On this day – 26 April, 1895
He once said, via one of his characters, that ‘there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’ While it might have been judicious in Chapter 1 of The Picture of Dorian Grey by April 1895 the epigram had a hollow ring as its author, Irish aesthete, dramatist and wit, Oscar Wilde was being spoken about widely, for all the wrong reasons.
In the same volume he had written that, ‘destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that.’ That certainly proved to be the case for Wilde whose life unravelled rapidly and unexpectedly after the Marquis of Queensberry, the father of his petulant and reckless lover Lord Alfred Douglas, left a calling card at Wilde’s London club addressed to ‘Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite’. Queensberry, best known for having codified the rules of boxing, was removing his gloves in so doing. Because sodomy was a criminal offence he was leaving himself open to a suit for criminal libel and a two year jail sentence. The note was the culmination of a series of confrontations between the Marquess, his son and the celebrated playwright. Most of Wilde’s friends urged him to let the matter lie and ignore the provocation. Douglas, nicknamed ‘Bosie’ advised otherwise. He encouraged his lover to sue his father. Wilde decided to ignore wiser counsels and indulge Douglas in an ongoing vendetta with his truculent parent. It would prove his undoing.
Queensberry played by his own rules in assembling his case against Wilde. These included the hiring of private detectives to delve into his private life and the hiring of the distinguished barrister Edward Carson, like Wilde a Dubliner and a former Trinity College student, to defend the Marquess against the defamation charge.
The cross examination of Wilde was a Carsonian tour de force he was pummelled, poked, prodded and provoked. He allowed Wilde to hang himself by appearing flippant in response to serious and potentially damaging questions. He extracted an admission from the plaintiff that he had lied about his age on oath and a denial that he had kissed a particular servant boy because ‘he was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly.’ The defence case never had to proceed any further than Carson’s opening statement in which he revealed that Queensberry’s detectives had located a number of young men who were prepared to testify to having had sex with Wilde. The playwright dropped the prosecution, Queensberry was acquitted, Wilde was left with his antagonists costs and went bankrupt.
On this day, 26 April 1895, Wilde’s own prosecution for gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, began. It arose directly from the Queensberry case and would end with a conviction, and a sentence of two years hard labour. As Wilde put it himself in Dorian Grey, ‘behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.’