In the years since the first performance of the play on 14 February 1895 and its publication in 1899, Robert Ross (1869-1918) had indeed proved himself as one of Wilde's most loyal and loving friends.
Wilde had met Ross in 1886, when Ross was preparing to be sent up to Cambridge. Although only seventeen, Ross was already at ease with his own homosexuality: "there was no doubt, no self-recrimination, no anguished and prolonged attempts to divert his passions toward women...Oscar could not help but be dazzled, fascinated and intrigued by a boy who was...so gloriously accepting of his sexuality" (McKenna, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003), p.83).
Both men later acknowledged that it was with Ross that Wilde experienced his first complete sexual encounter with another man. Although the pair remained lovers for a relatively short and certainly not exclusive period of time, Ross later admitted to Wilde's early biographer Christopher Millard that at least some part of his fierce and unwavering loyalty to Oscar was accounted for by the responsibility he felt for having initiated Wilde into the actuality of homosexuality, and the consequences which followed.
Within a few months of the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, on 5 April 1895 Wilde was arrested for gross indecency. Ross went straight to the poet's home in Tite Street. Finding the rooms locked, he broke into the bedroom in order to pack a bag for Wilde, and returned a few hours later to break open the library door and salvage what he could of Wilde's papers and manuscripts, fearing these would be seized by Queensbury. Ross's mother - who had read in the press that Ross had been with Wilde when he was arrested - pleaded with her son to go abroad, eventually promising him £500 to help Wilde's defence if he complied.
Ross returned to England in time for Wilde's bankruptcy proceedings, fighting his way into the corridor to provide some comfort to his friend. It was a gesture of the greatest significance to Wilde, who, in the letter to Bosie which would become De Profundis, recorded how "when I was brought down from my prison to the Court of Bankruptcy between two policemen, Robbie waited in the long dreary corridor, that before the whole crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as handcuffed and with bowed head I passed him by. Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that" (The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000), p.722).
Ross then tasked himself with clearing Wilde's estate from bankruptcy. As well as achieving this in 1906, Ross regained the rights to many of Wilde's works which had been sold on his bankruptcy, and then administered the estate on behalf of Wilde's sons.
Wilde dedicated The Importance of Being Earnest to Ross when it was finally published in 1899. In a letter which probably accompanied this inscribed copy, Wilde wrote "It was a great pleasure writing your name on the page of dedication. I only wish it was a more wonderful work of art" (ibid, p.1028). It was a particularly meaningful gift since Ross had been living with the Wildes while Oscar was writing the play and later claimed to having had a hand in its conception.
On Wilde's death, Ross commissioned the sculpture by Jacob Epstein which now marks Wilde's grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris; Ross' own ashes were finally placed in a special compartment he had requested in the monument on 30 November 1950, the fiftieth anniversary of Oscar's death.
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