The Downfall of Oscar Wilde
On Valentine’s Day in 1895, the most famous playwright in the English speaking world, Oscar Wilde, presented his new play, The Importance of Being Earnest, in London at St. James Theatre. The audience was packed with celebrities, aristocrats and famous politicians, eagerly awaiting another triumph from a man universally heralded as a genius. At the end of the performance, there was a standing ovation. Critics adored the play and so did audiences, making it Wilde’s fourth major success in only three years.
Yet, only a few short months later, Wilde was bankrupt and about to be imprisoned. His reputation was in tatters and his life ruined beyond repair. It was, as everyone then and now agreed, a tragedy, the swift fall of a great man due to a small but fateful slip.
The story of how Oscar Wilde went from celebrity playwright to prisoner, in such a short space of time, has much to teach us about disgrace and infamy. We don’t have to be acclaimed to understand that Wilde’s poignant tragedy urges us to abandon our normal moralism and have sympathy for those who stray, it calls for us to extend our love not just to those who obviously deserve it but precisely to those who seem not to. We talk a lot of what a civilised world should be like. We might put it like this: a civilised world would be one in which Oscar Wilde could have been forgiven – and in which those who make errors of judgement could be treated with high degrees of sympathy and, even, of kindness. It would be a world in which we could remember that good people can at times do bad things – and should not pay an eternal price for them.
Wilde’s tragedy began several years earlier, when he was introduced to a beguiling young man named Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas, known to family and friends as ‘Bosie’, was extremely handsome, charming and arrogant. He enjoyed gambling, spent money carelessly and was prone to outbursts of anger as well as moments of great intellectual insight.
By 1892, a year after they had met, the two men had fallen profoundly in love. Although Wilde was married with two children, he spent much of his time with Bosie: there was a sixteen year age gap, Douglas was twenty-four, Wilde forty. They travelled together, stayed in hotels and hosted large dinners for their friends.
Oscar and Bosie.
Their relationship was tempestuous, but Wilde was ineluctably drawn to the younger man. ‘It is really absurd,’ he wrote to him in one love letter, ‘I don’t exaggerate: I can’t live without you.’
By 1894, the pair were constantly seen together in public and rumours of their love affair had spread as far as Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury. The Marquess was a cruel, aggressive character, known for inventing the ‘Queensbury Rules’ of amateur boxing. Having decided that Wilde was corrupting his son, he demanded that the pair stop seeing each other.
When Wilde refused, Queensbury began to hound him across London, threatening violence against restaurant and hotel managers if they allowed Wilde and Bosie onto the premises.
Queensbury booked a seat for the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. He planned to throw a bouquet of rotting vegetables at Wilde when he took to the stage.
When Wilde heard about the stunt, he had him barred from the theatre and Queensbury flew into a rage. He tried to accost Wilde after the performance at the Albemarle Club in Mayfair. When the porters refused to let him in, he left a calling card which publicly accused Wilde of having sex with other men.
Since homosexuality was illegal and deeply frowned upon in Victorian society and its mass media, it was a dangerous accusation.
Seeing no end to Queensbury’s bullying behaviour, Wilde decided to take legal action. By suing Queensbury for libel, Wilde hoped to clear his name and put an end to the harassment.
Friends begged him to drop the case, certain that he would lose, but Bosie insisted that he go ahead with it so that they might be vindicated and be able to live without censorship.
When the trial began, Wilde was confident. He took the stand and gave witty, distracting answers during his cross-examination.
Within a few days, however, the tide had turned against him.
In the opening speech for the defense, Queensbury’s barrister announced that they had several witnesses: young men whom Wilde had entertained in his room at the Savoy Hotel, and who would testify that Wilde had paid them for sex.
It became clear that Queensbury’s lawyers had hired private detectives to uncover an uncomfortable truth: that both Wilde and Bosie had hired male prostitutes. Some had even blackmailed Wilde in the past, successfully extorting money from him in return for their silence.
The trial was hopeless and Wilde withdrew his case, but events had spiralled beyond his control.
Queensbury’s lawyers forwarded their evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions and Wilde was soon arrested on charges of gross indecency.
