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Oscar Wilde: Endured anti-Irish racism; family slavery secret; brought down by childhood friend Edward Carson, and who lost his wife and two children because of the gay scandal

As the Belfast Book Festival opens, Michele Mendelssohn, author of a new biography on Oscar Wilde, tells Laurence White why the flamboyant, and ultimately tragic, figure continues to fascinate her

It was clear even from his school days that Oscar Wilde was a genius in the making. As a ten-year-old he was sent from his Dublin home to board at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen - regarded as one of the best in Ireland - and in the classroom he stood out because of his tremendous memory, advanced reading skills and prodigious intellect.

In a new biography of the socialite, playwright and poet, Making Oscar Wilde, author Michele Mendelssohn reveals how in his first surviving letter sent from school to his mother Speranza, Oscar inquires after her publisher - she had had some poetry published - and requests a copy of the National Review.

However, this serious 13-year-old was also a boy at heart, "babbling cheerfully about a regatta, a game of cricket and a luxurious hamper of grapes, pears and blancmange sent to him by his father".

His budding genius should not have been totally unexpected, according to Mendelssohn. "He was standing on the shoulder of giants," she says.

His father William was an eminent medical figure, becoming Surgeon Oculist to the Queen in Ireland. He also wrote a well regarded book on travels around the Mediterranean and to the Canary Islands and helped restore the reputation of Jonathan Swift, who had fallen out of favour in literary circles at that time. "Sometimes when parents are so important - Sir William was an eminent figure in medical history - it makes the child work even harder to make their own mark on the world.

"That is what happened with Oscar. But it was difficult for him. His family had a lot of prestige but not very many other advantages to give him. When his father died he left him £200 a year, not a vast sum. Oscar was one of those people who had very eminent parents but who had to make his own way in life".

The Wilde family had come to Ireland in the 18th century and began a rapid upward social climb by marrying well - Oscar's father was later to describe the Saxon-Celtic racial mix as superior to all others - and also through their own professional skills, often in medicine.

Oscar's mother was an unconventional figure - managing to survive the scandal of being caught in flagrante with a married man before her own marriage - and was so convinced before his birth that Oscar was going to be a baby girl that she dressed him in girls' clothes until he was about 10. As a child, Oscar - full name Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wilde - often played with the man who would become his nemesis, Lord Edward Carson. He, like Oscar, was born in 1854 in Dublin to Anglo-Irish parents and as children they were often found along the seashore.

Both attended Trinity College and could often be seen strolling arm-in-arm around the campus. But their friendship had long ended when they faced each other in court in April 1895.

Wilde had sued the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his lover Bosie, for libel, for accusing him of being a "sodomite".

Carson, acting for Queensberry, destroyed Wilde in the witness box, setting in train a chain of events - his prosecution and jailing, his bankruptcy and the loss of his wife Constance and two sons, Vyvyan and Cyril, who were forced to change their names and live in exile in Italy.

In prison, Wilde was forced to walk a treadmill for six hours a day and sleep on a plank and his fingers were torn, shredding hard ropes. He was so broken by prison that he appealed to the Home Secretary for early release, tallying his losses - wife, children, fame, honour, position and wealth - and pointing out, bizarrely in the third person, that all he could look forward to was poverty and all that he could hope for was obscurity.

While much has been written about Wilde, Mendelssohn's biography uncovers new material and the Associate Professor of English Literature at Oxford University ties his life into the social and political changes taking part in the US, the UK and Europe. And she also reveals how Wilde, on a lecture tour of America, suffered appalling anti-Irish racism from some sections of that society.

Mendelssohn says: "We think of Irish-Americans as being the backbone of that country for a very long time, but it is important to remember that early Irish immigrants did not have it easy for a very long time.

"This dislike, even hatred in some instances, caused a backlash against Wilde. He was compared to a monkey and other hate images. On the other hand the Irish in cities like San Franciso, New York and Chicago celebrated him, leading him to call them 'my people'."

She also revealed an embarrassing family secret. Oscar's maternal uncle John Kingsbury Elgee, who had emigrated to the US as a young man, used his inheritance to buy a vast plantation in Louisiana and a workforce of slaves.

"Oscar's mother had a negative view towards all colonised people, particularly black people. Oscar grew up and was around a lot of anti-black sentiment and he did visit the southern states while in the US, but I could not find any soundbite where he said anything outrageous. I think he was walking a finer line than either his mother or uncle," she adds.

Mendelssohn also reveals that Wilde, for all his foppish looks - "His incongruous features ... a smooth face, mild blue eyes and a graceful nose sloping down to voluptuous lips ... looked as though they were borrowed from a female relation" - was not a man to get on the wrong side of.

When a classmate at Trinity College sneered at one of his poems Wilde beat him in a fistfight and an American was later moved to say "this fellow is some art guy, but he can drink any two of us under the table and afterwards carry us home two at a time".

Wilde was later to describe his time at Oxford as one of the most important periods of his life and it was after leaving that he wrote some poems and a play.

None of them were well received, as Mendelssohn explains: "Wilde was unusual in that he had gained a huge reputation before he had written anything of significance.

"His body of work was very slim, people disliked his poems and he wrote a terrible play about Russia that no-one wanted to put on".

It was later in life that his work caught up with the legend when he published his society comedies, Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, The Importance of Being Ernest and An Ideal Husband. All were well received and very successful.

Indeed, critic A N Wilson was later to remark: "There were no plays of any interest or quality written in English between the death of Sheridan (1816) and the emergence of Oscar Wilde (in the 1890s)." As Mendelssohn points out, Wilde has an enormous stature in English literature. "The invention of new words like Wildean and Wildese to describe his use of language defined his place in the world".

They placed him in distinguished company, as Dickensian and Shakespearean had also become household words to describe those writers' works.

Mendelssohn, who is originally from Canada, came to the UK 20 years ago to complete her studies at Cambridge University. She says she has always been fascinated by Wilde and while completing her PhD was advised to concentrate on his work. It is a fascination which has never waned.

"It is exciting when you discover new things about Wilde, things like the anti-Irish racism he suffered, both in the US and in the UK. As well, Ireland wants to forget about the mass emigration from there to the US.

"However, I feel this is a good time to talk about these things.

"Wilde suffered not just because he was gay, but also because he was Irish. However, I am confident that his reputation will remain high".

Michele Mendelssohn will be signing copies of her book, Making Oscar Wilde, and talking about it at Waterstones, Belfast tomorrow from 6.30-8pm

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