The Mysteries of Oscar Wilde
A century after he died, Oscar Wilde has reached unprecendented heights of popularity. Recently commemorated with a window in Westminster Abbey, his plays long established as a staple of modern stage and film, Wilde has become a secular icon. His life is endlessly replayed in books, films and on television while his wit is re-cycled in anthologies and on bookmarks – vindication indeed for a man who once said ‘There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’
Yet though Wilde lived his life in a blaze of self-generated publicity, the causes of his catastrophic fall are surrounded by mystery. The events of his trials, imprisonment and early death have been exhaustively recreated in film and plays. He himself chronicled his disastrous relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas – ‘Bosie’ – in the prison letter later published as De Profundis. Since his death writers of the calibre of H.
Montgomery Hyde and Richard Ellman have described Wilde’s fall in abundant detail. But as Wilde himself commented, truth is rarely pure and never simple. The familiar tale of a glittering talent brought down by the actions of the Marquess of Queensberry and a homophobic government is untenable. Wilde created his own downfall by suing the Marquess for criminal libel, an action that some have seen as a deliberate act of self-destruction – ‘a long and lovely suicide’, for at least one writer. Yet there was a cynical rationale behind Wilde’s decision to sue Queensbury. He sought to have the Scarlet Marquess imprisoned to stop allegations about his sexuality. This was a high-risk strategy with disastrous consequences.
Wilde’s initial action had a reckless logic, but his actions as his gamble went disastrously wrong seem inexplicable. Despite being warned by close friends that he would lose, he staggered, as he put it in De Profundis, ‘as an ox into the shambles’. He repeatedly refused to flee to safety while he had the chance to do so. Strangest of all, he claimed in De Profundis, that ‘the sins of another were being laid to my account’, and that he could have ‘saved myself at his expense, not from shame indeed, but from imprisonment’. Yet what Wilde meant by this has never been properly scrutinised. The mysteries surrounding the fall of Wilde start with the notorious calling card which Queensberry left at Oscar Wilde’s club on February 18th, 1895, inscribed ‘To Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite’ (sic). This famous card was the culmination of a savage battle between the Marquess and his son Alfred into which Wilde was drawn. Queensberry was monomaniac over any cause which annoyed him, and when he suspected a homosexual relationship he became a man possessed. He was determined to destroy Bosie’s relationship with Wilde. Bosie was equally determined that he would not. Wilde was caught in the crossfire.
The quarrel rose to fever pitch in the autumn of 1894, despite which Wilde finished the most sparkling of his comedies, The Importance of Being Earnest. When this opened triumphantly on February 14th, 1895, it joined An Ideal Husband in playing to packed houses. Wilde knew, however, that Queensberry was plotting against him. The Marquess planned to disrupt the opening night with rotten vegetables to publicise his accusations over Wilde’s sexuality, an eventuality the theatre pre-empted by banning Queensberry and having police posted at the doors to keep him out. Queensberry spent three hours prowling round the building, ‘gibbering like a monstrous ape’ as Wilde later recalled, before retiring frustrated. Four days later, Queensberry left his card at Wilde’s club.
It is a mystery why Wilde took this crude provocation seriously. The famous scandal lawyer George Lewis later said that if he had been approached by Wilde he would have advised him to tear up the card and avoid giving Queensberry the legal fight he wanted.
When Wilde read the card, his first inclination was to run away to Paris where he could hide. He claimed he could not take this sensible course because of a lack of ready cash. He had been staying in a hotel during the rehearsals and owed £140, the hotel refusing to release his luggage until the bill was paid. Wilde felt himself to be trapped and stayed. Yet why a playwright as successful as he could not borrow £140 remains a mystery. He was now desperate to end Queensberry’s attentions and allowed himself to be persuaded – largely by Bosie – to sue for criminal libel. On March 1st, he went to a solicitor, solemnly swore that there was no truth in Queensberry’s allegations and initiated a private prosecution. Queensberry was delighted.
Wilde and Douglas gambled on having Queensberry imprisoned. They calculated that the Marquess had no hard evidence and based his accusations on inaccurate gossip and club-land whispers. Hence it seemed very likely that he could be successfully prosecuted. They were not alone in thinking this. When Queensberry’s solicitor, Charles Russell, took the brief to Edward Carson QC, Carson rejected it. He calculated there was no real evidence to justify Queensberry’s accusations. The most obvious reason why Oscar Wilde sued for libel is therefore the simplest one – he thought he would win. After Queensberry’s arrest Oscar and Bosie took themselves off to Monte Carlo without a care in the world.
