Andrew Elfenbein, “On the Trials of Oscar Wilde: Myths and Realities”


This essay contradicts myths often found in popular writing about Oscar Wilde: (1) Wilde was an aristocrat; (2) Victorians knew nothing about homosexuality; (3) Wilde was put on trial for being a homosexual; (4) once Wilde was on trial, his conviction was inevitable; and (5) after the trials, Wilde disappeared. It concludes by speculating on future directions for work on Wilde and sexuality.

photo of Wilde

Figure 1: Photograph of Oscar Wilde, by Napoleon Sarony

An outline of popular knowledge of Oscar Wilde’s downfall might read like this: Wilde was a rich, glamorous, aristocratic celebrity, famous for his wit and funny plays.  Yet when his homosexuality came to light, Victorian society was shocked.  Wilde was hunted down, prosecuted for his homosexuality, and thrown into prison; he died soon after his release.  The scandal made his name unspeakable and works unsalable.  Only after decades did it become possible to mention him.  His trials made homosexuality even more invisible than it had been before.

This sketch has the seeds of a great story.  It makes Wilde a gay martyr; proves stereotypes about the Victorians as judgmental, ignorant hypocrites; and confirms paranoia about “the system” when faced with supposedly deviant behaviors.  Unfortunately, although some parts of this story are true, others are not.  By turning Wilde into the archetypal gay martyr, it washes out the contingencies, surprises, and sheer strangeness of his trials.  All their events become the seemingly inevitable consequence of homophobia.  Without denying the potency of the image of Wilde as martyr or the justifiable outrage that many still feel about the trials, I want to focus on Wilde the individual, not Wilde the archetype.  Homophobia (or, more specifically, revulsion at anal sex) mattered in the Wilde trials, but no single cause explains the complex, disastrous events.  Even after volumes of writing, much about the trials remains cloudy.  For example, transcripts of the second two trials have disappeared, so historians have to use biased, incomplete newspaper reports.  Nevertheless, mysterious as the trials may be, some common mistakes can be fixed.  My goal is less to give new information than to correct misimpressions sometimes found in popular writing about Wilde.

Myth #1:  Oscar Wilde was an aristocrat.

Writers sometimes credit Wilde with a higher rank than he had because he was the son of “Sir” and “Lady” Wilde.  Those titles are misleading.  A knighthood like that of Wilde’s father was closer to a reward for outstanding service than a sign of belonging to the aristocracy.  Wilde came from a squarely middle-class background:  his father was a doctor; his mother, a writer and Irish patriot.  Although he wrote about aristocrats and thrived in aristocratic company, he himself was from a significantly lower social rung than his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas; moreover, Wilde had the added burden of being Irish, a fact that reviewers sometimes used against him.  Although Wilde would have loved to have been rich, his father left him virtually nothing (Ellman 63).  For most of his life, Wilde scrambled for money, and complained frequently about his poverty in his letters.  He wrote to earn, but for him, as for so many others, living by the pen was precarious; even far more prolific writers than he lived on the verge of financial ruin.  In their account of Wilde’s earnings, Josephine Guy and Ian Small note that he “enjoyed only two periods of sustained financial success” (133), from the spring of 1893 to the end of the year, and from February 1895 until his first trial in April of the same year.  The trials bankrupted Wilde, and he died poor.[1]

Although Wilde’s lack of class and economic privilege did not cause his downfall, they shut off possible exits.  Those belonging to the upper classes were not above the law but were more immune from persecution than those outside of the charmed circle.  For example, a basic unfairness of the Wilde trials was that Douglas never faced charges; though he was eager to testify in Wilde’s first trial, he was out of the country for the second two.  When the issue of prosecuting him arose, his aristocratic status protected him, as well as his youth.  Charles Gill, the prosecuting counsel in the first criminal trial, wrote to Hamilton Cuffe, the Director of Public Prosecutions, about Douglas:  “Having regard to the fact that Douglas was an undergraduate at map iconOxford when Wilde made his acquaintance, the difference in their ages and the strong influence that Wilde has obviously exercised over Douglas since that time, I think that Douglas, if guilty, may fairly be regarded as one of Wilde’s victims” (qtd. in Holland 294).  Although Gill does not mention Douglas’s rank explicitly, and Cuffe insisted that his rank did not matter, only Douglas received such protection, of all the men associated with the Wilde scandal.  As Charles Upchurch has documented, upper-class families became powerful units in protecting their own when charges of sodomy were raised:  “The most prestigious families in the realm were entitled to special treatment before the law.  Their debts were treated differently from those of others, and their other transgressions before the law might be heard before special juries, drawn only from men of similar status” (25).  The Wilde trials proved that the aristocracy still had clout.  A middle-class professional like Wilde could not be seen to violate the Marquess of Queensberry’s family by seducing his son.  Even though the idea that Wilde seduced Douglas had no basis in fact, it was a potent myth that Queensberry could use against Wilde.

