Oscar Wilde was a prolific author, playwright, and poet throughout the late nineteenth century. Wilde’s first claim to fame was a fashion essay he wrote in 1881 titled The Philosophy of Dress, which criticized the corset and claimed that it was too horrendously ugly to continue being used in Victorian society. Even though this was how he started out, Wilde is much more notorious for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and the comedic romance play The Importance of Being Earnest.
But did you know that he was also involved in a series of trials that highlighted and condemned his numerous homosexual relationships with younger men? We here at Bookstr discovered some unpleasant and disturbing facts about Wilde’s personal life when doing a deep dive into the trials and the events that led up to them. The charismatic author is notorious and even revered for his contributions to literature, but his problematic actions also loom large in history. When Wilde was studying at Oxford, he declared the following:
“I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.”Oscar Wilde
He wasn’t wrong.
Trigger Warning: Themes of Sexual Assault and Pedophilia
There was a total of three trials held for Oscar Wilde at the Old Bailey courthouse in London in 1895. The trials were very public since there was a celebrity involved, and the majority of literary society in England closely followed them. The trials primarily focused on Oscar Wilde’s numerous sexual encounters with young men and teenage boys. The author and playwright was married to a woman and had two children, but his preference for sexual partners was well-known throughout his social circle. In order to understand how the trials began, we have to go back a few years to when Oscar Wilde met poet and journalist Lord Alfred Douglas.
Wilde and Douglas first met at a tea party in 1891, where Wilde took a profound interest in Douglas. Shortly after this, Douglas wrote that Wilde “was continually asking me to lunch and dine with him and sending me letters, notes, and telegrams.” In addition to the flood of written conversations, Wilde also sent Douglas flashy gifts and wrote him an erotic sonnet. Wilde and Douglas often traveled together throughout Europe for extended periods of time and visited each others’ houses.
The relationship between Wilde and Douglas was intense, romantic, and eventually the subject of blackmail. It started when Douglas gave an old suit of his to a friend, Alfred Wood, who had run into financial trouble. Wood discovered letters that were far from platonic written by Wilde to Douglas in one of the pockets. Deciding to capitalize on the opportunity, Wood told Wilde that he’d return the letters to him without telling anyone about them in exchange for a substantial sum of money. Two other known blackmailers also came into possession of Wilde’s love letters to Douglas, and both only returned the letters once Wilde had paid them.
The Wrath of Queensberry
Soon after the blackmail, Douglas’ father, Scottish nobleman John Sholto Douglas, discovered the homoerotic relationship that his son was having with Oscar Wilde and demanded to meet the author and playwright. John Sholto Douglas was the Marquess of Queensberry and was known to be mentally unstable. He was deeply concerned about his son’s relationship with Wilde and wanted to assess the man himself.
Douglas introduced Wilde to his father at the Cafe Royal in 1892. Queensberry was actually charmed by Wilde at the event, but by 1894, Queensberry became convinced that Wilde only had nefarious intentions for his son and demanded that Douglas never see Wilde again. When Douglas refused, Queensberry threatened to disown Douglas and halt all financial support. Douglas’ response:
“What a funny little man you are.”Lord Alfred Douglas
Queensberry then took more drastic measures to end the relationship. He traveled to Oscar Wilde’s home in Chelsea with a highly trained fighter and demanded that Wilde stop seeing his son. A heated exchange soon followed that ended when Wilde threatened to shoot Queensberry if he didn’t leave. Queensberry wisely departed after that.
However, Queensberry did not relent in his efforts to destroy Wilde’s relationship with Douglas. He planned to disrupt the opening of Wilde’s new play, The Importance of Being Earnest, but Wilde heard about the plan before the opening night and posted police around the venue. Queensberry remained outside pacing and muttering for three hours before leaving.
A few days later, Queensberry sent a message addressed to Oscar Wilde to the Albemarle Club, which both Wilde and his wife belonged to. The written letter was incredibly offensive and accused Wilde of inappropriate sexual activities with other men. When Wilde received the message, he accused Queensberry of libel, which is a written accusation or statement that is false and intended to harm a person’s reputation. Thus, the trials of Oscar Wilde began.
The First Trial of Oscar Wilde
Wilde showed up to his first trial as the prosecutor, confidently wearing a fancy coat with a flower in the button-hole. During the cross-examination, Queensberry’s lawyer Edward Carson provided evidence from Wilde’s literary works to prove that Wilde was gay and, therefore, Queensberry’s claims against him were true. Both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Phrases and Philosophies for Use of the Young contains homoerotic themes, but when on the stand, Wilde denied that his works contained any such content with flippant and artistic responses.
After Wilde denied the claims, Carson presented more concrete evidence: the defense brought in a parade of young men and teenage boys who had confessed to having sexual relations in the past with Wilde. Legal actions could then be taken against Wilde because the Criminal Law Amendment Act, passed that year in 1895, criminalized any acts of “gross indecency,” which was interpreted as criminalizing homosexual relationships.
