Oscar Wilde on Trial: The Criminal Proceedings from Arrest to Imprisonment, by Joseph Bristow, Yale University Press, 672 pp, £65, ISBN: 978-0300222722
This is certainly not the first book to be devoted to the trials of Oscar Wilde. As early as 1912 there was Christopher Sclater Millard’s Oscar Wilde: Three Times Tried. The word has always had a plural. The first trial was the libel suit brought by Wilde against the Marquess of Queensbury, who left a card for him in the Albemarle Club reading ‘to Oscar Wilde posing as a sodmomite [recte sodomite]’. What had incensed the marquess was the public affair that Wilde was conducting with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, known to Oscar as ‘Bosie’. Egged on by Bosie, Wilde promptly sued the Marquess for libel. As Joseph Bristow writes in this encyclopaedic study, ‘Wilde is unlikely to have gone ahead with the suit unless he believed, no matter how fallaciously, that he could exonerate himself’. As the case brought to light the full range of Wilde’s sexual liaisons with younger men, his counsel, Sir Edward Clarke, took fright at what might yet come to light and advised withdrawing the action. When they did so, Wilde was left with considerable legal bills that virtually bankrupted him. Pressed by Queensberry, the government immediately brought a case against Wilde for what Bristow describes as ‘the newfangled and ill-defined phrase “acts of gross indecency” that for the first time became part of the legislative idiom in 1885’. The trial which followed resulted in a mixed verdict; the jury could not agree as to whether Wilde was guilty of the various counts against him. Then, hot on its heels came a further trial, which saw Wilde declared guilty of five of the six counts against him and sentenced to two years’ hard labour (the maximum sentence for the charges) in various English prisons. After his release, he was a broken man and died on the Continent in 1900 at the age of forty-six.
The major study prior to this one was H Montgomery Hyde’s The Trials of Oscar Wilde in 1948, essentially an edited version of Sclater Millard’s 1912 volume, though with a good deal of extra fascinating material. Hyde paid particular attention to Wilde’s Irish identity and also to the man who acted as Queensberry’s counsel in the libel trial, Sir Edward Carson. (Hyde also produced a biography of Carson in 1953.) Both men were Dubliners and both had attended Trinity College at around the same time, though they moved in very different social and political circles. Where Carson was a diehard unionist, Wilde was a committed nationalist. Bristow writes of him: ‘Hyde, who served as an Ulster Unionist Member of Parliament campaigning for homosexual law reform in the 1950s, took a fairly liberal approach to Wilde’s behavior. His support for such reform, together with other progressive causes, eventually cost him his political career.’
Bristow’s own book has no radical new theory to advance on the trials, no reshuffling of the evidence to advance a new interpretation. What it does offer is an unprecedented amount of material drawn from the transcripts and a careful examination of the witness of various newspapers. In regard to the latter, the papers are frequently discounted in such studies because they are so squeamish in the face of the charges being brought. But Bristow is alert to the extraordinary intimacy their accounts offer of the daily proceedings in the Old Bailey. The most interesting was The Star, ‘the radical halfpenny evening paper that rose to fame shortly after it was first published in 1888, when it featured Ernest Parke’s reports on the police’s failure to catch the suspect eventually known as “Jack the Ripper” in the East End of London. Under Parke’s resourceful editorship, the Star – which became closely associated with the investigative New Journalism of the time – brought a sharp critical eye to the merciless prosecution.’ Bristow also points to Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, which was ‘equally observant about the injustice that Wilde suffered’ and ‘made space for such items as readers’ correspondence that pointed to Wilde’s progressive political sentiments and his wrongful treatment by the law’. The book also makes unprecedented use of the transcripts. For some unaccountable reason, there were, for decades, no transcripts of the daily proceedings of the libel trial until the indefatigable researches of Merlin Holland, Wilde’s sole grandson but also a leading scholar in his own right, produced a ground-breaking volume in 2003 entitled The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde: The First Uncensored Transcript of the Trial of Oscar Wilde versus John Douglas (Marquess of Queensbury), 1895.