Myth #2:  Victorians knew nothing about homosexuality.

Several scandals involving sex between men received wide publicity in late Victorian England.  In 1871, the Boulton and Park trial turned the spotlight on men who, cross-dressing as women, had become the center of a network of similar men.  In 1889, the map iconCleveland Street scandal focused on a brothel of young men, many of whom also worked as telegraph boys; several prominent members of the aristocracy were rumored to be customers.  While these two scandals were particularly salient moments in public awareness of sex between men, historians have produced several books, all worth reading, describing just how widespread sex between men was in nineteenth-century Britain (Cook; Cocks; Upchurch; Kaplan).  The scandals were familiar enough that a reviewer of The Picture of Dorian Gray could casually refer to the Cleveland Street Scandal as if everyone would know what he or she was describing:  “If he [Wilde] can write for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys, the sooner he takes to tailoring (or some other decent trade) the better for his own reputation and the public morals” (“Reviews and Magazines”).

Yet scandals were not the only source of knowledge about sex between men.  Although, according to the legal commentator Sir William Blackstone, sodomy was the crime that could not be named among Christians, Christianity for many first named sodomy, through the traditional glosses on the Sodom and Gomorrah story, the prohibitions on male-male sex in the Hebrew Bible, and Paul’s attacks in his epistles.  However more recent commentators have read these biblical passages, Victorians took them as blanket condemnations of same-sex eroticism.  For the educated elite who knew classical literature, same-sex eroticism in classical poetry, art, and drama was familiar.  Especially at Oxford, the Hellenic revival fostered a multi-faceted appreciation of classical map iconGreece, which for some men provided a rich vocabulary of same-sex eroticism (Dellamora; Dowling).

London had networks of places for men to hook up, from theaters and clubs to the train stations, parks, and museums.  As Matt Cook notes, “the homosexual life of the city was rarely out of the eye and the newspaper-reading public had consistent reminders of it” (48).  In map iconSheffield, Edward Carpenter, inspired by Victorian socialist ideals and the poetry of Walt Whitman, had become a prophet of gay rights and even published a major defense of love between men, Homogenic Love and Its Place in a Free Society (1894) (Elfenbein).  Yet Carpenter could be ignored because his writings about sexuality had a small circulation, while Wilde was in the glare of London publicity.  Although the Wilde trials may look like an originary moment for the public response to homosexuality, they were part of a much longer history of the surveillance and policing of sex between men.

Myth #3:  Wilde was put on trial for being a homosexual.

Wilde had three trials, and “being a homosexual” was not the specific charge in any of them.  He started legal proceedings himself, in response to harsh provocation, and the charge he brought was one of libel, though it arose in relation to claims about his sexual behavior.  The outrageous behavior of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and the father of Wilde’s lover, Douglas, spurred Wilde to legal action.[2]  Wilde looks like a paragon of respectability next to Queensberry.  A loud atheist who attacked Christianity, he was a terrible husband; his miserable first marriage ended in divorce, and his second marriage was annulled when his second wife claimed that he was impotent and had a deformed penis.  Moreover, as a Scottish peer, Queensberry was not automatically a member of the House of Lords, as British peers were; instead, his fellow Scottish peers had to elect him.  In a major snub, the Scottish peers turned him down, a strong sign that they loathed his lack of Victorian respectability.  Although he composed a long poem, The Spirit of the Matterhorn, to justify his atheism, outside the Wilde trials, Queensberry’s greatest fame came from formulating rules for boxing.

