In honor of Gay History Month, Wilde City Press is teaming up with authors and blogger alike to celebrate key events and notable figures in history that have shaped and impacted the world around us.
I’ve never made it a secret that I have a major love for (and possible obsession with) Oscar Wilde, as much for the tragic figure he was as for his brilliance and eloquence and the quick and keen wit that has become legendary, so when The Novel Approach was invited to participate in this important celebration my selection was instantaneous and came without forethought or hesitation. Who better to spotlight, after all, than the man after whom Wilde City Press was named?
Yes, Oscar Wilde is absolutely the source of our name. We wanted to name ourselves after a great gay icon and combine that with a place or destination. Hence “Wilde” and “City” came together and Wilde City was born :)—Geoffrey Knight
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, one-hundred-fifty-nine years ago yesterday, October 16, 1854, the second of three children born to Sir William and Jane Wilde. Wilde’s younger years were spent, not surprisingly, reading and writing poetry, the love for which had been fostered by his mother, a poet herself, those literary and academic pursuits eventually earning him a royal scholarship to read the classics at Trinity College, where he established himself as an outstanding student, though he eventually went on to graduate from Oxford.
Wilde’s introduction to society came first as an orator, however, not as a author. It was, in fact, believed that he was a much better speaker than he was a writer in those days. In his early years, speaking engagements were his primary source of income, but it was his romantic nature, poetic soul, and the worship of beauty that fostered his love of storytelling. Many of his earliest attempts at prose and playwriting were soundly panned or outright dismissed by critics, which might have discouraged a less conceited man, but Wilde’s confidence in his own intellectual superiority supported his belief that his talent far exceeded the intelligence of the unenlightened Puritanical society in which he lived. In Wilde’s estimation, there was no such thing as bad press, after all. It was far better to be discussed in negative terms than not to be discussed at all.
Oscar Wilde’s charm lay in his facility for language and his clever and satiric sense of humor, though that same quick wit and sharp tongue attracted friends as well as foes, his very public war of words in the press with the artist James Whistler becoming legendary in their time and perhaps surprisingly to many, including Wilde himself, had positioned him on the losing end of their verbal exchanges more often than not.
Wilde seems to have attracted his share of admirers in spite of being described in rather unflattering physical terms—flabby, greasy, and with a black front tooth, not to mention being labeled colossally vain. Upon arriving in America in 1881 for a speaking engagement, it was reported that when asked by the Revenue Agents if he had anything to declare, Wilde’s response was, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” Humility was obviously not a character trait he honed, but it was that acerbic wit which quickly gave rise to his status in London society and made him a much sought after member of certain genteel circles.
By all accounts, Wilde was not only a gentleman but a gentle man, assigned such perceived feminine qualities as a love of social niceties and a dislike of coarse language. It was also widely observed that Wilde frequently shrank from conflict, a quality that eventually helped lead to his ruin, beginning in the first of his two trials, Wilde vs. Queensbury, in February, 1895.
Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, son of the Marquis of Queensbury, brought both ecstasy and agony to Oscar Wilde’s life. It was no secret by the time they’d met and started a “particular friendship” that Wilde, an aesthetic, appreciated beauty in all its forms, including that of young men. Bosie was Wilde’s junior by sixteen years, blond, doe-eyed and soft-featured. Wilde was known to associate and keep company with other young men, as well, those not of his social station, which was suspect in itself; adding to that lack of discretion a gross abundance of naïveté on his part, and it only served to spotlight his questionable judgment. When Queensbury, a legendary brute and hot-headed man, made very public accusations against Wilde’s character and brought into question his sexual proclivities (this despite Wilde being both a husband and a father), Oscar reacted in what his inner circle would perceive as a contradiction to his usual avoidance of direct confrontation, taking his affront to the courts and suing Queensbury for libel.
The trial went badly from the start for Wilde, whose own work was used against him in court. The Picture of Dorian Gray was criticized as an immoral celebration of hedonism, prompting Wilde’s now famous observation, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” The prosecution aimed to discredit Wilde by any and all means, going so far as to cite perfectly benign articles he’d written which had appeared in publication alongside pieces deemed salacious by society at large, one example being a piece written by John Francis Bloxam titled The Priest and the Acolyte, the tragic story of a priest who falls in love with a young altar boy.
Wilde, armed only with his gift for words, arrived entirely unprepared for what amounted to a public assassination of his character, and while he made some decidedly salient points and struck more than a few chords, a prejudicial judge and a public ready to punish him for gross indecency did nothing but illuminate how ill advised it was for Wilde to ignore the advice of friends and pursue the libel charges against Queensbury. The court unsurprisingly ruled in Queensbury’s favor and prompted Wilde’s second trial, in which he was finally charged with gross indecency itself. Lord Alfred Douglas’ own work was eventually brought into evidence: the two published poems he’d written, “In Praise of Shame” and “Two Loves,” which includes the now famous, then infamous, quote “I am the love that dare not speak its name,” submitted as proof of depravity. The trial and charges brought against Wilde propelled him into a spiral of despondency and reticence, his gift for elocution entirely absent, which led him to concede defeat before the court had even handed down his sentence. Not that fighting back would have influenced the outcome, as Wilde had already been tried, convicted, and vilified in the court of public opinion before the first arguments were ever heard.
During the trials, “Bosie” Douglas was conspicuously absent—whether he’d abandoned Wilde in his darkest hour, or Wilde sent him away, is unclear—but what is clear is that there are many in Wilde’s circles who felt Lord Douglas ought to have been on trial right next to Oscar, knowing that Wilde didn’t get where he was solely on his own devices. What wouldn’t have changed, whether Douglas had been present or not, however, is the fact that Wilde’s trials were a travesty of justice and in no uncertain terms was he offered anything resembling a fair and impartial hearing. Humiliated and deflated, Oscar Wilde shrank from the conflict, as was his propensity; the railroading and decimation of his character was complete.
In spite of the lack of proof or physical evidence that Wilde had ever committee an act of sodomy, he was sentenced to two years’ hard labor, serving that time amongst the most hardened of criminals: murderers, rapists, thieves, an experience that broke him mentally, physically and spiritually, and, in the end, left him penniless and living in exile until his death on November 30, 1900. The clearest picture of Wilde’s tragic defeat can be found in his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a dark and desolate portrait of what prison did to this brilliant and gentle man.
Though Wilde and his Bosie never spoke again, and, in fact, spoke out against each other publicly, Wilde accusing Bosie of being needy of near constant handling and attention, Lord Douglas denying any sort of romantic inclinations toward Wilde and roundly condemning homosexuality as a sin, it was not until after Wilde’s death that Douglas renounced that opinion in his book Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up, saying, “Sometimes a sin is also a crime (for example, a murder or theft) but this is not the case with homosexuality, any more than with adultery.” Perhaps not a vindication but a posthumous apology of sorts, nonetheless.
One thing is most certain: Oscar Wilde surely never intended to become a martyr of homosexuality, or to be made a criminal according to Victorian social mores, but he has, indeed, become an example of a man who impacted history. He was a man born far ahead of his time.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”