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On May 19, 1897, writer Oscar Wilde is released from jail after two years of hard labor. His experiences in prison were the basis for his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898).
Wilde was born and educated in Ireland. He studied at Oxford, graduated with honors in 1878, and remained in London. He became a popular society figure valued at dinner parties for his witty remarks. Embracing the late 19th century aesthetic movement, which embraced art for art’s sake, Wilde adopted the flamboyant style of a passionate poet and self-published a volume of verse in 1881. He spent the following year in the United States lecturing on poetry and art. Wilde’s dapper wardrobe and excessive devotion to art were parodied in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience in 1882.
After returning to Britain, Wilde married and had two children. In 1888, he published a collection of fairy tales he wrote for his children. Meanwhile, he wrote reviews and became editor of Women’s World. In 1891, his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published. He wrote his first play, The Duchess of Padua, the same year and wrote five more before his arrest. His most successful comedies, including The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan, are still performed today.
In 1891, the Marquess of Queensbury denounced Wilde as a homosexual. Wilde, who was involved with the marquess’ son, sued the Marquess for libel but lost the case when evidence supported the marquess’ allegations. Because homosexuality was still considered a crime in England, Wilde was arrested. Although his first trial resulted in a hung jury, a second jury sentenced him to two years of hard labor. After his release, Wilde fled to Paris and began writing again. He died of acute meningitis just three years after his release.
READ MORE: How Oscar Wilde's Libel Trial Backfired and Ruined His Life
Oscar Wilde (Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde) was an Irish playwright and poet. His earlier writing in the 1880s contains different forms. In the early 1890s, he became one of the most prevalent playwrights in London. Oscar Wilde is best known for his plays, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray , imprisonment, his criminal opinions for uncivilized offensiveness, and his death at the age of 46.
Wilde was a spokesman for aestheticism. He worked at various literary activities. He turned out to be one of the best-known personalities of his time because of his biting wit, impressive conversational skills, and showy dressing. In the late 1890s, he advanced his ideas about the authority of art in essays and dialogues. He also employed the themes of depravity, beauty, and duplicity. These themes are found in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray .
Wilde started writing drama with an opportunity to construct artistic specifics precisely. He combines these artistic specifics with the larger social themes. In 1891, he wrote Salome in French. The play was not published in England because the English stage prohibited portraying Biblical subjects. In the early 1890s, Wilde also published four comedies of society. These comedies made him one of the effective playwrights of late-Victorian England.
In 1895, Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. This play attained the height of fame and success and was widely performed on stage for a long period of time. During that time, Oscar Wilde charged the lover of his father, Marquess of Queensberry, for criminal defamation. The defamation trial made Oscar Wilde drop his charges against Marquess and caused his own arrest for indecency with men. The charge against Wilde was proved, and he was put into hard labor for two years (1895-1897).
In the last year in his prison, Wilde wrote De Profundis . It is a long letter that discusses his spiritual journey. To his early philosophy, he formed a dark counterpart to his early philosophy. After release, he went to France. In 1898, he wrote his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Oscar Wilde’s Role in Literature’s “Aesthetic Movement”
Oscar Wilde c. 1882, Photograph taken by Napoleon Sarony. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)
Walter Pater in England and Theophile Gautier in France influenced the movement with their theorizing about it. Gautier in France said:
Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless. Everything useful is ugly for it expresses a need, and the needs of men are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor, weak nature. The most useful place in the house is the lavatory.
One of the English literary exponents of the Aesthetic Movement was Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde was one of the first great celebrities who was famous for being famous. He was already a famous person before he had any literary achievements at all. He was a deliberate debunker of Victorian gravity and solemnity. He was Irish, born in Dublin in 1854. He made a great success of his studies at Trinity College, Dublin, and won a scholarship to go to Magdalen College, Oxford. When he was there, he got a first-class degree in the classics and won a Newdigate Prize for poetry. While he was at Oxford, he joined up with many aristocratic young men who helped him gain an entrée into London society.
This is a transcript from the video series Victorian Britain. Watch it now, Wondrium.
He went into London society wearing the most outrageous clothes he could find, the sort of things everybody else would wear at a costume party. He would wear clothes that were already 90 years out of date. For one period, he dressed up as Prince Rupert, the man who had been the commander of King Charles I’s cavalry forces in the English civil war of the 1640s. He was famous for wearing knee-length breeches—when they had completely gone out of fashion—and white silk stockings. In other words, he looked rather remarkable. He would have an orchid. He was madly high-spirited. Apparently, he was one of the most wonderful companions you could imagine. Nearly everybody who met him found him mesmeric, delightful to be with, witty, good-natured, and a wonderful friend to have. This kind of dandyism, especially his great talking, made him famous.
