Queensberry began taking increasingly desperate measures to end the relationship. He threatened restaurant and hotel managers with beatings if he ever discovered Wilde and his son together on their premises. In June of 1894 Queenberry, accompanied by a prize-fighter, showed up without warning at Wilde’s house in Chelsea. An angry conversation ensued, ending when Wilde ordered Queensberry to leave saying, ‘I do not know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.’
This section did not create or define an offence. It provided the penalty for the existing common law offence of defamatory libel. This was abolished in England and Wales only in 2010.
The Libel Act 1843 s.6 allowed the defendant to prove the truth of a libel as a valid defence in criminal proceedings, but only if it also be demonstrated that publication of the libel was to the ‘Public Benefit.’
Proving the statement’s truth had previously been allowed only in civil libel defences inasmuch as the criminal offence against the public at large was considered to be provoking a breach of the peace via printing malicious statements rather than the defamation per se; the truth or falsity of the statement had therefore been considered irrelevant in criminal proceedings before the Act.
‘Proceedings upon the trial of an indictment or information for a defamatory libel. Double plea. Proviso as to plea of not guilty in civil and criminal proceedings. On the trial of any indictment or information for a defamatory libel, the defendant having pleaded such plea as hereinafter mentioned, the truth of the matters charged may be inquired into, but shall not amount to a defence, unless it was for the public benefit that the said matters charged should be published; and to entitle the defendant to give evidence of the truth of such matters charged as a defence to such indictment or information it shall be necessary for the defendant, in pleading to the said indictment or information, to allege the truth of the said matters charged in the manner now required in pleading a justification to an action for defamation, and further to allege that it was for the public benefit that the said matters charged should be published, and the particular fact or facts by reason whereof it was for the public benefit that the said matters charged should be published, to which plea the prosecutor shall be at liberty to reply generally, denying the whole thereof; and if after such plea the defendant shall be convicted on such indictment or information it shall be competent to the court, in pronouncing sentence, to consider whether the guilt of the defendant is aggravated or mitigated by the said plea, and by the evidence given to prove or to disprove the same: Provided always, that the truth of the matters charged in the alleged libel complained of by such indictment or information shall in no case be inquired into without such plea of justification: Provided also, that in addition to such plea it shall be competent to the defendant to plead a plea of not guilty: Provided also, that nothing in this Act contained shall take away or prejudice any defence under the plea of not guilty which it is now competent to the defendant to make under such plea to any action or indictment or information for defamatory words or libel.’
In this instance it is important to understand fully the wording of the ‘publication’ which from the archives of the trial is as below:
Today we republish the well-known story of Oscar Wilde who died in 1900 after a sentence of two years in jail for sexual offences. His case should never have come to Court and certainly it should never have been permitted by the Trial Judge for reasons that are evident.
John Sholto Douglas, Marquis of Queensberry, pleaded not guilty, and also that the libel was true and that it was for the public benefit that it should be published.
Sir Edward Clarke-‘May it please you my lord, gentlemen of the jury. You have heard the charge against the defendant, which is that he published a false and malicious libel in regard to Mr. Oscar Wilde. That libel was published in the form of a card left by Lord Queensberry at a club to which Mr. Oscar Wilde belonged. It was a visiting card of Lord Queensberry’s, with his name printed upon it, and it had written upon it certain words which formed the libel complained of. On that card his lordship wrote: ‘Oscar Wilde posing as a sodomite.’ Of course it is a matter, of serious moment that such a libel as that which Lord Queensberry wrote upon that card should in any way be connected with a gentleman who has borne a high reputation in this country. The words of the libel are not directly an accusation of the gravest of all offences the suggestion is that there was no guilt of the actual offence, but that in some way or other the person of whom those words were written did appear-nay, desired to appear-and pose to be a person guilty of or inclined to the commission of the gravest of all offences. You will appreciate that the leaving of such a card openly with the porter of a dub is a most serious matter and one likely gravely to affect the position of the person as to whom that injurious suggestion was made.’
There is no such word in the English dictionary as ‘somdomite’ and as such neither could such a word be deemed or covered by the Libel Act 1843 since a non-existent word or phrase cannot de jure be deemed Libel and as a consequence nor could any defence be presented compliant to The Libel Act s.6 since no offence was committed.
Sir Edward Clarke erred and as the exhibits were presented in Court and available the Trial Judge should have at that stage, or prior to such, intervened. The Libel Act 1843 was a penal statute and as such had to be strictly interpreted. The word ‘somdomite’ which was the actual de facto and de jure word used which deemed a libel was erroneously referred to by Sir Edward Clarke as ‘sodomite’ which of course would have been subject to criminal libel.
Defence Counsel Edward Carson at no stage in his speech on April 4th and 5th 1895 did he seek to comply with the ‘public interest’ element which was a pre-requisite under The Libel Act 1843 s.6 but more important failed wholly to deal with the actual published criminal libel the word ‘somdomite’ instead concentrating on the word ‘posing.’ In his closing speech Carson confirms this approach by saying:Sir Edward Clarke on the 5th April 1845 concedes the verdict of ‘not guilty’ against the Marquis of Queensberry solely on the basis of the word ‘posing’:
‘Lord Queensberry has undertaken to prove that Mr. Wilde has been ‘posing’ as guilty of certain vices.’
