If Oscar Wilde had lived long enough to write one last literary piece, it would likely have been called ‘The last Hour.’ His life is the story of a true-life prodigal son returning to the safety of a compassionate Heavenly Father in the nick of time.
Wilde by name, wild by nature, Oscar is one of the best known literary figures of the 19th century. He is famous not only for his talented writing, but also for his unabashed hedonism in a time of particularly strong censorship and in a society with a thick veneer of virtuousness.
Brilliant works such as ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ thrust the young Oscar Wilde into the limelight. If his life had not been cut short, the playwright would have gone down in history as the very best of his generation.
But something less well known about Wilde is his dramatic and largely unexpected deathbed conversion.
A controversial figure in so many ways, Oscar had flirted with Christian faith throughout his life. Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1854, he was Christened as an infant in an Anglican church. As a child he received some instruction on Christianity along with his siblings. As a student at Oxford University though his beliefs became confused and he ended up joining both the Free Masons and a Catholic club. Wilde apparently said, with his usual wit,
“The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.”
Whilst at Oxford, Wilde became very interested in aestheticism, or ‘art for art’s sake’ as it is often known. As a spokesman for aestheticism, he dabbled in various literary activities. He published a book of poems, lectured in the United States and Canada, and then returned to London where he worked prolifically as a journalist. He was known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and riveting conversation, which led to him becoming one of the best-known personalities of his day.
As the 1890’s dawned, Wilde refined his ideas about the supremacy of art in a series of essays. His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) became a huge success. But he was dissatisfied as a novelist and started to write drama. He wrote Salome (1891) in French in Paris where it was performed. He then produced four society comedies which made him one of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London.
At the very height of his fame, and while ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was still being performed, Wilde took out a prosecution for libel against the Marquess of Queensbury. It was an unwise decision. The Marquess was powerful and well connected. The tables turned and the trial unearthed evidence of Wilde’s homosexual activities. Wilde was then himself charged with ‘gross indecency with men’. Homosexual practice was illegal at the time and Wilde was in a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, who was in fact the son of the Marquess. Oscar was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labour.
During his time in prison Wilde’s health declined badly, but it was also a time of soul searching and spiritual renewal. After his release, he applied to the Society of Jesus for a six month retreat, but was turned down. His reputation and conviction went very much against him and the society feared for their own reputation. Reports say that he wept at hearing the rejection.
Wilde left England for France, where he lived out his final years, financially hard-up and mentally depressed.
In 1900, Oscar developed cerebral meningitis and became critically ill. Realising that he was close to death, his close friend Robbie Ross called for Father Dunn, an English priest who was working in Paris at the time. Wilde told Ross that he was sorry for his sin and wanted to turn to Christ. The priest later recounted what happened:
“As the carriage rolled through the dark streets that wintry night, the sad story of Oscar Wilde was in part repeated to me. Robert Ross knelt by the bedside, assisting me as best he could while I administered conditional baptism… As the man was in a semi-comatose condition, I did not venture to administer the Holy Communion. Still, I must add that he could be roused, and was roused from this state in my presence. When roused, he gave signs of being inwardly conscious. Indeed I was fully satisfied that he understood me when told that I was about to receive him into the Church and gave him the Last Sacraments. And when I repeated close to his ear the Holy Names, the Acts of Contrition, Faith, Hope and Charity, with acts of humble resignation to the Will of God, he tried all through to say the words after me.”
The next day, Wilde died.
But the foundations of his deathbed conversion lay in the power of the words spoken over Wilde when he was a few months old. At his Christening, 46 years earlier, the Anglican minister spoke the usual words over the baby Oscar,
“Christ claims you as His own. Receive the sign of the cross… I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen”
Just how powerful are those words? When Oscar’s parents took him to the local church to be Christened (dedicated to Jesus Christ) as a small child, something happened in the unseen spiritual realm. At the wish of his parents, a seal of ownership was placed on him. In the story of the Prodigal Son, we are not told exactly what the young man got up to, but his behaviour may have been considerably more decadent than Oscar Wilde’s.
In the year 2000, the centenary of his death was widely celebrated in the literary and gay communities with moving testimonies to ‘Oscar Wilde the persecuted genius’, portraying him as the victim of an outdated judgmental social order. But the depiction of Wilde as some kind of gay martyr is not an accurate one. He was a man who fought a lifelong battle with personal demons. His hedonism was just part of his struggle. He was a tortured soul who confessed and repented of his many selfish acts, including the predatory hedonism of his younger days, before he died. He confessed to his close friend Robbie Ross that he had been wrong to use young men for sex, and he urged others to ask God for forgiveness too. Wilde struggled with many things and would have identified well with the words of the apostle Paul,
I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
Romans 7:15-20 – New Living Translation
Alongside his confessions, Wilde’s reading during his imprisonment show that he had an epiphany during his last years. His imprisonment was a wake up call, and he most certainly did wake up. While in prison he read works by St. Augustine, the classical poet Dante, and Bishop Newman. When he left prison he was in poor health. He fled across the channel to France where he felt relatively safe in a more liberal climate. But his main intention after prison was clearly to make his peace with God.
His search for spiritual enlightenment and a pursuing of redemptive themes had actually begun nearly a decade earlier with his highly successful novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Critics in 1891 were harsh, frightened by the evil themes, but critics over a century later have considered that Wilde was simply employing clever surface themes to unveil his true hidden themes of sin and redemption. In the book, an exceptionally good-looking young man expresses to his painter:
“I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose?… Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now!“
The wish comes true, but what makes the story truly frightening is Wilde’s artful portrayal of a thoughtful young man numbing himself to all feeling for others, with an ego that turned him into something of a monster. In Dorian Gray, Wilde delivers a profound theme, a theme that lies at the heart of Christianity, the ruin of the soul brought about by sin.
The story of Oscar Wilde is the story of a literary genius who became a great celebrity. Stardom in turn brought out the worst in him for a while. He became arrogant and pursued a decadent lifestyle for many years. But arrogance led to his fall, and then to his humble acceptance of redemption, and a return to the faith of his childhood.
The poet’s great opponent, the Marquis of Queensberry, died in the same year as Wilde. Amazingly, he too gave his life into the hands of Jesus Christ in his dying days.
And even that is not quite the end of the story. Robbie Ross, who nursed him in his terminal illness, also eventually became a Christian convert in his later life.
Story by Ralph Burden
Photo: Oscar Wilde at Oxford. [Public Domain]