2017 Selden Society lecture – the Honourable Alan Wilson QC on the trials of Oscar Wilde

2017 Selden Society lecture – the Honourable Alan Wilson QC on the trials of Oscar Wilde


Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome
to this the fourth of this year’s series of the Selden Society Lectures. In addition
to welcoming all of you here tonight in the Banco Court, I also extend a welcome to those
watching us in Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, were
he alive today, would no doubt be a celebrity of immense influence. He would surely have
a larger Twitter following than Katy Perry or Justin Bieber or any of those who emerge
from that remorselessly talentless troupe of Kardashian clones. Wilde was a simply extraordinary
character who captured the attention of the press, Society, Parliament like no one else.
He has left us with a repository of witticisms and aphorisms which can be drawn upon by the
unimaginative at any time and for any reason, for instance did you know that he said ‘I
sometimes think that God in creating man somewhat overestimated his ability’. Well the Selden
Society did not overestimate its ability when asked Alan Wilson to present tonight’s lecture.
The Honourable Alan Wilson QC was a judge of the district court the judge of the Supreme
Court and president of the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal. He has a voracious
appetite for literature at the finer end of the spectrum and that with his other manifests
spills has served him well in his post retirement life. In that life he’s done many things
but he has been particularly useful exposing to others the arcane skills of judgment writing
in particular to new and sometimes not so new judges for the National Judicial College.
I particularly owe him a debt of gratitude for that, my judgement writing hasn’t improved
but I know what I can do now. Ladies and Gentleman tonight he will speak to us on the topic the
trials of Oscar Wilde. Alan Wilson. Thank you Justice Martin, and good evening. On the 14 February 1895 Oscar Wilde’s artistic
career reached its zenith when the play generally regarded as his best, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened at the St James’ Theatre London. One of the leading actors, in the
play Allan Aynesworth, said ‘In my fifty-five years of acting, I never remember a greater
triumph than that first night’. Four days later the Marquess of Queensberry
left a card at Wilde’s club, the Albemarle. It read ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite’.
With that small misspelled card, what Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland has called ‘an unfurling
tragedy’ began. It ended with Wilde’s disgrace, imprisonment, and early death. The story of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde is a story of genius, of love, of hubris and, ultimately, of a kind of self-immolation by litigation. Love was the key to Wilde’s downfall, but
not only because of the nature of that love, one of his greatest mistakes was
to allow his beloved, Queensberry’s son Lord Alfred Douglas, known to everybody as
‘Bosie’, to manoeuvre and inveigle him into the fateful litigation. Of course, his affair with Bosie occurred,
as the best of his biographers Richard Ellmann has said ‘… in a clandestine world of
partial disclosures, blackmail, and libel suits’ and it was that world which formed
the backdrop to his downfall. That dark curtain behind the stage only loomed because Wilde’s
love for Bosie was, at least in its physical manifestation against the law. It was
known, at the time, as ‘the love which dare not speak its name.’ The last vestige of
that legal condemnation only disappeared this year when Wilde and 50,000 others were pardoned
under what is called in England the Alan Turing Law, the UK Policing and Crime Act 2017.
Queensland has only recently followed suit. Wilde’s genius was, as much as anything,
one of personality. He was larger than life, and he had a remarkable facility for witticisms
and bon mots, many of which live on. But he was also highly intelligent, and highly
talented. Richard Ellmann is not just the biographer, he was the goldsmith professor
of English literature at Oxford and he said this about Wilde, We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme
fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social
impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to
replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s. Wilde’s hubris can be traced to some combination,
Ellmann said, of his dandyism, aestheticism, extravagance, flamboyance, imagination, self-advertisement, ambition, recklessness and indiscretion. We’ll return to it because, as his cross-examination
by Sir Edward Carson during his trial revealed, it was his Achilles’ heel. It meant that
he could not resist making self-adulatory remarks which, at times, veered too close
to the foolish and, ultimately, did much to bring him down. Wilde was born into financial and intellectual
privilege in Dublin in 1854. His father was a prominent surgeon and irrepressible philanderer
and his mother, Jane, was a poet and Irish nationalist. We can see Wilde’s genes vividly
in her. In her correspondence, she called herself not Jane but ‘Speranza’. She had,
it is said, ‘a sense of being destined for greatness’. She said of herself, that she
would like to ‘… rage through life – this orthodox creeping is much too tame for me’. She told William Butler Yeats, ‘I want to
live in some high place… because I was an eagle in my youth’. Wilde once announced that
he and his mother had decided to found a society for the suppression of virtue and, as Ellmann
points out, it says something for their kinship of minds that either might have originated
the idea. It is not at all difficult to see where Oscar might have gotten the idea that
life was special, and that as much as anything, life was performance. He was a bright child and a clever young man.
