This post accompanies our episode A Tale without Moral – The Story of Oscar and Constance Wilde, this is part of our exploration of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the 2009 movie adaption of Dorian Gray as gothic texts.
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Oscar Wilde is one of the greatest literary icons, from his poetry to his plays, his essays to his novels and everything in between. Oscar Wilde oozes charisma and charm, he delights and entertains, but just below the surface, there is a deep sadness and sorrow.
His life has been documented in great detail and I will not be able to go into his life in the depths that many others have. Similar to my summary of Mary Shelley’s life it will be an overview of his life and the impact of his works rather than a deep dive.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on the 16th October 1854 in Dublin. Similar to Shelley he grew up around theorists, academics and writers. His mother, Jane Wilde, was an Irish patriot and his father, William Wilde was an esteemed surgeon with at best a scandalous and at worst a darkly criminal sexual past. During his Dublin and Oxford years, he became a classicist of some note and was there at the beginning of the popularisation of aestheticism lead by Walter Paton and John Ruskin. There is a lot to unpack when talking about the emergence of the philosophy of aestheticism so I won’t go into that.
Wilde is perceived to be part of the transition between Romanticism and Modernism.
Wilde is modern in the sense that he breaks apart the Victorian and Romantic idealism using wit and witticism. Like Mary Shelley, Wilde stitches together bits of preceding literature, mythology and academic theory and fashions these disparate parts into something that is at once new exciting and familiar on a deep subconscious level. His work deals in Doppelgangers and duality, both in style and in the characters he creates.
The guiding principle of the aestheticism that Wilde would be renowned for is Art for Art’s sake which was proposed by Gautier. This ideology allowed Wilde to interact with the budding consumerism of the late Victorian period effectively gaining sponsorship for wearing the bohemian he was renowned for. As his plays Salome, Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband and the Importance of Being Earnest became both popular and critically acclaimed he achieved a celebrity status which would be a key factor in his devastating fall from grace.
Wilde had quite a number of girlfriend’s before he married Constance Lloyd, they had two children together and Wilde is commonly thought to have been a devoted father, and potentially even a good husband. He was a poet, essayist, novelist and playwright, he also held a position as editor of Lady’s World during which he strongly advocated for dress reform. It cannot be emphasized how key dress reform was in the early days of feminism. It allowed women to forgo the corsets and prohibitive crinoline hoops for clothing that allowed them to move freely and didn’t cause the dramatic health issues of the earlier period of Victorian dress. Whilst it is thought he only took the position as a means of regular income as freelance writing was not covering Wilde’s somewhat lavish lifestyle, he certainly was a force for good and progressive voice advocating for female independence. I’ve written a little about the dress reform movement before so here’s the link to that.
There was a sort of Social doubling happening in the England into which Wilde released The Picture of Dorian Gray published in 1890. Being openly gay was not considered as immoral as we might think, looking back on the repression of the Victorian era. Oscar Wilde was among the men who maintained a heteronormative family life whilst also engaging in homosexual relationships that were not so much hidden as relatively unspoken of outside of those social spheres. But the tides were changing and a law had been passed that would allow gay men to prosecuted under gross indecency laws. These laws weren’t really taken very seriously but all that was about to change.
It was during this time that our Protagonist met Lord Alfred Bosie who regularly frequented sex workers and brought out a particularly indulgent and decadent side in Wilde.
It was Bosie’s father who sent the inflammatory and misspelt note to Wilde saying that he was “posing as a somdomite” yes… somdomite. Which was the genesis of what was to be an almost complete social rejection of Wilde.
Wilde, encouraged by Bosie, sued Bosie’s father the hyper-masculine Marquess of Queensbury for liable. This move backfired dramatically with the suit for liable being dismissed and Wilde was arrested for gross indecency.
Here is a passage describing the events leading to the trial from the Trials of Oscar Wilde, please bear in mind when reading this that it was published in 1906 and there is a fair amount of insulting language directed at Wilde and homosexuality in general. Obviously, I am not okay with this kind of attitude and bigotry, but this will give you a bit of an insight into how Wilde’s reputation would be damaged for decades and decades:
He was addicted to the vice and crime of sodomy long before he formed a “friendship” which was destined to involve him in irretrievable ruin. In London, he met a younger son of the eccentric Marquis of Queensbury, Lord Alfred Douglas by name. This youth was being educated at [Pg 8]Cambridge. He was of peculiar temperament and talented in a strong, frothy style. He was good-looking in an effeminate, lady-like way. He wrote verse. His poems not being of a manner which could be acceptable to a self-respecting publication, his efforts appeared in an eccentric and erratic magazine which was called “The Chameleon.” In this precious serial appeared a “poem” from the pen of Lord Alfred dedicated to his father in these filial words: “To the Man I Hate.”
