It’s Oscar Wilde’s birthday today – he was born on 16 October 1854 – so in honour of this, we’ve compiled some of our favourite anecdotes featuring the great author and wit. Wilde is probably known for his conversation as much as for his literary works. Here are some of the funniest and most thought-provoking stories featuring the man who, as well as being a great wit, was also often rather wise, too (and as the etymologies of the words suggest, the two are not unrelated).
The most famous anecdote involving Wilde concerns his arrival in the United States in the 1880s, when he was already a known figure in England – part of the reason for his trip to America was to promote the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience, which mocked the kind of dandy aesthete embodied by Wilde – but he was known for his flamboyant behaviour and his wit, rather than his writing (at this stage he had published just one volume of poetry). Asked by customs if he had anything to declare, Wilde memorably replied, ‘Only my genius.’ Or did he? There is some doubt over whether this famous Oscar Wilde one-liner was ever uttered.
Another anecdote concerns Wilde’s time as an undergraduate at Oxford. When Wilde was studying Classics, he had to undertake a viva voce or oral examination, for which he had to translate from the Greek version of the New Testament. The chosen passage for translation was from the story of the Passion of Christ. Wilde began to translate, and the examiners were satisfied, and told him that he had done enough. Most students would have gladly stopped there, but Wilde ignored them and continued to translate. Again the examiners attempted to stop him, and this time succeeded, telling him that they were satisfied with his translation. `Oh, do let me go on,’ said Wilde, ‘I want to see how it ends.’
On another occasion, Wilde mentioned that he had been hard at work redrafting his poetry. ‘I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma,’ he said. ‘And in the afternoon?’ his friend asked. ‘In the afternoon,’ responded Wilde, ‘– well, I put it back again.’
Wilde was at breakfast with guests one day, and, despite his own line that ‘only dull people are brilliant at breakfast’, on this occasion Wilde proceeded to display his sparkling wit. The host of the breakfast was talking to an attractive blonde woman, and Wilde asked the host’s wife if she was jealous. She assured Wilde that her husband didn’t know a pretty woman when he saw one. Another guest gallantly interjected, ‘I beg to differ – what about yourself?’ The wife answered, ‘Oh, I was an accident.’ ‘Rather,’ Wilde responded, ‘a catastrophe!’
Another anecdote concerns the theme of jealousy. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who shared a historic dinner party with Wilde, recounted how Wilde told the following story, after talk had turned to the way in which the fortune of our friends makes us discontented. ‘The devil,’ said Wilde, ‘was once crossing the Libyan Desert, and he came upon a spot where a number of small fiends were tormenting a holy hermit. The sainted man easily shook off their evil suggestions. The devil watched their failure and then he stepped forward to give them a lesson. “What you do is too crude,” said he. “Permit me for one moment.” With that he whispered to the holy man, “Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria.” A scowl of malignant jealousy at once clouded the serene face of the hermit. “That,” said the devil to his imps, “is the sort of thing which I should recommend.”‘ This same dinner party was also the occasion on which both Doyle and Wilde agreed to write, respectively, the second Sherlock Holmes novel and The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Our final favourite anecdote concerns a joke at Wilde’s expense. The renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt – who, as we’ve revealed previously, was the first person to play Hamlet on film – was once talking to Wilde when he went to light up a cigarette. He inquired, ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ Bernhardt shot back, ‘Oscar, I don’t mind if you burn.’ In Bernhardt, one wonders, had the witty Wilde met his match?