Sunday, August 8, 2010

Oscar Wilde: Last Years

Wilde's last years were spent in several towns in Europe. He settled in the small village of Berneval-sur-Mer near Dieppe, France, and sent letters to newspapers on prison reform while writing his greatest poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." His wife Constance had settled in Italy with the boys, changing their name to Holland because of the scandal. Wilde wanted to see her and the children, but she refused because he would not give up Douglas. He and Bosie reunited, and Constance died in April 1898. There was no more writing; Wilde drank heavily and begged money from friends. He and Bosie moved to Naples, Switzerland, and Paris, but Wilde's health was fading. During his time in prison, he had found an admiration for Jesus Christ and had written about his religious convictions. Just prior to his death in Paris on November 30, 1900, at the age of 46, Wilde converted to Roman Catholicism.

Over the last century and a half, many people have believed that Wilde died of cerebral meningitis, complicated by syphilis, and many have seen it as proof of his depravity. However, a November 2000 article in the British journal, Lancet, blames meningoencephalitis, complicated by a chronic right middle-ear disease (see Resource Center for the article). Wilde was treated before and during his imprisonment for a chronic ear infection. Surgery for an acute and life-threatening infection, which had moved into the mastoid, was allegedly performed on October 10, 1900, and was documented in Wilde's letters. He suffered a relapse in November of that year and fell into a coma, never to awaken. His son, Vyvyan, ironically underwent a similar operation for mastoid infection less than two months after his father died.

Wilde's death did not end the public's appreciation of his marvelous wit and staging. The Importance of Being Earnest returned to the West End with revivals in 1902, 1909, 1911, and 1913. The original producer, George Alexander, willed the copyright of the play to Wilde's son, Vyvyan.
After Wilde's death, many friends and acquaintances destroyed his letters for fear that their own reputations would be tainted by his scandal. Even letters to Constance during his imprisonment were destroyed. Most popular and academic writing about Wilde, since his death, has been about the scandal and speculation concerning his private life. His writing was largely ignored or devalued until the 1960s and 1970s. Now Wilde is often classified as a literary figure whose sensibilities, witticisms, and theatrical staging reflected the social commentary of the nineteenth century and influenced the theatre of the twentieth century.

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