Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius

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9780747553250: Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius

After William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is the most quoted of writers. His epigrams turned conventions upside down and are part of our cultural inheritance. His personality defined an era. His popularity as a wit, a dramatist and an icon continues to grow. One hundred years after Wilde's death, he remains entertaining and outlandish, talking about everything and nothing. Wilde's rise to prominence as an unparalleled playwright of high comedy, and his ego-driven fall from grace continue to fascinate. His life, famous trial and his death were played out in the full glare of the public's gaze. Barbara Belford's Wilde is for a new generation of readers: not the tragic figure, the martyr, the self-destructive fop. Instead Belford explores his sexuality in a more relaxed manner than previous biographers, she opens up the gaps between the facts to portray Oscar Wilde in all his complexity, genius and humanity.

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Review:

Why, readers may ask, yet another book about Oscar Wilde? "Because his life is a continual allegory," the author tells us in her introduction, "and his social, political, and artistic views, which went right to the heart of Victorian society, are no less threatening today." In contrast to earlier biographers like Hesketh Pearson and Richard Ellmann, Belford emphasizes the cultural context in which Wilde (1854-1900) operated as both shrewd self-publicist and provocateur. Researching previous biographies of Violet Hunt and Bram Stoker, Belford immersed herself in the florid atmosphere of London during the 1890s, the decade of Wilde's greatest fame and infamy, and she uses this knowledge to deepen our understanding of the writer's relationship with his times. In particular, the West End theater district comes to life as the scene of Wilde's greatest triumphs as a playwright (from Lady Windermere's Fan to The Importance of Being Earnest) as well as of his introduction to "a homosocial world that had existed since Elizabethan times." Victorian society could not tolerate Wilde's relatively open homosexuality, however, and two 1895 trials ended with his conviction on charges of "gross indecency." He served two years in prison and died three years after his release, exiled, poor, and alone. Yet Belford stresses not Wilde's tragedy but his triumph. To the end, he was a gaily subversive writer whose works "demonstrate the value of graciousness, charm, and wit" even as they assert "the right of art and language to shock, to undermine, and to unsettle." --Wendy Smith

From the Inside Flap:

In this elegant and affectionate biography of one of the most controversial personalities of the nineteenth century, Barbara Belford breaks new ground in the evocation of Oscar Wilde's personal life and in our understanding of the choices he made for his art. Published for the centenary of Wilde's death, here is a fresh, full-scale examination of the author of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, a figure not only full of himself but enjoying life to the fullest.
Based on extensive study of original sources and animated throughout by historical detail, anecdote, and insight, the narrative traces Wilde's progression from his childhood in an intellectual Irish household to his maturity as a London author to the years of his European exile. Here is Wilde the Oxford Aesthete becoming the talk of London, going off to tour America, lecturing on the craftsmanship of Cellini to the silver miners of Colorado, condemning the ugliness of cast-iron stoves to the ladies of Boston. Here is the domestic Wilde, building sandcastles with his sons, and the generous Wilde, underwriting the publication of poets, lending and spending with no thought of tomorrow. And here is the romantic Wilde, enthralled with Lord Alfred Douglas in an affair that thrived on laughter, smitten with Florence Balcombe, flirting with Violet Hunt, obsessed with Lillie Langtry, loving Constance, his wife.
Vividly evoked are the theatres, clubs, restaurants, and haunts that Wilde made famous. More than previous accounts, Belford's biography evaluates Wilde's homosexuality as not just a private matter but one connected to the politics and culture of the 1890s. Wilde's timeless observations, whichmake him the most quoted playwright after Shakespeare, are seamlessly woven into the life, revealing a man of remarkable intellect, energy, and warmth.
Too often portrayed as a tragic figure--persecuted, imprisoned, sent into exile, and shunned--Wilde emerges from this intuitive portrait as fully human and fallible, a man who, realizing that his creative years were behind him, committed himself to a life of sexual freedom, which he insisted was the privilege of every artist.
Even now, we have yet to catch up with the man who exhibited some of the more distinguishing characteristics of the twentieth century's preoccupation with fame and zeal for self-advertisement. Wilde's personality shaped an era, and his popularity as a wit and a dramatist has never ebbed.

"From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (2001)
ISBN 10: 0747553254 ISBN 13: 9780747553250
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