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The Socialism of Oscar Wilde

The 16th of October saw the 150th anniversary of the birth of Oscar Wilde. Here Kenny McEwan in a departure from his regular article on art takes a look at a forgotten side of the famous author and playwright.

On the 30th of November 1900 Oscar Wilde died in a cheap Paris hotel, penniless and alone save for his two closest friends. How is it that a man, who was once the darling of London society with two hit plays in the West End and all the wealth that this brings, could end his days in such miserable surroundings? This was in fact the last contradiction in a life full of contradictions.

When most people think of Oscar Wilde they either conjure up an image of a dandy, a fop, a popinjay, strolling down Piccadilly with a carnation in hand. Or, of a man who wrote several good plays and coined some witty phrases before gaining notoriety by being imprisoned for perceived acts of homosexuality. He was in fact, never arrested actually committing such an act, but such was the covertly rampant homophobia at that time that being accused was enough. Interestingly, Lord Douglas Hamilton was never arrested never mind convicted, despite being cited in the same evidence that was used to convict Wilde.

He did write several excellent plays and is remembered for his witticisms, but he also wrote brilliant essays, short stories, children’s stories, and poems.


He spent most of his adult life surrounded by the upper class of London society but ruthlessly satirised and parodied them in his plays. He surrounded himself with all the trappings that his fame and wealth gave him, but rallied against the crippling poverty that permeated society. He seemed on the surface a man committed to the wealth and privileges afforded to someone in his circumstances, but he was in regular contact with many of the most important radicals of his day, and in February 1891 wrote an essay entitled ‘The Soul of a Man under Socialism’.

Wilde first came into contact with radicals and radical ideas when he moved to London after graduating from Oxford. In around 1880 he had regular contact with Mrs. Margaret Hunt, a novelist and wife of Alfred Hunt, a painter and radical. It is clear from his letters that he spent a lot of time in their company discussing politics

At this time he tried his hand at some political poems of his own. They are as to be expected of a young man being exposed to such ideas for the first time, full of passion and sentiment but lacking in any real understanding, or development of those ideas. ‘Quantum Mutata’ (How much has changed) for example, and other political poems written at this time such as ‘Sonnet To Liberty’, ‘Libertatis Sacra Fames’ (Sacred Hunger for Liberty) express his enthusiasm for the socialist cause. ‘Ave Imperatrix’, another of his political works, in the last stanza, prophesies the end of England’s imperialism by the birth of a republic.

1880 also saw the publication of Wilde’s first play ‘Vera or The Nihilist’ which in truth is not a patch on his better-known plays. It does, however, despite the overtly romantic ending, contain many political sentiments, so much so that it was refused license by the Lord Chamberlain to be produced in this country.

William Morris

Throughout his life up to and after his imprisonment Wilde was in contact with individuals such as William Morris the artist and early socialist pioneer, and his daughter, May, a renowned socialist in her own right,

George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Robert Cumnningham, MP a socialist who was the first president of the Scottish Labour Party - (1888) amongst others. He also attended many lectures and talks held by or attended by the likes of Shaw, Parnnell, Peter Kropotkin, (a Russian Anarchist) and Eleanor Marx. Wilde also attended the parliamentary commission on Charles Parnell (Lib MP and Irish Nationalist) who had been accused in ‘The Times’ of being implemented in the Phoenix Park murders. Once, G. B. Shaw in an attempt to get a reprieve for some anarchists in Chicago set up a petition and Oscar Wilde was the only person to sign it.


In 1887 Oscar Wilde was asked to edit ‘Ladies World’. Right from the start he had clear ideas as to what its contents should be, as in his view ‘Ladies World’ was, “vulgar, trivial…with silly gossip about silly people, and its social inanities”. He therefore changed the title to ‘Women’s World’, and then invited some of Britain foremost females to contribute.

There were of course contributions from the more frivolous section of society, but for the most part contributions came from social workers, poets, authors, women’s rights pioneers, home rule advocates, suffragettes, and Actresses. He even attempted to get someone to write an article about vegetarianism but it did not appear.

Wilde wrote his only novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ in 1890. In this ‘gothic’ Faustian story he examined the extreme that hedonism, selfishness and decadence can be taken to and the process of corruption that inevitably follows. Around this time Wilde also penned several beautifully written children’s stories. It is in these stories that we find further evidence of Wilde’s views on wealth, poverty and the relationship between the two. In, for example, ‘The Young King’ a prince on the night before his coronation is shown in three dreams the poverty and misery that exists among the people who will provide the cloak, crown, and scepter for his coronation.


Whilst this for the most part slipped by those who were eager to have Wilde at their society events, the publication of ‘The Soul of a Man under Socialism’ did not. Heskith Pearson, author of ‘The Life of Oscar Wilde’ (1946) quotes a woman from “the highest English Nobility” saying “the ordinary run of English society hated Wilde”.

The essay, which caused so much consternation among the ruling class of the time, is in turn a brilliant argument for socialism, a call for the freedom of the artist to create without interference and a cry for individualism.