He read classics at Trinity and, in 1874, won the Berkeley Gold Medal, the university’s
highest award in classical Greek. He went to Oxford with a demyship and read Greats
at Magdalen, and graduated with a double first. His poem ‘Ravenna’ won the Newdigate Prize
in 1878. While at Oxford he was strongly influenced
by Walter Pater and his theories of aestheticism. A philosophy neatly, if a little brutally,
captured in the aphorism ‘Art for art’s sake.’ Pater wrote in a way that now seems florid and over-excited but something in his style attracted the bright young men of
Oxford at the time, like Wilde and Gerard Manley Hopkins. He described the ideal life
in words that plainly resonated with Oscar, ‘To burn always with this hard, gem-like
flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life’. Pater also, unforgettably, said
that we should ‘get as many pulsations as possible into the given time’. It’s a
phrase that once in your mind is hard to get out. His influence on Wilde was profound
if nothing else, pater gave him an intellectual cloak for his natural predilections, flamboyance
in dress, and behaviour, and speech. After Oxford, apart from two brief visits
to Ireland, Wilde always lived in London or on the Continent. He had produced lyrics and
poems during his days at Trinity. His poetry was collected as early as 1881 and published
in a style which typified his artistic theories and beliefs. It was not enough that the poems
should speak for themselves, they appeared in a volume bound in a rich enamelled parchment
cover, embossed with a gilt blossom, and printed on hand-made paper. In 1882 Wilde toured America, which, largely,
went mad about him. He dressed extravagantly and spoke, according to the New York World,
in hexameters. He told Americans that he was there’… to diffuse beauty, and I have
no objection to saying that.’ He met everybody, including Whitman and Longfellow and Henry
James and Oliver Wendell Holmes and, almost everybody wanted to meet him. He lectured
the Americans on the need for ‘a new birth of the spirit of man’ to be achieved, he
said, through a more gracious and comely way of life, a passion for physical beauty, attention
to form rather than content, and a search for new forms of art and intellectual and
imaginative enjoyments. He tried a number of things in the 1880s,
play-writing, short stories, essays and even magazine editing. In 1884 he married into
a legal family. He married Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a well-known London silk,
who had a generous allowance from her father. They had two sons, Cyril born in 1885 and
Vyvyan in 1886. But it was also in that year, 1886, that his life became more complicated.
He met and fell in love with a man, Robert Ross. In so far as it was possible at that
time, Ross was what we would today call ‘out’. He remained a staunch and loyal friend throughout
Oscar’s successes and travails. Was with him at the men and became his literary executor. Wilde is remembered, today, for his four great
comedic plays, his other scandalous play, Salome, his tragic poem The Ballad of Reading
Gaol, his very long letter to Bosie, written while he was in prison, and published after
his death as De Profundis and, for his novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray. First published in a magazine and later in
a revised form as a book, Dorian Gray caused a sensation. Its plot device is well-known,
the central character unconsciously enters into a pact with the devil and, as he grows
old, his appearance remains youthful while a portrait of him ages hideously in his attic.