Before the Wilde trials, a series of events had made Queensberry hypersensitive to sexual relations between men.  The most important was the death of his oldest son and heir, Francis, Viscount Drumlanrig, in 1894.  Drumlanrig was rumored to have had an affair with Lord Rosebery, the Prime Minister.  Supposedly threatened with exposure, he killed himself, although his death was recorded as a shooting accident.  Whether or not the affair took place, Queensberry believed that it had, and Drumlanrig’s death was a judgment on “Snob Queers like Roseberry [sic]” (qtd. in Kaplan 225).  In Queensberry’s eyes, having lost one son to “snob queers,” he was not going to lose another.  Even though his first wife had mostly raised his sons, Queensberry fashioned himself as a concerned father when he learned of Douglas’s relation with Wilde.  His threats escalated, including angry visits to Wilde’s home, an attempted disruption of a performance of Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest, and, finally, leaving his card at Wilde’s club,  on which he had written:  “for Oscar Wilde  / posing Somdomite [sic].”[3]

While Queensberry intended this phrase as an insult, exactly what “posing Somdomite” means is not clear.  In the trials, it was taken to mean “posing as sodomite.”  In the official language of the indictment, Queensberry was said to have delivered a card

to the tenor and effect following that is to say “For Oscar Wilde posing as somdomite” meaning thereby that the said Oscar Final O’fflahertie Wills Wilde had committed and was in the habit of committing the abominable crime of buggery with mankind to the great damage scandal and disgrace of the said Oscar Fingal O’fflahertie Wills Wilde to the evil example of all others in the like case offending and against the peace of our said Lady the Queen her Crown and dignity. (qtd. in Holland 285)

Queensberry himself probably agreed with this interpretation; in one his letters, read aloud at the trial, he claimed, “If I was quite certain of the thing I would shoot the fellow on sight, but I can only accuse him of posing” (Holland 216).  What Queensberry wrote was, perhaps unintentionally, more suggestive.  The participle “posing” can modify the noun “sodomite” in many ways, depending on whether “posing” is taken to be transitive or intransitive:  “a sodomite who poses a claim, problem, or issue”; “a sodomite who puts objects or people in particular positions”; “a sodomite who assumes a pose for the purpose of being pictured”; “a sodomite who presents himself in a pretentious way”; “a sodomite who is puzzling or mysterious.”  The proliferation of meanings reveals how difficult it was for Victorians to describe just what was so disturbing about homosexuality.  Queensberry recognizes that he is not “quite certain of the thing”:  in the absence of certainty, he can accuse Wilde of posing—but what exactly does Wilde pose?

As for his misspelling “Somdomite,” it allows him not to know too much about sodomy, as if correctly spelling the word made it contagious.  The extra “m” also moves the term away from its Biblical roots in the city of Sodom and toward a nonsense word characterized more by how it sounds (the internal rhyme of “som / dom” hints at “some dumb”) than by what it means.  Although the interpretation that dominated the trial, “posing as sodomite” was presumably meant to clarify the original, even the revised version has its own ambiguities, which became important in the actual trial.

Having received Queensberry’s insult, Wilde had several options: ignoring it, confronting Queensberry, fleeing the country, or using the law to stop him.  If he ignored the insult or confronted Queensberry, Queensberry would escalate the fight.  If he fled, he as good as admitted guilt, cut himself off from his acquaintances, and lost the publishing connections that earned him his money.  Even though Wilde’s friends urged him to avoid a trial, Wilde accused Queensberry of libel, and the trial began on 3 April 1895.  Sir Edward Clarke represented Wilde; the brilliant Edward Carson represented Queensberry.  Notably, Wilde, Carson, and Queensberry all shared some outsider status:  Queensberry as a Scot; Wilde and Carson as Protestant Irish.[4]  For all three, the trials tested, among other things, their acceptability to English society.  Although Queensberry was accused, he never testified; all that Wilde’s side had to do was prove that he had presented the card.  The bulk of the trial focused on Wilde, as Carson sought to prove that Wilde indeed had “posed as sodomite.”  Often not mentioned in accounts of the trials is just how grueling they were:  Wilde endured relentless questions from Carson for hours and hours.  Virtually no one else spoke, and Merlin Holland’s edition of the transcript of Wilde versus Carson runs to over two hundred closely-printed pages.  Just reading them is exhausting.

