“Oscar Wilde: A Life,” by Matthew Sturgis. (Alfred A. Knopf/TNS)

“Oscar Wilde: A Life” by Matthew Sturgis; Alfred A. Knopf (864 pages, $40)

If Oscar Wilde had behaved himself, he would be little remembered today. His poetry has been mostly forgotten; his witty plays are a staple of the community theater circuit, but they don’t achieve the high watermark of great theater.

But Wilde was incapable of lying low. At the pinnacle of success he defied the conventions of British Victorian society, egged on by his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. He eventually went to prison for multiple sex acts with young men, and today he’s a symbol of cultural rebellion and gay martyrdom.

Tragedies make the best stories, and Matthew Sturgis makes the most of Wilde’s in his new biography, “Oscar Wilde: A Life.” Sturgis’ clear-eyed understanding of Wilde is acute, his narrative assured. Drawing on new material, including the full transcript of the libel trial that set Wilde on the path to prison, he assembles an indelible portrait of a confounding and complex man.

Born to a well-known Dublin couple, Wilde’s life changed when he won a scholarship to Oxford. From Oxford, Wilde moved on to London, where he cut such a wide social swath that he was parodied by Punch. Already a celebrity in England, he traveled to more than 100 American cities to lecture.

Back in England, Wilde fell in love with Constance Lloyd, had two sons with her and hit his stride penning plays like “A Woman of No Importance” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” But his latent sexuality would not be denied, and Wilde dropped hints of his inclinations in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” a dark novel of secret lives.

Wilde opined that “nothing is good in moderation. You cannot know the good in anything until you have torn the heart out of it by excess.”

Today he’s famous for those excesses. Was immortality worth it? If only Oscar Wilde were around to tell us.

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