One of my favourite writers of all time is Oscar Wilde, for the simple reason that anyone with the brain to write something as detailed and captivating as ‘the picture of Dorian Grey’ had to have lived an interesting and extremely eccentric life himself. This was not far at all from the truth, although another notable thing about Wilde is quite how fearlessly he expressed his sexuality, in a time when homosexuality – or ‘sodomy’ – was punishable in Britain by several years imprisonment.
Wilde was born in 1854 in Ireland and was extremely well educated, attending Oxford university and learning both French and German fluently as a boy. He moved to London, and soon rose to fame for his impressive works of Literature. To give an idea of Wilde’s writing style, if you’ve ever used the term ‘aesthetic’ on social media, this is derived in fact from the movement of aestheticism that Wilde was a spokesman for, and which features heavily in his novels through sensuous language and long, lavish descriptions. A patron of art, poetry, journalism and even interior design, the skilled conversationalist and flamboyant dresser known as Wilde soon became well known in upper class social circles, an unforgettable and glittering personality. In the modern day, it would perhaps be easy to look at a man like Wilde and see the social cues that he was almost definitely gay. No straight man has ever paid enough attention to interior decorating to write more than a page of a novel describing curtains and marble fixtures. But Wilde in fact married a woman named Constance, with whom he had two children.
Some have suggested because of this fact that Wilde may have actually been bisexual, although his relations with women may have been due solely to the social pressures to be heteronormative during Victorian times. However, it’s undeniable that he had a strong interest in men from as early as his university days, with one documented letter from him written while he was at Oxford to a boy he seemed to fancy stating “I enjoyed my time with you, and I shall be ever so sad until I see you again.” It was also noted that it was after Wilde’s wife became ill during pregnancy, and “lost her lithe, slender, boyish figure” that Wilde entered into a relationship with his first known male lover whilst married, Robbie Ross; a lifelong friend. Ross was staying with Oscar and Constance when he allegedly seduced Wilde, who was always “open to a new sensation.”
However, it is his romance with Lord Alfred Douglass – the son of the Marquess of Queensbury – that is most well known, above that of his marriage to Constance. “Bosie” was a spoiled young man, though he was known to be beautiful, and a golden boy of sorts. His story however was one that intersected tragically with Wilde’s. Perhaps doomed to be cruel by being born to a monstrously cruel father, Bosie would not only squander his own talent on sonnets and magazines pursuing his campaigns against Robbie Ross, the Asquiths, the Jews, and any other party by whom he felt wronged, but personally betray Wilde in later years.
Bosie partook in some unsavoury forms of entertainment in his youth, such as indulging in the company of male prostitutes, and Wilde went along, perhaps already foolishly in love with the man. Prostituting however soon became a habit for Wilde. The writer would dine out in public with the men in places like the Cafe Royal, in full view of the Victorian upper class, and in full view of those who served them. He gave the men gifts, invited them on holiday, and overall became far less cautious in hiding his sexual preferences as his affair with Bosie continued. He appeared to be proud of his leanings, and were he able to attend a modern pride festival I have no doubt he’d be at the top of a rainbow float. To quote Wilde, in his own words, he believed that “there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely – or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.”
Bosie’s father however resented the gossip circulating about Wilde and his son. The Marquess wanted to pick a fight with the man, but couldn’t find him in London. Therefore, he famously left a calling card at a club Oscar belonged to, on which he had written, “To Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.” Wilde had gone back and forth between hiding his sexual orientation as a matter of necessity and attempting to gain some measure of public acceptance, but homosexuality was still a criminal offense and serious societal taboo at this time in Britain. This was therefore a serious insult.
Unfortunately Bosie was with Wilde when he was handed the card, who was more than willing to disregard the offense, but Bosie thought his father had handed them a wonderful opportunity to sue and humiliate him. When Wilde went with Bosie to his solicitor to talk about suing for libel, his solicitor made him swear there was nothing truthful in the accusation that he had slept with other men, and Wilde did so.
