Monday 9 September 2013

Oscar Wilde - A Libel Trial of Woe

Oscar Wilde with Lord Alfred Douglas 'Bosie'

In the summer of 1891, a passionate love affair began between two men, that scandalised society and ended the career, and some might say, the life, of one history's greatest literary geniuses.

Oscar Wilde

The magnificent Oscar Wilde, was by then 38, an established author,  and a renowned wit - the most sought after guest at every dinner party.  A flamboyant character,  he may not have been the full on 'Lord Byron - Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know', but he was perhaps a cheekier, some might say, more eloquent version - a linguist who could cram into a few words, that which the rest of us dare not say out loud - even if we could. His humour was risque, his lifestyle questionable, but this only enhanced his popularity, until that was, at the height of his fame he became locked in a legal battle, that no-one could realistically win.    

The whole saga began in the summer of 1891 when Oscar met the vivacious and strikingly handsome 22 year old Lord Alfred Douglas - Bosie, as he was affectionately known. It led to a passionate and tumultuous relationship between the pair, that would wreck the author's life and send waves of panic through the establishment.  Oscar Wilde's downfall began with a libel trial that would send shivers down the spines of potential libel claimants for evermore. 

Lord Alfred Douglas 'Bosie'

Bosie was the youngest son of the Marquess of Queensberry, yes he of the Queensberry boxing rules. The Marquess was one of the old establishment, a stern, angry man who had recently lost his eldest son and heir Francis, to suspected suicide.  There were rumours of an alleged homosexual affair between Francis and the then Prime Minister Lord Rosebery, when he had been Foreign Secretary.  Lord Queensberry was a melting pot of rage and his youngest son, Bosie's relationship with Oscar Wilde incensed him. 

The Marquess of Queensbury

From what we have have seen so far of this poisonous little tale, homosexuality was pretty rife among politicians and the landed gentry at that time.  But, like the poor dying of hunger, it was a taboo subject - something you didn't talk about at the dinner table. From what I can see and from the historical research I have done (Black Lace novels), the ruling classes were pretty much up to all sorts - as long as it didn't scare, or indeed involve, the horses.

The golden couple of the age, Oscar and Bosie, were a breath of fresh air in Victorian London.  They crossed barriers of good taste and propriety and encouraged others to do the same. It was all jolly good fun.  The saucy sniggers became full blown guffaws, corsets were unbuttoned and closet doors were flying open. Society was changing.  
Oscar strode the world's stage

'This angered the workhouse master, and he swore by all the Gods'*. Lord Queensberry was very angry indeed that his son was flaunting his unconventional relationship all around town.  He was determined to have revenge on Oscar Wilde, no matter what.  Thus began Lord Queensbury's campaign to wreck Oscar Wilde's life. The final straw for Oscar came when Lord Queensbury left a calling card with a hotel porter, accusing Oscar of 'posing as a sodomite'. Its meaning is open to interpretation, but in any event, the devastating evidence presented by the Defence during the libel trial rendered word games unnecessary.   

Why did Oscar go ahead with his libel trial knowing that so much could be brought against him?  Perhaps he felt he had no choice. The Marquess of Queensberry was never going to end his vendetta. In issuing his libel writ, perhaps he thought that his powerful rhetoric would win the day, and that the society he had charmed and enlightened would stand by him. Sadly, he was soon to discover that his meteoric rise to the highest echelons of society could only be matched by his catastrophic fall from grace.  When there is a threat to the establishment, they quickly close ranks.  You wont find any spontaneous choruses of 'Consider Yourself One of Us' in any Jane Austen ball rooms. 

As the great and good condemned homosexuality from the pulpits, Oscar Wilde served two years hard labour.  His fortune lost and any new found liberal attitudes towards sex had been stamped out. Sulky aristos climbed back into their wardrobes to read about dashing highwaymen and their wives resumed their tut tutting. Considerably more of God's little creatures were shot and torn to shreds to the shouts of 'tally ho', while the servants were made to pray more and work harder. I expect sales of flogging gear went up. 

Oscar Wilde became the martyr for their sins. He was the sacrifice they were willing to make in order to maintain the status quo. If they were seen to punish a sexual deviant, they couldn't possibly be guilty of it themselves. The only thing they lacked was a crucifix.   

I do not know why Oscar Wilde pursued his case to Court. He was indeed guilty of much he was accused of and he was guilty too, of believing that others could see the world as he saw it.  He may even have been naive, or perhaps brave, enough to think he could change public opinion, and perhaps even the laws on homosexuality.  He began by defending himself confidently, eloquently telling the world about the love that dare not speak its name.  But by the end, he was defeated.  The civil trial led to criminal trials [homosexuality was illegal] and a number of rent boys, were only too willing to appear for the Defence. Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour, his health was destroyed and he died far too young.   

The love that dare not speak its name

Perhaps love had driven him insane, who knows, maybe he was the Irish upstart who held a mirror up to the shallowness of the ruling classes.  It reflected their own hedonism, and it was held by someone who knew secrets about them. Perhaps the world did for a moment, tilt a little towards liberalism, but the influence of the sombre old Queen and her long dead dictatorial husband, brought society back to its rigid, ordered, Apollonian ideology, a society where there was no place for non conformists. Homosexuality clearly flew in the face of the accepted family values espoused by the glorious Regina, the aged Queen who refused to acknowledge lesbianism on that grounds that women wouldn't do that. Homosexual men did not fare so well.  They lived in fear of being blackmailed and caste out of society. Victorian values were firmly established during those years, and even now, sentimental old tories smile with fondness at the idea of restoring them. 

Oscar's libel trial was ill advised. Perhaps his passion had driven him into the realms of megalomania, a common trait in geniuses, he was not listening to the sound advice of his friends. He knew he was right to complain about Lord Queensbury's harrassment of him but in claiming libel he was putting himself in the dock.  

*Christmas Day in the Workhouse - Author unknown.    

1 comment:

  1. Good article Linda.

    It's great to see you on Facebook.

    Kath (AOL/YGL)