In the first part of the trial, Carson used Wilde’s writings to show that a reasonable person might conclude that Wilde tried to make others believe that he was the kind of man who had sex with other men.  In a strategy resembling that used for years to oust gay men and women from the American military, Carson had to show that Wilde supposedly had a propensity for such activities, even though Carson never accused Wilde directly of sodomy.  Although Carson was a brilliant, relentless interrogator, Wilde met him point for point and refused to acknowledge that his writings should be read autobiographically.  This part of the trial was, at best, a draw.

Wilde and his team had not anticipated that Carson would move from Wilde’s authorial persona to his behavior with actual male prostitutes.  Wilde and Clarke assumed that the prosecution could never prove accusations about Wilde’s sexual activity because none of these men would incriminate himself.  They overlooked the possibility that Queensberry’s side might make a deal with them to allow them to testify.  In the event, deals were cut.  After Carson interrogated Wilde about various working-class youths (all of whom were seventeen or older), he mentioned that one of them, Charles Parker, was ready to give evidence against Wilde.  Specifically, he read a letter supposedly by Parker; Wilde’s counsel, Clarke, wanted the judge and jury to see the letter, to which Carson replied, “Parker himself will be here and the jury will see him.  That will be better” (qtd. in Holland 178).  Michael Foldy’s comments about the moment suggest that the trial transcripts may not do it justice; according to Foldy, this was a turning point in the trial because it revealed how seriously the prosecution intended to produce men who had had sex with Wilde (16).  After this move, Wilde’s side essentially collapsed, even though none of the prostitutes appeared.  To the surprise of many, Clarke never even called Lord Alfred Douglas to defend himself; Wilde claimed that he prevented Douglas from doing so (Ellman 455).  Near the end, Clarke tried and failed to get Carson to agree to a modified charge, and Wilde lost the case.

Clarke made one move that seems to have had repercussions he did not predict, although exact details are vague.  To give the court a sense of Queensberry’s bullying, he read Queensberry’s letters to his son and ex-wife.  In them, Queensberry mentioned, “It shall be known some day by all that Rosebery not only insulted me by lying to the queen which she knows, which makes her as bad as him and Gladstone, but also has made a lifelong quarrel between my son and I” (qtd. in Holland 217).   Whatever Queensberry meant by this insult (either letting his son sit in the House of Lords, while he could not, or the supposed homosexual scandal), his letters put the prime minister, the queen, and William Ewart Gladstone, the elder statesman of the Liberal Party, in the trial.  The mere fact of their mention suddenly raised the stakes of the trial because it made it more difficult for high-ranking administrators to quiet the scandal.  Ellman points to evidence that even Rosebery tried to help Wilde, but was told to stop (462).  The scandal of his trials had spread too high for Wilde to get off easily.

Myth #4:  Once Wilde was on trial, his conviction was inevitable.

After the libel trial, everyone from Queensberry to Wilde’s wife assumed that he would flee.  map iconFrance was the established destination in such cases because it had no explicit legal penalties against sex between men; these had been dropped from the legal code at the French Revolution.  Having lost the libel case, Wilde could potentially be prosecuted for the felony of sodomy, and fleeing seemed a better alternative than prison.  Sir James Fitzjames Stephen’s Digest of Criminal Law described the legal definition of sodomy:  “Every one commits the felony called sodomy, and is liable upon conviction thereof to penal servitude for life, who (a.) carnally knows any animal: or, (b.) being a male, carnally knows any man or any woman (per anum).”  Even the attempt to commit sodomy was “liable upon conviction thereof to ten years penal servitude” (131).  Yet Wilde faced the worst even as his friends abandoned him and he went bankrupt to pay Queensberry’s legal costs of ₤600.  Soon after the libel trial, he was arrested and taken to the magistrates’ court in map iconBow Street, and from there to map iconHolloway Prison.  He was indicted not for sodomy but for the lesser and somewhat vaguer charge, “gross indecency,” a misdemeanor rather than a felony, which carried a maximum sentence of two years.  The charge of gross indecency had a long history in legal usage but had acquired more specific associations with sex between men as a result of the Labouchère Amendment, an addition to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885:  “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable at the discretion of the court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour” (Mead and Bodkin 63; see Kaplan 171-79).  Whereas a sodomy conviction was a felony and required proof of penetration, gross indecency was a misdemeanor and did not.  Sodomy was still a blurry category, while gross indecency was specifically about sex between men.  Gross indecency included not only acts but “attempts to procure” them; since such attempts take more than one person, Wilde was tried together with Alfred Taylor, a well-known procurer of young men.