When he was only 26, he became thinly fictionalized in one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas, Patience, which came out in 1881. He is represented by the character called Bunthorne. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company which produced Gilbert and Sullivan went on tour to the United States. D’Oyly Carte himself said to Wilde, “Why don’t you come along as well? You can give some lectures on the afternoons of the evenings that we are going to perform the opera.” He said that was a great idea. So, he made this early lecture tour in his mid-twenties of the United States. Often the character Bunthorne would appear on stage, and Wilde himself would come in dressed in the same way, as a way of underlining to the theater audience that it was meant to be him.(Image: By Unknown author/Public domain)
He loved literary paradox. Consider the preface to his book, The Picture of Dorian Gray in the 1890s. It is just a series of short aphorisms, but they are all contradictory to the standard wisdom of the time. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” And, “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.” You could hardly imagine a more flagrant violation of the Dickensian idea of what literature was for.
He wrote a superb essay in 1889 called the “Decay of Lying,” and one of his characters, Vivian, talks about how you can’t find a good liar anymore and that it is no easy matter being a good liar.
People have a callous way of talking about a born liar just as they talk about a born poet, but in both cases they are wrong. Lying and poetry are arts. They require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion. As one knows the poet by his fine music, so one can recognize the liar by his rich, rhythmic utterance. In neither case will the casual inspiration of the moment suffice. Here, as elsewhere, practice must precede perfection.
It is deadpan about how to practice to become an accomplished liar.
Wilde became a significant literary figure in the early ’90s with the production and performance of a series of great plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, The Ideal Husband, and above all, The Importance of Being Earnest, which came out in 1895 and ever since has been regarded as one of the great comic masterpieces of English theater.
The most ferocious figure in the play is Lady Bracknell whose daughter, Gwendolen, Jack Worthing wants to marry. Wilde wrote a conversation between Jack Worthing and Lady Bracknell where she tries to discover whether he is truly deserving of Gwendolen’s hand in marriage. Lady Bracknell says, “Do you smoke?” and Worthing replies, “Yes, I must admit I do smoke.” She says, “I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.”
A little bit later, Lady Bracknell says:
“I have always been of the opinion that a man who decides to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?”
“I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.”
“I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.”
A little bit later, he describes how he was an orphan, found in a shopping bag in one of the London railway stations. Jack says to Lady Bracknell, “Yes, I lost both my parents.” In response, she says, “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness. Who was your father? He was evidently a man of some wealth. Was he born in what the radical papers call The Purple of Commerce, or did he rise from the ranks of the aristocracy?”—a lovely reversal of class position.Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893. (Image: By Gillman & Co – British Library Shelfmark/Public domain)
One of the reasons Wilde wrote these plays, a great burst of creativity, was because he had an expensive boyfriend. His companion was Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he called Bozie. They met in 1890 and became close friends. Bozie was being blackmailed after a series of extremely indiscreet homosexual love affairs, which was strictly illegal at the time. It was Bozie who introduced Wilde to the London underworld of gay prostitutes.
Bozie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, knew what was going on and hated Oscar Wilde bitterly, whom he regarded as perverting his son. In response, the Marquis sent a series of insulting letters to Wilde, one of which accused him of being “a posing sodomite.” In reaction, Wilde sued him for criminal libel. This is in 1895, the year The Importance of Being Earnest had come out. Wilde didn’t realize the seriousness of a prosecution of this kind. The Marquis of Queensberry hired a very high-powered legal talent, a man called Edward Carson, who later was to have a big British political career. Carson began collecting evidence from these male teenage prostitutes to find that Queensberry’s allegations could be substantiated. This trial had been going on for many days before Wilde’s counsel said to him, “You must drop this case because evidence is now accumulating which is going to lead to your conviction, not his.” Sure enough, Wilde was arrested and charged with “Gross Indecency Between Males.”
He has often been depicted by his sympathizers as a martyr. In a way, that is true, but in a way, it is not the legal system was a little bit reluctant to hold a trial of this kind and notified Wilde in advance that they were going to arrest him. Then they gave him some time to escape to continental Europe. There had been several previous cases where this had been the pattern they followed. In other words, they didn’t want to arrest him and put him on trial, but when he refused to move, essentially, they went ahead and did it.
His first trial ended in a hung jury. Again, there was a decent interval in which he was, in effect, notified “If you want to go to Europe, you may do so.” He didn’t. He stayed. The second time, he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor. He went first to Pentonville, a model prison, and then to Reading Gaol, where he wrote the poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Wilde was released from prison after two years and spent the remainder of his life living in France in exile, dying young, in 1900.
Common Questions About Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement
The Aesthetic Movement was an artistic movement in the late 19th century where artists adopted an attitude of “ art for art’s sake ” rather than art driven by socio-political themes.
Oscar Wilde is known as the father of the Aesthetic Movement as he was vocally interested only in the literary study of beauty and aesthetics. He was the first major writer to challenge classic literary structure and cause controversy for doing so.
