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The downfall of Oscar Wilde is an object lesson to all of those who would sue for defamation –be it for slander orally,or for libel in writing. A defamatory statement will be forgotten sooner or later, but any skeletons which any plaintiff suing for defamation might have hidden in the closet, will be exposed for all to see. This will apply even if the plaintiff should succeed.  A case in point is that of Oscar Wilde.

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Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin Ireland in 1854 to a distinguished and influential family. That was during the time when all of Ireland was under the parliamentary control of Great Britain. Oscar being born to the ascendant Protestant side received the best education available at the famous Trinity College in Dublin, and then at the equally famous Magdalen College at Oxford in England, attendance of both of which he won by scholarship. His interest was in the classics, known also as the greats, which comprised the study of the writings, archaeology, history and philosophy of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. He developed a lifelong interest in Catholicism as the result of his studies, but baulked at converting.

While at Oxford, Wilde became an adherent of the emerging Aesthetic Movement, which meant that art was produced for the purpose of the aesthetic value and effect –beauty or sensuality, and not for moralistic or doctrinal effect.  This in effect replaced the old maxim Art For Truth’s Sake, with Art for Art’s Sake(At school, when told that was the reason for sexually revealing ancient sculptures, we pondered the identity of Art but were afraid to ask).

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Following his graduation from Oxford, Wilde had published a book of his poems titled Poems in 1881, which was not critically well-received in England, but the aesthetic content resulted in him being invited to tour America in order to lecture on aestheticism, in support of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Patience, which lampooned the Aesthetic Movement.  The tour commenced in 1882 and lasted a year. On arrival, displaying his characteristic wit, he advised customs that he had nothing to declare except his genius. The tour was a success, despite Wilde being lampooned in the press as a monkey and a blackface.He sat for many photographs surrounded by flowers, and became associated with sunflowers by his critics.

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Following his return to England, Wilde embarked on a successful literary career, his most memorable creations being his only full-length novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and the plays Lady Windemere’s Fan (1892), Salome(1893) and The Importance of Being Earnest(1894). The Picture of Dorian Gray features a young man Dorian Gray, who sells his soul to the Devil so that he can pursue a decadent lifestyle without aging. Instead, his beautiful and fresh portrait becomes more hideous with every sin he commits over a period of 18 years, while he remains forever young. After a life of ever-increasing hedonism and sin, including murders, Gray slashes the dreadful picture with a knife. The result is that he is found dead as a withered old man stabbed in the heart by the knife, with the portrait restored to its original beauty. This brought Wilde much criticism in the late-Victorian era because of its homosexual overtones.

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Wilde married Constance Lloyd from a wealthy family in 1884, but after the birth of their second son he became repelled by pregnancy and entered into a homosexual liaison with a 17 year old admirer Robert Ross, who was to remain a true friend to Wilde and was present at his death. Wilde subsequently met Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) the son of the Marquess of Queensbury of boxing fame in 1891, and by 1893 was embroiled in a full-blown affair with Bosie, which included utilising the services of rent boys. The Marquis was a tough old customer, and after failing to break up Wilde and Bosie, in 1895 left his calling card at Wilde’s London club addressed ToOscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].

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A young Robert Ross      Oscar and Bosie

Then against advice, Wilde prosecuted the Marquis for criminal libel. It was only earlier that year that gross indecency between males had been made a criminal offence in the UK. The common law offence of criminal libel (only recently abolished here and in the UK)in the British common law systemis to maliciously publish untruthfully that someone has committed a crime.  It was and is open to an individual to bring a private criminal prosecution both here and in the UK. The Marquis was duly arrested and charged at the instigation of Wilde. To avoid conviction, the Marquis had to demonstrate to the Court that his allegation as to Wilde being a sodomite was correct. When Wilde was subjected to skillful cross-examination, it eventually became clear that he had utilised the services of rent boys, who would give sworn evidence to that effect. Wilde saw the writing on the wall and discontinued his prosecution of the Marquis, but it was all too late. He ignored the advice of Robert Ross to take the next boat to France, andwas arrested and charged with gross indecency. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, but the second found Wilde guilty and he was sentenced to two years hard labour in prison. The last 18 months of the sentence was spent in Reading Goalduring which time Wilde wrote a 50,000 word letter to Bosie titled De Profundis (from the depths). Wilde emerged bankrupt from prison and left immediately for France, never to return to the UK.

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Wilde spent his final years in penury in Paris, supported partially by his writing and partially by Constance who had otherwise severed all connections with him. In 1898 he had published his famous poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which is based on the actual hanging while Wilde was in the goal, of a 30 year old trooper for cutting his wife’s throat. The poem is long, and at the end of this article is a link to the first seven stanzas. Memorable lines are:

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Wilde was the originator of many famous quotes, including the following in his dingy hotel room in Paris shortly before his death from meningitis in 1900 aged 46:

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Other famous quotes include:

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Oscar Wilde was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed by a priest who administered the last sacraments in the presence of Wilde’s one true and faithful friend, Robert Ross. Bosie had previously disowned him.Oscar lies at rest in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. His tombstone was traditionally festooned with lipstick kisses from visitors until protected recently by a glass screen.

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