What is less well known is the books moral ambiguity, which was shocking at the time. Two features of the book were also factors
in Wilde’s subsequent trial and downfall, first, its emphasis on male beauty, the effect upon the hero of a French book, ‘A Rebours’, English translation
‘Against Nature’ by Joris-Karl Huysmans, published in 1884. Under the influence of
that book, Gray experiments with vice in all its forms it is said that he ‘… ruined
men and women alike’. Wilde met Bosie in June 1891. Bosie was a
student at Oxford, and a budding poet. His contemporaries say, and photographs confirm,
that he was very good looking. Wilde had given his character Dorian Gray ‘a face like ivory
and rose leaves’ as Oscar’s letters make clear, he thought the description applied
to Bosie too. Like Robert Ross, Bosie made little effort to hide his sexual bent.That
was not as controversial as it might sound, despite the era.Times were changing as one
vocal student, friend and supporter said ‘If Bosie has really made Oxford homosexual, he
has done something good and glorious.’ Like many tragedies, what is striking about
the saga of Wilde’s downfall is the recurring presence, plain in retrospect, of irony and coincidence. Wilde’s first dealings with Bosie involved helping him with a threat of blackmail from someone
who had gotten hold of one of Bosie’s indiscreet letters. Wilde put him in touch with Sir George
Lewis, a prominent solicitor, who had previously helped Wilde in a similar scrape, and he sorted
Bosie’s matter out with a payment of 100 pounds. Lewis later represented the Marquess
in Wilde’s proceedings, at least when they began. From the first, Wilde and Bosie’s
relationship was redolent of the risk of blackmail, and the presence of lawyers. Wilde’s already flamboyant and expensive
lifestyle accelerated under the effects of his affair with Bosie. His play Lady Windermere’s
Fan was a great success and he spent much of its profits on rich living, with Bosie
as a principal beneficiary. But Wilde’s life also changed in another,
more dangerous way. Bosie was fascinated by young men who, for a few pounds and a good
dinner, would prostitute themselves and he took Wilde into this world. Bosie already
knew a man called Alfred Taylor, who introduced them to a number of men, most of whom were
young, uneducated, and in poorly paid menial positions or out of work. Taylor, and some
of these men, played a central role in the later trials. Bosie also came into Wilde’s life with terrific
baggage in the form of his family and, in particular his father John Sholto Douglas,
the ninth Marquess of Queensberry. Pugilist, poet, and philanderer, Ellmann describes Queensberry
as someone who was always ‘… raging publicly and indecorously against someone else’s
creed. He fancied himself as an aristocratic rebel, socially ostracised because of his
iconoclasm.’ Queensberry quickly came to the view that
there was something amiss in his son’s relationship with Wilde. He thought he had a lot to worry
about, where his sons and homosexuality were concerned. His eldest son and heir, Drumlanig,
was private secretary to the Lord Rosebery, Gladstone’s Foreign Minister, and Queensberry
suspected they were having an affair. In 1893, he had followed Rosebery to Bad Homburg with
a dog whip, and was only dissuaded from using it by the Prince of Wales. Drumlanig died
in 1894 in what was described as a shooting accident, but may will have been suicide. The Marquess’ worries at this time did not
end with his sons later that year, 1894, he married for the second time to a young
woman who left him almost immediately and started proceedings for an annulment, alleging,
and I quote, ‘malformation of the parts of generation’ and, I quote again, ‘frigidity
and impotency’. A father of four, divorced by his first wife for adultery, he was now
in the public eye again for highly embarrassing reasons, his three sons all seemed to him
to be of dubious character and were disrespectful, and only his daughter was at the time not estranged from him. He had been delighted when Bosie went up to Oxford but was devastated when he left
without taking his degree, and he blamed Wilde. All of this made his behaviour more eccentric,
and outrageous. Ellmann says, ‘… this man would prove to be a formidable antagonist,
eager for public gestures, as arrogantly indifferent as Wilde to what the world thought of him,
and much less vulnerable.’ The events which led to Wilde’s downfall
began to coalesce. In April 1894 Queensberry wrote to Bosie, ‘I come to the more painful
part of this letter your intimacy with this man Wilde… I am not trying to analyse
this intimacy, and I make no charge but to my mind to pose as a thing is as bad as to
be it. With my own eyes, I saw you both in the most loathsome and disgusting relationship…’ Bosie replied with a telegram, ‘WHAT A FUNNY
LITTLE MAN YOU ARE’. His Father wrote back, ‘You impertinent young jackanapes… I will
give you the thrashing that you deserve.’ Queensberry began to do what we would now
call ‘to stalk’ Oscar Wilde. He accosted Wilde in cafes, and in his home. Wilde seems
to have taken all this reasonably well and managed, indeed, to both calm and charm Queensberry
during some of these encounters. But they must have been fraught, and Bosie exacerbated
things he wrote to his father saying that he was now carrying a pistol, and that Wilde
would prosecute him for libel. Wilde found himself, as Frank Harris described
it, between the bark and the tree, he had become an instrument in Bosie’s ancient
battle with his father. Knowingly or not, Bosie was acting in a way in which he appeared
to demand positive action from Wilde, as a token of his love. In February 1895 Queensberry threatened to
create a scene involving a large bouquet of vegetables at the opening night of The Importance
of Being Earnest, but was diverted. Oscar, hearing of the threat, had consulted a solicitor
called Charles Humphreys about an injunction. A few days later, Queensberry left the critical,
abusive card at the Albemarle, Wilde’s club. Wilde didn’t see it for another ten days
but, when he did, went immediately with Bosie and Robbie Ross to consult Humphreys. The solicitor asked him if there was any truth
in the implied allegation of sodomy, and Wilde denied it. But he told Humphreys he couldn’t
afford litigation, Bosie intervened and guaranteed the costs because, he said, his family had
‘… suffered too long from his father’s irrational and abusive behaviour.’ They
all went to the magistrates’ court in Great Marlborough Street, to start a private prosecution
for criminal libel. A warrant was issued and Queensberry was arrested the following morning.