Oscar Wilde famously wrote “ all art is quite useless ” in the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. He explained that art only attempts to create a mood and not instruct or inform any type of action or doing.
As he lay dying of meningitis, Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”
A R T L▼R K
On the 19 th of May 1897, Irish writer Oscar Wilde was released from prison after serving a two year sentence for criminal sodomy and “gross indecency”. He had to go through hard labor and major deprivation, a very problematic situation for a hedonist accustomed to his creature comforts. His experiences in prison were the basis for his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898).
In a bid to understand the reasoning behind Wilde’s imprisonment, Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003) systematically investigated all available evidence about Wilde’s amorous liaisons, his lifelong erotic attraction to men and his subsequent support of Uranianism. The latter was a 19th-century term which referred to the actions of a person of a third sex, neither entirely male, nor female, someone with “a female psyche in a male body” who is sexually attracted to men, later extended as a definition of homosexuality.
Whilst in prison, between January and March 1897 Wilde wrote a 50,000-word letter to the subject of his affections and main motive for his imprisonment, Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, which he was not allowed to send, but keep permanently. In this confessional work, Wilde examined his career to date, his exhibitionist and provocative behaviour and art in Victorian society, describing himself as one who “stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age”. Whilst condemning his lover for being vain, fickle, selfish and self-obsessed in their relationship, Wilde ultimately forgave him and assumed the blame for bringing shame to his family and almost putting his father, John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry in prison for criminal libel. Wilde also charted his spiritual journey of redemption and fulfilment through his prison reading. He realised that he should cherish the darkest of experiences, as they would feed into his writing and enrich it. The end result of this soul-searching process, De Profundis, was partially published in 1905, but in its full version only in 1962 in The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Following Wilde’s release, the two former lovers briefly reunited in August at Rouen, but stayed together only a few months, breaking up permanently due to character differences and various pressures. After Wilde’s death and Douglas’ heterosexual marriage, the latter condemned Wilde for his homosexuality, totally distancing himself from him.
Interesting research into Wilde’s experience of the hard hand of the law was conducted by Graham Robb in Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century (2005). “Flying in the face of post-1980s convention, Robb used crime statistics to suggest that Wilde’s fall was something of a flash in the pan, an aberration that did not particularly affect official views of same-sex practice. Again, this chimes with McKenna’s belief that Wilde-the-individual rather than Wilde-the-lover-of-men was targeted by the government. He reproduces the idea, most recently outlined by Michael S. Foldy, that Queensberry may have blackmailed Lord Rosebery’s government to secure a conviction against Wilde using evidence he possessed of Rosebery’s affair with his eldest son, Francis Archibald Douglas Viscount Drumlanrig).” (review by John Gardiner in History Workshop Journal, No. 58, Autumn, 2004). What a twisted family affair that was, and Wilde appeared to be the flamboyant scapegoat right in the middle of it!
Ari Adut further continues debating the subject by claiming that it was the phenomenon of scandal which brought this situation about. Although sexual practices such as Wilde’s were accepted and common knowledge even in those times, the very fact that his actions had been thrust into the public eye, forced the authorities to take legal action: “For the Victorians, the publicity of homosexuality contaminated third parties and the public sphere as a whole and was thought to yield deleterious provocative and normalizing consequences. Sanctioning instances of homosexuality would entail its publicity and thereby create a scandal. Homosexual acts committed in private were thus undersanctioned by authorities and audiences even when such acts were common knowledge. This was especially the case with elite offenders, since high status multiplied the externalities of the publicity of homosexuality. And audiences and authorities were contaminated—as well as provoked—when Wilde’s well-known homosexuality was unavoidably made public in the course of his legal ordeals. These externalities gave rise to a process of strategic interaction among those affected. During this process, the authorities were stirred to signal resolve and rectitude to the general norm audience through extraordinary zeal. The official acts, in turn, welded the already provoked norm audience against the author. Hence, the very factors that undergirded the underenforcement of homosexuality norms in Victorian England bred overenforcement once Wilde’s transgression became inescapably public.” (Ari Adut, ‘A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 111, No. 1, July 2005).
Oscar Wilde imprisoned for two years with hard labor for sodomy & “gross indecency”
“To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development,” wrote the fine master of the written word in his profound 55,000-word love letter composed for Lord Alfred Douglas from inside his cell at the notorious Reading Gaol in Berkshire, England.
“To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life” was his own belief, even though what he was experiencing at the time was a cruel and unjust two-year sentence of “hard labor, hardboard, and hard fare.” He could easily have fled to France to escape conviction. But he didn’t. He stayed right where he was to be accused of his crime, for as he once approvingly quoted his friend Wilfred Scawen Blunt, “an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.”
On May 25, 1895, the trial of the flamboyant Dublin born author, poet, and playwright at London’s Old Bailey courthouse concluded with his conviction for the crime of sodomy and gross indecency.
