The Fall of Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas

…and now the thrilling conclusion

With his literary success following 1891’s publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde returned to writing for the theater. He penned the tragedy Salomé, but quickly turned to comedies. Lady Windermere’s Fan debuted at the St. James Theatre on February 20, 1892 and proceeded to tour England — despite the outrage of more conservative critics.  He followed this work up with the 1893 comedy A Woman of No Importance. He was then commissioned for two more comedies. By now Wilde was earning approximately 100 pounds each week — by today’s standards that’s about 12,211 pounds or 15,756 US dollars a week. No longer tied to John Gray, Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas turned romantic, and Wilde used that ample income to spoil his new beau.

In many ways, Douglas quickly became the center of Wilde’s entire world. Douglas and several of his friends founded a magazine called The Chameleon, which was as pro-gay as any publication could be at the time without being shut down by law enforcement. Wilde was a regular contributor. Douglas also led Wilde into the seedy underground of London’s gay prostitution circles. Every time he rendezvoused with a prostitute, it followed the same pattern — Wilde was introduced to a young man by a fellow named Alfred Taylor, Wilde would take the young man to dinner, and then to a hotel room. Sometimes, Douglas would meet them there too.

Douglas’ father was John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry (more commonly known just as Queensberry). He’s mostly known in history for being cruel to his family and for creating the Queensberry Rules which, apparently, are what modern boxing rules are based around. Oh, and all of the stuff we’re going to talk about. He’s known for that too. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good.) Now, Queensberry and his son fought like all of the time even before Wilde entered the picture — and even though Queensberry was initially charmed by Wilde, it didn’t take him long to piece together what was actually going on with the two. He was not having any of it. He cornered Oscar in the Wilde family’s London house and threatened him — the initial description of this encounter ended with Wilde giving a clever retort (“I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight”) but later accounts by both Wilde and Queensberry make Wilde sound much less assured and much more afraid — and with good reason.

On February 14 of 1895, Wilde’s greatest script premiered in London at the St. James Theatre — The Importance of Being Earnest. The cast was led by popular actor Allan Aynesworth, who later stated that the first night of that show was his greatest triumph on stage. The show itself was hailed as a massive success, even by most critics. Queensberry had planned to attend the premier and publicly humiliate Wilde by throwing a bouquet of rotting vegetables onto the stage — but Wilde had made sure to ban him from the theater — which didn’t actually help calm things down at all.

somdomiteFour days later, Queensberry left a calling card for Wilde at a club he was known to frequent. The card read: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” (Perhaps history’s most infamous spelling error.) Wilde’s friends, including Robbie Ross, begged him to let it go, but Douglas urged him to sue Queensberry for criminal libel. The problem with that was, in order to avoid going to prison, Queensberry would have to publicly prove that Wilde was a sodomite. (Or a somdomite, I guess.) Wilde had been sleeping with men for years and basically wrote about it in a very popular novel (Dorian Gray), so like not really a bright idea to challenge this. But Douglas hated his father, and was also all too happy to disagree with Robbie Ross — who he often butted heads with. Wilde was all too eager to give Douglas anything he wanted, and so he sued for libel.

Queensberry went for Wilde’s jugular almost immediately. He hired Wilde’s former college friend Edward Carson to represent him in court, and hired a number of private detectives to investigate. They amassed a veritable mountain of evidence. Wilde’s lawyer opened the trial on April 3 by preemptively asking about letters Wilde had written to Douglas (letters which Carson had procured) — Wilde claimed the letters were innocent, “prose sonnets”. Carson, meanwhile, opened by stating that he’d located several male prostitutes who were willing to testify against Wilde. Carson’s cross examination was even more brutal — and although Wilde gave sassy answers that got a lot of laughs, they didn’t help the outcome of the trial.

In the end, Carson discredited Wilde by proving he had lied about his age under oath. He also, using text from The Picture of Dorian Gray, managed to successfully paint a picture of Wilde seducing Douglas (which was almost the opposite of what had actually happened.) Moving on from this, Carson started asking about facts — inquiring about his friendships with lower-class men that he had been seen with at dinner. Wilde insisted they were merely friends and that he did not believe in social barriers.

Then, Carson directly asked Wilde if he had ever kissed a certain man — Wilde proclaimed in no uncertain terms that he had not because “he was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it.” Carson demanded to know why that was relevant, and for the first time Wilde didn’t really have any answer. Wilde dropped the charges, and Queensberry was found not guilty. This was disastrous for two reasons: the first being that Wilde was responsible for all of Queensberry’s astronomical legal fees, which was more than he could afford — and the second being that the courts issued a warrant for his arrest on the charges of sodomy and gross indecency almost as soon as Wilde had left the building.

