On this day in 1854, Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin. Though we may not have or want any conventional explanation for Oscar Wilde’s personality, it seems cut from his mother’s cloth. A poet who took license in many things, Lady Wilde signed herself “Francesca Speranza Wilde” or just “Speranza” — the “Francesca” coming from her given Frances, the “Speranza” (i.e. hope) from the motto on her stationery. She reduced her age by five years whenever convenient, and complied cheerily whenever Oscar reduced his. As host of a regular Saturday afternoon salon-party attended by hundreds, she dressed to be noticed — bizarre jewelry, often a headdress although she was almost six feet tall — and spoke to match. When asked to receive a young, “respectable” woman she replied, “You must never employ that description in this house. It is only trades-people who are respectable. We are above respectability.” When forced to relocate to London after her husband’s death, she felt “the agony and loss of all that made life endurable, and my singing robes are trailed in London clay.” In previous lives, she said, she was related to Dante and to an eagle.
Wilde’s first extant writing is a thirteen-year-old’s letter home to his mother from Portora Royal School in Enniskillen: “The flannel shirts you sent in the hamper are both Willie’s, mine are one quite scarlet and the other lilac….” Later in life, in rejoinder to a comment on his name, Wilde said, “How ridiculous of you to suppose that anyone, least of all my dear mother, would christen me plain ‘Oscar’…. I started as Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. All but two of the five names have already been thrown overboard. Soon I shall discard another and be known simply as ‘The Wilde’ or ‘The Oscar.'”
At Portora, Wilde was already a dandy, a Hellenist and a target, though he did more than pose. When he won the Carpenter Prize for Greek Testament, the headmaster used all five of his names when calling him to the stage, and all the boys laughed. When he won one of three scholarships to Trinity College the following year, his name — the reduced version — was entered in gilt letters upon the Portora honor board, Wilde’s first marquee. When the star pupil later became “C.3.3” in Reading Gaol, school authorities had the lettering painted out, and the “O.W.” found carved into a classroom windowsill scraped away.
Richard Ellman, from whose definitive biography most of the above is taken, wrote that, “Like his mother, Wilde undercut his grandiosities with a smile.” His humiliations too: In order to avoid detectives hired by the Marquis of Queensbury, or jeering strangers, Wilde’s last years in France were spent as “Sebastian Melmoth” — this name taken from Melmoth the Wanderer, written by one of Speranza’s ancestors.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.