Tim Bouverie

Far from ideal

Contrary to popular opinion, Oscar Wilde was deeply attached to his family, says Emer O’Sullivan — and a mantra of his mother’s inspired his most famous play

There were few subjects which escaped Oscar Wilde’s barbed wit: dentists, cynics, Americans, literary critics, democracy, the working classes, the middle classes, the upper classes and Bernard Shaw were all prey for his cutting paradoxes. Family, however, got off lightly. Not for Wilde the sinister or cruel depictions of relations which permeate the novels of Evelyn Waugh and find their dysfunctional climax in Brideshead. On the contrary, family is an affectionate theme running through most of Wilde’s work and is at the very heart of his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest — a play whose plot rests on the fact that the leading protagonist has lost his parents.

This does not mean that Wilde was always dutiful towards his family. As a gay man, who had a number of serious affairs with other men, he was far from being an ideal husband and, as Emer O’Sullivan recounts, would often abandon his wife for months on end. Distracted by fame, he would also neglect his literary mother, who, despite having moved to London with her sons after the death of her husband, led an increasingly lonely life —though Oscar would always pay her debts. Yet he was deeply attached to his family, whom he loved with all the unrestrained passion for which he was famous.

For a man who would later become so notorious, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde had a notably respectable upbringing. Neither born nor left in a handbag —  which as Lady Bracknell reminds us, ‘displays a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution’ — Wilde was the son of two of Ireland’s most famous public figures. Sir William Wilde was one of the great Victorian polymaths.

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