But while they were away, their problems mounted. Charles Russell used private detectives to investigate Wilde’s activities. He had been astonishingly indiscreet in cruising the gay underworld of central London, and Russell’s detectives rapidly uncovered substantial evidence of gross indecency. Carson now sensed victory and accepted the brief. Oscar Wilde received the news that his former classmate was to prosecute him with the flippant quip ‘No doubt he will perform his task with the added bitterness of an old friend’.
Wilde could not take his situation seriously, but some of his friends did. Frank Harris, an experienced journalist, took it upon himself to make discreet enquiries while Wilde was away. Harris, amazingly, did not think Wilde was a practising homosexual. Nevertheless, his soundings convinced him that Wilde would lose the case. Contacts in the Public Prosecutors’ Office told him ominously that they believed Wilde to be guilty. This made a state prosecution inevitable if Wilde’s action failed. Harris and George Bernard Shaw met with Oscar Wilde in the Cafe Royale on his return from France, and told him the bad news. Harris argued that there was no chance of successfully prosecuting Queensberry. Wilde should therefore escape to Paris, taking his family and telling the press that he had abandoned the action because he could not get a fair trial in London. His arguments had almost convinced Wilde when Bosie Douglas joined the conversation. To Harris’s astonishment, he screamed that Harris was no friend of Wilde’s and stormed out of the restaurant. Harris was even more taken aback when Wilde rose and went after Bosie, saying ‘It is not friendly, Frank. It really is not friendly!’ Wilde’s reaction appeared inexplicable.
Bosie was convinced that he held a trump card because he would give evidence that his father was a monster. Yet this belief was legally unsound, for character evidence was inadmissible in a libel action. Belief in victory is even more mysterious because both Oscar and Bosie had seen the Plea of Justification which Queensberry’s lawyers had filed, containing hard evidence against Wilde. This slashed the odds against Queensberry and made flight the only rational option. But flight would mean leaving Bosie and ending Wilde’s glittering life in London, with only the prospect of the fitful life of the exile. Instead Wilde fell back on the hope that the evidence would not turn up in court, and that with his golden tongue he could win over the jury.
During the trial his own counsel, Sir Edward Clarke QC, was good – but Edward Carson was better. He ground Wilde down by relentless cross-examination. By the third day, when Carson announced that he was about to put witnesses forward who would allege gross indecency with Wilde, Clarke threw in the towel. Queensberry was acquitted, as Frank Harris had predicted. The prosecution of Wilde was now inevitable.
His legal team had offered to keep the case going to allow him time to get the boat train to France. Now his friends urgently counselled him to flee. Robert Ross urged him to leave; his wife, devastated by the turn of events, told Ross she hoped her husband would go abroad, and another close friend, Reggie Turner, pleaded with Wilde to go. The magistrate at Bow Street considering the documents of the libel case did not issue the warrant till 5pm, taking long enough for Wilde to have caught the boat train. He did not move, however, and police arriving at the Cadogan Hotel shortly after six arrested him.
Wilde had spurned three chances to escape, on each occasion facing graver and graver dangers. He now faced a criminal prosecution with the odds loaded against him. He was not granted bail and the press whipped up hysteria against him. His friends, seeing the dangers, left for the continent for their own safety. Wilde was charged with gross indecency and considerable evidence was laid against him. Three rent boys, Alfred Wood, Charles Parker and Fred Atkins, swore that misconduct had taken place with Wilde. Their evidence was tainted, as they were provided with immunity from prosecution in return for testifying. The evidence of Edward Shelley, a friend who had turned against Wilde, was also suspect. But the prosecution was able to call on two hotel workers who swore they saw Wilde in bed with a young man at the Savoy hotel. This testimony was untainted and lay heavily in the balance against Wilde.
