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Augusta and Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde came to Mobile in 1882 as part of his speaking tour of the United States.   Wilde was an advocate of the rising philosophy of ‘aestheticism’ and was known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation.   He is best known today for his one novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and his masterpiece of a play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), as well as his subsequent conviction of immoral acts on account of homosexuality.

Wilde’s 1882 tour of America was sponsored by Richard D’Oyly-Carte, an English impresario producing a light opera by Gilbert & Sullivan which caricatured aestheticism.  Originally planned to last four months, the tour was such a success that it was continued for over a year.   In Leadville, Colorado, Wilde famously drank whiskey with a coterie of miners.   In Mobile Wilde reportedly expressed an interest in meeting Augusta Evans Wilson, who still reigned as one of the best-selling authors in America.  According to Fidler, visitors to Mobile were often eager to visit her at Ashland, leading her to complain that she felt like a ‘two headed calf at a circus sideshow.’   She was known as a gracious host but she would not invite Oscar Wilde to her estate, nor did she attend the reception held in his honor downtown.

Fidler quotes Augusta as basing her decision on the fact that ‘his life defamed his art’.  But it also seems clear that there was also an enormous gulf between Wilde’s view of art and Augusta’s.   Wilde elevated art to a higher plane than religion and morality, whereas Augusta saw her novels as extremely moral, based on Christian principles and educational in purpose rather than aesthetic.    Wilde’s gesture of support for the Lost Cause was easily trumped by the fundamental difference between his view of art and Augusta’s.