Oscar Wilde reclining with Poems, by Napoleon Sarony in New York in 1882. Wilde often liked to appear idle, though in fact he worked hard by the late 1880s he was a father, an editor, and a writer.
Homosexuality was a serious criminal offense and a social taboo in Britain in the 19 th century and Wilde, who was suspected to have enjoyed the “best of both worlds” when it comes to sexual orientation, was held accountable under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, specifically the Labouchere Amendment that outlawed any intimacy between men, labeling such interactions as “gross indecencies.”
“Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof, shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.”
Portrait of Oscar Wilde c.1882.
By banning “gross indecency” in general rather than specific acts of conduct, the amendment made even the most innocent, private and consensual action potentially liable for criminal prosecution, stipulates Nicholas Frankel in his book Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years.
As if it was solely intended to suppress the homosexual subculture that was ever growing in London’s West End, especially among the artistic elite.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Lord Alfred Douglas, British writers, on 1894. Colourized photo. Photo by Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images
Wilde was at his literary peak in the 1890s and had developed a strong academic bond and shared an intimate friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas was the youngest son of the ninth Marquess of Queensberry, John Sholto Douglas — an arrogant, ill-tempered, eccentric who vehemently opposed his son’s relations with Wilde, whom he regarded as a vile man. He intended to save his son from such “an evil companionship,” as he later described their relationship.
He even threatened to disown his son and “stop all money supplies” if their intimacy was not put to an end. When that didn’t work, he did everything he possibly could to damage the author’s reputation and tarnish his name.
Threatening restaurant and hotel owners with beatings if he heard that Wilde and his son were spotted together on their property was the first desperate thing he did. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last.
16 Best Oscar Wilde Quotes
There was an unexpected “friendly” visit from a prized boxer to the author’s home in Chelsea. And on February 14, 1895, Queensberry showed up in front of St. James Theatre, ranting about Wilde and his alleged shameless, perverted lifestyle.
Oscar Wilde and his male lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, before the trial, in 1894.
The Importance of Being Earnest was about to be shown for the first time, and Queensberry was disturbing everyone that came to see the show, including many prominent, influential figures from all over Europe. Wilde opted to bring charges against him for libel.
“I don’t see anything now but a criminal prosecution,” he wrote to Douglas, after his father left a calling card at the Albemarle Club with the note, “To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite [sic].” It was Wilde’s favorite club where his wife was also a member.
“My whole life seems ruined by this man,” he wrote in despair.
The next day he and Douglas went to Travers Humphreys, a solicitor who after hearing them out, filed for a warrant. Lord Queensberry was arrested on March 2nd and brought to Vine Street Police Station.
The trial at the Old Bailey began within a month or so, on April 3, 1985, with Wilde showing up in a stylish coat with a flower petal sticking out of the button-hole. His friends, including George Bernard Shaw, begged him drop the charges. They said it was a too risky endeavor, but he wouldn’t listen. And they were right. It went horribly.
Even though Sir Edward Clarke, one of the most prominent attorney’s in London, gave a grand opening statement and did everything he could to glorify his client, highlighting the gravity of the things done to him over the last couple of months, Lord Queensberry and his representative, Edward Carson, in their defense argued that their opponent had solicited 12 boys to commit sodomy between 1892 and 1894 and was liable for various acts of gross indecency.
Wilde was pulled apart during his cross-examination and was forced to withdraw the charges when the court found Queensberry’s description of him as a sodomite to be “legally justified” and “true, in fact.” His attorney advised him to do so: “I told him that it was almost impossible in view of all the circumstances to induce a jury to convict of a criminal offense a father who was endeavoring to save his son from what he believed to be an evil companionship.”
However, on April 5th, Carson presented copies to the to the court of the boys’ statements. “I hoped, and expected that he would take the opportunity of escaping from the country,” Clarke wrote, later on, fearing that Wilde would now be prosecuted under criminal charges.
Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893.
Wilde had an hour and a half at least to catch the last train to France. Allegedly the local magistrate was aware of this but made no rush in issuing a statement for his arrest. Wilde stayed, and within a few hours was arrested at London’s Cadogan Hotel on twenty-five counts of gross indecency and conspiracy to commit gross indecency.
The first criminal trial, which began on April 26, 1895, ended as a mistrial. He gave a memorable speech about “the love that dare not speak its name” to justify his relations. At the second he was found guilty of all charges and was given the “severest sentence that the law allows.”
Photograph of Oscar Wilde taken in 1882 by Napoleon Sarony.
Wilde “did not want to be a coward and a deserter” and decided “it was nobler and more beautiful to stay.” Even though he believed, as he would later write in his most memorable work De Profundis, “I have got to make everything that has happened to me, good for me,” the two years with hard labor in the harshly punitive Reading Gaol were devastating to his wellbeing.