However, this is not the sterile “no such thing as society” individualism of Thatcher, which sees individualism reduced to an, ‘I’m all right jack, grab as much as you can, and stuff your neighbour, brother, or sister’. Rather, this is the individualism that comes from being free from the fetters that bind people to the workplace in order to exist. In his attempt to explain his ideas of how and why socialism is necessary, Wilde swings from anarchistic ideas to Christian imagery similar to that used in his children’s stories. He does point out, however, that whilst Christ did not wish to challenge Rome, socialism does wish to challenge the existing state.

Another possible criticism of this essay is that some of his comments may seem wrong or patronising like his comments on slaves. It should be remembered however, that Wilde was not a socialist thinker or organiser, but a poet putting forward his thoughts on a subject that very few people in his position would have even considered. Furthermore some of his comments show exactly where his sympathies lie, such as when he said, “Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people who come down to a perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is why agitators are so absolutely necessary”

“The most tragic thing in fact in the whole French Revolution is not that Marie Antoinette was killed for being a queen, but that the starved peasant of the Vandee voluntarily went out to die for the hideous cause of feudalism” Quotes such as this are intriguing to consider whilst watching or reading, ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ or ‘An Ideal Husband’.

All things considered it is small wonder that the ruling class hated Wilde, but there was little that they could do, such was Wilde’s standing in society; they would have to wait for the right moment. Until then Wilde’s fame grew and grew with the production of his most famous plays, ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ (1892), ‘A Woman of No Importance’ (1893), ‘An Ideal Husband’ (1895) and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (1895). Here again I believe that Wilde continues to attack the ruling class, especially the aristocracy. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that they were open direct satires. Nevertheless in scene after scene they are portrayed as feckless, dim, frivolous individuals good for little else than indulging in the endless rounds of luncheons, teas and balls that made up the London season. In his essay ‘The Social Rebel’ (1950) George Woodcock, considers that Wilde’s plays contain a powerful element of social criticism.


Around this time, however, came Wilde’s fall from grace after becoming involved in a liable action against the Marquise of Queensbury. He failed in his action, and as he was not libelled he was therefore a sodomite, which was still a criminal offence in those days.

Even before the trial many of Oscar’s so called friends deserted him and he struggled to raise the bail for his second trial, which in itself was a rare event. However the Home Secretary at the time pressed for a conviction. Only two people came forward to help with the bail, which was set at £5,000, and in the end Wilde came up with half. The remainder came from Lord Douglas of Hawick, (Bosie) his lover and the reason for his imprisonment, and the Reverend Headlam, a Christian Socialist, and one of only three people who met Wilde at the end of his sentence. This is despite his great generosity in the past to not only his friends, but on occasions to people he barely knew.

Following the trials Wilde was eventually sentenced to two years hard labour.

In his first week in prison a fellow convict said “I am sorry for you: it’s harder for the likes of you than it is for the likes of us” He replied: “No my friend, we all suffer alike”. This decent humanity was extended not only to his fellow prisoners but also to his jailers. Several stories are told of Wilde writing letters for both, and on occasions of his winning competition prizes for the warders including a tea set for one who was recently married. A further account describes Wilde being extremely upset at being told of three children, imprisoned for poaching rabbits.

He managed with the help of a warder to get a friend to pay their fine and have them released from prison. Upon his own release he wrote to the ‘Daily Chronicle’ about the treatment of children in prison

On the 19th of May 1897, Oscar Wilde was released from prison and spent the rest of his days in exile, mostly in France, as a physically broken man. He met up with Bosie on a couple of occasions, however their relationship ended in Rome, and Bosie returned to England. After his release, Wilde not only returned any money lent to him in prison, but he also financially assisted many of the people who were in jail with him. Wilde also referred to his fellow prisoners as ‘brother prisoners’ and signed letters to them as your friend, and on several occasions he tried to get employment for some of his brother prisoners

Wilde only produced two more pieces of work “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898) and “De Profundis”, the latter of which was not published in full until 1962 due to the nature of its content. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is one of Wilde’s most famous works dealing initially with the execution of a soldier and the effect that it has on the inmates, but going on to comment on the effectiveness of imprisonment as a form of punishment. Wilde originally published “The Balled of Reading Gaol” under his prison number ‘C.3.3’. This number is derived from the situation of his cell in Reading Gaol; block C, level 3, cell 3. This work is considered by some to be one of the finest attacks on the ineptitude of the prison system written.

“De Profundis”, Wilde’s last piece of work, is often described as an apology for his life. However in truth it is more an apologia, an explanation or self-analysis, covering the time spent in jail and his relationship with Lord Douglas.

Oscar Wilde died in 1900 the result of an ear infection, which had plagued him since prison; a month previously he had had an operation on his ear, but to no avail.

Clearly there is much more to Oscar Wilde than is usually portrayed in the media or in biographies. Whilst it would be incorrect to describe him as a Burns, a Shelly or a Brecht in his application of socialist principals or ideology in an open manner to his work, he did, however, in covert or perhaps more correctly in a subtle way, put forward his view that society in his time, as now, is deeply divided between those who have and those who have not and the misery that this inflicts on people. Thus it is plain that he had a deep social conscience and took a more than passing interest in the plight of his fellow man and woman.

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion”.

‘The Soul of a Man under Socialism’ Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)