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‘Wilde would have mastered Twitter in a second’ – we asked an Oxford Don how Oscar Wilde would’ve fared in 2018

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Oscar Wilde is a heavily examined and revered literary figure. Along with his works, he himself has been depicted in movies and plays countless times - and it’s easy to see why. In his lifetime, Wilde was arrested after losing a libel case (that he’d brought himself), wrote one of his most famous works whilst in prison, and was a closet homosexual. Did I mention he compared himself to Jesus?

His colourful character has gained Wilde numerous admirers over the years; one of them being Sos Eltis from the University of Oxford. In honour of the release of The Happy Prince, the newest Oscar Wilde depiction, starring Rupert Everett, we interviewed Sos about this particular portrayal of Wilde, his literary style, his personal life, and his relevance in today’s society.

What Would Wilde think about today’s

Arts?

Wilde was a well-known defender of arts, and the current changes to curriculum would have made him extremely uneasy. Eltis says Wilde’s aestheticism celebrates the arts as our essential humanity without restricting it “being valued according to its educative function, its moral purpose or effects, or its realist accuracy”. Judging arts as “less useful in furthering Britain’s productivity in an international marketplace” would have made no sense to him, according to Eltis.

Trump?

Would have been amused by Trump? And as Eltis says “He teased his conventional critics into moral outrage, and then mocked them for the naivety of their judgements”. How could we not imagine Wilde react with sarcasm to ‘covfefe’ or fake news? This time would probably have been a perfect subject for him.

Twitter?

Eltis tells us that Wilde “would have mastered Twitter in a second.”

World?

Leaving no stone unturned, he would have been extremely vocal about the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, the refugee crisis. These situations could have given us a different side to Wilde: a furious and fiercely compassionate man. Twitter or not.

Was Wilde more #Pride or closeted?

We could see Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas as a power couple. He, the controversial intellectual, Douglas, the golden boy that “brought him a wealth of new contacts and experiences, immersing him in circles outside the polite mainstream of society, enriching his imagination and widening his perspective.”

He was an “Insider-outsider, never fully accepted into the establishment whatever his celebrity and success”, Eltis says. However, “his anger at the criminalising of homosexual love was necessarily expressed more covertly and subtly” than that of colonialism.

He waited until after his disgrace to declare that “the laws under which I am convicted are wrong and unjust laws.” But this was a completely different time - so who knows if he’d have been more vocal about LGBTQ+ rights now?

A cultivated dilettante image

“Wilde’s reputation as a dilettante was carefully cultivated.” says Eltis. She explains that he took “great care never to be spotted studying” although he secured a double first at Oxford. “He wore his learning deliberately lightly, throwing out quotations and allusions with apparent carelessness,” she says.

Behind this behaviour though, Wilde was “widely read in classical and contemporary literature” and, due to his engagement with religion, he also “used biblical texts as he drew on all the other literary texts he loved and admired - as a rich and inspiring source of material and ideas out of which to fashion his own literature and philosophy.”

So is The Happy Prince a good depiction of Wilde’s life after being exiled?

When looking at physical resemblance between Rupert Everett and Oscar Wilde, Eltis agrees that it is not the most resembling match: “Everett’s physiognomy and body are far from resembling Wilde in his corpulent forties”, she said.

However, is it the most important criteria? Well not necessarily, according to our Wilde expert: "Rupert Everett is easily the best screen depiction of Oscar Wilde I’ve seen,” she says. “He wonderfully embodies Wilde’s daring, charisma, wilfulness, generosity, compassion, and wit, and his insatiable thirst for excitement.”

As for the Wilde “imagination in a critic (being) more precious than accuracy”, I’ll let you make up your mind about The Happy Prince.


The Happy Prince is out now. Watch the trailer here.


Eltis is Fellow and Tutor in English at Brasenose College, Oxford and teaches Victorian, Modern, and Contemporary Literature. Her specific research interest is the life and works of Oscar Wilde, having penned the novel Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde.

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