Friday, 5 August 2011


The sad case of Oscar Wilde is well documented, and has been told many times in films and television adaptations of his life. He was the archetypal darling of London society, but one of the first celebrities to be crushed by the British establishment.

Oscar was warned about courting controversy, by his fellow playwright George Bernard Shaw. It was a warning that Oscar should have heeded.

“Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) was an Irish writer and poet. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. Today he is remembered for his epigrams, plays and the circumstances of his imprisonment, followed by his early death.

Wilde's parents were successful Dublin intellectuals, and their son showed his intelligence early by becoming fluent in French and German. At university Wilde read Greats; he proved himself to be an outstanding classicist, first at Dublin, then at Oxford. He became known for his involvement in the rising philosophy of aestheticism, led by two of his tutors, Walter Pater and John Ruskin. He also profoundly exploredRoman Catholicism, to which he would later convert on his deathbed. After university, Wilde moved to London into fashionable cultural and social circles. As a spokesman for aestheticism, he tried his hand at various literary activities: he published a book of poems, lectured in the United States of America and Canada on the new "English Renaissance in Art", and then returned to London where he worked prolifically as a journalist. Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress, and glittering conversation, Wilde had become one of the most well-known personalities of his day.

At the turn of the 1890s, he refined his ideas about the supremacy of art in a series of dialogues and essays, and incorporated themes of decadence, duplicity, and beauty into his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The opportunity to construct aesthetic details precisely, and combine them with larger social themes, drew Wilde to write drama. He wrote Salome (1891) in French in Paris but it was refused a licence. Unperturbed, Wilde produced four society comedies in the early 1890s, which made him one of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London.” WIKI

In 1884 Wilde married Constance Mary Lloyd (1858-1898) with whom he would have two sons; Cyril (1885-1915), who was killed during World War I, and Vyvyan (1886-1976).

The events that would bring Oscar Wilde to the Old Bailey began four years earlier in the summer of 1891 when Wilde, then thirty-eight years old, met a promising twenty-two-year old poet named Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie") at a tea party.  The two became extremely close.  Douglas took great pleasure in the interest shown in him by Wilde, already a major literary figure.  Douglas called his elder companion "the most chivalrous friend in the world."  Wilde saw in Douglas not only a lively intellect, but a young man with an Adonis-like appearance. Wilde made no secret of his interest.  Douglas later said, " He was continually asking me to lunch and dine with him and sending me letters, notes, and telegrams."  He also showered Douglas with presents and wrote a sonnet for him.  They stayed together in each other's houses and in hotels, and went on trips together.

Lord Alfred Douglas "Bosie" was the son of John Douglas, 9th Marquis of Queensberry It was the beginning of a tumultuous relationship that would cause many problems for Oscar and eventually lead to his downfall. Alfred had a tempestuous relationship with his father which did not help matters. He disapproved of his son's lifestyle and when he learned of his openly living with Wilde, he set out to defame Wilde. 

Lord Alfred Douglas

Queensberry was an arrogant, ill-tempered, eccentric and perhaps even mentally imbalanced Scottish nobleman best note for developing and promoting rules for amateur boxing (the "Queensberry rules").  Queensberry became concerned about his son's relationship with "this man Wilde."  His concern was temporarily alleviated at the Cafe Royal in late 1892, when his son introduced him to the noted literary figure.  Wilde charmed Queensberry over a long lunch with many cigars and liqueurs.  By early 1894 Queensberry concluded that Wilde was most likely a homosexual and began demanding that his son stop seeing Wilde: "Your intimacy with this man Wilde must either cease or I will disown you and stop all money supplies,"

For the opening performance of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 at St. James's Theatre in London the Marquis planned to publicly expose and humiliate Wilde. Oscar took legal steps to protect himself against the 'brute’.

Four days later at the Albemarle Club--a club to which both Wilde and his wife belonged, Queensberry left a card with a porter.  "Give that to Oscar Wilde," he told the porter.  On the card he had written: "To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite”. Two weeks later Wilde showed up at the club and was handed the card with the offensive message.  Returning that night to the Hotel Avondale, Wilde wrote to Douglas asking that he come and see him.  "I don't see anything now but a criminal prosecution," Wilde wrote.  "My whole life seems ruined by this man.  The tower of ivory is assailed by the foul thing.  On the sand is my life split. I don't know what to do."

The first serious problem for Wilde growing out of his relationship of Douglas came when Douglas, still a student in Oxford, gave an old suit to a down-and-out friend named Wood.  Wood discovered in a pocket of the suit, letters written by Wilde to his youthful friend.  Wood extorted £35 from Wilde for return of most of the compromising letters.  Wilde later described the money as a gift to enable Wood to start a new life in America.  Two other would-be blackmailers were given smaller amounts of money after returning the remaining letters.

However Oscar’s downfall came not from blackmailers, but from the Marquis of Queensbury, Bosie’s father.

Wilde, Douglas, and another long time friend named Robert Ross visited a solicitor, Travers Humphreys.  Humphreys asked Wilde directly whether there was any truth to Queensberry's allegation.  Wilde said “no”.  Humphreys applied for a warrant for Queensberry's arrest.  On March 2, Queensberry police arrested Queensberry and charged him with libel at the Vine Street police station.