Most of April 1895 was taken up with three hearings, at which Wilde’s sexual partners, paid by the prosecution, incriminated him in court.  Taylor received a deal to do the same, but refused.[5]  The trial began on 26 April.  Douglas, who had been eager to testify at the first trial, left the country.  Wilde denied having had sex with any of the men and claimed that the graphic evidence of the hotel staff about the sheets in his room could not be trusted.  When asked about Douglas’s poem, which ended with the line describing “the love that dare not speak its name,” Wilde burst into an eloquent speech about same-sex love, describing it as “such a great affection of an elder for a younger 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 Michaelangelo and Shakespeare.  It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect” (qtd. in Ellman 463).

The judge, Sir Arthur Charles, was meticulous and relatively sympathetic; at the end, he went over the evidence, sorted what the jury should attend to from what they should ignore, and gave them four questions to answer.  After about four hours, the jury agreed only that Wilde and Taylor were not guilty of trying to get one particular man, Frederick Atkins, to commit “indecencies.”  On the other questions, they could not reach a verdict, which, according to criminal law, had to be unanimous.  Accounts of Wilde’s trials often overlook this second trial.  Despite fierce press against Wilde and supposed government pressure to convict him, when he was initially prosecuted for gross indecency, he was not found guilty.  Even with a string of men who had testified to their relations with him, explicit details about his hotel room, the complete unwillingness of highly-placed friends to help him, and a second-rate counsel, the jury could not reach a verdict.  I stress this point because it complicates the sense often found in writing about Wilde that his decision not to flee to France was necessarily a gesture of suicidal self-destruction.

According to British law, what should have happened next was not clear:  “If it appears that there is no chance of the jurymen agreeing, the judge will after such time as he thinks fit discharge them, and the defendant may be put on his trial again with a fresh jury” (Disney and Gundry 68).  The key word is “may”:  another trial was not required or necessary if a jury could not agree.  Wilde could have satisfied the law by walking out from this trial a free man, and many would have liked just that.  Carson, who had been relentless against Wilde in the first libel trial, thought that he had suffered enough (Ellman 462); others felt that unseemly activities had already received too much publicity (Foldy 66).  At the least, the outcome of the second trial gave Wilde another opportunity to flee.  Once again, he refused.

The third trial separated him from Alfred Taylor, who, at his own trial, was quickly condemned; his guilt made it harder to believe in Wilde’s innocence.  Little new evidence appeared in the third trial.  If anything, the prosecution’s case appeared weaker because a key witness, Edward Shelley, was acknowledged to be unreliable.  Perhaps in response to the weakness of the case, the prosecution by Sir Frank Lockwood was tough on Wilde, and the judge, Sir Alfred Wills, far less impartial than Charles had been in the second trial.  Lockwood admitted to Wilde’s counsel that he felt his case was shaky enough that Wilde might again get off (Ellman 477); according to one newspaper, the feeling in the courtroom was that Wilde would again go free (Foldy 47).  The case against him was not strong because all witnesses against him had cooperated with the prosecution to save themselves, and their testimony could be portrayed as self-interested.  Although no records of jury deliberations survive, it took three hours to reach a guilty verdict, so there must have been at least some debate.  Nevertheless, the jury convicted him of gross indecency.  The vehemence with which the judge, Justice Wills, denounced Wilde may have reacted against the weakness of the prosecution:  “That you, Wilde, have been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men, it is  . . . impossible to doubt” (qtd. in Ellman 477).  Wilde received the maximum sentence of two years; Wills had the option of including hard labor or not, and he made sure that it was included.

Myth #5:  After the trials, Wilde disappeared.

For two months, Wilde’s trials received detailed, mostly negative coverage in the British press, and the story spread to newspapers world-wide.  While Ed Cohen and Alan Sinfield argue that this coverage marked a turning point in the history of homosexual representation, Michael Foldy maintains that Wilde’s actual sentence and imprisonment received little reaction because the press had already found him guilty (Cohen 126-72; Sinfield 118-26; Foldy 48-66).  The publicity surrounding the trial may explain a particularly high ratio of prosecutions to arrests for gross indecency in 1895, although this pattern did not last into 1896 (Cook 48).