Oscar Wilde at once developed an extraordinary and dangerous interest in this immature literary egg. A being of his own stamp, after his own heart, was Lord Alfred Douglas. The love of women delighted him not. The possession of a young girl’s person had no charm for him. He yearned for higher flights in the realms of love! He sought unnatural affection. Wilde, experienced in all the symptoms of a disordered sexual fancy, contrived to exercise a remarkable and sinister influence over this youth. Again and again and again did his father implore Lord Alfred Douglas to separate himself from the tempter. Lord Queensberry threatened, persuaded, bribed, urged, cajoled: all to no purpose. Wilde and his son were constantly together. The nature of their friendship became the talk of the [Pg 9]town. It was proclaimed from the housetops. The Marquis, determined to rescue him if it were humanly possible, horsewhipped his son in a public thoroughfare and was threatened with a summons for assault. On one occasion—it was the opening night of one of the Wilde plays—he sent the author a bouquet of choice—vegetables! Three or four times he wrote to him begging him to cancel his friendship with Lord Alfred. Once he called at the house in Tite Street and there was a terrible scene. The Marquis fumed; Wilde laughed. He assured his Lordship that only at his son’s own request would he break off the association which existed between them. The Marquis, driven to desperation, called Wilde a disgusting name. The latter, with a show of wrath, ordered the peer from his door and he was obliged to leave.
At all costs and hazards, at the risk of any pain and grief to himself, Lord Queensberry was determined to break off the disgraceful liaison. He stopped his son’s allowance, but Wilde had, at that time, plenty of money and his purse was his friend’s. At last the father went to the length of leaving an insulting message for Oscar Wilde at that gentleman’s club. He called there and asked for Wilde. The clerk at the enquiry office stated that Mr. Wilde was[Pg 10] not on the premises. The Marquis then produced a card and wrote upon it in pencil these words, “Oscar Wilde is a Bugger.” This elegant missive he directed to be handed to the author when he should next appear at the club.
From this card—Lord Queensberry’s last resource—grew the whole great case, which amazed and horrified the world in 1895. Oscar Wilde was compelled, however reluctantly, to take the matter up. Had he remained quiescent under such a public affront, his career in England would have been at an end. He bowed to the inevitable and a libel action was prepared.
One is often compelled to wonder if he foresaw the outcome. One asks oneself if he realized what defeat in this case would portend. The stakes were desperately high. He risked, in a Court of Law, his reputation, his position, his career and even his freedom. Did he know what the end to it all would be?
Whatever Wilde’s fears and expectations were, his opponent did not under-estimate the importance of the issue. If he could not induce a jury of twelve of his fellow-countrymen to believe that the plaintiff was what he had termed him, he, the Marquis of Queensberry, would be himself [Pg 11]disgraced. Furthermore, there would, in the event of failure, be heavy damages to pay and the poor man was not over rich. Wilde had many and powerful friends. For reasons which it is not necessary to enlarge upon, Lord Queensberry was not liked or respected by his own order. The ultimate knowledge that he was a father striving to save a loved son from infamy changed all that, and his Lordship met with nothing but sympathy from the general public in the latter stages of the great case.
Sir Edward Clarke was retained for the plaintiff. It is needless to refer to the high estimation in which this legal and political luminary is held by all classes of society. From first to last he devoted himself to the lost cause of Oscar Wilde with a whole-hearted devotion which was beyond praise. The upshot of the libel action must have pained and disgusted him; yet he refused to abandon his client, and, in the two criminal trials, defended him with a splendid loyalty and with the marked ability that might be expected from such a counsel. The acute, energetic, silver-spoken Mr. Carson led on the other side. It is not necessary to make more than passing mention of the conspicuous skill with which the able lawyer conducted the case for the [Pg 12]defendant. Even the gifted plaintiff himself cut a sorry figure when opposed to Mr. Carson.
Extraordinary interest was displayed in the action; and the courts were besieged on each day that the trial lasted. Remarkable revelations were expected and they were indeed forthcoming. Enormous pains had been taken to provide a strong defence and it was quite clear almost after the first day that Wilde’s case would infallibly break down. He made some astonishing admissions in the witness-box and even disgusted many of his friends by the flippancy and affected unconcern of his replies to questions of the most damaging nature. He, apparently, saw nothing indecorous in facts which must shock any other than the most depraved. He saw nothing disgusting in friendships of a kind to which only one construction could be put. He gave expensive dinners to ex-barmen and the like: ignorant, brutish young fools—because they amused him! He presented youths of questionable moral character with silver cigarette-cases because their society was pleasant! He took young men to share his bedroom at hotels and saw nothing remarkable in such proceedings. He gave sums of thirty pounds to ill-bred youths—accomplished blackmailers—because they were hard-up and he felt they [Pg 13]did not deserve poverty! He assisted other young men of a character equally undesirable, to go to America and received letters from them in which they addressed him as “Dear Oscar,” and sent him their love. In short, his own statements damned him. Out of his own mouth—and he posing all the time—was he convicted. The case could have but one ending. Sir Edward Clarke—pained, surprised, shocked—consented to a verdict for the Marquis of Queensberry and the great libel case was at an end. The defendant left the court proudly erect, conscious that he had been the means of saving his son and of eradicating from society a canker which had been rotting it unnoticed, except by a few, for a very long time. Oscar Wilde left the court a ruined and despised man. People—there were one or two left who were loyal to him—turned aside from him with loathing. He had nodded to six or seven friends in court on the last day of the trial and turned ashen pale when he observed their averted looks. All was over for him. The little supper-parties with a few choice wits; the glorious intoxication of first-night applause; the orgies in the infamous dens of his boon companions—all these were no more for him. Oscar Wilde, bon vivant, man of letters, arbiter[Pg 14] of literary fashion, stood at the bar of public opinion, a wretch guilty of crimes against which the body recoils and the mind revolts. Oh! what a falling-off was there!