Robbie Ross and another friend named Reginald Turner tried to get Wilde to flee the country, and arranged for a train and a boat to take him to France. Meanwhile, Wilde’s mother wanted him to fight. He was basically paralyzed — either with fear or indecision — until all he could say was “The train has gone. It’s too late.” He was arrested on April 6. Ross and Wilde’s butler, under strict instructions, went into the Wilde family house and packed up all of his letters, manuscripts, and some personal items.  While Wilde awaited trial in prison, Alfred Douglas visited him every day — which was nice since this was actually pretty much all Douglas’ fault, and he hadn’t done anything to help out during the criminal libel trial.

When the new trial opened on April 26, Wilde plead “not guilty”. Douglas left for Paris at the urging of Wilde. Several of Wilde’s other “somdomite” friends also left the country for their own safety — including Ross. This trial had captured the attention of the public around the world, even as far as the United States. While being cross examined, Oscar was asked to explain “the love that dare not speak its name” — a phrase originating in a poem written by Douglas. (And that’s the most Douglas participated in this trial, I’m just saying.) Oscar responded with this speech that literally brings a tear to my eye every time, so I’m going to share it here verbatim even though it’s kind of long:

“‘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 that 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 older and a younger man, when the older 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 at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

While this was, in my opinion, a beautiful speech….it really didn’t help out with the whole “not guilty” thing. Nevertheless, the jury failed to reach a verdict. Wilde’s friends were able to post bail, and Wilde was free. Sort of. He was shunned by nearly everyone; his wife wouldn’t let him back into the house. He was forced to stay with two of his few remaining friends, Ernest and Ada Leverson. At this point, even Carson attempted to intervene on Wilde’s behalf — asking the Solicitor General Frank Lockwood if they could “let up” on Wilde. Lockwood replied he would have liked to, but that the trial had been so publicized and so politicized that it was not going to be possible.

A third trial followed, taking place on May 25. This trial was against both Wilde and Alfred Taylor, who had also been arrested for procuring prostitutes for Wilde but who refused to turn state’s evidence against the writer. Sir Alfred Wills presided, and gave the harshest punishment the law allowed: two years of hard labor. He was also very clear that he would have given a harsher punishment if he’d been able to, claiming the sentence was “totally inadequate” for what he considered “the worst case [he had] ever tried.” After the sentence came down, Wilde asked, “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” But his question was completely drowned out by the very large crowd that had come to see this beloved celebrity’s downfall.

Wilde was immediately sent off to Newgate Prison for processing, and then was sent to Pentonville Prison. His “hard labour” there was walking on a treadmill and separating rope fibers — so, y’know, really productive for society and all. He was later transferred to Wandsworth Prison. While there, he collapsed from hunger and ruptured his right ear drum.

On November 23 1895, Oscar was transferred to Reading Gaol by train. While he was waiting on the platform for the train to arrive, a crowd gathered to spit on him and ridicule him. At Reading Gaol, he was eventually allowed a pen and paper, he wrote a 50,000 word letter to Alfred Douglas (which he was not allowed to send until he was released and which, later, Douglas would deny ever receiving.) Over the course of the self-reflective letter, Wilde does forgive Douglas for his involvement in getting Wilde into this position. The letter was partially published in 1905 under the title De Profundis.

Throughout the trials and his imprisonment, all eyes — even internationally — were on Oscar Wilde. LGBTQ+ people across the Western world, but especially in Europe, in particular were watching with a sort of horrified fascination.  Just before the end of Wilde’s sentence, inspired in large part by the writer’s legal troubles, Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee in Germany — the first organization to work towards securing legal rights for queer people.

After his release on May 18, 1897, he immediately went to France and never went back to Britain or Ireland. He took the name Sebastian Melmoth, and began to advocate — through letters to English publications — for prison reform. He also wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol about a man who was hanged while Wilde was imprisoned there. Also, at this point, Wilde’s wife had gotten him to relinquish parental rights to their kids and had changed their last names to “Holland” (and, yet, poor Vyvyan was still named Vyvyan.) They never divorced but were completely estranged.

In August, he reunited with Douglas, but the two were only together for a few months. There’s differing explanations as to why they didn’t stay together — the truth is probably a combination of both. Some say that, after everything that had transpired in their lives, they weren’t able to get their relationship back to what it had been before the trials. Others say that Douglas’ family threatened to cut him off financially. Personally, I can’t imagine that their relationship wasn’t full of resentment, probably on both sides — and if you’re struggling with a relationship that seems like it’s failing and then your family says to break it off or spend the rest of your life completely broke? Yeah, it makes perfect sense to break it off.