The legal costs left him bankrupt and theatres were forced to abandon his plays.
Wilde’s criminal trial began at the Old Bailey on April 26. He faced twenty-five charges, all of which surrounded his sexual relationships with younger men.
Wilde continued to deny the allegations and the jury could not reach a verdict, but when the prosecution were allowed to try Wilde a second time he was eventually found guilty.
It was rumoured that the then Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery had also had an affair with one of Queensbury’s sons and so pushed for Wilde to be convicted in order to keep his own secret hidden.
The judge said at his sentencing, “It is the worst case I have ever tried. I shall pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate for such a case as this.”
Wilde was sentenced to two years’ of hard labour. Inmates in London’s Pentonville Prison, where he was sent, spent six hours a day walking on a heavy treadmill or untangling old rope using their hands and knees.
For someone of Wilde’s luxurious background, it was an impossible hardship. His bed was a hard plank which made it difficult to fall asleep. Prisoners were kept alone in their cells and barred from talking to one another. He suffered from dysentery and became physically very frail.
After six months, he was transferred to Reading Gaol. As he stood on the central platform of Clapham Junction, with handcuffs around his wrists, passers-by began to recognise the celebrity playwright. They laughed and mocked. Some even spat at him.
‘For half an hour I stood there,’ he wrote afterwards, ‘in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob. For a year after that was done to me, I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.’
Wilde’s prison cell in Reading Gaol.
During his last year in prison, he wrote an anguished essay, De Profundis: ‘I once a lord of language, have no words in which to express my anguish and my shame… Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still…. The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease…I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility… I have lain in prison for nearly two years… I have passed through every possible mood of suffering… The only people I would care to be with now are artists and people who have suffered: those who know what beauty is, and those who know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me.’
In May 1897, Wilde was finally released. He set sail for Dieppe in France the very same day.
His wife, Constance, had changed her name and moved abroad with their two sons, Vyvyan (now 11) and Cyril (12). Wilde would never see his children again; he missed them every day.
Constance Wilde, with her son Cyril, November 1889
Constance agreed to send him money on the condition that he end his relationship with Bosie, but only a few months later, the pair reunited and the money stopped.
They moved to Naples and Wilde began using the name Sebastian Melmoth, inspired by the great Christian martyr Saint Sebastian and a character from a Gothic novel who had sold his soul to the devil.
They hoped to find privacy abroad, but the scandal seemed to follow them wherever they went. English patrons recognised them in hotels and demanded they be turned away. After Constance stopped sending money, Bosie’s mother offered to pay their debts if he returned home and the pair once again parted ways; it proved equally impossible.
Scorned by many of his former friends, Wilde moved to Paris where he lived in relative poverty. He spent most of his time and money in bars and cafes, borrowing money whenever he could and drinking heavily. His weight ballooned and his conversation dragged. He was slowly inebriating himself to death.
When a friend suggested he try to write another comic play, he replied: “I have lost the mainspring of life and art […] I have pleasures, and passions, but the joy of life is gone.”
His final piece of writing, a poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, was published in 1898. The author’s name was listed as ‘C.3.3.’ – Wilde’s cell block and cell number from his time in the prison.
Towards the end of 1900, Wilde developed meningitis and became gravely ill. A Catholic priest visited his hotel and baptised him into the church. He died the following day at the age of 46.
More than a century later, in 2017, a law was passed to exonerate those who had been convicted due to their sexuality and Oscar Wilde received an official pardon from the UK government. ‘It is hugely important,’ declared a government minister, ‘that we pardon people convicted of historical sexual offences who would be innocent of any crime today.’
Our society has become generous towards Wilde’s specific behaviour – but it remains intransigently moralistic in identical ways towards a huge number of other errors and transgressions; we need only read the newspaper to be reminded of the cruelty. Many of us would – across the ages – want to comfort and befriend Oscar Wilde. It’s a touching hope, but one that would be best employed in extending love and sympathy to all those less talented or witty figures who are right now facing ruin and disgrace, who cry out for our love and sympathy and beg us not to judge them too harshly or spit on them too callously on their way to jail; that would be true civilisation and a world in which Wilde’s horrifying downfall had not been in vain.