Bookishness. Tweed blazers. Isolation. Subdued cocktail parties. Writing atop mahogany desks in soft light. These are some of the images people have of writers. Sure, there are plenty of famous scribblers that break this stereotype of poised intellectualism—a gin-fueled Hemingway wielding a shotgun, a wine-soaked Kerouac dancing inside a train car, a rail-thin Burroughs with a needle in his arm—but few major writers are considered indecent, at least not by the term’s common definition; that is, obscene or morally bankrupt.
But if humans always conformed to the status quo, we’d live in a terribly mundane world. Thankfully, there have always been those who revel in their indecency, who push boundaries, and who pave the way for new paths of art, style, behavior, sexuality, and more.
If there ever were an indecent writer, it would have been Oscar Wilde, the flamboyant 19th century Irish novelist, playwright, poet, aesthete, and all-around social taboo breaker. The improper Wilde was born 161 years ago during the extremely proper Victorian period. To celebrate Wilde’s birthday, let’s look at some of the ways he became a man of indecency, a label he would have probably been proud of.
1. Art for Art’s Sake
You could say a lot about the Victorian period, and countless dissertations, popular books, and films explore the nuances of this phase of human history. One broad characterization that can be made, however, was that Victorian life oozed a certain prudishness and moral righteousness and strict code of conduct. Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde matured into a writer during the Victorian era’s prime, and the stuffy pomposity of the prevailing zeitgeist did little to inspire him. He rejected the idea that literature should have a social or moral purpose, as much of it did at that time, and instead he became involved in the Aestheticism (or Decadent) movement, a key tenet of which was creating “art for art’s sake.”
For Wilde, literature was not a vehicle for moral lessons; rather, it was a medium for conveying ideal beauty and sensuous pleasure. This was, in a sense, indecent, for Wilde willfully dismissed what was expected of a writer and instead worked to steer readers’ direction toward a new form of literature, giving us such beloved works as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest.
2. Of Prigs and Prudes
The society that Wilde lived in was one that valued traditions, of which he would waste no time casting off. What were they? Nobility, dignity, gender roles, piety, and, of course, intense restraint in the matters of sex (so much so that people used the language of flowers—carefully crafted floral arrangements designed to send coded messages to the recipient—to describe sexual feelings). As Wilde was attending college in Oxford, he grew to question such traditions (just as college students continue to do to this day) and soon began to reject them outright.
Wilde ridiculed sports, wore his hair long, and adorned his room with flowers, peacock feathers, and other fine objets d’art, such as blue china. He even became part of the Dress Reform Movement, which promoted new, more sensual fashion that rejected the dominant purity-centric styles of the day (and eventually gave rise to the acceptance of women wearing pants). Wilde’s own style—flamboyant enough to give Liberace a run for his money—went directly against Victorian gravitas and decorum. Beauty was beauty, Wilde thought, regardless of its fit into longstanding conventions. For his day, this lambasting of propriety would have been a perfectly indecent conviction.
3. Marriage, Babies, and Greek Love
By 1881, Wilde had attained some success and acclaim, albeit minor, with his poetry. It was during this year in London that he first met Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a wealthy jurist. He wouldn’t meet her again for three more years, for during this time Wilde was busy bolstering his reputation, traveling and lecturing and drinking whiskey in America, and living and writing in Paris. After a brief courtship in 1884, Constance and Wilde married in London and quickly went about the serious business of having babies.
Two years into marriage and now with two children, Wilde befriended a young man named Robert Ross, and it was this friendship that pushed the limits, if not broke them altogether, of Victorian “decency.” Ross was a bright 17-year-old, a huge fan of Wilde’s poetry, brazen in his disregard for the Victorian prohibition against homosexuality, and determined to seduce Wilde. Most scholars agree that Ross succeeded in initiating a sexual relationship with Wilde, who had for some time referred to “Greek love” throughout his work. And so, in 1886, Wilde took his first male lover, a scandalous action given the era.
4. Adventures in Sex Tourism
Nothing says “going against the Victorian grain” more than traveling to distant lands in search of extramarital gay sex, but this, according to scholars, is likely what Wilde did. In the late 19th century, the French colonies of North Africa, such as Algeria, were a refuge for those in search of sex tourism. There are various accounts of Wilde’s conduct on these trips, ranging from the purely innocuous to the shocking. In fact, certain scholars claim that Wilde “hunted boys” during these trips, a genuinely indecent fact that, if true, complicates Wilde’s status as a modern-day gay icon.
5. Indecent Scandal, Indecent Decline
In 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas, a handsome and young English poet who would be Wilde’s lover for nearly the rest of his life. Douglas was reckless in his pursuit of pleasure and quickly pulled Wilde into the gay prostitution scene that lay deep beneath the surface of Victorian culture. During these years, Wilde’s reputation reached its peak with the completion of his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, a play immediately hailed as a brilliant.
Watch a mini bio of the extravagant life of Oscar Wilde:
His success was quickly tainted, however, as Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, publicly accused Wilde of being a “sodomite,” a prosecutable offense in 1895. Wilde quickly sued for libel, and Queensberry was forced to prove that his accusation was true in order to avoid imprisonment. Throughout the trial, risqué details of Wilde’s personal life began to surface in the press, and Queensberry was acquitted, bankrupting Wilde in the process. Immediately after the trial, Wilde was arrested for “gross indecency” and a new trial began, resulting in Wilde’s conviction and imprisonment.
Prison life wore Wilde down quickly, and upon his release in 1897 he reentered society with poor health, no finances, and a demolished reputation. A few years later, on November 30, 1900, Oscar Wilde died of cerebral meningitis. He was only 46 years old. Another definition of indecent is “not appropriate or fitting.” Considering Wilde’s literary talent and potential, along with his progressive and exuberant persona, it’s safe to say that such an early death was undeniably indecent.