Oscar Wilde, as he was talked about

John Sutherland is the Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London. He is the author of several books, including "The Life of Walter Scott" and a forthcoming biography of Stephen Spender.

The trials of Oscar Wilde are as famous as anything he wrote. Wilde in the dock -- “big, loose and picturesque,” as a contemporary newspaper put it -- has been played on screen by Robert Morley (1959), Peter Finch (1960), Michael Gambon (1986) and Stephen Fry (1998). There are at least a dozen full-length lives, with Richard Ellmann’s currently the biography of first call.

The image of Wilde’s martyrdom at the Old Bailey in 1895 is as familiar as that of St. Sebastian pierced with arrows. (Wilde took the name Sebastian Melmoth during his years of exile.) And as familiar as Lady Bracknell’s “A handbag!!!” is the critical exchange between barrister Edward Carson and Wilde about the playwright’s connection with the young manservant Walter Grainger:

Carson: Did you ever kiss him?

Wilde: Oh, no, never in my life; he was a peculiarly plain boy.


It was a Luciferian moment: Oscar at his proudest, yet by his arrogance ensuring for himself a fall from which no Englishman (or Irishman) could recover. Wilde won the exchange; Carson won the case.

One tends to forget that there were five trials, or legal actions. They were triggered by the Marquess of Queensberry’s leaving a carte de visite at the dramatist’s West End club inscribed, preposterously, “For Oscar Wilde posing as somdomite [sic].” The marquess’ handwriting was not entirely legible, nor was his spelling orthodox. His insult was initially misread as “ponce and somdomite.” As it turned out, the word “pose” -- with its implication of role playing -- would be central in the process that followed. The flower in the velvet lapel might be enough to damn Wilde.

Queensberry had been enraged to the pitch of lunacy by the public love affair between his son “Bosie” and Wilde. (Wilde’s wife, by contrast, was complaisant.) What Wilde should have done, his friends advised, was ignore the mad marquess’ provocation and consult his travel agent. As Frank Harris (whose dirty linen was even more soiled than Wilde’s) warned: “No jury will give a verdict against a father. The only thing for you to do ... is to go abroad.” Instead, Wilde issued a warrant for criminal libel. The marquess was arrested and a deadly legal train set in motion. Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandson, writes in his introduction to “The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde” that if he could ask his grandfather one question it would be “Why on earth did you do it?” He suggests a combination of pressure from Bosie and the celebrity’s delusional sense of being above the law. It is also likely that Wilde resolved to stand up for the “Uranian” cause -- “gay pride,” we would say. For all his sartorial elegance, Oscar was no wimp. When the marquess barged into the “somdomite’s” house with a prizefighter in tow, threatening horsewhips, Wilde (according to his version of the event) bundled his adversary out with the cool threat: “I do not know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

The first of the legal actions was a perfunctory committal hearing before a magistrate on March 2, 1895. Queensberry was bound over to appear a week later. In the second hearing, the offense and the defendant’s “justification” (protection of his son’s “morality”) were laid out. There was, the magistrate determined, a case to answer. The scene was now set for the main, three-day event at the Old Bailey, for the first time transcribed in full in this book. Here the wily Carson sprang his “booby trap.” He did not indict Wilde’s character but that of his literary work -- principally his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” A “sodomitical book”? Carson inquired. Wilde replied, with the hauteur of the affronted author: “Only to brutes -- only to the illiterate.” Carson, unfazed by the insult, continued in his role of baffled philistine, drawing his prey into ever more extravagant apologies for his art.

The lawyer (whose voice was wormwood to Wilde as it mangled his beautiful prose) read out a long quotation containing Basil Hallward’s declaration to Dorian: “I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man usually gives to a friend. Somehow, I had never loved a woman.... I quite admit that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly.” Did this, asked Carson in mock perplexity, describe “a natural feeling of one man towards another?” And that word “adored.” Had Wilde himself “ever had that experience towards a beautiful male person many years younger than yourself?”

