Saturday, March 24, 2018

Thoughts on Oscar Wilde's Trials

1. Oscar Wilde was a fairly brilliant, wholly naive man.

The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband alone justify Wilde as brilliant. And he was, by all accounts, a decent person in his treatment of others.

Okay, that last statement is subjective (ask his wife), but he was better than . . .

2. Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, was a petulant, self-entitled, domineering jerk.

It is customary to perceive May-December relationships as entirely within the December party's control. This is nonsense. In a modern court, Bosie would rapidly be unmasked as a younger, abusive partner. (And he was abusive--there's little doubt of that.)

Wilde was observant and introspective enough to know what Bosie was like. But he "stayed" anyway (and accepted his own complicity in the matter). To his great cost since it was Bosie who, in a petulant display of supposed independence towards his foaming-at-the-mouth father, convinced Wilde to bring the libel case that led to the criminal cases.

3. The defense lawyer in the libel case was trying to help Wilde.

There is some speculation on this since apparently they'd known each other in college, yet the lawyer, Edward Carson, took Wilde apart on the stand. Ahh, he was jealous of Wilde's success, the critics cry. Except Carson took Wilde apart (and skillfully too) regarding his literary works. By the time he got to mentioning that oh, by the way, I have young male prostitutes ready to take the stand and swear to your behavior with them, Wilde's counsel was prepared to withdraw the libel suit. Carson gave Wilde's counsel (to whom Wilde was not entirely honest) time to realize they were going to lose.
Edward Carson

Unfortunately, too late.

4. Like Patty Hearst's parents, Wilde simply couldn't imagine that charm and wit and social position don't protect a person from prosecution.

I don't think that Wilde was being arrogant. I think he really couldn't see the natural outcome of the matter. It didn't make sense to him that one day he would be the toast of London and the next day he would be in jail. It didn't make sense that a crazy person (the Marquess of Queensberry was nuts--by everyone's standards, including the government's) would be allowed to rule the day. Even if Wilde was having homosexual relations with young men, why did anyone care? Or, rather, why did everyone not realize that Wilde was too witty and clever to be the "degenerate" implied by the crown? Or, in addition, why didn't everyone understand how harmless and benign (and witty and clever) Wilde was?

If I was Wilde's attorney, I would have been tearing my hair out.
Queensberry was like something out of a tuppenny opera--
a villain that somebody invented; here he is fighting with
a son (not Bosie) who disagreed with his actions.

5. The judges and lawyers of the first two cases thought Wilde would take the hint and run for the continent.

He didn't.

6. The final criminal trial was legal but not fair.

The first criminal trial resulted in a hung jury. Today, a Law & Order episode would decide that another prosecution wasn't worth the cost. At Queensberry's instigation, the system at the time went forward with a second trial.

While the first judge had been extremely well-balanced in his decisions regarding evidence, the second judge was not. He allowed into evidence the cross-examination from the libel trial that was extremely prejudicial to Wilde and then summed up against him. He did not cross the line in regards to the legal use of the accumulated circumstantial evidence. But he wasn't fair.

7. Even if legally permissible, the punishment was horrible, stupid, and unnecessary.

Wilde's tomb
Wilde's two years in Reading Gaol killed him. He died three years after release but his illness was directly the result of the poor conditions while imprisoned (prisons back then were literal cesspools). Keep in mind: he was imprisoned and ultimately killed for sleeping with willing young men. I have more to say about that below, but the punishment in no way fit the legal crime, whether or not it should have been a legal crime.

8. The case would cause a scandal even now.

Despite the young men being willing, they were quite young, most over eighteen but a few possibly not. In addition, Wilde had "affairs" with young men who by class and occupation were not in a position to refuse. I doubt very much that Wilde realized--as a more socially perceptive man would have--that his position created a power imbalance. He was a truly naive guy. Nevertheless, there was a power imbalance, which causes an uneasy shiver down the spine. 

Think Michael Jackson. Wilde was smarter maybe, savvier maybe, but just as clueless when it came to entering into relationships that he saw as "romantic" but actually weren't.

9.  Wilde's imprisonment and death is sad and pointless; it makes sense to see him in some ways as a martyr.

Jack Saul was a nineteenth century
prostitute. He was implicated in a number
of scandals. He died at 46, the same age
as Wilde. He is not as well-known.
However . . .

10. Everybody ignores the young men.

This bugs me. A lot. Every book focuses on Wilde, partly (granted) because he is the one we know about. And also partly because most of the young men didn't go to jail (they understandably made deals with the prosecution).

Alfred Taylor, their supposed pimp or procurer (he seemed to see himself as a kind of off-line dating service), did go to jail. He later immigrated to America. That's all we know. So the information on the prostitution side is scarce.

However, I suspect there is another reason the young men are ignored. To discuss the young men is to illustrate too great a contrast between them and Oscar Wilde. The young men, like many male and female prostitutes of that era, worked a variety of jobs from domestic to manual labor. Prostitution supplemented their incomes; in only rare cases would it have been their main occupation. Many of them had long-term partners, either male or female. Alfred Taylor appears to have had a longstanding and affectionate relationship with a male partner. Taylor and the young prostitutes went along with Oscar Wilde out of availability, possible physical gratification, and money.

This is world's away from a (comparatively) rich man indulging an itch at the instigation of his aristocratic boyfriend--all while presenting his behavior (to himself and to others) as some kind of experiment in aesthetics.

To assume some kind of "connection" between the young men and Wilde simply due to predilection (which not all of them shared--they were hustlers or rent boys, hoping to pay the rent, not young gay men looking to express themselves) is to ignore the class difference. Marx was wrong about most things, but he was right about this. Class would have had a greater impact on the young men's decision-making process than Wilde's fantastical romanticizing of their services.

Wilde was a martyr to a bad penal system and to his own infatuation; he arguably drew Queensberry's fire rather than expose Bosie (who should have offered). But it seems to me something of a disservice to couples where one member doesn't completely destroy the other member's life to say Wilde was a martyr to the "love that dare not speak its name." If I were Wilde's friend back in the day, not only would I have felt sorry for his wife, I would have strongly advised him to dump Bosie, who was patently not worth Wilde's enormous sacrifice.

Wilde was naive enough to apparently believe he was sacrificing all for a noble love--not for Bosie (whom Wilde understood just a little too well) but for something abstract and beautiful.

I doubt the prostitutes that Wilde paid believed the same.