‘Do you smoke?’ Lady Bracknell inquires sternly of Jack Worthing, in The Importance of Being Earnest, assessing his suitability as a suitor for her daughter’s hand.
‘Well, yes,’ he replies. ‘I must admit I smoke.’
‘I am glad to hear it,’ Lady B rejoins. ‘A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle young men in London as it is.’
Wilde, himself, was certainly not idle when it came to smoking. He recognised that, like all pleasures, it was something to be taken seriously. He devoted time, money and wit to matter. And, indeed, his whole career – from early promise, through initial frustrations, eventual success, and disastrous fall, to unchastened exile and early death – has to be followed through clouds of smoke.
He seems to have discovered the joys of tobacco as an undergraduate at Oxford. His boarding school in Ireland had been fiercely anti-smoking, even going to the length of printing ‘pledge’ cards for the pupils, stating: ‘I faithfully promise that as long as I am a Pupil at Portora, I shall never Smoke.’ Wilde’s Oxford contemporaries, though, recalled how, at the jolly parties he hosted in his college rooms, he would provide not only bowls of punch but also ‘long churchwarden pipes with a brand of choice tobacco’. They stimulated both merriment and wit.
For Wilde, nothing was ever done by half measures. When one young friend excused himself for being a non-smoker with the observation that he was ‘missing thereby what was, no doubt, good in moderation’, Wilde corrected him: ‘Ah Badley, nothing is good in moderation. You cannot know the good in anything till you have torn the heart out of it by excess.’
Amongst the various tobacco products available to him – pipes, cigars, cigarettes – Wilde soon settled upon the last. Cigarettes were chic, modern, and relatively expensive. (‘Give me the luxuries, anyone can have the necessities’ was one of Wilde’s enduring maxims.) They also did not last too long. ‘A cigarette,’ he would in due course declare, ‘is the type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied.’