Wilde was impoverished for the remainder of his life, and had only a small collection of friends left to him. With nothing left to lose, he was very much open about his sexuality for the years he had left. By the fall of 1900, Wilde was fighting with illness which physicians later stated was from an infection of his right ear drum — the illness left him weak and depressed and frequently unable to leave the bedroom of the hotel he was living in. He famously quipped, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” On October 12, he sent a telegram to Robbie Ross saying “Terribly weak. Please come.”

By November 25, 1900, Wilde’s illness had developed into meningitis (the same illness that struck down his little sister so many years earlier). Robbie Ross arrived on November 29, and immediately sent for a Catholic priest. The priest performed a conditional baptism, and Wilde died the next day. His friends Reginald Turner and Robbie Ross were with him when he died. Wilde’s tomb, which is in Paris, was commissioned by Ross, who also requested a compartment be built for his own ashes — which were dutifully placed there in 1950.

In the years since his death, Oscar Wilde has become arguably one of the world’s most celebrated queer figures. In 1967, Craig Rodwell named his LGBTQ bookstore the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in order to make sure it was recognized as a safe place by others in the community. In 2014, Wilde was one of the first honorees of the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco. He was also one of 50,000 men posthumously pardoned in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, also known as the Alan Turing Law.

The Rise of Oscar Wilde

oscar_wilde_portrait_460Oscar Wilde is arguably one of the most famous and lasting playwrights since William Shakespeare — and his work was popular to boot. He was a celebrity in his time, known even then for being an extremely quotable master of one-liners.

He was born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. His parents, Sir William and Jane Wilde, gave him the most Irish name they could: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. Just try yelling out that entire thing when you’re mad at your kid. That’s a chore. Anyways, he was the second child of three — his older brother Willie and younger sister Isola. His parents were part of Dublin’s intellectual elite — Sir William was a doctor notable for taking care of the city’s poor and who had also written and published numerous works regarding medicine, archaeology and folklore while Jane was an Irish nationalist publishing revolutionary poetry for the Young Islanders under the pen name Speranza. They instilled a love of poetry and folklore in all of their children.

Until age of nine, Wilde was educated at home by his mother, a French nursemaid, and a German governess. As such, he became fluent in French and German very early. Then he was enrolled at the Portora Royal School — a free school. While he was there, Isola Wilde died of meningitis in 1867.

Wilde graduated from the Portora Royal School in 1871 and began attending Trinity College in Dublin. There he studied classic literature and Greek alongside his older brother Willie and joined the University Philosophical Society. Through this society, he became an enthusiastic member of the Aesthetic Movement — an intellectual movement prioritizing the appreciation of beauty over social and political themes in literature, fine art, music, and other arts.

While at Trinity, he also befriended Edward Carson — a name you’re going to want to remember for later. They stayed very close friends throughout their college years, but drifted apart in adulthood. Wilde proved to be a gifted student — coming in at the top of his class in his first year of studies and eventually winning Trinity College’s highest academic award, the Berkeley Gold Medal. In 1874, having out-nerded everyone in Ireland (and with encouragement from his teachers who were probably tired of being shown up by him), he applied for and obviously received a scholarship to Magdalen College in Oxford.

oscar_wilde_281854-1900292c_by_hills_26_saunders2c_rugby_26_oxford_3_april_1876At Magdalen College, Wilde reinvented himself. He explored several organizations, religions and philosophies. He toyed with joining Roman Catholicism — despite threats that his father would cut him off financially if he was baptized into that faith. Wilde ultimately decided, at the last minute, not to do it, and sent flowers to the ceremony in his place. He said he liked their aesthetic, rather than their beliefs. Wilde also replaced his Irish accent with an upper class British accent, began to dress in formal wear literally all of the time and lavishly decorated his room with peacock feathers. It was about this time — no surprise — that he became involved in the Decadent Movement.

As anyone who’s ever been to school knows, standing out isn’t always a popular thing. People attempted to beat up or bully Wilde on more than one occasion — but Wilde was 6’3″ and really strong — especially for someone who pretty much hated sports. He once beat up an entire group of students who attacked him, then invited onlookers to go to the room of one of his assailants where they drank all that student’s liquor. He did, at some point (before or after this, I’m unclear), take up boxing — probably not so much as a sport but as a means of self-defense.