Sir George Lewis appeared briefly for him, but then passed the matter to another solicitor,
called Charles Russell. Times have thankfully changed a bit, the case
features several events that surprise us today. So, for example, Russell consulted the Chief
Justice who happened to be his father about suitable counsel and Lord Russell recommended
retaining Edward Carson. Carson had only been admitted to the English Bar a short time earlier
but, in Ireland, he had a stellar reputation as leading counsel and he had taken silk
there in 1889. He was a contemporary of Wilde’s and they had been at Trinity together and he was, initially, reluctant to take the brief. Russell, funded by Queensberry, engaged private
detectives who quickly found Alfred Taylor and, in his flat, a ‘… kind of post-box
containing the names of boys with whom Wilde consorted.’ The solicitor showed this evidence
to Carson who, still reluctant, consulted the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsbury,
who urged him to take the case. ‘College loyalty faded before Protestant morality.’
When Wilde heard that Carson was to lead the defence, he’s quoted as saying, ‘No doubt
he will perform his task with all the added bitterness of an old friend.’ At this early stage, ignorant of what Queensberry’s
detectives were digging up, the principal worry for Wilde and his lawyers was whether
a jury might think that Dorian Gray was an immoral book. Frank Harris agreed to testify
that it was not, but he and George Bernard Shaw also met Wilde at the Café Royal and
tried to talk him out of the prosecution. No jury, they said, would convict a father
for trying protect his son and, some letters from Wilde to Bosie which had come into Queensberry’s
hands would, as Harris and Shaw were concerned, suggest that Bosie might, actually, need protecting.
Bosie was outraged by what he perceived as the disloyalty of Wilde’s friends and dragged
him out of the café. Wilde himself was upset with Harris and Shaw. The law required that a defendant in a libel
action enter a Plea of Justification, with particulars, before the trial began. Queensberry’s
pleading accused Wilde of soliciting twelve ‘boys’, of whom ten were named, to commit
sodomy. This was shocking but, again, Wilde denied all these allegations to his solicitor.
Another count alleged, as expected, the immorality of Dorian Gray. We know much more about the trial today than
any of Wilde’s biographers or, indeed, any commentators in the twentieth century. Until
2000 it was thought that a full transcript did not exist so that for example the Notable
British Trials series on Wilde’s trial published in 1948 contained a report of only 30,000
words. When Merlin Holland, the son of Wilde’s son Vyvyan, was helping the British Library
prepare a celebration of Wilde’s Centenary in 2000, what appears to be a verbatim transcript
of 85,000 words was discovered. It looks genuine there are notes from eight separate shorthand
reporters. It was later published, with a commentary from Holland and an introduction
by John Mortimer, as ‘Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess’. I am indebted to one
of the Douglas Clan, Justice James Douglas for alerting me to the presence of the book. The trial opened on 3 April 1895 at the Old
Bailey before Mr Justice R Henn Collins. Sir Edward Clarke represented Wilde. A former
Solicitor-General, he made a name for himself in high-profile cases including one in which
he had fearlessly cross-examined the Prince of Wales. But it’s generally accepted, however, that Clarke
made several serious tactical errors. The first was that he had prepared his opening before he
saw all the salacious allegations in Queensberry’s Justification, and he did no more than add
in a short reference to them, in dismissive terms. He said, ‘… these people, who may
be called to sustain these charges, are people who will necessarily have to admit in cross-examination
that they have been themselves guilty of the gravest offences.’ In Clarke’s defence,
of course, he had clear instructions from his solicitor that the allegations were untrue. The second mistake was to introduce, during
his opening, one of Wilde’s more compromising letters to Bosie which, the defence had not
in fact previously known about. It handed Carson another weapon.The third mistake,
involving later the abandonment of the prosecution was the most influential and we will return
to it. There was, possibly, a fourth, the introduction
into evidence, by Clarke, of letters mentioning the names of Rosebery and Gladstone. Publication
was suppressed by the judge but the names did appear in the continental press, and probably
made it inevitable that Wilde would be prosecuted when the Queensberry case was over, whatever
its outcome. Had that not occurred there would have been cries of a cover-up of course. Clarke’s first witness is the hall porter
of the Albemarle who confirms that Queensberry left the card. Then, he took Wilde through
his evidence in chief in a workmanlike fashion establishing, in effect, that he had been
‘stalked’ by Queensberry. During some of those earlier confrontations some accusations
had been made by the Marquess about Wilde’s relations with Bosie, and Wilde denied them. Carson rose. The Daily Chronicle of 4 April
1895 describes what followed over the next two days ‘a duel of thrilling interest.
