The soul of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was ever a crowded battlefield. The great Irish playwright and London socialite drifted during his lifetime between exertive spiritual poles: his father’s Protestantism and his homeland’s Catholicism, British manners and Greek culture, the artistic virtuousness of John Ruskin and the aesthetic mischief of Walter Pater. By 1875, he’d confessed to a friend that he’d winnowed the war down to “Romanism” and “Atheism,” though his chief attraction to the Catholic Church was always its majestic liturgies and beautiful art, not its religious sustenance. Wilde was first and foremost an aesthete, obsessed with the physical, and that gave hedonism great allure. Yet Catholicism’s candle still flickered. In his poem “The Burden of Itys,” he wondered: “Why must I still behold / The wan white face of that deserted Christ?”
By the 1890s, the profane was winning out. Wilde had met Alfred Douglas, known as “Bosie,” and though the former was married and the latter was 16 years his junior, the two began a love affair filled with petulant eruptions on Douglas’s part. It was Bosie who would beckon Wilde into London’s gay underworld and thence on to his doom. Once perched atop English society’s A-list, Wilde would be exposed as a pederast, humiliated, impoverished, abandoned, and ultimately convicted of sodomy and imprisoned. He would die soon after, upon which his rehabilitation would begin almost immediately: his plays revived, his reputation scrubbed clean, and his downfall dismissed as yet another regrettable flare-up of English Puritanism. Was it though? Wilde’s ordeal is widely regarded as the first modern celebrity trial, but it was something else familiar, too: a #MeToo moment, a public figure felled by accusations of sexual misconduct whose disgrace forces us to ask whether one’s oeuvre can ever outweigh one’s sins.
The story of Wilde’s downfall begins with a luckless coincidence: Bosie’s father was the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, a thuggish and irascible Scottish aristocrat whose “Queensberry Rules” would become the global standard for boxing matches. Furious at Wilde for pursuing a relationship with his son and inflamed by Douglas’s constant vitriol (at one point Bosie threatened to shoot dear old dad with a revolver), Queensberry launched a tactical counterstrike. He left a note at the Albemarle Club, one of Wilde’s haunts, that most likely read: “To Oscar Wilde posing Sodomite.” That weasel word “posing” was meant to equivocate in the event of a libel accusation. Wilde, egged on by Bosie, took the bait and sued.
Queensberry was arrested on libel charges and retained as his head attorney Edward Carson, an Irishman who had attended Trinity College with Wilde. The trial began at the Old Bailey in London, where Wilde, under cross-examination, deflected with ease Carson’s attempts to verify Queensberry’s vulgar note. Then he was asked whether he’d ever kissed a particular young man at Oxford. Wilde, believing himself clever, remarked: “Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy, unfortunately ugly. I pitied him for it.” Aha. Why, Carson pressed, was the boy’s physical appearance at all relevant? Wilde suddenly appeared to all present as a discerning homosexual. Queensberry was duly acquitted.
Wilde’s own physical appearance was hardly the atrophied Bohemian that his reputation might have suggested. Six-foot-three and stocky, capable of throwing a punch back in his days at school, his demeanor imposed all he met. During an extensive tour of America that saw him mingle with everyone from Walt Whitman (“the simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life”) to Jefferson Davis (“the principles for which Jefferson Davis and the South went to war cannot suffer defeat”), he at one point stopped by a Colorado piano bar frequented by miners—a sign read “Please don’t shoot the pianist; he is doing his best”—where he matched the rowdy carousers drink for drink. That toughness could serve him well, though his obstinacy in the service of Bosie would prove suicidal. Before the libel trial, Wilde had sat down to lunch with fellow famed Irish writers Frank Harris and George Bernard Shaw, who pleaded with him to abandon the suit, which they thought he was certain to lose. Wilde sounded like he was wavering in their direction, when Bosie abruptly appeared and demanded that the prosecution move forward against his father. Wilde, steeled by his lover, told off Harris and left.
The newspapers, meanwhile, had spent the trial brimming with lurid innuendoes about Wilde’s lifestyle. What had begun as the prosecution of Queensberry had become the trial of Oscar Wilde, and private detectives were afoot. It didn’t take long for Queensberry’s men to assemble a compelling array of evidence: a postbox containing the names and addresses of boys whom Wilde had been in contact with, discovered in the flat of a man named Alfred Taylor; the boys themselves, several of whom agreed to testify; letters written by Wilde to Douglas that the former allegedly paid blackmail to secure; chambermaids in a hotel where Wilde had stayed who claimed to have found fecal stains on his sheets. That was more than enough to assemble a case, and shortly after Queensberry was acquitted, Wilde was arrested. The charges filed were 15 counts of soliciting 13 boys for sodomy, as well as obscenity for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and poetry he’d written for The Chameleon magazine.
