Oscar Wilde is now acknowledged as one of the giants of the 19th century. It was, of course, a century of giants, both intellectual and artistic: great men – and women – who faced the challenges of a world changing under the pressures of scientific discovery, industrial advance, imperial expansion and religious doubt, and came up with any number of interesting responses. Wilde, however, is one of the rare giants who seems to grow in stature with each passing year. Thomas Carlyle, Herbert Spencer, Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater dwindle with the decades. Wilde increases steadily in reputation, relevance and reach.
It is a remarkable development, aided perhaps by the fact that the story of his life follows the compelling arc of a Greek tragedy or a television box set. It is helped too by the assorted elements of that tragedy. Wilde’s youthful fame – before he had written barely a word – marks him out for modern audiences as an early manipulator of what we would now call celebrity culture; his fall at the hands of the Victorian ‘establishment’, on account of his sexual relations with young men, has made him not just a gay icon but a hero to contrarians of every stripe. And then there is the undimmed glory of his language: his delicious epigrams are quoted on a thousand T-shirts, signboards, fridge magnets and Twitter feeds; his plays are regularly staged and screened; his books are still actually read.
Wilde has become so big that he has grown daunting to the would-be biographer: the last full-scale biography of him remains Richard Ellmann’s, published in 1987. To escape this problem there has been, in recent years, a succession of interesting biographical studies, each one focusing on a single facet of