Many words have been used to describe Oscar Wilde. Bright. Intense. Witty. Flamboyant. He was called a raconteur and a dilettante, always in search of new pleasures and an enthusiast of the good things in life.
Even more than 150 years after his life, we’re still exploring his personal and professional legacy, which interestingly has a lot of parallels.
Before his death in 1900 at age 46, Wilde simultaneously was loved, hated, mistrusted, and revered, depending on who was asking.
He was clever in his wordplay, with all sorts of books, plays, and poems listed as his accomplishments. They sometimes touched on areas of life he was interested in, everything from the risk and reward of vanity to the confusing webs of human relationships.
His exploits with the written words sometimes took a back seat, or maybe were co-pilots, to his personal adventures, which involved public social commentary, court proceedings, and even jail time for immorality.
That’s why, while his plays and stories are always entertaining, one of the better ways to understand Oscar Wilde was to look at his historical letters.
As a man of wit and a man of words, his letters give a glimpse into his thoughts and motivations. They also share what was happening in his world at different points in his life.
After his death, scholars and family members going through papers and contacting his friends, colleagues and lovers found literally thousands of interesting and entertaining letters. While some were routine, the bulk of them were quite illuminating in what they revealed about the artist and his view of the world, current events and society in general.
In the introduction to one of the published collections of letters, his grandson Merlin Holland, told readers that looking at all of these historical letters together can create an autobiography of sorts that Wilde never had the chance to create on his own.
Those examining the significance of his historical letters are encouraged to read his correspondence with Lord Alfred Douglas, who Wilde called “Bosie.” They met in 1891, when Douglas was a 21-year-old graduate from Oxford and a decent poet in his own right.
Even though their ages were more than 30 years apart, Wilde was fascinated by the younger Bosie. He called him his literary muse, his restless lover, and his evil genius. The fact that homosexuality was a crime – which Wilde had been guilty of and even received jail time for, added to the allure.
During their relationship, Wilde became quite creative. He wrote some of his best works, including “Salome” and four noteworthy plays during this period.
The letters to Bosie were honest in the passion and love he felt. He acknowledged the legal and societal challenges of such a relationship.
The love letters talked about things they should do together, including excursions into the city. Wilde gave professional constructive suggestions to improve Bosie’s poetry, but also was heavy on compliments.
Their letters were also considered secret and not at all meant for public consumption since they continued to write to each other even after they publicly acknowledge the relationship was over.
These historic letters even touch on this topic: what happens when everyone knows a relationship can’t survive reality but both parties still love each other?