July 12, 2024

Poet, Painter, Scandal-Maker: the trials and tribulations of the artist accused

Sitting recently with friends, the table conversation turned to the subject of crime & scandal – ever-present themes seemingly so liked by a society thriving on sensationalism, denunciation and Schadensfreude – the more lurid and juicy the better! Yea, it was fun; our dialogue conjured visions of insanity, perversion and murder, of fantastic tales and dubious characters. Nevertheless we were hard-pressed to come up with many cases involving personalities of the arts – which prompted me to delve into the subject further!

Take the case of Oscar Wilde… a perfect example of being born in the right place at the wrong time, and a prime specimen of moral dualism in the Victorian Age. As well as being the most celebrated playwright of his day, Wilde was constantly embroiled in controversy, and ultimately scandal, which lead to his downfall, imprisonment and likely his early death. His only novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (which surely reflects fantastical aspects of his own life) caused widespread shock and criticism, being cited as contaminating to conventional morality, and was subsequently censored and even partially rewritten. Oscar Wilde was a dramatic gentleman dandy, extremely arrogant and possessed an unrivaled wit. He was also gay and an extravagant Hedonist – absolute no-no’s for tight-collared Victorians! Nevertheless, decadent lifestyles and a secret stratum of gentleman homosexuals and their young men (‘valets and grooms in the bond of the silver cigarette case’) were more common than most would have liked to think in the upper-classes. In 1885 sexual relations between men were made illegal under English law (and would remain so for 70 years thereafter!).

‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’

1895, ‘An Ideal Husband’ opens at the Haymarket Theatre with huge success, followed by ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ celebrated as ‘…saucy, brilliantly clever and unedifyingly diverting’ – Oscar is at the height of his career! However, impending scandal looms at the door for Wilde as well. His love affair with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas; son of the Marquess of Queensbury caused the shamed and furious (and a boorish arse) father to go on a witch-hunt for Wilde which culminated in the form of a note left by Queensbury at the Albermarle Club accusing Wilde of being a sodomite (the semi-literate Marquess actually scrawled Somdomite!). Outraged, (though at first, in panic, planned to leave the country) Wilde sought out his lawyer to sue the Marquess for his ‘defamatory libel’ who was arrested subsequently.

The high-profile trial that followed would (due largely to a cunning defense lawyer) expose Wilde’s entire wardrobe of soiled garments and turn the tables against him, as well as acquitting Queensbury. The case against Wilde would be played out with a cast of unsavory rent boys, prostitutes and blackmailers on a stage set with homophobic prejudice and public hysteria. Almost overnight Oscar Wilde went from highly acclaimed fame to despised criminal infamy – the harsh verdict was unusual even for Victorian courts. Sentenced to two years hard labor at Pentonville Prison, Wilde would rapidly deteriorate. Unable to work the treadmill he was confined to his cell 23 hours a day, without pen & paper, books or contact with others; he became physically and mentally crushed and deeply depressed. Bankruptcy followed, he would change prisons to Reading Gaol, always experiencing prison guard brutality. Eventually things got more bearable (he wrote ‘De Profundis’, a letter to Bosie, not completely published until 1962), and he served the sentence in full, becoming somewhat of a prison personality.

Leaving the country that now hated him, Wilde went to France. He lived the rest of his life suffering from ill health, money problems, and the sting of betrayal and downfall. Oscar Wilde died in 1900 of Meningitis in a shabby room in the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris, he was 46.


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