What is already clear from these remarks is the emphasis Bristow brings to bear in his study. H Montgomery Hyde, although veering to the liberal side of the question, still maintained that Wilde’s trial was fairly conducted. Bristow sees things differently. For him many of the practices carried out in the name of the law involved questionable procedures. The witnesses who were called, the young men who were paid for sex with Wilde, would appear to have been groomed by Queensberry, maintained at his expense and presented with the option of playing along or being themselves charged. Private documents were taken from rooms or from the pockets of dressing gowns. The judges who were enjoined to a strict impartiality went out of their way to inveigh against the abominable crime with which Wilde was charged (‘worse than murder’) and to push towards finding him guilty. Bristow is particularly sharp on what changes in wording (such as that from ‘sodomy’ to ‘acts of gross indecency’) meant in effect for those charged with homosexual activities. Towards the end of the book, the gay advocacy which has emerged as the principal point of view driving the book’s narrative argues that Wilde should be given a pardon by HM’s overnment. There have only been five such cases since World War Two, the most notable being that of Alan Turing, the computing genius and closet gay, who was pardoned by Queen Elizabeth (on the grounds of mercy in 2014). As Bristow makes the case, it becomes clear how open the case of Oscar Wilde still remains, almost 130 years later.
The book gives some welcome attention to Mrs Oscar Wilde, Constance Lloyd, in her own right. When playwright Thomas Kilroy wrote and produced The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde in 1997, there was scant writing about this shadowy figure, which left the dramatist free to speculate. But in 2011 a major publication appeared, Frannie Moyle’s Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde, which Bristow gives welcome attention to. As Moyle makes clear, Constance was ‘a talented children’s writer, a political campaigner, an editor of her husband’s wittiest sayings’. She was a well-known public figure, a notable figure at social occasions, appearing in elegant costumes which often outrivalled Oscar’s. She pressed for reform in the outmoded and restrictive Victorian dress for women, speaking and writing on the subject and editing all six issues of The Rational Dress Society’s Gazette in 1888.
It is clear that Oscar and Constance were madly in love when they married, spending almost every hour in each other’s company. When the two boys arrived, they were a delight to him and they simultaneously adored him. The severance of all contact between Oscar and his children which ensued from the trials on must have been very painful for all concerned. The distance between husband and wife appears to have coincided with the second pregnancy. It was a difficult one and left the body of the former beauty a scarred and bloated shadow of its earlier self. Oscar turned away, moving further in the direction towards which he had been gravitating in recent years, a strong sexual attraction to beautiful young men. He began an affair with the young Lord Alfred Douglas while the latter was still at Oxford. This affair, begun in isolation, drew Wilde into an extensive network of male prostitutes and blackmailers, to which his increasingly voracious sexual appetite drew him. His close friend Ada Leverson (whom he called ‘The Sphinx’) recalls the following premonition on Oscar’s part. As he waited outside a shop for his wife to make a purchase, ‘full of careless good spirits on a cold sunny May morning, a curious, very young but hard-eyed creature appeared, looked at him, gave a sort of laugh, and passed on. [Oscar] felt, he said, “as if an icy hand clutched his heart”. He had a sudden presentiment. He saw a vision of folly, misery and ruin. And remained in a depressed state for the rest of the evening.’ Bristow may be correct in thinking the story apocryphal, but it gives striking expression to the sense that Wilde was teetering on the edge of a precipice as he sought with increasing difficulty to carry out a balancing act between his married life, his public success as a playwright and his attraction to young men.