“We know not whether laws be right, or whether laws be wrong. All we know who lie in gaol is that the walls are strong and each day is like a year, a year whose days are long… The most terrible thing about it is not that it breaks one’s heart—hearts are made to be broken—but that it turns one’s heart to stone,” he wrote upon his release in his lengthy, heartbreaking poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” It was the only thing he ever wrote after he got out and moved to Paris, where he was buried in 1900.
Personal Life and Prison Sentence
Around the same time that he was enjoying his greatest literary success, Wilde commenced an affair with a young man named Lord Alfred Douglas. On February 18, 1895, Douglas&aposs father, the Marquis of Queensberry, who had gotten wind of the affair, left a calling card at Wilde&aposs home addressed to "Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite," a misspelling of sodomite. Although Wilde&aposs homosexuality was something of an open secret, he was so outraged by Queensberry&aposs note that he sued him for libel. The decision ruined his life.
When the trial began in March, Queensberry and his lawyers presented evidence of Wilde&aposs homosexuality—homoerotic passages from his literary works, as well as his love letters to Douglas—that quickly resulted in the dismissal of Wilde&aposs libel case and his arrest on charges of "gross indecency." Wilde was convicted on May 25, 1895, and sentenced to two years in prison.
Wilde emerged from prison in 1897, physically depleted, emotionally exhausted and flat broke. He went into exile in France, where, living in cheap hotels and friends&apos apartments, he briefly reunited with Douglas. Wilde wrote very little during these last years his only notable work was a poem he completed in 1898 about his experiences in prison, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."
Final Years and Legacy
Wilde took the name “Sebastian Melmoth” while in exile and spent his final years digging into spirituality and railing for prison reform. He spent some time with Ross, his longtime friend and first lover, as well as Douglas. After losing the will to write and encountering many unfriendly former friends, Wilde’s health took a steep decline.
Oscar Wilde died of meningitis in 1900. He was conditionally baptized into the Catholic Church, at his wish, just before his death. At his side to the end was Reggie Turner, who had remained a loyal friend, and Ross, who became his literary executor and the primary keeper of his legacy. Wilde is buried in Paris, where his tomb has become a major attraction for tourists and literary pilgrims. A small compartment in the tomb also houses Ross’s ashes.
In 2017, Wilde was one of the men formally given posthumous pardons for convictions of previously-criminal homosexuality under the “Alan Turing law.” Wilde has become an icon, much like he was in his time, for his style and unique sense of self. His literary works have also become some of the most important in the canon.
Oscar Wilde met his lover Lord Alfred Douglas in 1891, the relationship which would lead to his downfall.
That same year, Wilde was introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas. The two quickly became close, and within two years, they were engaged in a full-blown affair. Despite the fact that homosexuality was illegal in Britain, the pair made little effort to keep their relationship a secret.
It wasn’t long before Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, came to suspect that his son was having an affair with the wildly flamboyant writer.
In June 1894, the Marquess of Queensbury visited Wilde’s home and told him: “I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you”, according to Richard Ellmann’s 1988 biography of the writer.
Wilde replied: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”
That same year, Wilde wrote what is often considered to be his masterpiece: The Importance of Being Earnest. It was first performed in 1895 at St James’ Theatre in London and instantly became a hit. Wilde was at the top of his game – but everything was about to fall apart.
In February of that year, the Marquess of Queensbury left a calling card at Wilde’s club, the Albermarle, which read: “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite”.
Against the advice of his friends and confidants, Wilde initiated legal proceedings against Queensbury for criminal libel. Queensbury was arrested and, under the 1843 Libel Act, could only avoid conviction by proving that his allegations against Wilde were true and that there was a benefit to publicising them.
Queensbury hired private detectives who quickly uncovered evidence of Wilde’s dealings with male sex workers – and so began Wilde’s downfall.
I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad.
In court, evidence was presented of Wilde’s sexual liaisons, and some sex workers were coerced into taking the stand and testifying against him.
When confronted with a wealth of evidence, Wilde dropped his legal proceedings against Queensbury. The father of his lover was subsequently declared not guilty by the court because, it was ruled, his accusation that Wilde was a homosexual was factual.
But the nightmare didn’t end there. A warrant was issued for Wilde’s arrest after the trial proved his homosexuality. On April 6, he was arrested for gross indecency and his trial began within a matter of weeks.
Wilde pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the jury was ultimately unable to reach a verdict. He was released on bail, and his final trial was preceded over by Mr Justice Wills.
On May 25, 1895, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and was sentenced to two years hard labour, the maximum sentence allowable for his crime.
Speaking in the courtroom, Wills said the maximum sentence was “totally inadequate for a case such as this” and insisted that it was “the worst case” he had ever tried.