‘Under these circumstances I hope your lordship will think I am taking the right course, which I take after communicating with Mr. Oscar Wilde. That is to say that, having regard to what has been referred to by my learned friend in respect of the matters connected with the literature and the letters, I feel we could not resist a verdict of not guilty in this case–not guilty having reference to the word ‘posing.’ Under these circumstances I hope you will think I am not going beyond–the bounds of my duty, and that I am doing something to save, to prevent, what would be a most horrible task, however it might close, if I now interpose and say on behalf of Mr. Oscar Wilde that I would ask to withdraw from the prosecution.’
For the posthumous pardon of Oscar Wilde email your support to: email@example.com
In literature, the pursuit of forbidden love often has tragic consequences. For Oscar Wilde, a prolific literary genius and social critic who was at the peak of his success in the late 19th century, those consequences were all too real. His fall from grace, like that of a classic tragic hero, was swift and complete.
Oscar Wilde was also a homosexual in a time when being gay was a criminal offense. As a cover, Wilde was married with two children and an extraordinarily beautiful and loyal wife, and was for the most part discrete in his homosexual activities. His most popular work, The Picture of Dorian Gray, had caused a stir because of its not-so-subtle homosexual references, but Wilde did not write Dorian Gray as a protest piece. The homosexual element of Dorian Gray was more of a literary device, a gay version of medieval courtly behaviour, when a knight pledged his love for an unobtainable lady in platonic form.
His flamboyant lifestyle, ego and choice of romantic partners had dire consequences. Wilde was persecuted for his art and for his love of another man. In some ways, his pride and poor judgment in matters unrelated to art would cost him everything.
Oscar and Bosie
Oscar and Bosie, as his friends called Lord Alfred Douglas, met in Chelsea when Bosie was 22 and Wilde 15 years his elder. Oscar immediately became enamoured with Bosie, who was thrilled that such a literary genius was interested in him.
Bosie was flagrantly and openly homosexual, a spendthrift and gambler, according to Wilde’s biographer, Richard Ellman. He was a dropout at Oxford, a ne’er-do-well who was as loose with his morals as he was with his purse. He had his family’s temper, which flared when he didn’t get his way.
Bosie knew of Wilde’s affection for him early on and succeeded in using it to his advantage. He relied on Wilde’s money when his own ran out and would pout and threaten self-injury when Wilde complained of his behaviour or criticised his literary skills. For the length of their relationship, Lord Alfred used Oscar’s love for him as a means to get what he wanted. In the end, Wilde sacrificed himself to protect Lord Alfred, who remained a loyal, yet manipulative, friend.
Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas, 1893 (Library of Congress)
In 1894 Lord Alfred published a poem, “Two Loves,” in the controversial British literary magazine The Chameleon, which also featured works by Wilde. The romantic poem, probably Bosie’s best effort, ends:
What is thy name?’ He said, ‘My name is Love.’
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, ‘He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.’
Then sighing, said the other, ‘Have thy will,
I am the love that dare not speak its name.’
Lord Alfred Douglas was the son of the Marquis of Queensberry, a hot-headed Scotsman, who was prone to violence. It could have been because he was punch drunk; Queensberry was a champion pugilist and created rules of boxing still in use today. He tended to settle things by fist and gun. He was well known for abusing his wife and children and had even brawled openly with one son in downtown London.
Marquis of Queensberry’s boxing rules
“Your intimacy with this man Wilde must either cease or I will disown you and stop all money supplies,” Queensberry threatened in 1893. He publicly scolded his son and even showed up at Wilde’s house with a champion boxer to threaten the author. Wilde’s response was, “I do not know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Wilde rules are to shoot on sight!”
Book cover: The Importance of Being Earnest
The feud between Queensberry and Wilde went on for several years and came to climax as Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest was set to premiere in London. Queensberry threatened to disrupt the premiere and ruin the performance. Given that he had previously successfully carried out a similar threat, Wilde took Queensberry seriously. He hired a cordon of guards to stand outside the theatre while the play was on. The Marquis tried to make good on his threat but was thwarted. He paced outside the theatre with a bouquet of vegetables until the performance was over.
Queensberry wrote once more to his son, following through on his threat to disown him. ‘You reptile, you are no son of mine and I never thought you were.
It was a high time for Wilde. Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest were both critical and popular successes as was another play, The Ideal Husband. Master of the epigram and the bon mot, Wilde was the toast of London and a popular guest at parties. Seemingly uncaring that Queensberry was planning his downfall, he openly consorted with ‘renters’ young male prostitutes and held court in some of London’s finest establishments.
The Libel Trial
Edward Carson, Queensberry’s Barrister-in-law
‘You stated that your age was 39,’ Carson said, looking at the floor, his brow furrowed as if deep in thought. Then he stared directly at Wilde.’I think you are over 40. You were born on 16th October, 1854?’
