Thursday, December 2, 2010

Oscar Wilde: Trials and Imprisonment

His Wife’s Ignorance of His Main Defect



Although Oscar Wilde and his wife Constance had drifted far apart by the beginning of 1895, they were outwardly still on affectionate terms. Strangely enough, in view of what was to come, the first estrangement between them was caused by Wilde’s friendship with a woman. Although this friendship caused a heated quarrel between Wilde and Constance, she soon forgave him. But Constance was completely unaware of the main defect* in his nature, and when it was made known to her she was simply bewildered and incredulous.



His Introduction to a Pimp


The trials of Oscar Wilde on charges of homosexuality and the imprisonment that he underwent as a consequence constitute. a most tragic episode in the life of a highly gifted man who had become a social celebrity but who had also earned a lot of notoriety on account of his flambuoyant** and fantastic manner of dressing and on account of his sexual misdemeanours. It was in the late eighties that he became a practising homosexual. He bad been visiting the residence of a man called Alfred Taylor who lived just behind Westminster Abbey in London. Taylor was a pleasant and cultured fellow, who happened also to be a pimp. Taylor undoubtedly introduced several young men to Wilde- who started taking them to expensive places like the Savoy Hotel. Some of Wilde’s old acquaintances who had previously been proud of knowing him now began to cold-shoulder him on account of the rumours that began to gain currency regarding Wilde’s homosexual relationship with those young men. Occasionally Wilde’s well-wishers remonstrated with him, but Wilde paid little heed to them. As it turned out, one of Wilde’s closest friends, Robert Ross, also proved to be a pederast*.






His Introduction to Douglas, the Son of Queensberry


It was an unfortunate moment for Wilde when, in 1891, be was introduced to Alfred Douglas, the third son of the Marquis of Queensberry. Wilde and Douglas almost instantaneously felt attracted to each other. Douglas was fascinated by Wilde’s conversation, while Wilde was fascinated by Douglas’s personal appearance and aristocratic parentage. The acquaintance thus begun ripened rapidly into friendship, and in time became an infatuation on both sides. Douglas was an aristocrat, and Wilde had a great regard for the aristocracy ; Douglas was a budding poet, and Wilde loved poets ; Douglas was excessively good-looking, and Wilde worshipped physical beauty. A combination of these different qualities in Douglas lent an extraordinary glamour to Douglas, and the young man became Wilde’s ideal. In the course of the correspondence between the two, Wilde wrote to Douglas letters of extravagant devotion and admiration.


The Character of Douglas


At the time of their first meeting Douglas was aged twenty-one, and had been two years at Oxford. He lived with his mother, who had divorced his father, the Marquis of Queensberry. All Douglas’s friends called him Bosie, the nickname which his mother had given him. By nature be was generous, outspoken, loyal to his friends, a terror to his enemies, high-spirited, wilful, and independent. But he had been thoroughly spoiled by his mother whose indulgence had brought out what was worst in his character self-love, arrogance, and a violent temper.


The Scandal


The infatuation being reciprocal, Wilde and Douglas saw a great deal of each other, and when apart they corresponded regularly. For a period during their relationship there were familiarities between them, but these never went beyond the usual school-boy nonsense. They visited Paris, Florence, and Algiers together, and their friendship became a subject for discussion wherever gossip-mongers gathered together. It was also a subject for scandal, Wilde’s reputation being already impaired by the strange guests whom he entertained at the Savoy Hotel and elsewhere. The result was that Douglas’s father now appeared on the scene.


Queensberry’s Disapproval of Wilde as Douglas’s Friend


Queensberry began by telling his son that Wilde was not a fit companion for him and that their association must cease. As Douglas had already attained the age of majority, and as he had no intention of letting anyone choose his friends for him, he firmly but respectfully refused to accept the advice of his father who thereupon threatened to stop his allowance. Douglas introduced Queensberry to Wilde, and Queensberry was simply charmed by the pleasant conversation of Wilde. The result of this meeting was that Queensberry withdrew everything that he had previously said to his son against Wilde.


Queensberry’s Threats to Wilde


But the matter did not end here. Two months later, Douglas received a letter from his father, in which Queensberry again declared that, if Douglas did riot stop meeting Wilde, his allowance would be stopped. In reply, Douglas questioned his father’s right to interfere and refused firmly to obey him. The allowance was stopped, and the correspondence between father and son became extremely bitter and acrimonious. Queensberry now openly vowed vengeance against Wilde, and went about defaming Wilde’s character and threatening to shoot, thrash, assault, ruin, disgrace, or otherwise incommode him.


A Confrontation Between Queensberry sod’ Wilde


Queensberry was now, determined to humiliate Wilde publicly, and terminate Wilde’s friendship with Bosie. Since Bosie was not in the least scared of his father’s threats, Queensberry took a professional fighter with him, and paid a call at Tite Street where Wilde lived. There was an angry confrontation between Queensberry and Wilde. The two men afterwards gave different versions of the confrontation. According to Queensberry, Wilde showed what a coward he was. But, according to Wilde, he told Queensberry that whatever the Queensberry rules might be, the Oscar Wilde rule was to shoot at sight, and that he had turned the furious father out of his house, first telling his servant that the Marquis of Queensberry was “the most infamous brute in London, and must never again be admitted.”