Queensberry made sure his son’s name was kept out of the courtroom, focusing all the attention onto Wilde and his pack of lesser-known accusers. For his part, Wilde conceded that he was familiar with the boys testifying against him, but claimed he’d never had sexual relations with them. During cross-examination, the prosecutor C.F. Gill mentioned a poem that had appeared in The Chameleon, actually by Bosie but tangentially linked to Wilde, in which the phrase “love that dare not speak its name” had appeared. What, inquired Gill, pregnant with implication, did that mean? Wilde’s answer would become known as his “love that dare not speak its name” speech: he defended the eponymous condition as “a great affection for a younger man,” one that had informed Plato, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare. “It is intellectual,” Wilde said, “and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope, and glamor of life before him.” When he’d finished, the courtroom burst into applause. Richard Ellmann, his best biographer, assessed the disquisition this way: “For once Wilde spoke not wittily but well.”
Alas, the most silver of tongues couldn’t orate away the arsenal of evidence that the prosecution brought to bear. The defense did its best at refutation, dismissing the notion that Wilde’s literature was obscene, trying to discredit the boys as blackmailers and liars, asking why there wasn’t more proof of misconduct at the hotel where the stains were found and where Wilde had been a regular. The judge, Mr. Justice Charles, at this stage sounded skeptical of the evidence against Wilde; he remained unmoved by the obscenity accusations, didn’t think the letters to Bosie were particularly damning, and was unconvinced by the testimony of the hotel maids. The jury returned after four hours with a verdict of not guilty on only one of the boys, named Atkins. A mistrial was declared and a second one ordered up.
Wilde was released for the interim but followed by Queensberry’s goons, who took to arriving at restaurants where he was eating dinner and causing commotions until he was asked to leave. He ended up crashing with his brother Willie, where he fell ill, and then with his fellow novelist Ada Leverson and her husband Ernest, who furnished him with money and received guests, including W.B. Yeats. Wilde’s wife Constance also visited and pleaded with him to flee; he refused, just as he’d denied similar entreaties by Yeats and so many others, sending away Constance in tears. He was set on protecting Bosie, perhaps even sacrificing himself so the cloud around his lover might one day clear. He also seems to have discerned in his plight an aesthetic luster. “I decided that it was nobler and more beautiful to stay,” he later wrote Douglas, adding, “I did not want to be called a coward or a deserter. A false name, a disguise, a hunted life, all that is not for me.”
In lieu of being a fugitive, Wilde would become a prisoner. At his second trial, the prosecution unleashed its broadside of evidence yet again, and this time the judge, Mr. Justice Wills, sounded far less sympathetic towards the defendant. “It is the worst trial I have ever tried,” he pronounced. The jury duly returned and found Wilde guilty on all counts except one. Wills then embarked on a thunderous denunciation of his newest convict, calling him “dead to all sense of shame” and at “the center of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men,” before passing sentence: two years of hard labor, the severest punishment allowable, though “totally inadequate for such a case as this.” “My God, my God!” exclaimed Wilde, his face etched with pain. He begged for a few words, but Wills only motioned to the bailiffs who hauled him away.
Wilde had been ensnared by his own vices and obstinacy; he’d been stranded in the crossfire between an intemperate son and a father who in all likelihood was mentally ill; he’d wagered he could elevate his ordeal into a seminar on the beauty of male love, only to feel the frigid manacles of what had always been a very criminal trial. He’d been convicted by Justice Wills and convicted, too, by the press. What Charles Dickens (whom Wilde disdained) portrayed in Bleak House as the flies of the Old Bailey, spectators buzzing in anticipation of another defendant’s carcass, would reach a cacophony in the newspapers, which unanimously hailed the guilty verdicts and set about shredding whatever was left of Wilde’s reputation.
