In the late 1870s, when he was still a student, Oscar Wilde gathered his college friends for a late night chat in his Oxford room. The conversation was drifting to serious topics.
“You talk a lot about yourself, Oscar,” one of them said, “and all the things you’d like to achieve. But you never say what you’re going to do with your life.”
The punch bowl was empty, the tobacco had been smoked, and the lights were turned down low.
“What are you going to do?” the friend asked.
Wilde turned solemn. There was a long pause.
“God knows,” Wilde finally replied. Then, turning serious, he offered, “I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.”
Between the ages of 24 and 28, Wilde set about trying all these careers in turn.
After leaving Oxford in early 1879, he moved to London. He was not going back to Ireland but was staying on in England “probably for good,” he said. What would he do there? His prospects for employment were thin.
“It’s a great advantage to have done nothing at all, but it’s best not to overdo it,” became one of his favourite expressions. The romance of doing nothing would soon be dispelled by the reality of not having an income commensurate to his tastes.
On the death of his father, in 1876, his mother discovered that the family’s properties were not owned outright by the Wilde estate, and that the income on their fishing lodge at Connemara and their house at Bray would need to be shared. Inured to extravagance as Oscar was, money was to prove a lifelong concern.
“We have genius. That is something,” his mother declared, praising what would remain in the family, regardless of their dwindling bank balances. How to make genius pay, however, was a matter Wilde was attempting to figure out. A year after graduation, he had grown impatient and bored. “Not having set the world quite on fire as yet” was so annoying, he thought.
Oscar’s mother suggested that he count his blessings that he didn’t have to work in a shop or beg for food.
“We have genius. That is something,” his mother declared, praising what would remain in the family, regardless of their dwindling bank balances. How to make genius pay, however, was a matter Wilde was attempting to figure out.
Between 1878 and 1880, Wilde curried favour among those who might be able to help him, dividing his attention between prominent figures in education and art. At the request of the wicked Cambridge don Oscar Browning, Wilde stalked Paternoster Row behind St. Paul’s Cathedral, in search of a suitable Bible. He also offered his services as a personal shopper with excellent taste in neckties. When institutional “education work” proved impossible to get, Wilde volunteered his erudition to the painter, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and offered his skills as a Greek translator and an editor of classical plays. He published a poem on England and reviewed – once for the Irish Daily News and twice for the Athenaeum.
For all his hustling, he was hardly making a living, let alone making his name.
By the late nineteenth century, Aestheticism had been in the air for several decades in Britain. Its prime movers had reached middle age and had recently been satirized as a hoary gang that still thought of themselves as “the aesthetic young geniuses.” William Holman Hunt, Michael, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were in their fifties. So was Matthew Arnold, the stylish promoter of “Sweetness and Light”, as a shield against Philistinism. John Ruskin had done much to enthuse and direct art criticism, but he was a decade older and now mentally unstable.
These circumstances created a vacuum.
While Aestheticism waited for a saviour to step into the breach, a London cartoonist named George Du Maurier seized the opportunity to satirize the movement’s idiosyncrasies.
Du Maurier’s pen more or less single-handedly created the general interest in Aestheticism that prevailed in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Thanks to his lively sketches, the movement’s artists became celebrities.
Wilde came to Du Maurier’s attention because he was a hanger-on of the celebrated painter, Whistler. “Maudle” and “Postlethwaite” disembarked in the pages of Punch in 1880. Disguised only by these gag pseudonyms, Du Maurier made the pair a feature.
They boosted Aestheticism. They talked like arty folk. They were pretentious and silly. Sure, Maudle and Postlethwaite personified foppery, but along the way, they also became beloved of British and Americans alike.
In the twinkling of an eye, Maudle and Postlethwaite became a sensation. “These remarkable people have had a great success in America,” Henry James observed, adding that the duo contributed “to the curiosity felt in that country on the subject of the English Renascence,” another of the names for Aestheticism.
The Punch effect was profound.
Punch had such cultural clout that it sprung the door open for Wilde, allowing him to walk straight onto the aesthetic scene. In doing so Du Maurier not only gave Wilde prominence he didn’t have before, but he invented Wilde’s public persona. Like today’s semi-famous hangers-on or B-list celebrities, Wilde was until then merely human wallpaper against which other stars shone more brightly.
By 1881, Wilde still hadn’t found a profession, a fact Du Maurier satirized by picturing Maudle as a guidance counsellor advising that “to exist beautifully” was a career in itself.
It is hard to underestimate the force of the aesthetic craze that seized Victorians. What began simply as the product of a single caricaturist’s pen had, by spring 1881, became an unstoppable cultural phenomenon. Its next beneficiaries were two of the biggest names in English theatre, Gilbert and Sullivan, who brought out Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride in spring 1881.
This timing was extremely fortuitous for Wilde.
Soon after, he was offered an American lecture tour from theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte whose Gilbert and Sullivan satire of Aestheticism was touring the US. Who better to promote the satire than a man who was so very laughable for his beliefs about poetry and beauty?
Wilde’s motives for accepting Carte’s offer were equally mercenary. His first play, Vera, had failed and his finances were stretched. The invitation could not have come at a better time. And so, on Christmas Eve 1881, a 27-year-old Oscar Wilde wrapped himself in a fur cloak, boarded the SS Arizona at Liverpool, and sailed towards the adventure of a lifetime. It was in the United States, during a gruelling year-long lecture tour, that Wilde would really begin to make his name.
Featured image credit: Oscar Wilde, photographic print on card mount, circa 1882, by Napoleon Sarony. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.