Travers Humphreys asked Edward Clarke, a towering figure in the London bar, to prosecute Wilde's case.  Before accepting the case, Clarke said to Wilde, "I can only accept this brief, Mr. Wilde, if you assure me on your honour as an English gentleman that there is not and never has been any foundation for the charges that are made against you."  Wilde answered that the charges were "absolutely false and groundless."  Wilde left Clarke's office to join Douglas for a quick trip to the south of France before the trial.

About a week before the trial was set to began at the Old Bailey, Wilde returned to London, where numerous close friends advised him to drop his libel suit.  George Bernhard Shaw and Frank Harris, two well known friends of Wilde's from the literary world, pleaded with Wilde to flee the country and continue his writing abroad, possibly in more tolerant France.  Douglas, who was also present at the luncheon with Shaw and Harris, objected.  "Your telling him to run away shows that you are no friend of Oscar's," Douglas said, rising from the table.  "It is not friendly of you," Wilde echoed as he departed the restaurant with his young friend.

On April 3, 1895, the first trial of Oscar Wilde--with Wilde in this case cheering the prosecution--began at Old Bailey.  Queensberry, wearing a blue hunting stock,  stood alone, hat in hand, in front of the dock.  Wilde, wearing a fashionable coat with a flower in his button-hole, chatted with his attorney.  Meanwhile, in another room in the building, a group of young men--gathered by Queensberry to substantiate his charge--laughed and smoked cigarettes.

Sir Edward Clarke delivered the prosecution's opening statement.  Clarke's address impressed even Edward Carson, Queensberry's attorney, who said "I never heard anything to equal it in all my life."  Clarke attempted to take some of the sting out of on key piece of evidence that Queensberry planned to introduce.  He read one of Wilde's letters to Douglas that might suggest to many readers the existence of a homosexual relationship.  Clarke admitted that the letter "might appear extravagant to those in the habit of writing commercial correspondence," but said it must be remembered that Oscar Wilde is a poet, and the letter should be read as "the expression of true poetic feeling, and with no relation whatever to the hateful and repulsive suggestions put to it in the plea in this case."

After brief testimony from Sidney Wright, the porter at the Albemarle Club, Wilde took the stand. 

He began by lying about his age, which he said was thirty-nine (he was actually forty-one).  Under questioning by Clarke, Wilde, with easy assurance, described his earlier encounters with--and harassment by--Queensberry.  To Clarke's final question, "Is there "Is there any truth in any of these accusations [of Queensberry]?", Wilde answered: "There is no truth whatever in any of them." That afternoon the prosecution closed its case without calling, as was widely expected, Lord Alfred Douglas as a witness.  No testimony that Douglas might give, no matter how forceful, could save Wilde's case.

When Carson announced, in his opening speech in defence of Queensberry, that he intended to call to the witness box a procession of young men with whom Wilde had been sexually associated, the atmosphere in the courtroom became tense.  Edward Clarke understood his client was in serious personal danger.  An 1895 Act, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, had made it a crime for any person to commit an act of "gross indecency."  The Act had been interpreted to criminalize any form of sexual activity between members of the same sex.

After trial that evening, Edward Clarke met with his famous client.  "When I saw Mr. Wilde," Clarke later recalled, "I told him it that it was almost impossible in view of all the circumstances to induce a jury to convict of a criminal offence a father who was endeavouring to save his son from what he believed to be an evil companionship."  Clarke urged Wilde to allow him to withdraw the prosecution and consent to a verdict regarding the charge of "posing."  Wilde agreed, and the next morning Clarke rose to announce the withdrawal of the libel prosecution.

Queensberry's solicitor, meanwhile, had forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions copies of statements by the young men they had planned to produce as witnesses.  At 3:30 p.m., an inspector from Scotland Yard appeared before Magistrate John Bridge, to request a warrant for the arrest of Oscar Wilde.  Bridge adjourned the court for an hour and a half, apparently to give Wilde time to make his escape from England on the last train to the Continent.

Wilde, however, had lapsed into "a pathetic state of indecision."  Meeting with Douglas and his old friend Robert Ross at the Cadogan Hotel, Wilde wavered back and forth between staying and fleeing until, he said, "The train has gone--it is too late."  When Wilde learned from a journalist calling at the hotel that a warrant had been issued, Wilde went "very grey in the face."  He sat quietly in his chair drinking glass after glass of hock and seltzer.  Soon Wilde's name was removed from the advertisements at playbills at the St. James Theatre, where The Importance of Being Earnest was still being performed.