The trials shut down Wilde’s playwriting career, and his time in prison was wretched.  After his release, Wilde, poor, ill, and alcoholic, lived a meandering life until he died in map iconParis in 1900.  His misery has led many to assume that the trials guaranteed that his name, like his supposed crime, had become unspeakable.  Actually, Wilde received constant attention in the newspapers even after his conviction.  The press carried stories about such events as his hair being cut off, the French petition for his release, his life in prison, his bankruptcy, and his release (“Oscar Wilde’s Hair Cut Off”; “Petition for the Release of Oscar Wilde”; “Oscar Wilde’s Life in Prison”; “Oscar Wilde’s Bankruptcy”; “Oscar Wilde Secretly Released”).[6]  In addition, he immediately became shorthand for sex between men, so that newspapers could write, “A Member of the map iconMississippi State Legislature Kills the Man Who Accused Him of Oscar Wilde Tricks” (“Called Him Oscar Wilde”); “Another Oscar Wilde.  A Prominent English Magistrate in Disgrace” (“Another Oscar Wilde”); “Parallel to the Oscar Wilde Case in map iconSan Francisco” (“Dr. Livingston Gravely Accused”); and “Darnley Beaufort had just left Gethsemane, was in fact a fugitive from justice and in addition to embezzling thousands of dollars was charged with revolting crimes of the Oscar Wilde order” ([“The Romantic Career of a Picturesque Swindler”]).  A crime without a name had received its name.

Yet the scandal did not kill off interest in his writing.  A long letter he wrote about the treatment of children in prison quickly became evidence about the poor condition of prisons (“Oscar Wilde on Prison Treatment”).  His poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol “ran to six editions in only five months” (Guy and Small 178).  The posthumous publication of an abridged version of De Profundis in 1905 sold well enough to help Robert Ross, his executor, to pay off his bankruptcy.  His plays continued to be produced.  Daniel Frohman’s map iconLyceum Theatre Company put on An Ideal Husband in map iconNew York, then toured with it to Chicago and Denver (“[Theater Notice]”).  In London, His Majesty’s Theatre revived A Woman of No Importance in 1907 (“A Woman of No Importance at His Majesty’s”).  Students at the University of Cincinnati’s Law School put on The Importance of Being Earnest during commencement week in 1908 (“Commencement Week, 1908”), and in London it appeared at the map iconSt. James’s Theatre in 1909, which revived Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1911 (“[Advertisement for The Importance of Being Earnest]”; “Lady Windermere’s Fan Revived at the St. James’s”).  Salome was produced in France in 1896 as a gesture of support for Wilde, and by 1910, Strauss’s Salome, whose libretto came from Wilde’s play, appeared at map iconCovent Garden (“[Review of Salome]); Salome spin-offs became a fad in early twentieth-century Britain (Dierkes-Thrun).  The Vaudeville Theatre produced a poorly-reviewed stage version of The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1913 (“The Picture of Dorian Gray at The Vaudeville”).

Scholarship and new editions of Wilde also continued to appear.  Robert Ross in 1908 was given a celebratory dinner at the map iconRitz in honor of his work on Wilde’s behalf, especially his publication of Wilde’s collected works (“Dinner to Mr. Robert Ross”).  Robert Sherard published his biography of Wilde in 1906; J. C. Powys lectured on him the same year, and Arthur Ransome published his critical study in 1912.  In 1913, newspapers also covered the unveiling of Jacob Epstein’s sculpture for Wilde’s tomb in map iconParis’s Père Lachaise cemetery (“Monument to Oscar Wilde Unveiled”). (See also Ellen Crowell, “Oscar Wilde’s Tomb: Silence and the Aesthetics of Queer Memorial.”)

Wilde certainly could still stir up controversy.  A public mural in map iconChelsea became a hot topic because it included a representation of Wilde; the borough council voted to remove it (“Chelsea and Oscar Wilde”).  Douglas’s tendency to sue anyone connected with Wilde brought the specter of the trials back in the papers.  As The Times put it in 1914, “Though Oscar Wilde has been dead for 13 years, the notoriety of his name is kept alive by an apparently endless succession of quarrels among his friends and his friends’ friends” (“Oscar Wilde’s Friends.”) During a Parliamentary inquiry into venereal disease, the Chairman Sir Kenelm Digby asked the witness about the morality of Oxford and Cambridge, and was told, “Literature has become very lax and salacious, and a great deal of this literature is read.  There is a considerable Oscar Wilde vogue” (Royal Commission 214).  Nevertheless, in 1920, The Times could report seemingly without embarrassment that Teddy Roosevelt “has been dubbed ‘Oscar Wilde’ by his admiring colleagues, who were much amused by his elastic movement, his voluminous laughter, and wealth of mouth” (“Roosevelt’s Own Story”).

