Wit or scholar? dandy or genius? Sinner or saint? Praised or damned ever since he made his first sensational appearance on the world stage well over a hundred years ago, it is still impossible to ignore Oscar Wilde. Whether powerful (‘Each man kills the thing he loves’), endearing (‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’), or scandalous (‘A family is a terrible encumberance, especially when one is not married’), Wilde’s writing is always of the highest order and always a thought-provoking delight. Few writers are as synonymous with wit. (‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’; ‘A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal’; ‘To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance’). Certainly none have provoked such a mixture of outrage and merriment from the reader. This delightful compendium brings together some of the finest and most biting examples – chosen from a wide range of essays, stories, plays and poetry – all of them the authentic product of the man who claimed he had nothing to declare but his genius. As Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland writes in his introduction, he ‘lived in fear of the public not misunderstanding him’. And certainly his quicksilver wit was often employed to bemuse and baffle – a reaction he clearly relished.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin, and was educated in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, then at Trinity College, Dublin and later went on to Magdalen College, Oxford. He was an outstanding student, winning a prize for his poetry and graduating from Oxford with a double first. In 1884 Wilde wed Constance Lloyd and the couple had two children, Cyril and Vyvyan. Sadly, the story of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’) and his eventual imprisonment and sentence of two years hard labour for ‘gross indecency’ is now at least as well-known as his remarkable creative output. The harsh prison regime proved Wilde’s downfall and he succumbed to cerebral meningitis on 30 November 1900. Even in ruin, however, Wilde’s remarkable wit shone through. He was heard to say just a month before he died, ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.’ Art for art’s sake – to the end.