Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde came into this world in Dublin in October 1854. After a stellar success at the universities in Dublin and Oxford, he moved to London. With his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation, Wilde quickly became one of the best-known personalities of his day, much sought after at soirées given by the great and the good. Following a brilliantly successful lecture tour of the USA and some time in Paris, he married and had two sons. He spent some years writing essays and novels before turning his talents to the theatre where he enjoyed even greater success, especially with his last, "The Importance of Being Earnest".
Even if you have not seen the play, almost certainly you will have seen a clip from the 1952 movie with the incomparable Dame Edith Evans uttering arguably Wilde's most immortal line, "A handbag?" in the middle of the inquisition scene. Youtube has withdrawn the short video excerpt. You can either see the entire movie or hear the line in this audio excerpt. Jack Worthing, played by the very bisexual Michael Redgrave (inaccurately claimed on Youtube and in the visuals to be John Gielgud), father of the English actress Dame Vanessa Redgrave, is being asked about his parents. The famous line occurs at 4’18”
Another of Wilde's epigrams ends, "A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies." It was to prove prophetic. In 1886 aged 32 he was seduced by a 17-year old Canadian Robert Ross and they entered into an intense relationship. Their friendship was to last for the rest of Wilde's life, but five years later another young gay friend was to sow the seeds of his downfall. He was introduced to the dissolute, bored, insolent young Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie. They started a relationship and soon Bosie was to become the love of his life. Through his connections, Bosie introduced Wilde to London's low life and the male brothels which he soon began to frequent.
Bosie's father was the Marquis of Queensbury, a man's man who had drawn up the Queensberry rules used in the sport of boxing. Queensberry was no paragon of virtue. Indeed he was loathed by many of his fellow peers. His behaviour was often outrageous and he treated his wives abysmally. His second marriage was annulled when his wife claimed he was impotent and had a deformed penis!
Homosexuality was already anathema to Queensberry. He was certainly aware of the rumours of an affair between his eldest son and heir, Francis, and the Prime Minster, the Earl of Roseberry. Francis died unmarried and without offspring. Allegedly he had committed suicide although his death was recorded as a “shooting accident”.
Queensberry was equally well aware of Wilde's gay reputation and was incensed on learning of his third son’s relationship. Unable to find Wilde when trying to warn him never to see his son again, he left his name card at Wilde's club, adding "For Oscar Wilde, ponce and somdomite (sic)."
Wilde should have let the matter pass if only because so few would actually have seen it. But proud and vain as he was, he sued Queensberry for libel. He lost. Within hours Queensberry counter-sued - and won. It had been the greatest gay scandal of the 19th century.
In court a succession of private detectives hired by Queensberry exposed all the detail of Wilde's promiscuity with young men. Other explicit documents prepared by Queensberry’s lawyers only came to light in 2001 when they were offered up for auction by a private collector at Christie’s. These include testimony from chambermaids in hotels, valets and bellboys. They illustrate not only the range of Wilde’s obsession particularly with young teenage boys but also his ridiculously carefree attitude bordering on arrogance to this behaviour being witnessed by others. Homosexuality was far from uncommon in Victorian England. As long as it was kept very much under the surface, though, even the police could do little about it despite sodomy being strictly illegal.
London’s prestigious Savoy Hotel was a favourite rendezvous for Wilde and his young rent boys. Margaret Cotta, a chambermaid at the hotel, provided evidence of a prolonged stay at the hotel by Wilde and Bosie. One day she found a “common boy, rough looking, about 14 years of age” in Wilde’s bed, the sheets of which “were in a most disgusting state with traces of vaseline, soil and semen.” Linen from their suite was regularly kept apart from other hotel linen and washed separately. Ms. Cotta also reported that page boys delivering letters would be kissed openly on the mouth and tipped two shillings and sixpence, a huge amount in those days.
