By 1890, Oscar Wilde was the most famous writer in Victorian Britain and his fame was spreading fast. He was known not just for his writing but as a great wit and raconteur. He was clever, he was brilliant, and he was showered with praise; but he was loathed as well as loved, especially by those who were the victims of his put-downs.
He had been born Oscar Fingal Wills O’Flahertie Wilde in Dublin on 16 October 1854, into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and his early life was suitably comfortable and cosseted though unlike many from his background there was no pressure on him to conform and he was able to pursue his love of art, poetry and the written word.
After a brilliant academic career at Trinity College Dublin and Oxford University he dedicated himself to his writing and in 1882, embarked upon a successful lecture tour of the United States that greatly increased his public profile.
Upon his return he settled in London and on 29 May 1884, married the well-connected Constance Lloyd by whom he was to have two children in what appeared to be a happy and loving relationship.
A vocal advocate for the indulgence of pleasure he became a leading member of the ‘Aesthete Movement’ that placed beauty above all things. He was rich, famous, and lauded the length and breadth of the land. Life was good and it seemed that it could only get better – but he hid a guilty secret.
Despite the fact that marriage had not been forced upon him and he had chosen to propose to Constance he must have been aware of homosexual stirrings. Whether or not up to this point it had been a suppressed homosexuality remains a matter of conjecture though given his fame, natural flamboyance, general conviviality, and the availability of opportunity it seems unlikely.
His first known homosexual encounter was with the precocious seventeen year old son of rich Canadian parents, Robert Ross. He had fallen in love with Wilde’s poetry and now determined to seduce the man behind the words.
It has been suggested by some that he first cornered Wilde in a public lavatory but the greater likelihood is that he was introduced to him at the Marigold Club by a mutual acquaintance, and it is widely held now that it was the Ross who first introduced him to the possibilities of homosexual love rather than the furtive encounters in dark places that a hostile society could charge as sordid.
In the summer of 1891, the 38 year old Wilde met an aspiring young poet Lord Alfred Douglas, also known as Bosie, at a tea party. Wilde was immediately struck by the beauty of this young man sixteen years his junior and he soon began to shower him with gifts. They wrote frequently to one another, often they stayed overnight in each other’s homes and a deep friendship quickly developed but few people suspected anything untoward. Oscar was after all a happily married man with children.
Their relationship quickly moved beyond mere friendship however to something more physical, they were lovers, and the letters they exchanged were becoming increasingly intimate and were at times graphic in their nature.
Whilst he was still a student at Oxford University Bosie had given an old suit of his to a down-and-out he knew by the name of Alfred Wood. In one of the pockets Wood found a number of letters that had been sent to Douglas by Wilde. They were graphic in their content and Wood extorted £35 from Wilde for the return of most but not all of the letters.
Wilde was later to suggest that the money had been a gift, though it was evident that it was not.
Tongues began to wag as to the true relationship between Wilde and the beautiful young Douglas, and these rumours soon came to the attention of Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry.
The Marquess was a notoriously ill-tempered bully of a man most famous now for putting his name to the original rules of professional boxing, and he was determined to end his son’s relationship with this vile man, the pervert Wilde.
Wilde tried to placate the increasingly furious Marquess even on occasions taking him out to dinner and though he was no doubt charmed after sharing a convivial dinner with the always amiable and easy-going Wilde he could not be swayed from his course of action – Wilde was a homosexual and a sodomite who was seducing his son and his meetings with the effete playwright only seemed to confirm him in this view.
In April 1894 he wrote to his son:
“I am not going to try and analyse this intimacy, and I make no charge, but to my mind to pose as a thing is as bad as to be it.”
Douglas was dismissive in his response and as a result the Marquess threatened to cut-off his allowance.
The Marquess was often to be seen in London accompanied by a prize-fighter threatening anyone he thought was helping to facilitate his son and Oscar’s relationship. Restaurant owners, hotel porters and cab drivers all became subject to a tongue-lashing and threats of a whipping. He even turned up at Wilde’s house to threaten him in person.
On 14 February 1895, Oscar Wilde’s new play The Importance of Being Earnest opened at the St James Theatre in London.
The Marquess of Queensberry had threatened to disrupt the opening night by making his accusations public. To prevent this Wilde hired private security guards to ensure that he was denied entry to the theatre.
He did indeed turn up but unable to gain access he left after a few hours in a huff and the opening night was a triumph for Wilde and praised for his genius, and his style he absorbed the praise and milked the plaudits for all they were worth in the flamboyant style to which his adoring public had become accustomed.
There seemed no stopping him now.
The Marquess thought otherwise and frustrated in his attempt to make his accusations public on opening night four days later he turned up at Wilde’s Club, The Albermarle.