Mr Carson’s wig throws his white, thin, clever face into sharp relief. When he is
angry he assumes the immovability of a death mask. He is deliberate to the extreme…’ Carson’s cross-examination has been much
praised. It is true, as Ellmann says, that ‘… Carson had so much evidence, and of
such a kind, that he only needed to be persistent, not clever’ but his genius was in the way
that he ordered and structured his questioning. That said, he did managed a flesh wound with just
his first few questions, Oscar had said in chief that he was aged 39 Carson had known
him as a child, and drew an admission that he was, in truth, over 40 and, that Bosie
was only 20 when they met. It made Wilde look as sadly false and self-delusional as all
who lie about their age and also, of course, from the outset like something of a predator. Carson’s best strategic decision was to
attack Wilde’s literary pretensions first. I use ‘pretensions’ because Wilde’s
confidence in himself and his artistic theories, a major component of what I’ve called his
hubris, meant that he could not resist posturing and, indeed, being led into extreme and provocative
remarks and exaggerations.The theoretical façade provided by Pater and aestheticism
had been used by Wilde so often to defend his most confrontational writing that, as
Carson could reasonably anticipate, he would be unable to resist trotting it out again
and, because of its inherent flamboyance and extravagance , it was unlikely to impress
a phlegmatic English jury. Carson spent a lot of time, then, on Dorian
Gray. That was unsurprising as I mentioned the first version was published in a magazine, and it had drawn fierce condemnation for what was said to be both its immorality, and amorality. The later
version, in book form, had been changed by Wilde to defuse some of that criticism. One
of the passages he deleted was seized upon by Carson, a male character is speaking to
Dorian Gray, ‘I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man usually
gives a friend… from the moment I met you… I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly.
I was jealous of everyone with whom you spoke.’ Carson asks ‘Have you ever known the feeling that you
describe?’ Wilde, ‘I think it is perfectly natural
for any artist to intensely admire and to love a younger man. I think it is an incident
in the life of almost every artist.’ Otherwise, Wilde consistently advanced a simple proposition in his answers. That he is being asked about
a work of art which, ultimately, has no necessary connection with the real world, or his own
life, and could not be used to condemn him. That is not an unreasonable proposition and,
left there, might have provided some kind of shield. But Carson pursues the matter,
and Wilde cannot help himself. I want an answer to this simple question.
Have you ever had that feeling of adoring madly a beautiful male person many years younger
than yourself? Wilde: I have never given adoration to anybody
except myself. The court report says ‘laughter’, Oscar
is playing to the gallery. But he is also playing a dangerous game. While he can argue
that his art must be separated from his life, he is presenting himself as someone who is
above common mores and conventions who is arrogant and, and it is doubtful that
Wilde understood this until it was much too late, a flippant, even foolish person. The day proceeds like that, Carson circles,
returns, and comes at Wilde from different directions, Wilde is subtle, elusive and clever
and is not, as it were, caught except in that one respect. Whether he was conscious
that answers that are too clever may look like arrogance, he nevertheless plainly
struggled not to score reciprocal points off Carson. There are also some more minor flesh wounds…
Wilde admits that a book referred to within Dorian Gray is Huysmans’ ‘Against Nature’
but, upon Carson suggesting to him that ‘Against Nature’ is a ‘sodomitical book’, Wilde reverses
himself and denies that it’s the one he intended to refer to.The evasion is transparent,
and unsuccessful. But on balance, and despite his attempts at
amusing asides, Wilde has some success in resisting the notion that his books represent
his lifestyle. He tells Carson ‘… you must remember that novels and life are different
things’. He maintains the same defence, again with
some success, to Carson’s attack on letters he had written to Bosie. Those letters had
some very romantic language ‘… those red, rose-leaf lips of yours should be made
no less for music of song than for madness of kissing’ but Wilde says this is all art,
just art ‘… you might as well ask me whether King Lear is proper, or a sonnet of
Shakespeare is proper. It was not concerned with … the object of writing propriety
it was written with the object of making a beautiful thing’. When Carson continues to chase him he makes
an effective, if typically arrogant, riposte Carson: Suppose a man, now, who was not an
artist, had written that letter to a handsome young man, as I believe Lord Alfred Douglas
is? … Some twenty years younger than himself would you say it was a proper and natural
kind of letter to write to him? Wilde: A man who was not an artist could never