CARSON: ‘The majority of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates?’
‘…I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted with passion. I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me. I would sooner-than have you bitter, unjust, hating…. I must see you soon. You are the divine thing I want, the thing of grace and beauty; but I don’t know how to do it,’ looking up from the letter, Carson asked a final question of a very pale and nervous witness. ‘Is it the kind of letter a man writes to another?’
‘It was a tender expression of my great admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas,’ Wilde replied quietly. A Knockdown
‘I first met him in October when arranging for the publication of my books,’ Wilde replied. ‘I asked him to dine with me at the Albemarle Hotel.’
The Albemarle Hotel in Piccadilly
Carson wanted to know why a man of letters like Wilde would be interested in dinner with a mere clerk. Was it for an intellectual treat, he wondered?
Carson took on an exaggerated look of confusion. ‘Was that the reason why you did not kiss him?’
Regardless, Edward Carson’s inquisition flattened Oscar Wilde.
His boot on Wilde’s neck, Queensberry prepared to deliver the coup de grace. He told his solicitor to send the notes from the libel trial and all of the evidence his private detectives had turned up about Wilde’s interest in boy prostitutes to Scotland Yard. This move left authorities with no choice but to arrest Wilde and charge him with gross indecency. Next Queensberry sent word to Wilde alerting him to what he had done. He ended the note with a threat. ‘I will not prevent your flight, but if you take my son with you, I will shoot you like a dog,’ Queensberry wrote.
Wilde’s wife, Constance, and son Cyril
Again Wilde wavered on whether he should flee the country. His wife Constance urged him to leave England, as did some of his friends. Few, if any, argued that he should stay and face the charges. But Wilde’s ego was such that he couldn’t bear being known as a coward and outlaw. He was deathly afraid of prison, but even more so of the disgrace that faced a gentleman who ran away from legal troubles.
The world quickly crashed around Wilde. His name was taken down from the marquees where his two plays had been showing, to packed houses, and an American tour of ‘A Woman of No Importance’ was cancelled. A sale of his work ‘Salome’ fell through. His ‘friends’ backed away from him and refused to help post bond, even though a magistrate had set no amount. Others who had been named in the papers as friends of Wilde fled the country lest they be charged themselves. Those who did stand by him were ostracized by London society and were evicted from apartments and expelled from clubs.
The First Trial
A grand jury indicted Wilde and Alfred Taylor, the local procurer whose name had come up several times, in Queensberry’s investigation, with indecency and sodomy. The evidence against Taylor was at least as damning as that against Wilde, and the young man was under tremendous pressure to turn state’s evidence against Wilde. Taylor declined.
”The Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the “Love that dare not speak its name,” and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, 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 glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.’
Although he was adamantly against homosexuality, Justice Sir Arthur Charles was not one to allow the seriousness of the accusation to trump the law and before giving the case to the jury, he dismissed the conspiracy charges, as there was never any evidence offered that would show Taylor and Wilde conspired together to commit sodomy. The majority of the charges dropped, then, Sir Arthur asked the jurors to retire to consider the evidence.
‘The last day of the trial, 25 May, was the Queen’s birthday,’ wrote Ellman. ‘(The prosecutor) made his final speech…He raked Wilde over; he dealt with the suspect letters to Douglas, the payment of blackmail to Wood, the relations with Taylor, Wood, Parker…which he insisted corroborated each other.’
In the English system, the judge is charged with summing up the facts of the case for the jurors, and then presenting them with the questions of guilt or innocence. Justice Wills was a homophobe and, despite his education, one of the Philistines Wilde had railed against in his first trial. Wills was as sober and unimaginative a man as ever sat on the bench, and he ranked sodomy just slightly below murder in terms of atrocity. His summation proved this. He spoke of the letters to Bosie in the most unflattering terms and finished by saying, ‘This is the worst case I have ever tried.’
Two hours after being given the case, the jurors returned. They found Wilde guilty on all counts save one involving Edward Shelley. Justice Wills then addressed the convicts.
Prison and After
Shortly after being read the rules of the prison system, utter silence at all times, Wilde was taken to his cell and fed a typical meal of watery porridge and a slice of bread. From Newgate he was taken to Pentonville Prison, where he was placed on the treadmill. At night he was returned to his cell, where he slept on a wooden plank without mattress.
Slowly, over time, Wilde adapted to prison and it to him. He was later allowed writing materials and was transferred to better surroundings. It was in Reading that he developed one of his best works, ‘A Ballad of Reading Gaol.’ The Ballad is an allegorical biography of Wilde’s downfall and was prompted by Wilde’s witnessing of an execution. In it, he wrote what could almost serve as his obituary:
Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.
I only knew what haunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.
Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
He died in 1900.
Oscar Wilde, remembered in stained glass at Westminster Abbey
Much of Wilde’s writing is autobiographical, not so much in relation of events, but in thoughts and desires. ‘Dorian Gray’ is probably the most self-reflective. One of its characters expresses Wilde’s philosophy of life: ‘We can have in life but one great experience at best, and the secret of life is to reproduce that experience as often as possible.’