Wilde was not present so the Marquess left a calling card inscribed with the words “For Oscar Wilde, Posing Sodomite.”
Wilde was uncertain what to do about the insult. Bosie and his friends insisted that he bring a prosecution for libel, others urged caution. Eventually, Wilde, along with Bosie and Robert Ross visited the solicitors Travers Humphreys to begin a case of libel against the Marquess of Queensberry.
On 2 March, the Marquess was arrested.
Prosecution Counsel Edward Clarke was appointed to bring the case and aware of Wilde’s reputation for having bohemian tastes sought reassurance that there was no foundation to these rumours. Wilde insisted that there were none, none whatsoever.
The Trial began at the Old Bailey in London on 3 April 1895, the Gallery was packed, particularly with the large number of journalists present.
There was an audible gasp when the flamboyant 6’4″ Oscar Wilde swept into Court wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a chiffon scarf, and decked out in an array of colours. He appeared relaxed and confident in stark contrast to the Marquess of Queensberry who nervous and tense remained in earnest conversation with his legal team.
Edward Clarke opened the case by trying to put to bed once and for all the absurd allegation that there was anything untoward in the relationship between Wilde and the defendant’s son.
In reference to the letters that were produced as evidence by the Defence Counsel he stated that Wilde was a poet. The feelings expressed in the letters might appear somewhat extravagant to the common man but for Wilde words were his art. The love expressed was a poetic love. They were “the expression of true poetic feeling with no relation whatsoever to the hateful and repulsive suggestions put to it.”
It was an impressive opening to the prosecution case but it would soon be undermined by Wilde himself.
Taking the Stand for the first time he immediately began with a lie. Asked to confirm his age he stated that he was 38 when he was in fact 41. It was not a promising start.
The Defence Counsel headed by Sir Edward Carson, an old sparring partner of Wilde’s from their days together at Trinity College Dublin, accused him of writing books with immoral homosexual themes. To which Wilde replied that there was no such thing as an immoral book. Books, he said, “are merely well-written or badly written.” Asked then if there was no such thing as an immoral or perverted book how would he describe The Picture of Dorian Gray with its theme of homosexuality running throughout?
The still confident and ebullient Wilde replied that it could only be considered so by “brutes and illiterates.”
He went onto say these were the views of philistines and the incalculably stupid. When Carson suggested that one of the letters he had written to Douglas was no ordinary letter, Wilde replied that indeed it was not, it was a “beautiful letter.”
Wilde’s answers from the Stand were intended to be creative and witty but he came over as being smug, complacent, arrogant, and vain.
The journalists loved it and repeated it verbatim in their copy, but it did not impress those who mattered.
Carson now produced a series of expensive gifts that Wilde had given to his young male friends. These gifts, he said, had been bought for lower-class youths, inarticulate, ill-educated, even in some cases illiterate. This was not the expression of intellectual love of which he spoke. Where was the intellectual justification in the company of such people? Wilde tried to make light of the question but for the first time he seemed ill-at-ease.
Yet the procession of disreputable young men upon whom he had lavished gifts brought a darker and more sinister tone to the case. He now appeared more hesitant in his answers and occasionally stumbled over his words.
Carson proceeded to ask Wilde about a young man he knew, a sixteen year old youth by the name of Walter Grainger:
“Did you kiss him?” he asked. “Oh dear, no! ” replied Wilde, “he was a particularly plain boy.”
The answer had provided Carson with the opportunity he had been looking for and he was determined to press home his advantage:
“Was that the only reason you did not kiss him? If not why did you mention his ugliness? Why? Why?”
The entire Court gasped as a clearly flustered Wilde was unable to answer.
Carson announced that he intended to call a number of these young men to testify on the morrow. With that the Judge adjourned the Court for the day.
Wilde’s Defence Counsel Edward Clarke now took him to one side and told him that since the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 had made any sexual encounter between two men illegal on the grounds of gross indecency to continue with a case he was now almost certain to lose would leave him vulnerable to prosecution:
“It is almost impossible in view of all the circumstances to convince a jury to convict a father who was endeavouring to save his son from an evil companionship.”
He advised him to drop the prosecution, Wilde agreed.
On the instructions of the Marquess of Queensberry, Sir Edward Carson now forwarded to Scotland Yard the statements of the young men he had produced in Court.
There was only a short delay between the closing of the case for libel and the issue of the warrant for Wilde’s arrest.
Perhaps it was hoped that given his fame Wilde would take the opportunity to board the boat-train for the Continent.
