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NA306812 - PEARSON, H.: Life of Oscar Wilde (The) (Abridged)

Hesketh Pearson

Hesketh Pearson

The Life of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin on October 16, 1854, the second son of William Wilde, the pioneering and distinguished ear surgeon, and Jane Francesca Elgee, a clever but eccentric woman with a literary bent and a colorful political past. Oscar was sent to Portora Royal School, Enniskillen; his schooldays there must have been awkward by the sensational scandal surrounding his father and one Mary Travers, which absorbed Dublin in 1864. Oscar studied at Trinity College, Dublin, from where he proceeded on a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford in October 1874.


The extraordinary story of the rest of his life is, of course, told in this biography, but it may be worth outlining some of its notable features here. Wilde achieved quite remarkable success with his plays, but only after a slow start to a literary career, which, apart from The Picture of Dorian Gray, is undistinguished in all forms except the dramatic. The earlier plays (A Woman of No Importance, Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband) are characterized by an uncomfortable blend of melodrama and repartee, and it was only with The Importance of Being Earnest that Wilde found his true genius. The play succeeds because in it Wilde is largely able to discipline the self-indulgent luxuriance of his style and to mobilize his wonderful gift for dialog, which delights in witty paradox. The play is a triumphant masterpiece of artificiality.


Hesketh Pearson sensibly devotes much of this biography to the

presentation of Wilde the conversationalist, the man who captivated

London society in the 1880s and early 1890s; but, equally, he relates with

sympathetic economy the tragic fall of Oscar Wilde, the man whose arrested emotional development and love of self-dramatization seem to have lured him irresistibly toward disaster.


Pearson’s The Life of Oscar Wilde first appeared in 1946, and was probably the first reliable biography produced on its subject. Frank Harris (author of the notorious My Life and Loves), who was a friend of Wilde’s, wrote a characteristically lively and untrustworthy account, and others cashed in on the huge interest in Wilde, which developed (ironically) after his death in impoverished circumstances in Paris in 1900. Pearson manages to take a level-headed view of Wilde’s homosexuality, especially when one considers the time in which he was writing — long before ‘Gay Liberation’ — and he also had the advantage of knowing personally many of Wilde’s intimates, notably Lord Alfred Douglas himself, who was interviewed by Pearson in the 1940s.

Pearson’s view of Wilde is that he was widely misrepresented, both in his own lifetime and afterwards. He sees Wilde as, in some ways, a more robust, less ‘exquisite’ character than he is often painted, and stresses his generosity and capacity for happiness. Wilde’s weaknesses, for Pearson, lay in his restricted emotional development allied to extraordinary intellectual precocity, and his self-destructive need to be center stage — even in the dock where his exchanges with Carson (the opposing counsel) have become legendary for their wit and bravado. Wilde, it seems, could resist everything ‘except temptation’.


Hesketh Pearson was born in 1887 and educated at Bedford Grammar School. He made his living as an actor, a career interrupted by active

service in the First World War, but turned to writing in 1931. His other

biographies include works on Gilbert and Sullivan, Dickens and Bernard Shaw. His writing is distinguished by elegance of style and acuteness of observation; his knowledge of the stage comes through very clearly in

The Life of Oscar Wilde.


Notes by Perry Keenlyside


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