On this day in 1897, writer Oscar Wilde is released from jail after two years of hard labor. His experiences in prison were the basis for his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898).
Wilde was born and educated in Ireland. He studied at Oxford, graduated with honors in 1878, and remained in London. He became a popular society figure valued at dinner parties for his witty remarks. Embracing the late 19th century aesthetic movement, which embraced art for art’s sake, Wilde adopted the flamboyant style of a passionate poet and self-published a volume of verse in 1881. He spent the following year in the United States lecturing on poetry and art. Wilde’s dapper wardrobe and excessive devotion to art were parodied in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience in 1882.
After returning to Britain, Wilde married and had two children. In 1888, he published a collection of fairy tales he wrote for his children. Meanwhile, he wrote reviews and became editor of Women’s World. In 1891, his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published. He wrote his first play, The Duchess of Padua, the same year and wrote five more before his arrest. His most successful comedies, including The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan, are still performed today.
In 1891, the Marquess of Queensbury denounced Wilde as a homosexual. Wilde, who was involved with the marquess’ son, sued the Marquess for libel but lost the case when evidence supported the marquess’ allegations. Because homosexuality was still considered a crime in England, Wilde was arrested. Although his first trial resulted in a hung jury, a second jury sentenced him to two years of hard labor. After his release, Wilde fled to Paris and began writing again. He died of acute meningitis just three years after his release.