The first criminal trial of Oscar Wilde opened at Old Bailey on April 26, 1895.  Wilde and Alfred Taylor, the procurer of young men for Wilde, faced twenty-five counts of gross indecencies and conspiracy to commit gross indecencies.  A parade of young male witnesses for the prosecution testified regarding their roles in helping Wilde to act out his sexual fantasies.  Although Wilde was not prosecuted for sodomy, there was little doubt by the end of the trial that he might have been.  Almost all of them expressed shame and remorse over their own actions, and Wilde seemed to be left conflicted by their testimony.  (Later Wilde compared his encounters with "feasting with panthers."  Wilde wrote that "the danger was half the excitement.")  On the fourth day of trial, Wilde took the stand.  His arrogance of the first trial was gone.  He answered questions quietly, denying all allegations of indecent behaviour.  The most memorable moment of the trial came in Wilde's response to a question about the meaning of a phrase in a poem of Lord Alfred Douglas.  Prosecutor Charles Gill asked, "What is 'the Love that dare not speak its name'?"  Wilde's response drew a loud applause--and a few hisses:

"The love that dare not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare.  It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect.  It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are.  It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the "Love that dare not speak its name," and on account of it I am placed where I am now.  It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection.  There is nothing unnatural about it.  It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him.  That it should be so the world does not understand.  The world mocks it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

The jury deliberated for over three hours before concluding that they could not reach a verdict on most of the charges (the jury acquitted Wilde on charges relating to Frederick Atkins, one of the young men with whom he was accused of having engaged in a gross indecency.)  On May 7, Wilde was released on bail to enjoy three weeks of freedom until the start of his second criminal trial.

The Liberal government determined to go all-out to secure a conviction in Wilde's second trial, even when people such as Queensberry's attorney Edward Carson were urging, "Can you not let up on this fellow now?"  There is much speculation about the government's aggressive position on the Wilde case.  Prime Minister Rosebery was suspected of having had a homosexual affair, when he was Foreign Minister, with Francis Douglas, another one of Queensberry's good-looking sons.  It was shortly after Francis Douglas was "killed in a hunting accident" (probably a suicide), that Queensberry went on the rampage against Oscar Wilde. There is plausible evidence in the form of ambiguous letters to conclude that Rosebery was threatened with exposure by Queensberry or others if he failed to aggressively prosecute Wilde.  It is interesting to note that during the two months leading up to Wilde's conviction, Rosebery suffered from serious depression and insomnia.  After Wilde's conviction, his heath suddenly improved.

Corruption in politics? Surely not. But it is thought by many, that only enormous pressure from the establishment kept Rosebery's name out of the Wilde trial and kept a serving British Prime Minister from ending up in the dock himself, a trial which would have eclipsed even the trials of Oscar Wilde.
From; Callum James blogspot

Wilde's second prosecution was headed by England's top prosecutor, Solicitor-General Frank Lockwood.  Although the trial resembled in many way the first, the prosecution dropped its weakest witnesses and focused more heavily on its strongest.  Lockwood had the last word in the trial, and used it to offer what Wilde described as an "appalling denunciation [of me]--like something out of Tacitus, like a passage in Dante, like one of Savonarola's indictments of the Popes of Rome." 

After over three hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict: guilty on all counts except those relating to Edward Shelley.  Wilde swayed slightly in the dock; his face turned grey.  Some in the courtroom shouted "Shame!" while expressed their approval of the verdict.

The Wilde trials caused public attitudes toward homosexuals to become harsher and less tolerant.  Whereas prior to the trials there was a certain pity for those who engaged in same-sex passion, after the trials homosexuals were seen more as a threat.  The Wilde trials had other effects as well.  They caused the public to begin to associate art and homo eroticism and to see effeminacy as a signal for homosexuality.  Many same sex relationships seen as innocent before the Wilde trials became suspect after the trials.  People with close same sex relationships grew anxious, concerned about doing anything that might suggest impropriety.

Wilde served two years in prison, the last eighteen months being spent at Reading Gaol.  He came out chastened and bankrupt, but not bitter.  He told a friend that he "had gained much" in prison and was "ashamed on having led a life unworthy of an artist." 

Adopting the name Sebastian Melmoth, Wilde went to Paris, penniless, and is said to have reunited with his friend and lover of many years, Canadian journalist Robert Baldwin "Robbie" Ross (1869-1918), who was also executor of Wilde's estate. He took up residence in the Hôtel d'Alsace on rue des Beaux-Arts. On his deathbed, Ross by his side, Wilde was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church and received Extreme Unction. Oscar Wilde died of meningitis on 30 November 1900. He now rests in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris; Ross' ashes were added to the angel-adorned tomb in 1950.
Oscar’s trial notes are from; Douglas O. Linder
The Trials of Oscar Wilde:

“All trials are trials for one's life, just as all sentences are sentences of death; and three times have I been tried. The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the house of detention, the third time to pass into a prison for two years. Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.”--"De Profundis"


  1. I thought I was familiar with this story. (My parents gave me The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde as a birthday present when I was 15.) I didn't know all these details, though, including the connection between Queensberry and the Prime Minister! Fascinating, since so much "gay culture" in
    the 20th century was influenced by Wilde as a public figure.

  2. Thanks Jean -- yes, I learned a lot putting this post together. I didn't know about Oscar converting to Catholicism -- I had always assumed he was already a Catholic. And I never knew about the Prime Minister -- the scandal would certainly have eclipsed Oscar's trial, if it at been successfully hidden!