went unrecognised – William Wilde among them. Thus the fall of the Wildes from eminence is emblematic
of the fate suffered by many of the great Irish Protestant dynasties, split emotionally and physically between Ireland and Britain. By the time Sir William died in 1876, the golden age of Irish Protestants had faded. While it was more than a dozen years before Charles Stewart Parnell fell, a generation of eminent Irish Victorians was passing, and many of those coming up chose to live elsewhere. Recovering the lives of these great Irish Victorian families is long overdue.

Emer O'Sullivan

London, April 2016



William Wilde hailed from a corner of County Roscommon, near Castlerea in the west of Ireland. Had he concerned himself with genealogy, William could have traced his line back to Durham, where his ancestors were builders. But he knew little of the past more remote than his paternal grandfather, Ralph Wilde, who came to Ireland in the early eighteenth century. He worked for Lord Mount Sandford, managing his family estate, Castlerea House, in County Roscommon. William's maternal ancestors were rooted in the west of Ireland. His grandmother, Margaret O'Flynn, was the scion of a prominent old Gaelic family whose ancestors carried enough prestige to have the region called after them. Her marriage to Ralph Wilde might have made tongues wag, as Margaret was marrying down the social ranks. What no one could have doubted, however, was Ralph's entrepreneurial spirit. Over his lifetime, he accumulated sufficient funds to acquire land and become a prosperous landlord.

Ralph Wilde fathered three sons destined to earn their livelihoods from more intellectual pursuits. The sons belonged to a generation that profited from the influence of education on social mobility. The eldest son, born in 1758 and also named Ralph, demonstrated uncommon ability at Trinity College in winning the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek, a rare distinction also awarded to his great-nephew, Oscar, in 1874. Having taken holy orders, Ralph served as a curate for Inch in Kerry and later moved to Downpatrick, where he ran a local school. Ralph Wilde's youngest son, William, left Ireland to stake out a future in Jamaica, while the middle son, Thomas Wills, born in 1760, settled in the locale and practised medicine, a discipline that, during the course of his lifetime, changed significantly under the influence of Enlightenment thinking.

Thomas Wills Wilde did not qualify in medicine until 1809, when he was almost fifty, despite being known as the local doctor. The University of St Andrews in Scotland granted the degree on the endorsement of two Irish physicians, who verified that Thomas ‘attended and completed a course of Lectures on the General Branches of Medicine in Trinity College Dublin, had received a Liberal Education, is a Respectable Character, and from personal knowledge we judge him worthy of the honour of a degree in Medicine'.
Why Thomas waited so long to qualify remains an unanswered question. It is possible that belonging to the guild of professional physicians made little difference in the west of Ireland. Galen's or any other systematic theory of disease would probably have ill served the doctor on horseback wending his way to the cabin, where his rural clientele would have regarded with great suspicion all medicine except familiar local nostrums and recipes.

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