have written that letter. The first day ends not with Wilde ascendant
but, as his grandson claims, ‘full of confidence’. I think the transcript suggests that’s a
bit optimistic, but not entirely unreasonable. Oscar has played to the gallery and, at times,
treated the court like a theatre but the effect is not inconsistent with the idea at the core
of his rebuttal of Carson’s attacks about his writings, and his letters that he is
a theatrical and flamboyant person given to write and speak in terms which may seem to
offend ordinary morality but which are simply manifestations of his larger-than-life personality,
and cannot safely be relied upon to conclude that he is guilty of crimes in real life. There’s an interesting side-bar to this
summary of the outcome of the first day. It concerns the brevity and unreliability of
the earlier transcripts and reports of the trial, and the mistakes into which they led
earlier biographers. Philippe Julian’s biography published in 1969 said that Wilde had left
a ‘very bad impression’ on the jury at the end of the day one but Holland’s
transcript raises, at least, doubt about that. Wilde had not been able to fully suppress
his natural bumptiousness but he was entitled not to be unhappy as he left court. Carson sprang his trap on the morning of the
second day. He got Wilde to admit that he knew Alfred Taylor. Then, he suggested that
Taylor had ‘arranged’ dinners for Wilde with young men. Wilde initially denied it
but, soon, admitted that he had been introduced to ‘six – seven – eight’ young men
by Taylor. Then, that he gave money and gifts to some of them. Then that he entertained
them in private dining rooms. Then, in rooms he had taken in London hotels, and, that he
had taken some of them to Paris. Carson also gets Wilde to admit that all of these men
are uneducated, and did not share his interest in art, or literature, or the theatre. Carson asks Wilde about his relations with
Edward Shelley, an office boy at his publishers office. Alfonso Conway, unemployed, Alfred
Wood, who was Taylor’s servant, Charles Parker, an unemployed domestic servant, Walter
Grainger, Bosie’s domestic servant, Herbert Tankard, a pageboy at the Savoy, Ernest Scarfe,
an unemployed valet, Freddie Atkins, a bookmaker’s clerk and Maurice Schwabe. Slowly and steadily, as more names appear
and Wilde admits each acquaintance, the sheer number and similarity of these encounters
begins to make them appear more and more dubious, and Wilde’s answers steadily more foolish
and, dangerous. Carson: Then, do I understand that even a
young boy that you would pick up in the street would be a pleasing companion to you? Oh, I would talk to a street Arab if
he talked to me, with pleasure. And take him to your rooms? If he interested me. It begins to look worse, and worse. Carson
didn’t really need to suggest any illegal behaviour between Wilde and these men the
very number of them, the extravagance of Wilde’s entertainment of them, his generous gifts
of money and things like cigarette cases and clothes and the like, piled up and became
a looming avalanche of unusual, indeed dubious, conduct, for which only one possible explanation
becomes more and more compelling. Carson does put allegations of a sexual nature
with some of these men to Wilde that they stayed in hotel rooms with him, that they
slept in his bed, that he tried to put his hand in the trousers of one of them, and the
like, all of which Wilde denies immediately and, the transcript suggests, quite vehemently
but it is the oddity, and the sheer number, of the relationships which is doing Wilde’s
credit steady damage. Wilde admits that one of these men, Sydney
Mavor, stayed the night in his rooms at the Albemarle Hotel. Carson, for the first time,
puts this allegation, ‘Did any indecencies take place between you?’ to which Oscar
replies, ‘Oh, none, none at all.’ A moment later, Carson moves on to the seventh
of these men, Walter Grainger. Wilde agrees that Grainger is ‘about sixteen’ I pause
to say he wasn’t, he was over 20. He served in rooms that Bosie shared with Lord Encombe.
Then, the explosion happens Did you ever kiss him? Oh, no, never in my life, he was a
particularly plain boy. Why did you mention the boy’s ugliness? You sting me, you insult me and
try to unnerve me in every way. At times one says things flippantly when one should speak
more seriously, I admit that, I admit it, I cannot help it. That is what you are doing
to me. But in one indiscreet answer Oscar has seriously
damaged, if not destroyed whatever credit he may have built up with his consistent denials
of sexual conduct with these men. Suddenly, all of those denials and all of these relationships
are cast in a different light, one in which physical appearance and, by strong inference
physical attraction play a role. Suddenly, an explanation for everything that is unusual
about these relationships is supplied, not by Carson, but by Wilde himself. Carson’s
strategy of chipping away, using the wealth of evidence the private detectives have provided
him in an undemonstrative but relentless manner, has paid the highest dividend. Shortly afterwards,
Carson sits down. Clarke briefly re-examines Wilde, but ineffectually.