A Taste of Freedom: On the Trail of Oscar Wilde in Paris
For persecuted playwright Oscar Wilde, Paris was the only place he could truly feel at home. Chloe Govan retraces the famous libertine’s footsteps in the city that embraced him
According to the British press, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was not merely a “sane criminal”, but a vile, contemptible “sexual pervert of an utterly diseased mind”. His crime? An illicit relationship with another man. Just as it had once been socially acceptable to brand some women who lived on the margins of society “witches” and execute them, homosexuality too was a punishable offence, right up until the 1960s. After a trial that left him bankrupt, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labour in prison at the command of the Marquess of Queensbury, the father of his lover, Lord Douglas. He was released in 1897, but – with the Marquess threatening to shoot him dead if he ever rekindled a romance with his son – it was perhaps little surprise that he immediately headed for France.
As soon as he set foot on French soil, Wilde was overcome by his new-found liberation. Just hours earlier, a baying crowd in England had followed him through the streets, taunting him and sniping that he deserved to be torn apart by a pack of wolves and eaten alive. At the time, frozen in fearful passivity, Wilde could have done little more than sarcastically praise their imagination. Yet, here in France, he had a new identity, enjoying blissful anonymity as the enigmatic ‘Sebastian’. As it turned out, this precaution might have been unnecessary because, as Wilde remarked to one journalist: “In Paris, one can go where one likes, and no one dreams of criticising one”.
The playwright was regularly taunted by the press, as in this American satirical cartoon following the poor reception of his play Vera in the 1880s. Photo: Alamy
Of course, France had not always been so sympathetic – there was a time when only royalty had escaped sex scandals unscathed. Whereas King Philip I allegedly enjoyed an affair with the Bishop of Orléans in the 1100s, “common folk” with the same desires could expect to have their testicles chopped off. Repeat offenders would eventually be burnt alive and left to die an agonising death. Yet clandestine courtships continued among high society, with King Henry III of France rumoured to have preferred his male aides to his wife.
By the late 1700s, homosexuality had been decriminalised in France altogether, whereas barely 60 years ago, it was still classified as a mental disorder in the UK. In fact, gay sex was legalised in France around 150 years before women were allowed to vote. Wilde knew all too well about Paris’s progressive attitudes – in fact, prior to his prison sentence, he had enjoyed celebrity status there. When he’d first attended the Moulin Rouge back in 1891, fellow poet Stuart Merrill recalled, his ostentatious appearance had seen him mistaken for royalty: “The habitués took him for the prince of some fabulous realm of the North”.
He was even immortalised in Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings, including La Danse Mauresque. Clad in a top hat, Wilde was portrayed gazing at the fortune tellers and belly dancers on the stage – not to mention cabaret legend La Goulue. He wrote his acclaimed play Salomé in a Parisian hotel. While it was banned from the British stage due to its illicit portrayal of Biblical figures, in France it received a rapturous reception. So his sexual identity was not the first experience the outspoken author had had with prohibition in Britain but acceptance in France.
Oscar Wilde. Photo: Shutterstock
LYING IN WAIT
Although Wilde was probably in no need of privacy in Paris, he delighted in it nonetheless. Rumour had it he would mischievously wait in the aisles of his favourite bookstores and then engage in subversive conversations with anyone he spotted picking up his work. Fans would rave over the literary talent that was Oscar Wilde, little knowing that it was him they were talking to.
Other friends he made in Paris included Émile Zola and the openly homosexual André Gide. They frequented venues, havens for the alienated, where the bohemian literati could gather to enjoy Paris’s carefree, libertine spirit – such as the famous Saint-Germain-des-Prés café, Les Deux Magots. Today, as in Wilde’s day, the café’s terrace provides visitors with views of the oldest church in Paris, built over 1,000 years ago. The playwright fleetingly enjoyed Victor Hugo’s company too, joining him for baguettes as a prelude to a morning of literary debate. The bakery they visited has since been converted into the excellent Hôtel du Petit Moulin. However, during one discussion, an exhausted Hugo allegedly fell asleep!
Les Deux Magots. Photo: Chloe Govan
Wilde also indulged in his passion for absinthe in Paris. According to him, the irresistible green fairy was “satanic”, “desperately wicked” and left its users destined for “diabolism and nameless iniquity”. Yet this rarely deterred him. On drives around the Bois de Boulogne with his former lover Lord Douglas, he would often bellow with excitement, “Stop the car!” whenever they passed a decadent-looking café that served the forbidden fée verte. Incidentally, just under a decade later, the infamous “absinthe madness” murder trials rocked Europe, leading to a 100-year ban of the stuff.
Yet by the summer of 1899, Wilde was struggling to maintain his lifestyle. Since his estranged wife’s death a year earlier, payments from her had dwindled from £3 per week to virtually nothing. Remaining funds were distributed between her sons, who had been falsely informed that their father was dead. However, Wilde’s landlord at the Hôtel Louvre Marsollier accepted no excuses. He confiscated his room key and seized his property as compensation for an unpaid bill, leaving Wilde to roam the streets penniless. He eventually found salvation at the cheaper Hôtel d’Alsace – a mere hostel in comparison, but it was somewhere to rest his head at least.
