People in History: Oscar Wilde

256px-Oscar_Wilde_portrait_by_Napoleon_Sarony_-_albumen People in History: Oscar Wilde

Wikimedia Commons

It’s impossible to discuss the criminalisation of homosexuality without discussing Wilde, the most famous victim of the infamous Labouchere Amendment. What most people don’t know is that Wilde wasn’t a victim, so much as a martyr. “Where your life leads you, you must go,” he famously said, and refused to move from his hotel room until the police arrived to arrest him for “gross indecency.”

Wilde’s troubles began in February 1895, when the Marquess of Queensberry left a barely-literate calling card at Wilde’s club, calling him a “Posing somdomite.” The Marquess had been gunning for Wilde for months, enraged by Wilde’s continued association with his younger son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. The card, left with third parties at a public place, was almost certainly intended to bait Wilde. He fell for it.

Encouraged by Bosie, Wilde pressed a charge of criminal libel against Queensberry. The only defence to such a charge was if the “libelous” accusation were proven true. Queensberry immediately pleaded justification, and the stage was set for one of the most sensational trials of the latter nineteenth century.

As Queensberry’s legal team hired private detectives to gather evidence of Wilde’s movements and associates, his friends urged him to leave the country. Wilde refused, and the trial went ahead. There, Wilde’s association with a long succession of male prostitutes, and familiarity with male brothels and brothel-keepers (particularly Alfred Taylor, to whom Wilde had been introduced by Bosie), was laid before the jury and the newspapers. It was an unmitigated disaster, and when Queensberry’s barrister announced he would be opening the case for the defence by summoning male prostitutes who would swear to having had sex with Wilde, Wilde dropped the prosecution. Queensberry’s initial statement that Wilde was a “posing somdomite [sic]” was deemed “true in substance and in fact,” and left Wilde exposed to a criminal prosecution of his own.

Somdomite People in History: Oscar Wilde

The infamous calling card. Wikimedia Commons

The moment the verdict was in, Queensberry’s legal team sent the statements their uncalled witnesses had given to the Director of Public Prosecutions. At 3.30pm, an inspector from Scotland Yard requested an arrest warrant for Wilde from Magistrate John Bridge. Bridge adjourned the court for an hour and a half — leaving Wilde with plenty of time to catch a train to France. England, it seemed, didn’t want any more scandal from the posing Irishman.

Wilde dithered between staying and fleeing until finally, at 6.20pm — three hours after the warrant had been requested, and six since the trial collapsed — Wilde was finally arrested in his hotel room.

The first criminal trial commenced on 26th April, 1895, twenty days after Wilde had been arrested. Wilde was tried alongside Alfred Taylor, and was charged with twenty-five counts of gross indecencies and conspiracy to commit gross indecencies. The trial ended on May 7th, after the jury deliberated for over three hours, acquitted Wilde of charges relating to a prostitute named Frederick Atkins (whose testimony they found suspect), but concluded they couldn’t reach a verdict on the others.

The first criminal trial is most notable for Wilde’s now-famous speech about the “love that dare not speak its name.” The line comes, not from one of Wilde’s works, but a poem by Bosie Douglas: Two Loves, which is mostly long-winded and amateurish, but concludes on the rather poignant description of the shadowy and un-loved love Wilde was asked to define.

 “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.

That speech — delivered with heartbreaking aplomb by Stephen Fry in the film Wilde, drew loud applause from the public gallery, and not because it was filled with Wilde’s friends, for any man who valued his reputation had long shunned him by that point, and most of the rest were hiding in Continental Europe. It was a small glimmer of light that even in the dark and prurient days of the 1890s, public opinion wasn’t as black-and-white a matter as we might today believe.

256px-Wildeanddouglas People in History: Oscar Wilde

Wilde (left) and Douglas (right). Wikimedia Commons

Wilde had three weeks of freedom before a retrial was convened. The discrepancy between the state’s seeming-reluctance to initiate a prosecution against him, and their zealous efforts afterwards, have been traced back to Queensberry’s influence. Francis Douglas, Queensberry’s son and Bosie’s older brother, allegedly had an affair with Prime Minister Rosebery when he was Foreign Minister. Francis was killed in a “hunting accident” (most suspect a euphemism for committing suicide) after his father found out, and it was shortly thereafter Queensberry’s relentless persecution of Wilde began.There is plausible evidence that Queensberry blackmailed Rosebery with the threat of exposure if he didn’t secure a conviction against Wilde.

For the second trial, the Crown employed Solicitor-General Frank Lockwood to head the prosecution, a task which in the first had fallen to Edward Carson, Queensberry’s defence counsel and old schoolfellow of Wilde’s. Lockwood delivered a fire-and-brimstone summary, painting Wilde, and all homosexuals, as dangerous predators, preying on the young men of England. The tactic worked, and Wilde was found guilty on virtually all counts. He was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour, the maximum the law would allow.

Wilde was released in 1897, bankrupt and broken in health. He spent three years drifting around the Continent, estranged from his wife and children, relying on handouts from the few friends he had left. He reunited with Bosie shortly after his release, and the two lived together in Naples until threats from both their families separated them once more. Wilde died on 30th November 1900, in Paris, having never seen Bosie again.

“All trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death, and three times I have been tried. The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the house of detention, and the third time to pass into 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 just and unjust alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang 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.”

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis


Born on this day: John Cage (1912-1992, American), composer; J.P. Calderon (40, American), former professional volleyball player turned reality TV star; and Freddie Mercury (1946-1991, British), singer-songwriter best known as frontman of rock band Queen.

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2 replies on “People in History: Oscar Wilde”

  1. That was damn sad, and the last quote was heartbreakingly beautiful. 🙁 How terrible humanity feels it must punish minorities because they are different.

    • Kate Aaron says:

      heh, what I didn’t mention was after De Profundis was published (posthumously), Douglas went on an anti-gay crusade, calling Wilde “the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last three hundred and fifty years”. He went a bit mad trying to get back at Robbie Ross, another of Wilde’s lovers (Ross’s ashes are buried with Wilde) and ended up incarcerated himself. His latter years are rather sad, although prison softened him towards Wilde again. His only son spent most of his life in a mental institution. Bosie died in 1945 and is buried with his mother.

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