He hasn’t been given sufficient instructions to even attempt to demolish the edifice that
Carson has built, an edifice which, to that point, has not proved illegal conduct
but is logically inexplicable, and mysterious, without it, what else could possibly explain
Wilde’s relationships with all these men? Carson then opens Queensberry’s case and
now, directly, provides that explanation. He does so in a way that eschews melodrama
or sensation, and mirrors the structure of his cross-examination. He begins, again, with
the literature, Dorian Gray, he says, is a book about ‘… a man corrupted by another
man and who by such corruption is brought to commit, or the book suggests he has committed,
this sodomistic vice…’ He talks about Oscar’s letters, and what he describes as
Wilde’s ‘paradoxical’ conduct. Then, he throws his bomb. Moving to the ‘more
painful’ part of the case, he tells the jury that he is going to call all these men and
that they are going to tell of being ‘brought to bed by Wilde’ and of the ‘shocking
immoralities’ he perpetrated. And it does not end there. Hotel staff are going to
testify about seeing Wilde in bed with young men, and of ‘disgusting filth’. Clarke tugs on Carson’s gown. They confer.
Clarke throws in the towel. He makes a belated attempt to have the judge agree to a verdict
of ‘not guilty’ based solely upon the literature, but Carson is merciless and insists
that every element of Queensberry’s plea be accepted. The jury conferred for no more
than a few moments, and agreed, declaring the libel to be true, published for the public
benefit, and that Queensberry was not guilty. In yet another example of the way, we all
hope that things have changed the presiding judge, Henn Collins, penned a congratulatory
note to Carson later that day, ‘I have never heard a more powerful speech or a more searching
cross exam I congratulate you on escaping most of the filth.’ The law moved quickly. Queensberry instructed
his solicitor to send his files to the Treasury and by mid-afternoon the Home Secretary, Herbert
Asquith, had instructed that a warrant issue for Wilde’s arrest. Three weeks later Wilde
was tried, jointly, with Alfred Taylor, the charges against Wilde were of committing indecent
acts, and against Taylor of procuring them. Initially there were also some conspiracy
charges, but they were dropped before the trial. Wilde was denied bail. Sir Edward Clarke represented him, without
fee. He was better prepared, and made a persuasive argument that Dorian Gray was neither evidence
of corruption nor, itself, corrupting. He was able to establish inconsistencies in the
evidence of the young men, and that some or all of them had blackmailed men they had known
and to argue that, if that was the case, then they must have had nothing on Wilde or,
otherwise, they would surely have blackmailed him relentlessly. The jury was hung albeit
narrowly, as indiscreet jurors and the foreign press reported. Carson, and others, tried to stop a retrial
they thought Oscar had suffered enough. He was allowed bail but, otherwise, his world
fell apart. Bosie’s family reneged on their promise to pay his costs of the libel case,
and he was bankrupted and his possessions sold. His plays closed and Constance went
to Switzerland with the two boys, and he never saw them again. Clarke then made yet another tactical mistake,
he successfully applied for separate trials of Wilde, and Taylor. They would instead be
tried consecutively. Taylor was tried first and, was quickly convicted. The Solicitor-General,
Sir Frank Lockwood, prosecuted, if Taylor had been convicted, how could Wilde be acquitted,
on the same evidence? The judge, Mr Justice Wills, summed up mercilessly, ‘It is the
worst case I have ever tried’, he told the jury. They were out for three hours, and found
Wilde guilty on all charges except one. Wills J sentenced him in brutal terms, ‘you have
been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind… ‘ and gave
him the maximum hard labour for two years. Wilde’s imprisonment was hard, and ruined
his health. For the first 18 months he was not allowed writing materials, or access to
books. When that was eased, he wrote a 50,000 word letter to Bosie, later published as De Profundis.
It is a remarkable document, Wilde chronicles the disastrous effect Bosie had upon his life,
and his work, but in very fair terms, recognising his own weakness, and failings, and attempting
an accommodation of his suffering with a return to religious faith, via self-realisation.