Wilde and his lawyer knew that they were in trouble after such evidence was presented to the court. Now, they were not only at risk of losing the case against Queensberry, but also Wilde could face legal actions being brought against him for his inappropriate sexual relations with underage boys. Wilde withdrew his libel accusation in hopes that Queensberry would halt his accusations.
However, Queensberry refused to relent. He accused Wilde of pedophilia and sexual assault, which fell under the category of “gross indecency” and were in violation of the law. The second trial, this time with Queensberry as the prosecutor and Wilde as the defense began.
The Second Trial of Oscar Wilde
Queensberry and his lawyer, Edward Carson, again presented a group of boys who had admitted to having sexual relations with Oscar Wilde. Most of them were teenage servants or young prostitutes at the time that Wilde, in his thirties and forties, had sexual interactions with them. One of the boys, Walter Grainger, was sixteen when Wilde took advantage of him at a house in Oxford where he and Douglas were staying together. There were several other testimonies like this from other boys of the same age, but many of them were dismissed by the court as unreliable witnesses.
Wilde defended himself before the jury by focusing on his relationship with Douglas and that their romantic and sexual activities were perfectly natural. Wilde backed up his claims with evidence that many famous historical figures, such as Plato, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo, had had sexual relationships with other men. Wilde’s lawyer, Edward Clarke, then presented a speech in defense of Wilde that argued for his renowned contributions to the literary world and that clearing his name would “clear society from a stain.”
Because the prosecution didn’t have enough evidence and the defense was persuasive, the second trial ended in a hung jury. But that didn’t stop Queensberry from pursuing his revenge.
The Third Trial of Oscar Wilde
Queensberry and Clarke again accused Wilde of violating the Criminal Law Amendment Act for “gross indecency,” but this time, their prosecution was stronger, and both the English government and its high society wanted to see Wilde convicted.
First of all, the English government may have had a hand in Wilde’s conviction because Prime Minister Archibald Primrose was blackmailed for having a sexual relationship with Francis Douglas, Alfred Douglas’ brother, and Queensberry’s other son. Soon after the scandal came out, Francis Douglas reportedly died in a hunting accident, but it was widely suspected that he committed suicide.
Following this whole affair, Queensberry became very bitter about homosexual relationships involving his sons, which explains why his prosecution was so aggressive and relentless.
English society at large may have also wanted to see Wilde convicted for moral reasons. Even though Queensberry wanted to convict Wilde for his relationship with Douglas, most other English society members were far more troubled that Wilde had knowingly participated in a prostitution ring and was fully aware of the danger involved in his actions. Wilde said the following in a letter he wrote to Douglas during his imprisonment after the third trial about the young male prostitutes he had been involved with:
“They, from the point of view through which I, as an artist in life approached them, were delightfully suggestive and stimulating. It was like feasting with panthers. The danger was half the excitement.”Oscar Wilde
Wilde’s Imprisonment and Later Life
After spending two years in prison, Wilde traveled all over Europe with Douglas and claimed that their reunion was “psychologically inevitable.” During this time, his wife and sons had changed their last names to “Holland” to avoid connection with Oscar Wilde and moved to Switzerland. Wilde and his wife were never officially divorced, but she made it clear that they no longer had a relationship.
Wilde spent a few of his last seven months alive in Sicily, where he had an affair with a fifteen-year-old boy named Giuseppe Loverde. Widle continued to travel after that and died in France at the age of 46 from meningitis, alone and penniless.
Final Notes and Clarifications
Trials at this time in England for homosexuality were incredibly rare, and even when they did happen, it was mostly to condemn prostitution rings and pedophilia. Victorian society, while by no means as progressive as society is today, was not quite as homophobic as it might seem. Homosexual relationships were certainly looked down on by society, but these relationships were rarely brought to court.
A more accurate statement about what Wilde was actually tried for might be that Victorian society thought it was highly inappropriate that he was having numerous sexual encounters with young male prostitutes and teenage boys. It is likely that if all of Wilde’s sexual partners had been his own age and societal rank, despite them being men, the law would not have been as harsh on Wilde.
After the trials, public sentiment toward gay men became much more aggressive and hateful because people assumed that all gay men were predatory and exploited teenage boys. It became extremely suspect for men to have close relationships with each other and to appear effeminate in either gestures or fashion. Suddenly, social life became much more dangerous for men because almost anyone was in danger of being accused of violating the law and sentenced to the same fate as Oscar Wilde.
It took several decades, and there was still much to reform, but things began to improve for the queer community in England. By 1967, all laws against homosexual relationships between two consenting adults were officially decriminalized. And in 2014, over a century following the trials of Oscar Wilde, gay marriage was finally legalized in the United Kingdom.
Oscar Wilde was an anomaly and certainly does not reflect the queer community at large. There were other queer authors during the Victorian era who have been overshadowed by a great name and its accompanying scandal. Grooming and pedophilia are worthy of condemnation, and it is important to separate the art from the artist.
While it is dispiriting to discover the full extent of Oscar Wilde’s crimes, his wonderful words remain inspiring for numerous artists today. As soon as they were published, Wilde’s works were no longer his alone. Now those words belong to a wider audience who can use them to dream about whatever they want.
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