History is full of tragic figures including and perhaps especially artists. In the last few years we have witnessed the deaths of Amy Winehouse
, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston
to name but three. To some extent, all three of them can be said to have been the authors of their own misfortune, but nevertheless we can rightly feel a great deal of sympathy for them. Can the same be said of Oscar Wilde?
A recent article by self-styled social justice advocate Daniel Davidson makes the bland statement that "Oscar Wilde Was Arrested for Homosexuality...
" the implication being that poor, persecuted Oscar was victimised solely on account of his sexual activities with consenting adults. Shame on those wicked Victorians. The full, sordid facts of Oscar Wilde's fall from grace are a matter of thoroughly documented public record, and this kind of whitewashing should fool no one, except that it has almost certainly already.
Wilde was indeed arrested for sodomy and gross indecency, but how did this come about?
Oscar Wilde was a married man with two young sons; his wife was a beautiful, charming, literate woman, and Wilde had a comfortable life. Then he met the younger Lord Alfred Douglas, and became infatuated with him. There is no need to go into explicit detail about what Wilde and Douglas did together, but it was by any account sordid. The younger Douglas lured him into the seedy side of the capital's night life, and this led to their liaising with male prostitutes. Take homosexuality out of the equation, and it would still be sordid.
In Victorian England, homosexual acts between consenting adults were illegal, but although eyebrows were raised, Wilde suffered no harassment from the law, perhaps because by this time he was a name in London society, but more likely because the police had more important things to do. It should be noted this was shortly after the Whitechapel Murders
, and at that time the police had no assistance from either DNA or CCTV
Believing Wilde to be a pernicious influence on his son, the Marquess of Queensberry branded him publicly a sodomite, misspelling the word in an infamous note which he left at Wilde's club. Wilde could and should have ignored it, but like the emphatically heterosexual Jeffrey Archer
nearly a century later, he issued a legal challenge. Archer won his libel case and was awarded half a million pounds damages, though fourteen years later he would face a trial for perjury, and end up behind bars.
The Wilde libel case was different entirely; because he had accused Queensberry of criminal libel, the nobleman faced a prison sentence if the case were proven.
In other words, Wilde tried to have an innocent man thrown into gaol for telling the truth about him, and that to an audience that was a) extremely limited and b) undoubtedly aware of what Wilde had been doing anyway.
You can read the full, sordid details on the dedicated website
, but the bottom line is that before the defence could call a single witness, Wilde withdrew on legal advice, and Queensberry was acquitted. After the trial, Wilde was arrested for the aforementioned sexual offences, and after two trials he was convicted.
On his release from prison, bankrupted and disgraced, he fled to France where he spent the rest of his short life wallowing in self-pity. Now update this story.
Again, take homosexuality out of the equation and change the name of this so-called icon from Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde to Joe Sixpack. Instead of being an acclaimed wit, reviewer, journalist and playwright, Joe is a builder. He owns his own small business which he runs with one full time employee - and old schoolfriend - and takes on casual labour here and there. He is also a married man with two young sons. Then one day he receives a call from a young lady who wants a broken window fixed. It's only a small job, so Joe turns up on her doorstep, and in two hours he has repaired her window, and as he is about to leave she invites him to a club, handing him a complimentary ticket. She explains she is unemployed but receives a generous allowance from her rich Daddy. She also dances part time in said club.
Joe thanks her and accepts, more out of curiosity than anything else, but after seeing her dance he becomes fascinated with her, and she likes him, being unlike any man she has ever met before. They begin a steamy affair which involves wild parties, which Joe is glad to pay for, and they are soon snorting cocaine together. This is her idea, but Joe foots the bill and seeks out the dealers. At the same time he is partying it up with his mistress including having sex with other dancers, and women who earn their living in less exotic fashion, Joe is sleeping with his unsuspecting wife and running the risk of giving her some unpleasant social disease. Then his lover's father turns up; because Joe is older than his daughter he jumps to the conclusion that he has led her astray; he also accuses Joe of supplying her with cocaine.
Unwisely, Joe sues for libel, and when the case opens he denies ever having used or procured Class A drugs. At the close of the plaintiff's case, the defence asks for permission to adduce a newly discovered witness, a man who has only the previous day been released from prison after serving a short sentence for possessing cocaine. Joe's lawyer objects, but the judge admits the evidence. Even worse, the defence says there is CCTV footage which was thought to have been recorded over, but which has just been located. It shows Joe handing over a wad of cash to an unidentified individual, apparently in return for a small packet. Joe consults with his lawyers, and drops the case.
The next day, the police turn up at his home. Although they turn it upside down, they find nothing, but Joe is charged with perjury and with drug offences. Whisked off to gaol for two years, he is also bankrupted by the man he dragged into court.
You may feel sorry for him, but clearly he is the author of his own misfortune. He is also a humble builder, one of us little people, so no one considers him a victim, a martyr, and least of all an icon. If Oscar Wilde had been a builder or shopkeeper and had suffered a similar fate to the one he did regardless of the sex of his companions, he would have been at best a footnote in history, one of countless defendants judged and sentenced and now located in the Old Bailey Proceedings
for all to see.
It is truly amazing that today Wilde is held in such high repute by people who should know better. Here is someone who does know better, essayist Douglas Linder
who sums up Wilde to a tee as a man of colossal ego who believed his "genius" set him above the law: “I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not laws.”
And here is Stephen Fry
, a great Wilde admirer, discoursing on what a wonderful person his hero was. He even talks of Wilde's values. Fry has one thing in common with Wilde, he went to Oxbridge. Unlike Fry, Wilde was not homosexual but bisexual, and whatever character flaws Fry may have, it is difficult to imagine him treating any woman as shabbily as Wilde treated his wife; it is difficult to imagine Fry enticing young men to perform sex acts on him for money, and Fry would surely not perjure himself as blatantly as did Wilde in order to put a concerned father or any man behind bars.
If Fry wants to find a homosexual to look up to, he should choose Noël Coward
, in whom he has a professional interest. Unlike Wilde, Coward did not have a classical education, but his achievements dwarf those of Wilde. Coward was also contemptuous of the gay
sub-culture, and one suspects he would have been even if homosexuality had been legal for most of his life. The bottom line is that if Oscar Wilde is to be admired at all it should be for his very limited contribution to English literature. As Wilde himself said: "There is no sin except stupidity".
Whether or not that is entirely true, he certainly exhibited stupidity in abundance, as do those who to this day fawn on his ghost.