The aftermath of the trials points to two different Wildes in the public imagination.  In the first, Wilde is a synonym for sex between men, usually understood as a horrific, unmentionable crime.  As such, Wilde’s career demonstrates that a writer could not transcend his biography:  Wilde’s name had become sexualized.  The other Wilde, however, is different.  This Wilde separated artist from man, so his works could be performed, published, and enjoyed as if his trials were merely an unfortunate mishap.  The first Wilde we might think of as the queer Wilde, who encapsulates the entire history of homosexuality in his writing.  The second is a polite Wilde.  In this version of Wilde, biography does not matter to the appreciation of the artist, not because of any high modernist disdain for autobiography, but because mentioning sex scandals is impolite and vulgar.  Tasteful appreciation of Wilde supposedly demands forgetting about his sad end.

Schematic as this division between two Wildes is, it has scripted his reception from his death until now.  Wilde is either all about sexuality, or he is not.  I would like to imagine that a more integrated account of him will arise, but the legacy of the trials makes doing so difficult.  The master-narrative of Wilde as gay martyr will not go away, and I’m not sure it should:  it remains a powerful story of victimization.  Yet as long as it persists, the all-or-nothing approach to his work is likely to remain, not only for Wilde, but also for other writers involved with same-sex eroticism.  Although queer theory has countered many of the humanist assumptions behind the gay enshrining of Wilde, it has not been as successful as one might have hoped in offering alternative models of agency (Kaye).  The challenge lingers of finding a more compelling way to link sexuality and artistic creativity, to imagine it in a network of interactions rather than as either the truth of everything or as an embarrassing distraction.

Both hiding Wilde’s sexuality and foregrounding it cast sexuality as a prime cause for behavior.  Yet it may be more useful to imagine sexuality not as a cause but as an umbrella term for an array of behaviors.   It is time to consider Wilde’s relationships with other people in terms of the many aspects that structure sexuality:

  • emotional categories ( familiarity, intimacy, conflict, and reciprocity)
  • environmental categories (urban/rural; indoor/outdoor; English/British/European)
  • temporal categories (casual, one-time, intermittent, longstanding)
  • categories of power relations ( hierarchy, compatability, and stability)

Doing so demands focusing less on Wilde as individual genius than Wilde as a point in a complex, shifting network of human relations, who is constantly strengthening some relations and weakening others.  Physical sex between men belongs in this network, but only as one site for intimacies that could exist on multiple levels and at multiple intensities.  Our vocabulary for describing such intimacies remains frustratingly reductive, in ways that Wilde challenges us to move beyond.

Andrew Elfenbein is Professor of English at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.  He is the author of Byron and the Victorians (1995); Romantic Genius:  The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role (1999); and Romanticism and the Rise of English (2009); for Longman Cultural Editions, he has edited Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.


published June 2012

Elfenbein, Andrew. “On the Trials of Oscar Wilde: Myths and Realities.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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Cohen, Ed.  Talk on the Wilde Side:  Toward a Genealogy of a Discourse on Male Sexualities. New York:  Routledge, 1993. Print.

Cook, Matt.  London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914. Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Dellamora, Richard.  Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism.  Chapel Hill:  U of North Carolina P, 1990. Print.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra.  Salome’s Modernity:  Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2011. Print.

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[1] The amount of his debts at his bankruptcy hearing was ₤3591.  While not trivial, this figure is not a sign of huge extravagance.

[2] A marquess is one of the highest ranks in the peerage, ranking just below a duke; he is addressed as “my lord.”  A marquess’s eldest son takes his father’s secondary title; in this case, Queensberry’s son Francis was Viscount Drumlanrig.  Younger sons of marquesses are called by their given names, preceded by “Lord”; hence, “Lord Alfred Douglas.”

[3] The card is reproduced here

[4] Carson would later have a major political career as a Unionist.

[5] As it turned out, the prosecution eventually dropped the conspiracy charges.

[6] Although I provide only one newspaper source for each story, many newspapers in Britain and the United States repeated the stories.