Queensberry’s Attempt to Create a Disturbance in the Theatre


The reputation that Wilde had made for himself by his plays was more than the Marquis could tolerate. The Marquis had, in the past, created a disturbance in a theatre where a play was believed to have ridiculed atheists. The Marquis had thrown a bunch of vegetables on to the stage, and then addressed the audience. Now he planned to disturb the performance of Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, in the same way. A friend warned Wilde, and the theatre staff were able to stop Queensberry at the entrance and refuse him admission. But the threat of harassment seemed to be a nuisance which Wilde could not endure. He was at the peak of his fame at this time, and his plays were at last providing him with enough income to enable him to live luxuriously. Any challenge to his position at this time therefore seemed to him something extremely nasty.


A Card With Insulting Words on It


Having been deprived of the opportunity to create a disturbance in the theatre, the Marquis went to the Albemarle Club of which Wilde was a member. There the Marquis left his card with the following words written on it in his own handwriting : “To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite.” (“Somdomite” was a mis-spelling of “sodomite”). The porter put the card in an envelope, and ten days later handed it to Wilde when the latter visited the club. On reading the words on the card, Wilde got furious and immediately sent for his friend, Robert Ross.


Queensberry’s Arrest


The result of the discussion between Wilde and Ross was a decision to take legal action against Queensberry. Douglas (or Bosie), seeing a chance to have his hateful father imprisoned for criminal libel, fully supported the decision to take legal action. A solicitor by the name of Charles Humphreys was engaged for the purpose. On the Ist March, 1895 Wilde applied for a warrant against the Marquis of Queensberry. A day later, Bosie had the satisfaction of seeing his father arrested and brought before a magistrate at the Marlborough Street Police Court.


Wilde’s Hope of Success in the Case


At the preliminary hearings it became clear that Queensberry had no evidence to put forward in support of his allegation except, some of the indiscreet letters which Wilde had written to Bosie and some of the implications of Wilde’s works. Elated with the prospect of success, Wilde and Bosie went to Monte Carlo where they squandered money which they had borrowed for their legal expenses. But Queensberry wasted no time in such follies. He engaged Sir George Lewis to act on his behalf, and Lewis briefed Edward Carson to appear in court for Queensberry’s defence. On the other side Humphreys had briefed Sir Edward Clarke who knew nothing about the homosexual underworld and who thought that he was appearing for an innocent man who had been horribly libelled.


Investigations By Private Detectives


While Wilde and Bosie gambled at Monte Carlo, Queensberry engaged private detectives to investigate the past activities of Wilde in the homosexual world. The investigations led to Alfred Taylor’s rooms, and suddenly Queensberry found a whole crowd of fellows who were prepared to provide evidence of Wilde’s secret life.


Wilde Cross-Examined in the Court


The trial of the Marquis of Queensberry opened at the Old Bailey* on the 3rd April, 1895. Wilde was almost his own sole witness, and the greater part of the proceedings was taken up with his cross-examination by Carson. At first Wilde fared rather badly during the cross-examination, but soon he recovered his confidence and his wit, and began to delight his friends in the public gallery’ with the smart answers he gave. However, on the second day of the cross-examination, Carson asked Wilde some disconcerting questions about the young men with whom he had been associating and who were named by Carson. When Wilde left the witness-box that day, it was clear that he had lost his case. When Carson stated that the young men whom he had named were willing to appear in the court and give evidence to support the charge of sodomy against Wilde, Clarke advised Wilde that the case must be abandoned before this could be done. Clarke urged Wilde to leave the country immediately, in any case before criminal proceedings were started against him. Wilde had a day in which to leave the country. He could have preserved himself by promptly fleeing to France. Instead, he sat in a hotel with Ross and Bosie, drinking and wondering what had gone wrong.


Queensberry “Not Guilty”––The Arrest of Wilde


On the 3rd April, Sir Edward Clarke withdrew from the case, and a formal verdict of “Not Guilty” was returned in Queensberry’s favour. From that point the real disaster began. Queensberry became the hero of the hour. At the instigation of the solicitors acting for Queensberry, the papers in the case which had just ended were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions and no time was wasted. That evening the police called at the Cadogan Hotel where Wilde had a room, and arrested him. He was taken to Bow Street and formally charged under a section of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 and put into a cell. Next day, he was taken to Holloway Gaol. He was not granted bail. If he had been released on bail, he would have got a chance to prepare his defence or at least show the extent to which the evidence against him had been fabricated.


The Trial and the Sentence of Imprisonment


Three weeks after Wilde’s arrest, his trial began at the Old Bailey, where he stood in the same dock as an accused where Queensberry bad stood not long before. During those three weeks, he was declared a bankrupt as he could not pay the costs of litigation claimed by Queensberry. His belongings in the house in Tite Street were sold by public auction. The trial started on the 26th April, 1895 and lasted five days at the end of which the jury disagreed among themselves. So the whole ugly business had to be gone through again, about three weeks later. Although again refused bail at first, it was later granted. The second trial, started on the 20th May, 1895 at the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Wills and a jury of twelve men. It was a dreary repetition of the first trial and continued for six days. The jury returned a verdict of “guilty”, and the judge sentenced the accused to rigorous. imprisonment for two years, with the following words : “It is no use for me to address you. People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame. The sentence of the Court is that you be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for two years.”


Petitions Ignored


The mental torture that Wilde must have suffered as a consequence of these happenings cannot be described. He had been deprived of everything that had made life bearable to him. From Reading Gaol where he spent most of his imprisonment, ho addressed three petitions praying to have his sentence reduced, but they met with no response.

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