Wilde would serve his full two years in prison. He would develop during his stay contempt for Bosie, to whom he wrote an extended letter later published by his friend Robert Ross under the title De Profundis. It’s full of appreciation for Christianity, nourished by the Bible that he was allowed in his cell. So many Catholics leave the Church with a protean faith that feels disconnected from their liturgy; Wilde had no faith but extolled the beauty of religious ritual. In De Profundis, he cast his aesthetic brush over Christ Himself, and ended up with an idealized self-portrait, a highly noble and individualistic performance artist. “Indeed, that is the charm about Christ,” Wilde wrote, “when all is said: he is just like a work of art. He does not really teach one anything, but by being brought into his presence one becomes something.” Elsewhere, this solipsistic conflation lapses into unseemly self-pity: “Certainly, no man ever fell so ignobly, and by such ignoble instruments, as I did,” he moaned.
After his release from prison, any attempts at reform were quickly conquered by his old ways. He started seeing Bosie again, infuriating Constance who barred him from their children, and fulfilling the aphorism of the debauched Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” He died penniless three years later in 1900, though not before being conditionally baptized into the Catholic Church by a priest from his native Dublin. It was a fitting end for a public figure who was as rich and paradoxical as the epigrams he so regularly dispensed. Wilde, like his literary heirs Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens, was both of high society and deeply critical of it. His political theory, discussed most extensively in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, was crayon-drawn, yet his observations about the polity around him were among the most incisive of his time.
Then there are the epigrams, the imperishable epigrams. Some are quotable (“A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied”). Some are prescient (Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan: “He thinks like a Tory, and talks like a Radical, and that’s so important these days”). Some turn the screw of irony back on itself (Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband: “Everyone one meets is a paradox nowadays. It is a great bore. It makes society so obvious”). Those little polished marbles have scattered out of literary hauteur and across the floor of popular discourse. The wall of an Irish bar not far from The American Conservative’s offices is inscribed with a Wilde quote: “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” And in Dublin, a delightful city that celebrates its writers even though most of them never returned the favor, Wilde’s sayings are on pub glasses and pamphlets, while his childhood house is open for tours and a sculpture of his languid form reclines on a rock in Merrion Square Park.
Those words have notably (and thankfully) not been scrubbed away in the wake of the #MeToo reckoning. That might seem like a low bar, but consider that the actor Kevin Spacey, also credibly accused of sleeping with young boys, was airbrushed out of the film All the Money in the World by director Ridley Scott. In fairness, Spacey’s dalliances with young men included an allegation of attempted rape, while the nature of Wilde’s offenses are at least murkier, given how many of his accusers tried to blackmail him. But the bulk of the evidence still points to a Wilde who preyed on male prostitutes as young as 16 from the most impoverished parts of London. You will rarely find so vivid an example of the #MeToo Left’s “problematic power dynamics” than a literary superstar picking up desperately poor boys who were in some cases less than half his age (that desperation was no doubt the reason that many of them blackmailed him). Yet Wilde hasn’t suffered a knock to his reputation. If anything, the old saw about his wrongdoing at the hands of moralizing forces—uptight, Victorian, so very English—still holds.
It would be madness to follow #MeToo’s logic to its distant terminus, of course, demolishing statues and chiseling away words. Indeed, the very existence of culture is dependent on the expectation that we won’t do that. Every human life is a ledger, and Wilde racked up a good many contributions against his list of sins, as did Norman Mailer (stabbed his wife), Charles Dickens (made racist remarks), Ezra Pound (an anti-Semite), and Woody Allen (got an hour?). Good art can be separated from the artist, as Graham Daesler argued in our last issue. What makes Wilde’s case particularly tricky is that his most iconic work wasn’t his drama or his poetry, brilliant though much of that was; it was he himself, his persona as a witty and raffish aesthete, inevitably tied up with his sexual infractions. Oscar Wilde was Oscar Wilde’s magnum opus, and his other work is largely derivative. Many of his characters are self-reflections (Dorian Gray is essentially the story of three Wildes). His epigrams are little capsules of his personality.
From his early days at Oxford when college authorities accused him of being too indulgent in the decoration of his room, there was always a whiff of alluring transgression about Wilde. This has been praised, envied, imitated—most of all by Vidal and Hitchens—often without acknowledging that it scarcely bothered to conceal some dark truths. The best lesson from l’affaire Wilde, then, may be the most trite: bad boys, even genteel and literate ones, are, well, bad, and we shouldn’t act so scandalized when they turn out to be that way. At any rate, it would be unwise to end a piece on Wilde with anything but his own words: “I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop.”
Matt Purple is managing editor of The American Conservative.