William Wilde     Wilde, William Charles Kingsbury (1852-1899)

Oscar's elder brother, a journalist and poet, was educated, like Oscar, at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, Ulster, where he was known for his conviviality. A former classmate described "Willie" (as everyone called him) as "clever, erratic and full of vitality." In 1871, when Oscar went on to Trinity College, Dublin, he joined Willie, who was already a student there, where they shared rooms in their second and third years. 1876, Willie contributed poems to Kottabos, the College magazine that he also edited, One of his poems, "Salome," a favorite subject among 9th-century French writers and artists who depicted Salome as a femme fatale, may have aroused Oscar's early interest in her complex personality:

Fearless and reckless; for all maiden shame
Strange passion-poisons throbbing overcame
As every eye was riveted on me,
And every soul was mine, mine utterly -

Another of Willie's poems, "Faustine," fuses the eroticism and paganism associated with Swinburne (who, in 1862, had written a poem with that title). Willie's poetic gifts, however, were slender: “… bright jewels my fair bosom deck, / And Love's hot lips - close press'd - cling fast to mine ....”

After graduating from Trinity College, Willie studied law, was called to the bar but apparently did not practice. After Sir William's death in 1876, Lady Wilde and Willie moved to London in early 1879, where he became a journalist, serving as drama critic for Punch and Vanity Fair, leader writer for the Daily Telegraph, and editor of Christmas numbers for several magazines. When Oscar married in 1884, Lady Wilde urged him to establish "a settled life at once. Literature and lectures and parliament - receptions 5 o'clock for the world - and small dinners of genius and culture at 8 o'clock. Charming this life, begin it at once - take warning by Willie". By this time, Willie, irresponsible about money, was fatally attracted to alcohol.

On 4 October 1891, now 39, Willie married Mrs. Frank Leslie, née Miriam Folline (1836-1914), proprietor of the Frank Leslie Publishing Co. in New York. It was she who had approached Oscar with the idea that he give a series of lectures in America. The brief courtship between Willie and Mrs. Leslie led to a brief marriage. Initially captivated by Willie's joviality and wit, Mrs. Leslie soon discovered his fondness for drink and his uselessness to her business. He spent much of his time at the Lotus Club on Fifth Avenue gossiping about London society or reciting parodies of Oscar's poetry (an indication of hostility towards his more successful brother). Within a year, Mrs. Leslie began divorce proceedings: on 10 June 1893, the divorce was granted on the grounds of drunkenness and adultery.

Willie, who had returned to London early in 1892, when Oscar was being hailed for his success in Lady Windermere's Fan, probably wrote the review that appeared, unsigned, in Vanity Fair (27 Feb.1892), for which he had been a theatre reviewer: the play was "brilliantly unoriginal," he wrote, but the dialogue was "uniformly bright, graceful, and flowing." After running through the plot and pointing to some of its banalities, he nevertheless calls it "an undeniably clever piece of work; and even though it has its weaknesses, it reflects credit on its author." He concludes by declaring: "It is emphatically a play to see." Oscar, who apparently divined the author behind the anonymous mask, was currently writing A Woman of No Importance, in which one character remarks: "After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations."

Oscar began giving Willie money, but antagonism between the brothers grew as Oscar learned that Willie was constantly asking their hard pressed mother for money. To Max Beerbohm, they seemed to be mirror images, as indeed his cartoons of the brothers indicate. In a letter to the painter Will Rothenstein, Beerbohm writes: "...did I tell you that I saw a good deal of [Oscar's] brother Willie at Broad stairs? Quell monster! Dark, oily, suspect yet awfully like Oscar: he has Oscar's coy, carnal smile & fatuous giggle & not a little of Oscar's esprit. But he is awful - a veritable tragedy of family-likeness".

In January 1894, Willie married Lily Lees (1859-1922), with whom he had been living. Kevin O'Brien characterizes her as "an emotional woman with a tendency to early panic[;] she believed (incorrectly) that she was pregnant" and sought a powder to end the pregnancy. The marriage caused further grief to Lady Wilde when the couple moved in with her. She wrote to Oscar on 4 February 1894, to inform him of the marriage: "Miss Lees has but £50 a year and this just dresses her. She can give nothing to the house and Willie is always in a state of utter poverty. So all is left upon me". Willie and Lily had their only child in July 1895, Dorothy Ierne.

The relationship between Oscar and Willie found its way into The Importance of Being Earnest, which involves two characters pretending to be brothers (Jack, the protective guardian; Algy, the alleged spendthrift) who discover that they are, in fact, brothers. At the time that Oscar was writing the play, Lady Wilde wrote a lengthy letter urging him to be reconciled with Willie, who, she said, was "sickly and extravagant." She was "miserable at the present position of [her] two sons" and "at the general belief that you hate your brother." She then urges Oscar to hold out his hand to Willie, a gesture repeated several times in the letter: "Come then & offer him yr. hand in good faith - & begin a new course of action". In Earnest, when Algernon, posing as the wicked "Ernest," arrives at Jack's country house, Cecily urges Jack: "However badly he may have behaved to you in the past he is still your brother. You couldn't be so heartless as to disown him .... you will shake hands with him, won't you, Uncle Jack?" Though, at first, Jack refuses, he acquiesces shortly thereafter. If not in life, then in art, Oscar was willing to comply with his mother's wishes.

With Oscar's arrest and first trial in April 1895, Willie (according to his own account) provided shelter to his brother, who had been unable to find rooms in London, though Willie probably dramatized the scene: Willie reportedly said that Oscar "fell down on my threshold like a wounded stag" - a brief moment of moral triumph for the elder brother. Willie, defending his brother, wrote to Bram Stoker (1847-1912), who had married Florence Balcombe (1858-1937), once courted by Oscar: "Bram, my friend, poor Oscar was not as bad as people thought him. He was led astray by his Vanity - & conceit, & he was so 'got at' that he was weak enough to be guilty – of indiscretions and follies - that is all.... I believe this thing will help to purify him body & soul".

When Oscar was released from prison in 1897, Willie was not there to greet him. On 13 March 1899, alcoholism ended Willie's life. Informed of his brother's death by Robert Ross, Oscar, now living in self-imposed exile in France, pronounced his final words on him: "I suppose it had been expected for some time.... Between him and me there had been, as you know, wide chasms for many years. Requiescat in Pace".

References: Robert Sherard, The Life of Oscar Wilde (1906); Madeleine Stern, Purple Passage: The Life of Mrs. Frank Leslie (1953); Mary M. Lago and Karl Beckson, eds., Max and Will: Max Beerbohm and William Rothenstein, Their Friendship and Letters, 1893-1945 (1975); James Holroyd, "Brother to Oscar," Blackwood's Magazine (March 1979); Karl Beckson, "The Importance of Being Angry: The Mutual Antagonism of Oscar and Willie Wilde," Blood Brothers: Siblings as Writers, ed. Norman Kiell (1983); Kevin O'Brien, "Lily Wilde and Oscar's Fur Coat," Journal of the Eighteen Nineties Society 21 (1994); Joy Melville, Mother of Oscar: The Life of Jan Francesca Wilde (1994); Davis Coakley, Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish (1994); Barbara Belford, Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula (1996).