Witnesses came forward, Wilde’s letters to Bosie were read aloud and Wilde’s sex life was dragged into the courtroom and paraded around for all to see.
Despite all this, Oscar Wilde sat poised in the witness box and even managed to elicit laughter. Playfully taunting the Prosecution Mr Gill. I highly recommend reading the transcripts on Project Gutenberg, who by the way I am not sponsored by, by the way, because the entire thing relies on volunteers and it is amazing and you should go to gutenberg.org right now.
Despite Wilde’s wit, he was unable to appeal sufficiently to the jury.
He was found guilty and sent to gaol.
That night there was an exodus of 6 hundred single, thought to be gay, men fled England for Paris.
Oscar Wilde was imprisoned from 1895 to 1897, During which time he wrote a letter to Bosie which was published as De Profundis.
He died 3 years after his release on the 30th November 1900 in Paris. The cause may have been syphilis, but most likely it seems to that is was meningitis. His accuser The Marquess of Queensbury died earlier that year from syphilis, Bosie would survive a further 45 years.
There is a pivotal player in this story that is frequently overlooked and underestimated and we are going to spend a bit of time getting to know Constance Wilde. The woman who was as much a victim of the scandal that was to follow and her very deep suffering is often a mere footnote in the story both in its earlier incarnation as a scandalous tale of debauchery and our contemporary understanding of the story as one of sexual freedom versus Victorian repression.
“So sweet, so pretty and good, how came she by her outrageously intellectual husband? It was impossible not to predict suffering for a woman so domestic and simple mated with a mind so searching and so perverse, and a character so self-indulgent.” – Richard Le Gallienne.
This quote doesn’t do the brilliant woman justice
Constance Lloyd was also born in Ireland in 1859, she was an acclaimed writer of children’s stories and this legacy is almost entirely eclipsed by the looming shadow of Oscar.
There is speculation that maybe she delighted in her family’s disapproval of her choice in husband. There appears to be a meeting of minds, particularly in their early relationship with Constance embracing the dress reform movement and softer, more practical wear for women as a form of female independence. Constance is not the shy retiring woman at home that history wants to paint her as. While it is true that she was steadfast and supportive of Oscar, even when it seemed like he was ignorant and indifferent to her suffering. But this support and strength in the face of scandal and censure paint the picture of a woman whose strength of character is quite phenomenal. She had to flee England with her two children in a kind of exile to shelter her young family from aggressive societal disgrace. They changed their name to Holland and she tried to sustain a relationship with Wilde, visiting him in prison and kept a dialogue going between the father and his children. She died, possibly from spinal damage caused by a fall and possibly from syphilis contracted from her husband in 1898, in Italy.
There is a nude, pregnant statue of Constance in Merion Dublin.
The moral of the Story? Can there be a moral to this story? Or is it like any one of Wilde’s fictions that defies a moral. No one can know enough about the life of another person to provide a satisfactory moral conclusion.
If it was syphilis that claimed Wilde, then perhaps we could draw a moral conclusion about a life of decadence, but we will never know. If Constance had been rewarded for her strength and loyalty then we could claim a moral about the strength of spirit, but there is no clear reward for our heroine, in fact, it is her ‘goodness’ that leads to tragedy. Bosie outlived them all despite being the somewhat amoral catalyst of the Wilde’s undoing.
The Picture of Dorian Gray has a moralistic end but not moralistic intentions. He finalized his stories with a moral finish, tying up the ends in or to provide closure and satisfaction, but not to provide a morality or judgement. We get a satisfactory conclusion, which is more than can be said of the tragic story of Oscar Wilde.
Here is an excerpt from De Profundis, his extended letter to Bosie, which he wrote while serving his sentence for gross indecency to take us out. I’ll see you soon.
I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards. Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged. It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away. With me it was different. I felt it myself, and made others feel it. Byron was a symbolic figure, but his relations were to the passion of his age and its weariness of passion. Mine were to something more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger scope.
The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flâneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.
For a great account of Constance Wilde’s life check out Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle