Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde

Classicist’s tour highlights importance of Oxford for Oscar Wilde

Clemency Pleming

160 years after Oscar Wilde's birth, an Oxford University student hopes to introduce visitors to a city that had a profound impact on Wilde's development as a writer and thinker: Oxford itself.

Wilde's ties to Dublin, London, Paris, or even New York are well known. However, Iarla Manny, a doctoral student in the Faculty of Classics, believes Oxford was just as important as these cosmopolitan hotspots for Wilde, who read Classics as an undergraduate at Magdalen College from 1874 to 1878.

Drawing on his research, which focuses on Wilde’s relationship with classical antiquity, Mr Manny is now producing a guided audio walking tour of Oxford in partnership with a new travel company, Oscar Wilde Tours.

'It's not for nothing that Wilde's biographer Richard Ellmann declared that he "created himself at Oxford",' said Mr Manny. 'It was a pivotal period for him. Later on, looking back at his life after his trials and imprisonment for "gross indecency", Wilde would write in a letter from Reading Gaol to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas that "the two turning-points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison".

'So you can see the significance Oxford held for him, even almost two decades after he had left it. Douglas himself was a Classics student at Magdalen when he first became involved with Wilde, and Wilde frequently found reasons to return to Oxford after he left.'

One of Mr Manny's main intentions in producing an audio tour based around Wilde’s time in Oxford has been to investigate the relationship between physical space and individual identity. He said: 'One of the great things about Oxford, then as now, is that it gives its students the opportunity to think through the big questions, and to work out who they are and what they believe.

'Wilde would have looked at issues of life and art through the lens of Classics, which was at the heart of the humanities at the time. For Wilde this search for enlightenment and self-definition was intimately bound up with different locations.

'He was torn between pagan Greece and Papal Rome, which symbolised the two sides of his sexual and religious struggles. Wilde visited both places during his classical studies, but for the budding poet and playwright Oxford was "paradise" and "in its own way as memorable as Athens".'

He added: 'Long after taking his degree, Wilde continued to contemplate the philosophical questions that had occupied him at Oxford. He appears to have followed in the footsteps of the Athenian Socrates by adopting as his mottos the inscription at Delphi "Know thyself" and the maxim that "the unexamined life is not worth living". With my audio tour, I hope to map Wilde’s metaphorical journey of self-discovery and self-creation at Oxford onto a literal journey through the city.'

Oscar Wilde Tours is run by classicist Andrew Lear, and specialises in developing tours exploring gay history. Mr Manny's public-engagement proposal was awarded funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council as part of the Communicating Ancient Greece and Rome programme, organised by the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama based in the Faculty of Classics. His audio tour project is expected to be completed in early 2015.