The libel trial began on Wednesday, April 3rd,1895. There are two especial points of interest about the libel trial that the book brings out. The first is the wording of the card that the Marquess of Queensberry left for Wilde at the Albemarle Club. (It was not picked up by Wilde for several weeks.) In its wording ‘To Oscar Wilde posing as a sodmomite’, Bristow pays particular attention, not to the mistake ‘sodmomite’ which attracted most of the amusement and commentary, but to the word ‘posing’. This shows that the card, though it may have been written hastily and in anger, was actually composed with some care and wiliness. It did not accuse Wilde directly of being a sodomite, which it might well have done, but of ‘posing’ as a sodomite, which is a different matter. For the act of sodomy, as the English law courts were finding, is almost impossible to prove in court. As well as people being slow to come forward on such an accusation, the act was virtually impossible to prove, since it occurred in private, between two consenting (usually) adults and left no tangible or visible evidence. ‘Posing’ was a different matter. It involved an act in public rather than private, something that could be witnessed, discussed and assessed in a court of law. Bristow showed that, although the accusation of sodomy was slow to surface, it did so as the trial progressed and discussion slid from the accusation of posing to the act of sodomy itself.
The person pursuing this line of inquiry was of course Edward Carson. He was extremely aggressive in his questioning and did not shrink from using the word ‘sodomite’ itself. In fact, as Bristow demonstrates, he used it more often than the press coverage demonstrates. The most interesting was in relation to Wilde’s novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The book argues that Carson used ‘the resonant adjective whenever [he]wished to characterize Wilde’s purportedly immoral cultural tastes, especially the author’s predilections for a sodomitical novel’. The scandalous Portrait of Dorian Gray first appeared in the popular American monthly, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, in June 1890. Bristow writes that to ‘a classically trained reader, the homoerotic currents that run throughout the narrative are evident from the start’. From their first meeting, Lord Henry Wotton starts mentoring the younger man (Dorian Gray) on the imperative to pursue one’s life without any moral inhibitions: ‘The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly, ‑ that is what each of is here for.’ Carson laid particular emphasis on the following highly charged passage: ‘I quite admit that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly.’ Carson then inquired of Wilde: ‘Have you ever loved a young man, some twenty-one years younger than yourself, madly?’ ‘No,’ Wilde answered ‘not madly, not madly’. As Bristow argues: ‘This pivotal moment arguably took the trial out of Wilde’s hands.’
What Carson is doing is employing the age-old device of inferring an artist’s views from what they write, more precisely of attributing all statements from fictional characters directly to the author himself. Wilde makes the point from the dock: ‘You must remember that novels and life are different things.’ But the realm of the law is the realm of the literal, as a very flat citation of Wilde’s proverbs and paradoxes in court proved. Carson was unusual for the extent to which he drew on Wilde’s literary works as evidence in the case for the prosecution. Repeatedly, as Bristow clearly demonstrates, ‘Carson proved dauntless in probing Wilde’s oeuvre for instances of revealing criminal evidence, not artistic worth.’
It soon became clear to Sir Edward Clarke, Wilde’s counsel, that events for his client were not headed in a good direction. He resolved that the case should be dropped since ‘it was now unmistakable that the proceedings were about to move on to “long evidence” in mortifying ways that would lead to “an investigation of matters of the most appalling character”’. The libel case ground to a halt in ways that were financially ruinous for Wilde, bringing him to the verge of bankruptcy. Everyone thought that he would and should flee the country. The exception was Lady Wilde. According to Yeats, Wilde’s mother told her son: ‘If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son, it will make no difference to my affection, but if you go, I will never speak to you again.’ Oscar stayed put.
Within hours there was a prosecution on foot of everything that had emerged during the libel case. Wilde was arrested and brought to police headquarters. Once more, he was denied bail, hence any respite from his imprisonment, and denied access to the counsel of friends and family. He was not to be tried alone but in the company of a man called Alfred Taylor, who was accused of procuring young men for paid sexual activities. Sir Edward Clarke offered his services to Wilde for no fee; Carson refused to proceed any further with the ‘filthy business’ and withdrew. Clarke sought repeatedly (but in vain) to have the case of Wilde considered separately from that of Alfred Taylor, since he felt Wilde would be tarred with the same brush.
