Peacock and Scarlett Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde
As is well known, Lord Queensberry disapproved of Oscar Wilde's relationship with his second son, Lord Alfred Douglas, or ‘Bosie’ as Wilde was fond of calling him. After various failed attempts at publicly insulting Wilde, Lord Queensberry—or, the ‘Scarlett Marquess’, as he was dubbed because of his red hair—had called on 18 February 1895 at The Albermarle, Wilde’s club, and left his visiting card, with the sentence ‘To Oscar Wilde, posing as somdomite’ (sic) written on it, to be handed to him eventually. Since it was not initially placed in an envelope, anyone could read it, which turned it into some kind of a public statement. Wilde, who was away in France, did not get the card until 28 February, and decided to sue Queensberry for libel. While never accusing his son’s friend of actually being a ‘sodomite’ (i.e., a homosexual), saying he was ‘posing’ as one was equally abusive. Moreover, it referred to a criminal behaviour: under the 1885 Offences against the Persons Act, same-sex relations between male adults were punished with up to two years imprisonment with hard labour. The stakes were then high and, given the actual nature of his friendship with ‘Bosie’, Wilde could have chosen to brush the incident aside; after all, the waiter at the Albermarle had swiftly put the card in an envelope, so it had not in fact been seen by too many persons. However, and under intense pressure from Lord Alfred, who hated his father and was eager for blood, Wilde decided to bring the matter to court. The rest is history: the libel trial was a disaster, Queensberry’s accusations were more than amply proven and he was discharged. Wilde had to face a new trial on 26 April, this time as the defendant. He was found guilty under the said 1885 statute and, on 25 May, given the maximum sentence. He was imprisoned in Reading, released in 1897, immediately went away to the Continent and died in Paris in 1900, at the age of 45.
Holland, Wilde’s grandson (at the time of the trial, his wife
Constance sent their two children in Switzerland; she eventually
got divorced and changed the family name to ‘Holland’),
took an active part in preparing the British Library centenary exhibition
on his grandfather in 2000. While working on it, he came across
the complete transcript of the trials, which are published in this
book. This is of the highest value since the criminal records in
the Public Record Office contain very few details about the case
itself, not to say none. So, if only for its documentary value,
the book in itself is interesting. Moreover, the editorial work
is very good; Melvin Holland’s introduction puts the case
in its broader context, with an added personal touch, as a grandson
reflecting on a grandfather he never knew. The notes are neither
too few nor too many, they do not aim at anything more than providing
the details that are necessary to understand a name, a placename,
or an allusion in the transcript itself. The index is particularly
well-made, detailed, and allows the reader to navigate efficiently
through the book.
To the general reader, this could certainly be a ‘long’ and ‘dry’ book, and going through the 250-something pages of the confrontation between Wilde and Queensberry’s counsel, Edward Carson, could seem tiresome. Far from it. The transcript brings us right in the middle of the courtroom. Presented in their complete form, the exchanges show Wilde at times up to his usual self, a witty and brilliant speaker, sometimes more eager to entertain the audience than to woo the jury (which was certainly not to play in his favour in the Court), at other times sharp and incisive in his answers; his legendary elegance in conversation is rendered to the full. The words exchanged are unadulterated by the sensibilities of previous transcriptors—hence the frequent presence of ‘sodomy’, as opposed to ‘unnatural practices’. But we also see Wilde painting himself into many corners, especially when (in a famous passage) he dismisses the very idea of having kissed Walter Grainger, one of Lord Alfred Douglas’s servants, because he was a ‘peculiarly plain boy’, ‘very ugly’, offering a field day to Carson.