Interestingly, more scandalous to the jury was less the fact that the boys he had sex with were under age and that the very act was against the law. It was that they were uneducated street boys rather than boys from his own social standing! Equally damning was Wilde’s own statement about 16-year old Walter Grainger, a servant in the Oxford house where Wilde was staying. Wilde enticed Grainger into his bed for a series of sexual encounters after which he threatened the boy with very serious trouble if he was ever to tell anyone. When asked in court if he had ever kissed Grainger, Wilde all but condemned himself by saying, “Oh no, never in my life, he was a particularly plain boy.” The implication was clear to the jury. Had he been handsome, Wilde would happily have kissed him.
During much of his time with Bosie, Wilde’s two sons were looked after by a governess, Gertrude Simmons. At the trial she reported finding a stupidly discarded letter from Bosie to Wilde. It was signed “your own darling boy to do what you like with.”
With such a withering wealth of evidence against him, Wilde’s defence had stood no chance. He was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labour. Distressed that none of his society friends had spoken out in his defence, we are reminded that he had written at the height of his fame, “true friends stab you in the front!”
Wilde’s place in society forever lost, on his release he moved to exile first in Italy and later in France. It is often thought that he lived out the rest of his short life in a state of depressed humiliation. The facts do not bear this out. He still enjoyed the hospitality of rich friends and the easy availability of boys for his sexual pleasure. In Sicily he struck up a friendship with 15-year old Giuseppe Loverde. Wilde wrote that Bosie, who was with him for part of his time in Italy, was devoted to “a dreadful little ruffian aged 14.”
Bosie could – and perhaps should – also have been prosecuted as there was plenty of evidence against him. But he was from the upper echelon of the upper classes and the aristocracy still tended to look after their own. As Charles Gill, the prosecuting counsel, wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions,
“Having regard to the fact that Douglas was an undergraduate at Oxford when Wilde made his acquaintance, the difference in their ages and the strong influence that Wilde has obviously exercised over Douglas since that time, I think that Douglas, if guilty, may fairly be regarded as one of Wilde’s victims”
Queensberry ensured that his son was out of the country during the trial and so could not be summoned as a witness.
Later in life, Bosie was also to fall foul of the libel laws. By then married to a bixexual heiress, in 1924 he wrote a magazine article libeling Winston Churchill for falsifying reports during the First World War. He spent six months in jail. He died twenty years later in virtual poverty, his inheritance long since gone
Not long after arriving in Paris, Oscar Wilde died aged 46, the faithful Robert Ross at his side. His remains were eventually interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Here he was in the company of such luminaries as authors Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust, artists Seurat, Pissarro and Corot, composers Chopin, Rossini and Bizet, pop singer Jim Morrison of The Doors, and perhaps most appropriately of all, the Irish revolutionary William Lawless. Wilde may not have fomented revolution, but through his manners, his openness and his writing he came to present a complex problem for the establishment of the day. By failing to play the charade of their sexual rules, he ensured his own downfall. The establishment inevitably won. But it is Wilde’s fame that continues to live on as the others who played parts in the drama of his life have faded into obscurity.
Given the gravity of his many offenses against young teenage boys, not all willing rent, it can sometimes be hard to explain why Wilde has been elevated to martyr status in the history of the gay movement. But to condemn him is equally difficult if only because it is impossible for us to place ourselves in the times in which he lived. In the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign, children as young as eight worked as chimney sweeps and in factories. Older children as young as 14 were legally engaged to work in coal mines for 10 ½ hours each day. All that would be anathema today, as would sex with minors which was far from uncommon underneath the veil of Victorian surface morality.
Charles Dickens, the best-loved author of Victorian times who carefully crafted his image as the perfect father and husband, not only abandoned his wife after ten children and 20 years of marriage, it later transpired he had a mistress who had borne him a son. Dickens - and no doubt many others – laid low as gossip threatened to surface and successfully managed to contain the scandal. Unlike Wilde, Dickens abided by society’s rules.
In 2012, Wilde was in the first group to be inducted into Chicago's Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display which celebrates LGBT history and many of its personalities. Under the British government's 2017 Alan Turing Law, Wilde along with about 50,000 other men imprisoned for homosexual offences was granted a posthumous pardon.