The nine young men who had been called for the libel trial were once more called to give evidence. What is remarkable is that evidence could be taken at face value from such tainted sources. Far from being objective witnesses, the men were all deeply implicated in the charges against Wilde. Without their evidence there would hardly have been a case. There had been a recent change in the law so that people who were themselves involved in illegal actions could give evidence. And so they did, one after the other. And, although allowances could be made for charges of bias and unreliability, there proved to be a strong consistency. The young men were individually invited to dinner with Wilde and Taylor, they were brought to a bedroom in Wilde’s hotel and in most instances they contended that the sexual act took place. But contradictions, uncertainties, inconsistencies also emerged in much of the evidence and the case was less watertight than it first appeared. In the end, the verdict of the jury was not unanimous and the case collapsed.
A notable absence from the dock as a witness was Lord Alfred Douglas. A silent presence in the crowd on most days attending the trials, Bosie was never called to give evidence, despite the frequent mention of his name and his apparent centrality to the alleged offence. His was such a flagrantly notable absence as a witness that the foreman of the jury was finally moved to raise it on two separate occasions as a question to Justice Wills: ‘[I]n view of the intimacy between Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde, was a warrant ever issued for the apprehension of Lord Alfred Douglas?’ According to Bristow, ‘Wills, it seems, was close to losing his temper when he declared: “I should think not.”’ The conclusion seems inescapable that ‘the refusal to countenance Bosie’s immersion in this sexual underworld made it seem as though the judge had erected a smokescreen’. Bristow, plausibly argues that the smokescreen was designed to conceal Bosie’s connection to various highly placed members of English society whose respectable public lives would be compromised, if not ruined, by his giving testimony. By keeping Bosie out of it, the establishment sought to present Wilde’s as an isolated case, rather than part of a larger picture of the private lives of prominent public figures in the late nineteenth century.
There was immediately a further trial, and once more, the same people gathered, Wilde and his counsel, the prosecution and the nine young men. The tenth was a young man called Shelley who had worked for Wilde’s then publishers and who greatly admired his writings. In his case, there appears to have been no question of anything sexual in the relationship and Clarke sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds of Shelley’s instability. This was the one charge against Wilde that resulted in a verdict of not guilty. Once more, the same questions were asked of the same people and received the same answers. Sir Edward Clarke noted the stress his client had been put under in being forced to go through the same proceedings three times in a row. This time it took the jury just two hours to reach a unanimous decision. As Bristow writes, on May 25th, 1895 ‘after the foreman had recited “Guilty” six times over, many who had been present in the courtroom gasped in astonishment that such a disorderly trial could have led to Wilde’s conviction’.
What appears to have made the difference from the first trial were the change of judge and prosecuting counsel. The change derived from ‘the lead prosecutor [Sir Frank Lockwood’s] bullying style, and the capricious outbursts of Justice Alfred Wills’. Moreover, Bristow continues, ‘the visible discomfiture that the judge exhibited while presiding over the case made it more than apparent that he harbored deep-seated prejudices against the accused’. The substance of these emerged forcefully during his summing up. Normally diffident and rather eccentric in his manner, his whole tone and manner changed when it came to discussing the ‘crime’ of which Wilde stood accused: ‘He said that he would himself rather try the most shocking murder case that it had fallen to his lot to try than be engaged in any case like this one’, on such a ‘loathsome subject’. Wills’s summing up was far from impartial. It strongly leaned in the direction of finding Wilde guilty as charged and of steering the jury in that direction.
Compared to Sir Frank Lockwood, the Marquess of Queensberry was a shrinking violet. Lockwood’s addresses to the jury were voluble and unrestrained, and frequently rode roughshod over nice points of legal discrimination. According to Bristow, he pressed so hard on ‘the problematic concept of corroboration […] that he even advanced the idea that a social gathering at a restaurant […] was tantamount to a sexual conspiracy’. Given the judge’s and the prosecutor’s bias, the jury was not long in advancing its verdict. Justice Wills then delivered his sentence, in the strongly partisan tones he had adopted throughout: ‘I shall, under such circumstances, be expected to pass the severest sentence which the law allows. In my judgement, it is utterly inadequate for such cases. The sentence upon each of you [the other was Alfred Taylor] is imprisonment with hard labour for two years.’ Thus concluded the third and final trial in what was by some degree the most sensational law case of the late nineteenth century, one that continued to resonate for decades to come, especially in the legal scapegoating of homosexuals. According to an actor friend in the court, Wilde presented the spectacle of a broken man: ‘His hair, naturally straight, though generally waved in ordinary times, lay straggling and damp upon a forehead covered with sweat, his lips were purple, and his face, distressed and anxious.’
