When one thinks of Victorian literary greats, one thinks, perhaps, of the likes of Dickens, Hardy and the Brontë sisters, rather than of the charismatic and decadent figure of Oscar Wilde.
Indeed, despite his extreme intelligence and unbridled literary excellence, Wilde is often regarded as more of an early pop celebrity than a serious writer.
Urbane, erudite and monumentally sophisticated, Wilde thrived in London’s high society after graduating from Oxford with a double first. He occupied that liminal space between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy of the English capital with considerable comfort and style, regularly dining with the most fashionable and influential figures of the day.
In 1997 the novelist Michael Bracewell stated that “urban luxury was to Wilde what daffodils were to Wordsworth”, suggesting that it was from this environment that Wilde sourced his spiritual, intellectual and artistic sustenance.
It is probably Wilde’s only published novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which demonstrates Bracewell’s assertion most accurately. Primarily found in the dining rooms and smoking lounges of London’s elite, the novel’s eponymous hero possesses a striking resemblance to the author himself.
Although The Picture of Dorian Gray was never intended to be semi-autobiographical, the arrogant and hedonistic protagonist embodies many of Wilde’s most discernible idiosyncrasies, perhaps most significantly his reverence of the aesthetic, an artistic ideology that informed most of Wilde’s work.
This is not a character assassination; calling Oscar Wilde “arrogant” is like describing the Pope as “Catholic” or Nick Clegg as “spineless”. After all, this is a man who wrote that “to be in love with oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance” and also famously said, “I have nothing to declare but my genius”.
Instead, this is a celebration of Wilde and his work, especially his plays which were incredibly popular during his lifetime, and indeed still are today.
Although it is his comedies, particularly The Importance of Being Earnest, that claim most of the limelight, it is conceivably his biblical tragedy Salome that deserves the most attention. Powerful and poignant, it is perhaps the text that best demonstrates Wilde’s skill as a playwright.
As a counter-cultural icon and one-man cult, it is likely that Wilde will forever overshadow even his best work. However, as long as his work is held in the regard that it merits, he has probably earned all the attention he can get.