How tall was Oscar Wilde?

Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde in Felbrigg, 1892. Wilde was taller than Bosie, but by how much?

One of Oscar Wilde’s most striking characteristics was his height. Many people who knew or encountered him commented on his imposing stature. But how tall was he exactly?

After Wilde was released from prison, he took the night boat to Dieppe. His friends were waiting on the jetty to meet him. Robert Ross would later recall: ‘As the steamer glided into the harbour Wilde’s tall figure, dominating the other passengers, was easily recognised’.Merlin Holland & Rupert Hart-Davis (eds., 2000) The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, London: Fourth Estate, 842 Certainly, then, he was above the average male height, which was then about 5 ft 5 in (165 cm).Roderick Floud (1990) Height, Health, and History: Nutritional Status in the United Kingdom, 1750–1980, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 154

Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde in the 1997 biopic, looming over his co-stars. Image: BBC Films/Capitol Films/Pony Canyon.

Wilde’s sister-in-law, Mrs Frank Leslie, remembered that he was ‘[a]t least six feet’ and ‘looked even more’,Matthew Sturgis (2020) Wildeana, London: Riverrun, 5 perhaps because he had a large frame and correspondingly massive head. In her memoirs Lillie Langtry wrote that Wilde was ‘about six feet’, while Frank Harris judged that ‘he was over six feet in height’.E. H. Mikhail (ed., 1979) Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, London: Macmillan, 172, 257

But all these estimates were made after Wilde died. Estimates made by journalists immediately upon meeting Wilde are probably more accurate. Several interviewers spoke to Wilde on the day that the ‘Apostle of Aestheticism’ arrived in New York for his 1882 American lecture tour and wrote about his appearance, including his height. The problem is that these interviewers had different ideas about how tall the visitor was. They thought he was ‘six feet high at least’, ‘over six feet’, ‘several inches over six feet’, ‘at least six feet two inches’, ‘six feet three inches’, ‘three or four inches over six feet’, or ‘six feet four inches’ (6 ft, 183 cm; 6 ft 4 in, 193 cm).Rob Marland (ed., 2022) Oscar Wilde: The Complete Interviews, Jena: Little Eye, 32, 36, 38, 42, 43, 47, 49 Most of these interviewers met Wilde at the same time, under the same circumstances, so why do their estimates vary by as much as four inches?

Wilde photographed by Napoleon Sarony (1882) in the sealskin cap he wore when he first met the interviewers of New York.

One explanation is that the interviewers themselves were probably shorter than Wilde and therefore less able to judge Wilde’s height than if they had been about the same stature. Another is that they were motivated to point out how Wilde differed from the stereotyped caricature of the aesthete as an etiolated milksop: he was bigger and more robust than they had expected. Perhaps also relevant is that when they met Wilde he was wearing a sealskin cap that may have given the illusion that he was somewhat taller than he was.

Later in the tour, interviewers made more restrained estimates: one thought he was 5 ft 10 in, others that he was six feet or just over six feet. Bizarrely, there was also a report that he was ‘perhaps five feet and a half’ (this must be either a typo or an intentional slight).Rob Marland (ed., 2022) Oscar Wilde: The Complete Interviews, Jena: Little Eye, 62, 65, 82, 132, 137, 181, 186, 200, 204, 317, 346, 365

Can we get closer to the true figure by comparing Wilde’s height with that of other people?

Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, claims in his autobiography to be 5 ft 9 in (175 cm) tall.Lord Alfred Douglas (1929) The Autobiography of Lord Alfred Douglas, London: Martin Secker, 79 There is a photograph of Wilde and Douglas standing together while on holiday at Felbrigg in 1892. The photograph is not ideal – both men are wearing hats, Wilde is stooping slightly, and one of Douglas’s knees is bent – but if Douglas’s report of his own height is accurate then Wilde must be about 6 ft 1½ in (187 cm).

Sarah Bernhardt by Napoleon Sarony (1880).

Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony (1882).

We can also compare Wilde with his friend, the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Although there are no surviving photographs of the two together, John Cooper has noted that they were both photographed by Napoleon Sarony in front of the same background.John Cooper, ‘Same Difference’, Oscar Wilde in America, 3 Sep. 2018, accessed 6 May 2024 We can therefore superimpose one photograph over the other to see the difference in Wilde and Bernhardt’s statures. In 1899 an interviewer who met Bernhardt thought that she was not over 5 ft 3 in (160 cm).‘Sara the Divine’, The Campaign Daily News (Champaign, IL), 18 Sep. 1899, 3 This would mean that Wilde was exactly six feet tall. But, as we have seen, there is little reason to have faith in the estimates of reporters. What’s more, in Sarony’s photograph Wilde is not upright but leaning against the wall, and there is every possibility that in her own photograph Bernhardt was wearing heels.

Shortly before his release from prison, Wilde wrote to his friend More Adey to request clothing for his new life in exile. Explaining what size nightshirts he would need, he wrote ‘I am six feet’.Merlin Holland & Rupert Hart-Davis (eds., 2000) The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, London: Fourth Estate, 809. I thank Don Mead for alerting me to this letter (personal communication, 6 May 2024). This is consistent with the measurements from the Sarony photographs, but can we trust Wilde? He was never great with numbers and may have been giving an approximate figure.

The nominal register recording Wilde’s arrival at Wandsworth Prison. Wilde’s record is at the foot of the page. Click to enlarge.

Fortunately, there are measures of Wilde’s height that are likely to be more reliable. Wilde’s biographer H. Montgomery Hyde claimed in his book Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath (1963) to have checked the nominal register at Pentonville Prison, where Wilde was first incarcerated after his 1895 conviction. It records that he weighed 14 stone and his height was 6 ft.H. Montgomery Hyde (1963) Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, London: Methuen, 4, n. 1

Did prison officers care about accuracy? Would they not be liable to round heights to the nearest inch? Corroborating evidence can be found in the nominal register of Wandsworth Prison, where Wilde was transferred from Pentonville in July 1895. There, too, Wilde’s height was recorded as 6 ft. We can also see that the other inmates who were registered at Wandsworth on the same day have their heights recorded to a precision of a quarter of an inch.Nominal register (nos. 11714–13927: males; Acc/3444/pr/01/070; Wandsworth, HM Prison; London Metropolitan Archives accessed 6 May 2024 Presumably Wilde’s height has not been rounded up or down by more than that.

This would seem to settle the matter. Wilde may have been tall by the standards of the late nineteenth-century, and his bulky physique may have made him seem taller than he was, but if he had lived today his stature of 6 ft would have been unremarkable. He may not have been concerned by this. As he observed in one of his lectures, ‘Size – bigness or littleness – is a mere accident of existence and not a quality of beauty. […] Stature is a question of proportion.’Geoff Dibb (2013) Oscar Wilde: A Vagabond with a Mission, London: The Oscar Wilde Society, 264

This is perhaps one reason why the casting of Stephen Fry as Wilde in the 1997 biopic was so appropriate: at 6 ft 4½ in (194 cm), Fry towers over most of his contemporaries to the same extent that Wilde did a century earlier. I am sure neither Wilde nor Fry would be offended if I said they seemed to be in every way the visible personification of absolute proportion.