After the delays and narrative repetitions of the three trials, the story of the imprisonment and its aftermath is briskly dealt with. The worst period of Wilde’s incarceration was the first year, where the real suffering (as he himself wrote) was not the hard labour but the isolation. He was kept away from the other prisoners and denied resources such as pen and paper. He frequently suffered from insomnia and did not eat. Then, as his case became the subject of frequent newspaper coverage and as a more sympathetic administration arrived, conditions were improved. The big breakthrough came when he was supplied with pen and paper and a limited supply of books. Two great works soon followed, the last to come from Wilde’s pen: the letter to Lord Alfred Douglas which became known as De Profundis and which relates the highs and lows of their tumultuous relationship; and ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, written soon after his release, about an execution he had witnessed in the prison. Wilde was also allowed to associate with fellow prisoners and was moved by their plight to the extent that he sought to support those who remained in prison after his release. A friendly guard, fellow Irishman Thomas Martin, went out his way to supply Wilde with newspapers and writing materials from nearby Reading. Around the time Wilde was released, Martin was let go by the prison authorities because of an act of natural kindness to an extremely young child, who was in anguish and to whom he supplied some sweets. Wilde’s sense of natural justice was outraged by this event and it provoked a letter he wrote immediately upon his release protesting at it.
The brief three-year period between Wilde’s release from prison and his death in Paris in 1900 is covered in the coda. Initially, Wilde strove to put a brave face on it. On his release, he had his hair coiffed, donned stylish clothes and uttered some more of his characteristic witticisms. But he could not keep this facade up for long. He was broken in body and spirit, and his decline was rapid. He almost immediately took the ferry to France (no hotel in London would receive him), where his loyal friend Robert Ross was waiting for him at Dieppe. He had a monthly stipend from Constance, on condition that he never saw Lord Alfred Douglas. Needless to say, Oscar and Bosie soon drifted back together and in a typically defiant and self-destructive gesture Wilde advertised the fact with a series of photographs of the two of them. The one reproduced in Bristow’s book shows a portly, rather ill-looking Wilde seated, while Bosie is standing behind him with one hand on his shoulder. Constance immediately cancelled the stipend as Bosie’s mother did with hers to her son. Oscar and Bosie soon broke up for good since neither of them had any money and continued to run up debts. Wilde’s appearances became more infrequent; on each occasion he looked worse. In a late encounter with the Australian opera singer Nelly Melba in the streets of Paris, only his voice asking for money identified the ‘shabby’, bedraggled figure as her friend Oscar Wilde. He died, of meningoencephalitis, in the company of two of his most loyal friends, Robert Ross and Reggie Turner. In his final hours, only semi-conscious, he was received into the Catholic church. Bristow makes nothing of this, though it has received extensive treatment elsewhere, especially in Irish circles.
This is an important, impressive book, richly researched and carefully constructed. Although an emeritus professor of English at UCLA, Bristow doesn’t achieve much with his literary treatment of Oscar Wilde’s writings. Rather, it smacks more of the product of a professor of law, with its attention to the legal niceties and history. The narrative is compelling and, if the detail sometimes threatens to overwhelm it, the sheer fascination and interest of Wilde’s life are enough to carry the reader through and onward. In the end, I came away enriched.
Anthony Roche is professor emeritus in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin and the author of many books on Irish drama and theatre. His most recent publication is Best-Loved Bernard Shaw, published by the O’Brien Press in October 2021,