But the book is not just to be read like a Greek-style tragedy, with the hero vainly trying to curb his impending fate. It offers particularly interesting insights into the mentalities of the day as well as the homosexual ‘underworld’ that existed in Victorian times. Edward Carson (at the same time a politician of high repute and a dyed-in-the wood Unionist, while Wilde’s mother was a passionate Irish nationalist—a feat that has never, to my knowledge, been noticed and which could explain part of his attitude towards Wilde) perfectly embodies Victorian conceptions about ‘proper’ behaviour, either sexual or social, but also about art and literature. His rather long cross-examination of Wilde about the ‘sodomitical’ nature of Karl Joris Huysmans's novel A Rebours and the possibility for this book to have been an influence when Wilde was writing The Picture of Dorian Gray—a novel Carson also deems ‘sodomitical’. Carson actually uses this term quite liberally throughout the trial, even though they were of course no graphic descriptions of such acts in any of the works referred to: they were ‘sodomitcal’ in spirit, if not in deed. In 1895, sodomy was no longer the capital crime it had been until 1861, and the terms of the 1885 Act punished ‘gross indecencies between male persons’ instead; however it still retained its powerful charge. Its condemnation rested on religious principles—sodomy was a non-procreative sexual activity, thus infringing Biblical recommendations, and up to 1861, it did not matter whether it was perpetrated on a man, a woman or even an animal—and, given the prevalence of religion in Victorian England, Carson no doubt wanted to use it to its maximum advantage. The jury, which composition was predominantly upper-middle-class (8 ‘gentlemen’, 1 stockbroker, 1 bank messenger, 1 butcher and 1 bootmaker), was under all probability extremely sensitive to Wilde’s lack of concern for social conventions and proprieties and, in particular, the way he could get familiarly acquainted with men much younger than himself and in social positions much lower than his own.
Carson insisted regularly on it, as well as on Wilde’s habit of treating them lavishly for dinner or offering them various presents or giving them money. Wilde’s line of defence was sometimes witty (‘I don’t keep a census’ , or ‘I have never asked him his age. It is rather vulgar to ask people their age’ , were his replies to Carson when he asked him whether he knew a young acquaintance’s age), sometimes provocative (‘I delight in the society of people much younger than myself. I like those who may be called idle and careless. I recognise no social distinctions at all of any kind and to me youth—the mere fact of youth—is so wonderful that I would sooner talk to a young man half an hour than even be, well, cross-examined in court’: 175) and sometimes extremely risqué (‘Carson: Then, do I understand that even a young boy that you would pick up un the street would be a pleasing companion to you? Wilde: Oh, I would talk to a street Arab [i.e., a very poor person, considered as half-criminals] if he talked to me, with pleasure. Carson: And take him to your rooms? Wilde: If he interested me’: 175).
Finally, the full transcript offers a valuable insight into the homosexual (it would be an anachronism to call it ‘gay’) subculture of the time, with its rent boys, male brothels, or cross-dressing parties. The proceedings mention a case lesser known than the notorious 1870 Boulton and Park affair, when two of Wilde’s friends, Alfred Taylor and Charles Parker, were arrested in 1894 among other persons in a house in Fitzroy Square for wearing women’s clothes during what seems to have been a transvestite party (220-225). Such occurrences, as well as passages of the homosexual literature of the day, such as Sins of the Cities of the Plain Or The Recollections of a Mary-Ann (1881), suggest that this was a usual pastime among homosexuals. Police prosecution was one danger, being blackmailed another. And yet all this raises the question of the visibility of the homosexual in Victorian Britain and its tolerance. Tolerance, yes, because, as, for example, the Evening News stated it on 15 May, 1895, 'England has tolerated the man Wilde and others of this kind for too long. Before he broke the law of this country and outraged human decency he was a social pest, a centre of intellectual corruption. He was one of the high priests of a school which attacks all the wholesome, manly, simple ideals of English life, and sets up false gods of decadent culture and intellectual debauchery.'
indeed Wilde was able to lead an almost open homosexual life without
encountering any opposition, before he got himself into real trouble;
yet he was certainly a controversial figure and his homosexuality
was rather directly alluded to in the satirical press, such as Punch.
It has been argued (see for instance Odon Vallet) that Wilde was
in fact more severely treated than could have been expected because
Lord Queensberry was threatening to disclose the homosexual relationship
that had existed between his elder son, Lord Drumlanrig, and the
then Prime Minister, Lord Roseberry—whose name indeed springs
up in various places throughout the proceedings (216-7, 246, 250).
Queensberry, most certainly a blatant homophobe, would have been
awarded his revenge upon Wilde just to dissuade him from launching
a political scandal. A brief look at the Central Criminal Court
records show indeed that trials for gross indecency were a very
small minority of the cases tried and that heavy sentences were
an exception. Despite all its symbolic dimension for homosexual
men, Wilde’s ordeal would then have been the exception, rather
than the rule.