It took three trials to send Oscar Wilde to jail. He wasn’t even in the dock himself for the first one, but he might as well have been.
In the summer of 1891 Wilde, then thirty-eight years old, met, and fell in love with the twenty-two year Lord Alfred Douglas, an aspiring poet, known to have had a string of homosexual affairs while at university. Wilde showered the young man with gifts and affectionate letters. The first ‘wrinkle’ in the relationship came when Douglas gave away an old jacket, containing some of the letters, to a friend, down on his luck. They had to be bought back at a high price.
Then there was the matter of Douglas’s father, John Sholto Douglas, Eighth Marquess of Queensberry, one of the most malevolent and repulsive figures in late Victorian Britain, celebrated for devising a set of boxing rules that he had very little to do with. Queensberry was like a super-charged version of the Robert de Niro character in the Meet the Fockersmovie franchise. He wasn’t very good at spelling either, on 18 February 1895, after having failed to disrupt the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, he showed up at Wilde’s London club and left a note, which read ‘To Oscar Wilde, posing as a so[m]domite’. But, he spoiled the effect somewhat by spelling sodomite incorrectly.
Wilde, against the advice of friends like George Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris, and with the encouragement of Alfred Douglas, known to one and all as ‘Bosie’, sued Queensberry for libel. The eminent barrister Edward Clarke, only agreed to take the case after Wilde assured him ‘on his word as an Englishman’ that he was not guilty of the offence of sodomy or of ‘gross indecency’. The latter had been made illegal in the 1895 Criminal Amendment Act. Wilde gave his word, but must have been exercising some form of Jesuitical ‘mental reservation’ because, of course, he wasn’t an Englishman.
Famously, his former Trinity College, Dublin rival, Edward Carson, eviscerated Wilde in the witness box, most notably when asking the playwright had he ever kissed a man named Walter Grainger. Wilde denied the charge. He should have left it there, but, ill-advisedly, added that, ‘He was a peculiarly plain boy’, by way of explanation for his failure to snog the lad. Before Carson could parade a slew of defence witnesses, all prepared to testify to having had homosexual relations with Wilde, Edward Clarke withdrew the libel charge against Queensberry.
The poet’s close friends now advised him immediately to take the next train to Paris. He even got judicial help. When the police had approached a London magistrate for a warrant to arrest the playwright, the magistrate, John Bridge, had delayed acceding to the request for long enough to allow Wilde to escape the country. But, he dallied too long. He was arrested and charged with twenty-five counts of ‘gross indecency’. In the dock with him was his alleged procurer, Alfred Taylor. The most notable moment in the first criminal trial was when Wilde was asked what Douglas had meant in a letter, when he described their relationship as a ‘love that dare not speak its name’. Wilde suggested, disingenuously, that Douglas had been referring to the Platonic affection of an older man for a younger one. Clarke’s closing statement was a work of genius, and was probably sufficient to ensure that the first trial resulted in a ‘hung jury’.
After that even Wilde’s former tormentor, Edward Carson, suggested that the Liberal government of Lord Rosebery, should ‘ease up on this fellow now’. But the authorities were especially zealous in pursuit of Wilde. The reason, other than to reinforce the message of the 1895 Criminal Law Amendment Act, and make an example of such a high profile figure, may reside in the obsessive and fanatical person of Queensberry, and the alleged vulnerability of the Prime Minister. Rosebery, while Foreign Minister under William Gladstone appears, himself, to have had an affair with a Douglas, Bosie’s brother Francis. After the suspected suicide of Francis Douglas a cache of incriminating letters was said to have emerged, and these were allegedly used by Queensberry to blackmail the Prime Minister into continuing the pursuit of Wilde through the criminal courts.
At the second criminal trial the prosecution ran a tighter ship, dropping some of the more dubious witnesses against Wilde. The strategy was successful, and this time Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labour. His conviction unleashed a lengthy period of official and societal reaction against homosexuality, a criminal offence that had often been tolerated prior to the trials of Oscar Wilde.
Sentence was passed in the criminal trial of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde one hundred and twenty-three years ago, on this day.