The lifestyle he’d adopted was not conducive to studying, and Wilde did not remain the star pupil he had been at Trinity. After returning late from a trip to Greece with a professor, Wilde was even temporarily expelled. Despite this, when he graduated in November of 1878, he received double first (the highest possible honor) for his Bachelor degree in Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores (basically, literature, just made to sound fancier.) In the same year his poem “Ravenna” won the Newdigate Prize, a high honor for students at Oxford.

800px-punch_-_oscar_wildeWilde settled in London after graduating, though he spent a good amount of time in Paris. In 1881, a collection of his poems (now having been published in various places since roughly 1871) was published. The first print run of Poems was 750 copies — it sold out and had to have a second run printed in 1882. Despite the book’s undeniable popularity, reviews were mixed — the British magazine Punch was notably unenthusiastic. Their review stated: “The poet is Wilde, but his poetry’s tame.” (Don’t you sometimes wonder if people write intentionally bad reviews just so they throw in some solid gold zingers like that one?)

Because the aesthetic movement was becoming popular in the United States thanks to Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience (which features a character satirizing Wilde), talent agent Richard D’Oyly Carte booked Wilde for a lecture tour in America coinciding with the tour of Patience. The press in the United States was even more critical of Wilde than it was in Britain. T.W. Higginson wrote that Wilde’s “only distinction is that he has written a thin volume of very mediocre verse” and expressed concerns about the influence Wilde might have on people’s behavior.

Wilde was also subjected to some incredibly bigoted anti-Irish attacks in the press — on January 22, 1882 (just twenty days after he landed in the country!) the Washington Post published a drawing of Wilde next to the Wild Man of Borneo (one of P.T. Barnum’s “freak show” performers) and asked “How far is it from this to this?” Despite the press, Wilde’s actual lectures were very popular and his tour was extended from the original four months to almost a year long.

Wilde interacted a lot with Irish-Americans during this tour. They were, perhaps, the most critical of him out of everyone in America for abandoning his Irish accent. As a result, he actually did reconnect with his Irish roots (though not his accent) and began to get more involved in politics. He was a staunch supporter of Irish independence (despite not going back to Ireland much). He also spoke out on behalf of socialism, although his actual beliefs — which he described as anarchy — were probably closer to communism than anything. (Apparently, for all his studying, Wilde never read the Communist Manifesto.)

Between the tour and publishing The Duchess of Padua, Wilde was making a good amount of money by 1883. In that same year his first play, Vera, was produced in New York City. As his celebrity grew so — of course — did rumors that he might be a sodomite — probably more because of his entire lack of romantic attachments and his super flamboyant clothes. Some historians suggest, therefore, that it is not a coincidence that he started seeing Constance Lloyd — a woman and fellow Decadent writer who he met at a lecture in Dublin. They married on May 29, 1884. Because of the philosophical and literary values they both represented, they spent tons and tons of money on having an incredibly stylish house in London. Like, even though they were both well-off, they ended up having basically no money.

Lloyd and Wilde had two sons — Cyril (born in 1885) and Vyvyan (born in 1886) — proving beyond any doubt that celebrities have always given their kids bizarre names. During the second pregnancy, their marriage began to fall apart. According to the biography written by Daniel Mendelsohn, Wilde became “physically repelled” by his wife. It was also about this time that Wilde met Robert “Robbie” Ross — a seventeen year old university student who was pretty much openly and unashamedly gay. That was a really big deal at the time. Robbie was determined to seduce Wilde — he had recognized allusions to “Greek love” (that’s a classy way of saying gay sex) in Wilde’s work and had decided to introduce Wilde to it. And he was very successful at that. While Ross and Wilde had a fairly short-lived romantic affair, they remained very close lifelong friends. Wilde’s marriage continued to devolve, although they never divorced.

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Wilde’s star as a writer continued to rise after this. Over the next several years, he published a number of short stories — most of which alluded to “Greek love” more openly than his works had before. In 1890, Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray — a novel that catapulted him to an even higher degree of fame. (Incidentally, Dorian Gray was likely inspired — at least in name, if nothing else — by Wilde’s next ex-lover, John Gray. Gray did his best to deny this rumor.) It was publicly trashed by critics, particularly for the hedonism depicted in the novel — and the rather obvious references to homosexuality. It was heavily edited, some of the more transparent homo eroticism taken out and six new chapters added, and re-released in 1891. It was in this year, Wilde was introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas (aka “Bosie” to his friends), a student at Oxford at the time but with a great interest in literature — and the two struck up a friendship. This friendship would ultimately change the trajectory of Wilde’s life — and impact the entire underground queer community of Europe.

….which is what we’ll talk about next week. Stay tuned!