Nevertheless, the evidence was far from conclusive, and that of Atkins and Shelley collapsed in court.Wilde hoped for acquittal, particularly as Clarke was still willing to defend him. However, shortly after Wilde faced his prosecutors at the Old Bailey for the first time, Bosie telegraphed from France offering evidence which would help to acquit Oscar, though it would incriminate himself. This offer was brusquely rejected by Wilde’s solicitors, who told him that his intervention was ‘most improper’ and could ‘only have the effect of rendering Sir Edward’s task still harder than it is already’. Clarke was attempting, with some success, to cast doubt on the prosecution evidence. He succeeded to the extent that the jury in Wilde’s first trial could not agree on a verdict. He did not want Bosie proving that any of the evidence was valid, even if he showed that the alleged indecency did not involve Wilde. Such a development might convince the jury that both Wilde and Douglas were guilty.
The nature of the evidence Bosie wanted to give is the heart of the mystery surrounding Wilde’s conviction and his claim in De Profundis that he was a decoy for another. Commentators on Wilde’s fall have skirted round the issue. Yet Wilde lifted the veil to his closest confidante at the time, Frank Harris, in the brief interval between his first and second trials. While Oscar was out on bail, Harris took him to dinner to plan defence strategy. Harris was convinced that the rent boys and Shelley could be discredited. The problem was the hotel workers at the Savoy. Could they be discredited in their turn? Long after Oscar Wilde’s death, Harris recalled the contents of their conversation. Wilde claimed ‘the chambermaids’ evidence is wrong. They are mistaken. It was not me they spoke about at the Savoy Hotel’. It was in fact Bosie. He had entertained a rent boy overnight, and when Oscar had gone to see him that morning the chambermaids had seen them together and concluded that the evidence – soiled sheets and the like – applied to Wilde.
Harris saw this as the escape route. He proposed drawing plans of the hotel rooms to demonstrate that it was Bosie whose sheets had been soiled and not Oscar’s. However, Wilde resolutely forbade him to do this: querying the evidence of the servants would expose Bosie to prosecution. Harris now saw that there was no chance of acquittal. This became abundantly clear when Wilde admitted, to Harris’s amazement, that in fact he was a practising homosexual.
Harris immediately advised Wilde to flee England. Wilde refused, and none of Harris’s arguments weakened his resolve. Harris was so shocked by Wilde’s views that he barely understand the real reason Wilde had for facing the music – to defend Bosie.
Wilde could never reveal this. Writing to Bosie, he insisted that he could not stand a hunted life and a dishonoured name, and even thought he had ‘a good chance of being acquitted’ at the second trial. Clearly he was trying to rationalise the consequences of his failure to go into exile. By rejecting Frank Harris’s plans to spirit him away, he had in fact lost his last chance of genuine freedom. The government was determined that this trial would end in conviction. Queensberry had been spreading rumours about homosexual intrigues in the Liberal Party involving the Prime Minister, Rosebery. One of Oscar’s young men, Maurice Schwabe, was the nephew-in-law of Sir Frank Lockwood, the Solicitor General. Lockwood took over the prosecution knowing that if he failed, the government and he himself would suffer a backlash. Once Wilde had surrendered his bail and was in the dock, prison could be his only fate.
And so it proved. Wilde was convicted on May 25th, 1895, and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. He had already been bankrupted by Queensberry. Now the sentence made him a pariah and broke his health. His literary works were removed from theatres and bookshops. When he was released, he went straight to the continent where he lived a life of aimless penury, till he died, prematurely aged, on November 30th, 1900.
It is clear that the catastrophe which befell Wilde was caused initially by his foolishness in seeking to convict Queensberry for libel. Wilde would have been wise to tear up Queensberry’s card or go into voluntary exile on the continent. Either course of actions would have been more sensible than what he did. But exile would not have ended Queensberry’s campaign of persecution unless Wilde had ended his relationship with Bosie Douglas. This he was wholly unable to do. Once he had taken the high risk decision to sue the Marquess, he ran the risk of exposing Bosie to the consequences. Ultimately Wilde chose to sacrifice himself in order to protect Bosie, even when Bosie was prepared to reveal what had gone on in the Savoy Hotel.
The mystery of Wilde’s behaviour in entering a battle he could not win and then failing to extricate himself is accounted for by his desire to save Bosie from prison and disgrace. It was Bosie’s sins which were being laid to Oscar’s account at the trials. He paid a terrible price for protecting his lover. It is a savage paradox that the most intensively reported trials for gross indecency in British history, involving the most visible homosexual of modern times, left behind mysteries which remained impenetrable for over a century.
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