Despite its insights it is, nevertheless, flowery and overblown in parts and much of
it is an elegy to his lost greatness. Wilde purports to ‘discover’ Christ but personifies
him as a kind of Christian aesthetic, saying beautiful things and writing wonderful poems. Wilde went to France on his release in May
1897 and lived on the Continent, in impoverished exile, until his death on 30 November 1900.
Bosie came to live with him for a time in Naples, but left when his father threatened to cut off
his funds. Constance was also giving Wilde a small allowance and she threatened to withdraw that,
too, if they didn’t separate. Robbie Ross stayed loyal, as did some friends like Max
Beerbohm, but stories abound of a tragic figure, cadging for drinks on the boulevards of Paris.
One poignant encounter even involved Carson. He could still write poems which caught the
popular imagination, The Ballad of Reading Gaol was described by critics as ‘remarkable’
and ‘beautiful’. It contains some memorable lines, like ‘Yet each man kills the thing
he loves’ but, like so much of Wilde except the comedies, is full of perpenstuff and,
for that reason, unconvincing. Ellmann says he took to absinthe, and ‘lolled
about with young men.’ Constance died in 1898, but he was still denied access to his
children. Queensberry died, largely friendless, in January 1900. His son Percy, now heir to
the title, came to see him on his deathbed, and the Marquess gathered himself just enough
to spit on his son. An ear injury that Wilde had suffered while weak
and in prison was thought to have metamorphosed into meningitis, although Ellmann is convinced
his final illness was syphilitic. He could still joke and on his deathbed, he told a
visitor ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us
has to go.’ Some critics, including Ellmann, hold that
his work lives on. Certainly, the plays survive for their humour, and wit. Another critic
described him as ‘… perhaps the greatest actor of his time’ and that is a conclusion
that his writings, his plays, and even the trial transcript, give some support. What
he acted was a prodigiously good comedian, a writer of very funny dialogue, and a cultivated
and charming intelligence. What he did not know he was acting in, of course, was a scene
that Max Beerbohm called ‘making the unmentionable mentionable’ and dealing a first blow to
Victorian taboos. That’s a story for another theatre.
Our primary interest is forensic. Carson did a more than competent job. Even without the
powerful evidence provided through Queensberry’s money and the lethal advantages it bought,
he would probably have won the case on the literature alone. His careful, detailed preparation,
analysing Wilde’s writings meant that he already found plenty of ammunition to argue
that Oscar was, indeed, ‘posing’. And that word brings up another great forensic
advantage Carson had. Queensberry was not, by any account, a thoughtful or subtle man
but he managed to exercise sufficient self-restraint, even in the face of evidence that a more direct
accusation was true, to limit what had to be proved against Wilde. In light of what
is otherwise known about the man Wilde called the ‘screaming, scarlet Marquess’ the
trap is at least surprising and, in some respects, remarkable. Why did Sir Edward Clarke abandon the prosecution?
If Carson had begun to call his witnesses, Wilde’s arrest was probably inevitable. But
it was already likely, because Wilde had been seriously compromised in open court. Had Clarke
persisted and cross-examined the witnesses he might have been able to discredit some
of their evidence as, indeed, he succeeded in doing in, at least, the first of the subsequent
criminal trials. Another explanation has been ventured. Clarke
is reported to have told a social historian and court reporter, C H Norman, that he and
Carson had a private discussion after Carson’s opening, the upshot of which was that the
case was likely to proceed for several more days, that neither side could afford it, and
that if the case was dropped nothing further would be heard of the matter but, that gentleman’s
agreement was not kept. If true, it goes some way to explaining why Clarke volunteered to
appear for Wilde without fee in both the later criminal trials. Clarke did say this publicly, in a letter
to Robbie Ross, ‘It is impossible for me to forget that, before I undertook the most
painful case which I ever had to be engaged in, he gave me his word of honour as a gentleman
that there was no foundation whatever for the charges which were afterwards so completely
proved’. Clarke published his autobiography in 1918. There is no mention of Wilde, or
the cases, at all. Thank you We are indebted to Alan for what was an exquisite
excurses in to the troubled legal life of Oscar Wilde, and we have learnt or been reminded
of the clash between Queensbury and Wilde and then Carsen and Wilde and we have been
afforded that through the extraordinary and extensive labours of Alan Wilson. Would you
please again express your appreciation. There is one more in the series Selden lectures
this year and that is the first of the Atkin lectures to be presented by the Chief Justice
of Australia, the Honourable Susan Kiefel. I hope to see you there, then, and I hope
to see you outside for refreshments now. Good evening.

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