A vintage scene at Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain district
Today it is known as L’Hôtel, and is one of the most important pilgrimage spots for anyone following the Oscar Wilde trail. Once a dilapidated flea-pit with paper peeling from the walls, room 16 now plays host to an impressively ostentatious peacock mural. The huge panel behind the bed depicts one peacock, with gorgeously textured green and gold feathers, while the side wall features two of the birds kissing. Anyone spending the night in this room will find it a challenge to turn out the lights – not over fears of Wilde’s ghost haunting his old living quarters, but because of the breathtaking beauty of the surroundings. No aesthetic setting could better be t his extravagant personality.
Oscar Wilde’s peacock passion made real in room 16 at L’Hôtel
In his final months, Wilde had strenuously insulted the wallpaper in his room, complaining to anyone who would listen that he longed for the peacock feather décor he’d enjoyed in England. In fact, one of his most famous quotes is: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do”.
Sadly, Wilde would depart first, but acclaimed interior designer Jacques Garcia has now fulfilled his final request and created this feathered fantasy. The hotel’s aesthetic has appealed to many celebrities since as I arrived, Jane Birkin was just checking out.
Wilde’s portrait reminds visitors of L’Hôtel’s most famous patron. Photo: Chloe Govan
It was here that Wilde became a voracious comfort-eater and so to truly capture the essence of his experiences in 19th-century Paris, eat I must – purely for research purposes, of course! The restaurant is now Michelin-starred and justifiably so, as it offers one of the highest-quality dining experiences in the city.
While L’Hôtel is today famous for its mouth-watering crab and caviar, during his stay Wilde was sadly restricted to bread and butter for lunch and two hard-boiled eggs with a minuscule serving of cognac for dinner. The party was very much over for him.
The interior of Café de la Paix
After writing pleading letters to his friends, he was eventually treated to a dinner by Lord Douglas at the historic Café de la Paix, which overlooks the Opera House – a mere minute’s walk from the street where he had written Salomé. However, when he begged for a small allowance from the immense inheritance his ex-lover had received on his father’s death, he was met with contempt. Douglas would later rant: “He disgusts me when he begs. He’s getting fat and bloated and always demanding money, money, money. He could earn all the money he wants if he would only write, but he won’t do anything… he’s like an old prostitute!”. Café de la Paix failed to live up to its name – the meal was not a peaceful one.
Café de la Paix, where Wilde dined with a former lover
END OF THE PARTY
Today the café boasts a wine list several pages long, but Lord Douglas had been adamant that his companion drank “too much” and felt reluctant to indulge him. While the illicit elixir of absinthe had once drowned his sorrows and tamed his spirit, he could no longer partake – and some of the romantically-minded artists with whom he surrounded himself were equally destitute. Eventually he was unable to settle his bill at Hôtel d’Alsace either but, a satirical wit until the end, he would merely joke unapologetically that he was “dying beyond his means”.
Oscar Wilde photo, decorated with a peacock feather, at L’Hotel. Photo: Chloe Govan
It was not merely hunger and poverty that weakened him, but a complication from an abscess he’d acquired in prison that had slowly spread from his ear to his brain. The resulting infection caused meningitis and on November 30, 1900, he quietly passed away. He was taken into the Catholic faith (which he had often jokingly insulted) and, after posthumous book sales paid his debts, was moved from a pauper’s grave to the cemetery at Père Lachaise. A then enormous sum of two thousand pounds was used to commission a giant winged sphinx, which remains on his tomb today. However, in the 1960s, in a sinister replication of France’s 12th-century punishment, the sphinx’s testicles were chopped off. Ironically, it is not merely vandalism that his tomb has had to be protected from, but love too. A barrier has now been erected to safeguard the grave from mourners’ lipstick kisses.
Lipstick kisses on Oscar Wilde’s grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery. Photo: Amusingplanet
While Lord Douglas spoke of Wilde’s “extraordinarily buoyant and happy temperament” in his final years, perhaps the most realistic – and poignant – reminder of Wilde’s true condition can be found in the last letter he ever sent to a London newspaper. “Deprived… isolated… condemned to eternal silence, robbed of all intercourse with the external world, treated like an unintelligent animal, brutalised,” he reflected of his time behind bars. “The wretched man who is confined in an English prison can hardly escape becoming insane.” These words present a vivid snapshot of the torturous memories that haunted a dying man. A man who had been denied the most basic of human rights – simply to pursue his emotions without penalty and to love whom he chose.
Beneath his “mask of mirth”, you might suspect that he had given up altogether. Though repeatedly thwarted in his quest for liberty, he had at least found a comforting taste of freedom in Paris, however fleeting. One declaration he’d made in his final years turned out to be prophetic: “Parmi les poètes de France, je trouverai de véritables amis.” (“Among the poets of France, I will find my true friends.”)