The lawsuit went forward, and for a while Bosie’s father couldn’t find any witnesses to testify that Wilde had had relations with them. An actor named Brookfield however – who notoriously disliked Wilde – told him where to locate male prostitutes who had evidence that Wilde and Bosie had entertained them at high-class London hotels. (Later in life, Wilde told one of his biographers that this alleged evidence against him was about something Bosie had done, and not himself; but he loved Bosie so much that he was willing to take the blame for something his lover had done.) In total, the Lord argued that Wilde had solicited 12 males to commit sodomy between 1892 and 1894, and so on the third day of the proceedings Wilde’s lawyer withdrew the lawsuit, since there was abundant evidence of his client’s guilt.
Now, neither the government or the Victorian public were going to tolerate the presence of an exposed, proven homosexual in society. Wilde’s friends urged him to flee on the last boat to France, however Bosie – who had done little to deny Wilde’s ‘guilt’ – insisted he stay and fight, and proclaimed that he was a coward if he fled. Therefore, he stayed in a hotel room and drank until officers arrived to arrest him.
At Wilde’s first criminal trial, he was cross-examined extensively on the homoerotic themes of his book Dorian Grey, and the final line of Bosie’s poem titled two loves, “the love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde managed to secure a mistrial when a lone juror refused to vote to convict. The second trial began, and although many of the potential witnesses refused to betray Wilde by testifying, he was convicted of “gross indecency” at the end of a third trial, and sentenced to two years hard labour in Reading Jail – simply for sleeping with other consenting men.
Bosie himself was never charged with anything, on the grounds that it might ruin the young English lord’s life. Wilde was from Ireland and held no aristocratic title, and these things mattered in 1895; much like some judges today will excuse rape on the grounds it could ‘ruin’ the rapists life if convicted. On the contrary, Wilde was sent away, his home and his goods seized to pay the debts of his creditors, and his wife was left without a home. Wilde was locked up for 23 hours a day for two years, often in dark solitary confinement, and prisoners were forbidden from communication at any time. The only time inmates mixed was in the chapel, but even then they wore hooded cloaks and stood partitioned from others. It is believed that this brutal regime may have near broken the man.
Constance was forced to legally separate from her husband despite clinging to hope of a future with Wilde – for their children. In spite of these plans and the fact that Wilde was entirely financially dependent on her, he still went back to Bosie upon his release, desperately in love with him to the extent that it was during his time in prison he wrote a 50,000 word love letter to the Lord, considered one of his best works. He claimed he did not return to Constance, though, because she delayed and delayed their reunion until he lost patience, wanting to see his boys. On Constance’s part, she “needed to test Oscar because he’d already shattered Cyril (their son) once; to have Oscar come back and then revert to his old ways (she thought his homosexuality a form of madness) would only shatter Cyril again.”
Wilde and Bosie moved swiftly to the South of Italy together, where they lived in exile until Bosie’s mother cut off her son’s funds. The relationship wasn’t the same, though, as Wilde was not only troubled by his time in prison but had aged, and Bosie preferred young men. It seems that tragically he had always loved Bosie more than Bosie had loved him. He was frequently documented to be quite cruel and cutting to Wilde, in fact, and though an argument can be made that Bosie suffered from manic-depression, Wilde kept taking him back, until the petulant young lord lost interest in the once passionate affair and never returned to him. Dejected, Wilde went to Paris to continue his exile, where he rejected visitors, and wrote “begging letters to his friends back in England.” This was unfortunately a sad end to a fiery life; as he soon died at 46 due to meningitis caused by a fall during his time in prison.
In a twist of fate, it was Robbie Ross who came over from England and was with him to the end, instead of Bosie. When Wilde was buried in one Paris cemetery, Ross arranged a few years later for his remains to be moved to Pere Lachaise in Paris. When Ross died, his remains were interred alongside Wilde’s in Pere Lachaise, perhaps hinting towards a long, unrecognised love between the two after their enlightening affair earlier in life.
Though Wilde did not die alone, and instead beside a love that no prison time could break, it is argued that he would not have died at all were it not for this harsh and unjust sentence which took a gifted artist and quite literally destroyed him. In spite of the strictures of Victorian laws against LGBT people, Wilde was still a beacon of pride throughout his life, writing freely and liberally about love between men, and openly courting his own male lovers in full view of the hostile Victorian public. Above all else he died authentic, and will forever be remembered and immortalised for both his beautiful works of literature, and for his unflinching boldness as a queer man.