“Adoration is a thing I reserve for myself,” Wilde retorted. In the Albemarle Club, it was a remark that would have had the company in stitches. In the courtroom, it fell like lead. Time and again in his cross-examination, Carson introduced the word “sodomitical.” Were Shakespeare’s sonnets sodomitical? Was J.K. Huysmans’ novel “A Rebours” (Dorian’s Bible) sodomitical? The word dangled from Wilde’s neck like an albatross.

Having lured Wilde into the open by attacking his book, Carson loosed his ambush. Queensberry’s private detectives had located half a dozen rent boys. Threats and bribery had elicited damning affidavits. For the latter half of the first and most of the second day, Wilde was grilled about the expensive gifts he had lavished on these worthless youths -- for example, Alfonso Conway, a street seller of newspapers, whom he had picked up on the beach at Worthing. Why, Carson inquired, had Wilde given him 15 pounds (equivalent to many months’ wages) and a silver cigarette case inscribed “Alfonso from his friend Oscar Wilde”? Why had he installed Alfonso in a bedroom at an expensive hotel, with a connecting door to his own suite? Because, answered Wilde lamely, the boy had a “nice nature.”

On the third day, Wilde withdrew his action. Too late. The vengeful marquess sent the incriminating evidence to the director of public prosecution. Wilde was charged, barely hours later, under the Labouchere amendment to the Criminal Law Act of 1885. The act’s primary intention had been to raise the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16 (an admirable piece of legislation). Section 11, proscribing “acts of gross indecency between male persons” (a deplorable piece of legislation), was added as an afterthought -- at the instigation of one of Wilde’s acquaintances, ironically. The first criminal trial, three weeks later, ended with a hung jury. By now, legal expense and scandal had ruined Wilde. The implacable DPP brought a second and successful action. Prostitutes in London, it is reported, danced in the streets when the verdict came through; their monopoly on “vice” was secure (assuming they were at least 16). Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labor. Three years after his release he died, a shattered man, in Paris, at age 46.


There have been other book-length accounts of Wilde’s courtroom ordeal, but Merlin Holland claims this as the first “real” one. Three years ago, he tells us, a transcript of the main libel trial came to light. This document is twice as long as anything else surviving. It is apparently the work of a squad of eight or more shorthand writers, serially or concurrently present in the courtroom.

Holland offers extensive commentary. His introduction, appendices and endnotes are, if anything, excessive. But he is oddly silent on where the main body of his book (about 85,000 words) originates. “In 2000,” he writes, “as I was assisting the British Library to prepare its centenary celebration on Oscar Wilde, a longhand manuscript of the complete Queensberry trial was brought into the Library to be exhibited.... It is those words which are here reproduced.” Brought in by whom, pray?

Holland offers nothing more by way of provenance or about the circumstances under which a crew of unofficial stenographers contrived to scribble away -- something normally discouraged in a British court of law. Then these secretaries, or someone else, deciphered and transcribed their shorthand. Then -- for 105 years -- someone sat on the material, blithely allowing scholars and biographers to work from imperfect sources. Why? My inquiries to the British Library, where the longhand manuscript now resides, drew a blank. It is, I am informed, the gift of an “anonymous donor” who wishes to remain so. Next inquiry, please.

For scholars this literary trove is tantalizing. Can one trust the authenticity of the document in ignorance of its origins and transmission? Was the transcript during all those years in the possession of Vyvyan Holland (Wilde’s son)? Surely not, since Merlin (Vyvyan’s son) describes himself looking “in astonishment at the ipsissima verba of what had transpired in that courtroom.” It was not, evidently, a Wilde family heirloom.


Why would the donor of such crucial literary evidence remain anonymous? Why has it never come into a sale room, where it would fetch a handsome price? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, when you weigh the evidence, you will surely find only one hypothesis tenable. This transcript was commissioned by the mad marquess and has been donated to the nation by his descendants, by way of belated, if discreet, apology for the appalling crime done to Oscar Wilde. If so, about time.