From France Today magazine
Oscar Wilde’s grave. Photo: Chloe Govan
Sheila Colman, 82 Tended Wilde’s Lover
Sheila Colman, who devoted herself to restoring the reputation of the man blamed for the scandal that led to Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment and social ruin in the 1890s, has died. She was 82.
Colman died Nov. 15 at her farm in Sompting, West Sussex, England. The cause of death was not announced.
Colman and her husband, Edward, befriended Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s former lover, in 1943 after they were introduced to the destitute poet by a mutual friend.
In December 1944, the widowed Douglas accepted the couple’s invitation to stay at their farm. The Colmans cared for Douglas at their home until he died of heart failure in March 1945 at age 74.
Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensbury, was a key figure in the sensational libel trial that ruined Wilde’s career.
Wilde, the poet, playwright and novelist, met the 21-year-old Douglas, affectionately known as “Bosie,” in 1891. When Douglas’ father denounced the famous writer as a sodomite, Wilde sued. He lost the case and was later convicted of “gross indecency” and imprisoned because of his homosexuality.
While in prison, Wilde wrote a bitter letter to Douglas, published as “De Profundist,” blaming Douglas for his downfall. But the two men were reunited after Wilde was released from prison in 1897 after two years. When Wilde died in 1900, Douglas paid for his funeral.
Douglas was bankrupted by a failed libel suit in 1913 against Arthur Ransome, a biographer of Wilde. In 1928, Douglas was jailed for six months for libeling Winston Churchill.
Douglas, who once told a friend that the Colmans “have been angelic to me, dear people,” named the couple as the main beneficiaries in his will.
The Colmans received no money, but they inherited the copyright to all of Douglas’ poetry and prose. The most famous line from Douglas’ poetry is, “I am the love that dare not speak its name,” written when he was 22.
In 1981, the Colmans used money earned from royalties to settle Douglas’ debt from his 1913 bankruptcy.
In 1999, Sheila Colman gave $36,000 to Oxford University to establish the Lord Alfred Douglas Memorial Prize for the best sonnet or other poem written in English “in strict rhyming meter” by a university student.
Last year, Colman announced that some of Douglas’ previously unknown writings were to be published.
“I have poems, sonnets and lyrics which have never been seen before,” she told the Evening Standard of London.
“There’s a lot of prejudice against him people think of him only as the boyfriend of Wilde and the man who brought about his downfall. But there are wonderful pieces about Oscar Wilde, dreams Bosie had of him, and other things which moved him.”
Colman also had made Douglas’ papers available to Douglas Murray, whose biography of Douglas, “Bosie,” was published last year by Talk Miramax Books/Hyperion.
In addition to her literary efforts and her support for the Oscar Wilde Society, Colman raised prize-winning sheep on her farm. Her husband died in 1983 they had no children.
Two Letters to the Daily Chronicle
He was also concerned with a mentally-impaired prisoner, who should have also, in Oscar's opinion, been treated individually.
On 24 March 1898, Oscar wrote his second letter to the editor of the Daily Chronicle, in which he made suggestions concerning the changes that should be implemented, to improve the conditions of prisoners. In it, he stresses the lack of food and its inadequate nutritional value, as well as the poor sanitary conditions, leading to constant diarrhoea. In 1898, the new Prison Act was signed. Undeniably, Oscar's recommendations were taken into account.
These two letters were not merely personal letters, but instruments used to share with the public and to reveal the conditions that prisoners are subjected to in jail. The aim of the letters was not to bring attention to his own suffering, but to the suffering of all prisoners, especially children. He also highlighted that even the people who are involved in the harsh system, people like wardens and the prison governor, are negatively affected by the foul system, as they are powerless.
These letters showcase that Oscar's opinion on the effects of prison on the prisoner has changed severly, compared with his earlier work. Oscar had touched upon the subject in an essay before, nevertheless, his opinions could not differ more from those in his later works:
That said, Oscar's reluctance to directly describe his own suffering in these letters is apparent, especially when compared to De Profundis. While De Profundis is partly a personal letter, partly a public apologia, a chronicle and a prediction, the letters are primarily written to improve the condition of the prisoners, as he promised to. Similarly, as with The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar connected The Ballad of Reading Gaol with the second letter, by not signing it with his own name, but as 'The author of The Ballad of Reading Gaol'. By drawing such connections, he shows his desire to be recognised as the author of both, which could bring a positive response from the readers. That was Oscar's hidden agenda.
Both letters are absolutely heart-breaking to read. It actually makes me cry to think about all of the horrible things that Oscar (and other prisoners at the time) had to go through. Nonetheless, these letters are indispensable in order to grasp the complexity of Oscar's character and how his attitudes changed after his imprisonment. Despite the tragedy of Oscar's fall from grace, it's reassuring to know that he became a better human being after his suffering. Oscar didn't deserve the punishment he got but I'm glad as hell that he made the best out of it, using his voice for good until his final breath. . more