He hesitated however, and appeared to be in a state of shock. His friends, including Bosie, advised him to flee. His mother insisted that he remain and fight the accusations like a man. In the end he did nothing except complain that Carson had prosecuted him with “the relish that is the preserve of an old friend.”
The Trial of Oscar Wilde on charges of gross indecency with young men began at the Old Bailey on 26 April, 1896.
It was now a very different Oscar Wilde who took the Stand, the confidence and flamboyance of earlier had gone. He was nervous and hesitant and spoke quietly as if he was afraid of his own words. Only in his response to the question posed by the Prosecutor Charles Gill regarding his use of the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name” could Wilde clearly be heard by the gallery as he gave a spirited defence of the beauty of the intellectual love between two men that was the noblest of affections.
After three hours of deliberation the jury decided that it could not reach a verdict and the case was dismissed.
There would have to be a re-trial.
Released on bail Wilde appeared more relaxed and was confident that he would be spared the nightmare of yet another Trial and the ruination of his career.
Edward Clarke had been telling his colleagues in the legal profession that his client had suffered enough and that it was time to let go. Most seemed to agree, but the Government did not. It was determined that the prosecution should go ahead.
Why the Government decided to get directly involved remains a mystery.
It had been rumoured that the Prime Minister Lord Roseberry had been having a homosexual affair with the Marquess of Queensberry’s other son, Francis. He had been killed in a shooting incident that was officially declared to have been an accident but was believed by many to have been suicide.
Is it is possible that the Marquess pressurised the Prime Minister to guarantee a conviction?
The Prosecution at Oscar Wilde’s Third Trial was led by Britain’s senior Legal Officer the Solicitor-General Sir Frank Lockwood. Unlike his predecessor Sir Edward Carson, who had enjoyed jousting with his old adversary Wilde, Lockwood dispensed with all frippery. He struck at the heart of the case. Wilde, he said, was neither an artist nor a great wit but a sodomite plain and simple, and sodomy was against the law.
He painted a picture of Wilde as a sexual predator who used his fame and wealth to seduce vulnerable young boys into satisfying his perverted sexual desires.
A guilty verdict was inevitable.
On 25 May, Mr Justice Wills sentenced Wilde to the maximum term permitted for such offences – two years hard labour. In his summing up he remarked:
“I believe the sentence is totally inadequate for a case such as this. It is one of the worst cases I have ever tried.”
Wilde tried to speak in his defence but his words were drowned out by the jeers and hoots of derision from those present as the Court broke up to shouts of Shame! Shame!
Along with his imprisonment he was also made to pay the cost of the Court case and the police investigation.
Oscar Wilde was first imprisoned at Pentonville and then at Wandsworth. It was a harsh environment, he was working ten hours a day, sleeping on a hard bed, the food was basic, and he was frequently cold. Much of his time he spent in the prison hospital. Eventually, his friend the Liberal M.P Richard Haldane managed to get him transferred to the less harsh Reading Jail.
During his transfer whilst waiting on a station platform, he was abused and spat upon by other commuters. The incident upset him greatly.
Released from prison on 19 May 1897, Wilde immediately went into a self-imposed exile in the French countryside before later moving to Paris.
Despite his torment whilst in prison he refused to feel sorry for himself and wrote at great length about his experiences:
“One’s ordeals fill the soul with the fruit of experience, however bitter it tastes at the time.”
His career however lay in ruins, his writing was now poison, and he became reliant upon others for money.
His wife, Constance, though she had been neglected for many years, had been publicly humiliated, and was to divorce him and refuse him access to their children, did at least provide him with money when she could.
Bosie Douglas stayed for a while with Oscar in France until his stays were curtailed by the threat of his father to sever his allowance. Upon receiving access to his father’s money he refused to provide Oscar with a pension.
The last few years of Oscar Wilde’s life were spent in relative penury and with few visitors he could often be seen wandering the boulevards of Paris alone, or in local cafes where he would lose himself in copious amounts of alcohol. With his health declining he remarked:
“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.”
He died of meningitis on 30 November 1900, aged 46, a broken and forgotten man.
In later life Lord Alfred Douglas was to turn against his old friend and ex-lover, so unlike Robert Ross who remained devoted to Wilde, his legacy, and was to be at his bedside as he passed away.
The loyalty displayed by Ross only embittered Douglas even further and he was to attempt to have him prosecuted on a number of occasions for having committed homosexual acts.
Following Wilde’s death, Douglas was to describe him as evil and over time became rabidly homophobic, highly litigious, and an enthusiastic anti-Semite.
He was to have a successful and long career both as a poet and an academic.
He died on 20 March 1945, in Lancing, Sussex, of heart failure, aged 74 – though one cannot help but think that his heart had failed him much earlier.