A handcuff?

Literary Review, May 2003

The facts: in 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry, enraged by what he took to be the corrupting influence of the playwright Oscar Wilde on his son Alfred Douglas, left a card at the Albemarle Club bearing the words ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing as somdomite’ (in his passion, the Marquess’s spelling was erratic); Wilde sued for libel; the subsequent trial concentrated on his writings, both public, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and private, as in letters he wrote to Douglas, and also on his relationship with a series of young men of dubious character. The verdict: Queensberry was acquitted. The result: Wilde was accused, in a pair of criminal trials, of sodomy, found guilty, and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. He died in Paris in 1900, aged forty-six.

This book is the transcript of the libel trial, edited with a smart introduction by Wilde’s grandson. Merlin Holland says:

In 2000, 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. Its authenticity was not to be doubted.. .

This is all we learn about the provenance of the manuscript that is the basis for Irish Peacock G. Scarlet Marquess. We are not told if the compilers of previous versions of the trial (for example, H Montgomery Hyde in 1948) had access to it, or even any knowledge of its existence. Whether they dd or not, and assuming we can depend on Holland’s assertion of its authenticity, this is an important document in the history of literature, society and sexuality in England. Not only that, it’s also gripping to read.

Classicists, and aficionados of Hollywood films, will be aware of the close relationship between drama and what goes on inside a courtroom. Athenian tragedies centred around a set piece known as the agon, a dispute between two people presented in the form of a forensic argument. A court scene has formed the climax of many a blockbuster movie. The additional irony here is that the classically educated Wilde should find the strength of the epigrams he had forged in his dramas tested on the real-life stage of the Cenhal Criminal Court. ‘The text has been laid out as a play with proper names for ease of reading, though in the MS the “characters” are generally designated “Q” or “A.’ With a few cuts, I imagine the transcript would play pretty well in the West End.

Foremost among the dramatis personae not already mentioned is Queensberry’s counsel, Edward Carson. A contemporary of Wilde’s at Trinity College, Dublin, Carson was everything the was not. He was conventional where his adversary was subversive, scientific where he was artistic, and his mind was characterised bv a scrupulous precision whereas Wilde had a tendency towards airy carelessness both in his behaviour and in his processes of thought. The drama of this book resides in the ;ash between these two personalities.

The following exchange – on the subject of Walter Grainger, a servant of Douglas’s in his rooms in Oxford – is typical:

CARSON: Did you ever kiss him?
WILDE: Oh, no, never in my life, he was a peculiarly plain boy.
CARSON: He was what?
WILDE: I said I thought him unfortunately – his appearance was so very unfortunately – very ugly – I mean – I pitied him for it.
CARSON: Very ugly?
CARSON: Do you say that in support of your statement that you never kissed him?

Holland claims in his introduction that this moment has ‘a dramatic poignancy as the turning point in the trial’. It’s not clear exactly what he means by this. The word ‘dramatic’ may be intended to imply that it was not the actual turning point. Although on the one hand Wilde’s flippant remark is an instance in itself of ‘posing’ as a homosexual, on the other it would hardly have been sufficient to clinch the case; the killer material was going to be the evidence provided by the young rent boys (which never came to light here, because the prosecution threw in its hand). Nevertheless, all the tendencies of the trial are embodied in these sentences.

Carson’s cross-examination and opening speech have been called exemplary. He was obviously a brilliant barrister, if to be a brilliant barrister is to be provocative, persistent, patronising and impertinent. I found myself hating him for his ruthless destruction of Wilde: an entirely unsuitable response, as I’m aware. And I was exasperated and charmed by Wilde in about equal measure. A further facet of this document’s importance is that it’s the most direct evidence we have of what the playwright was like in person. We see how he could not resist the temptation to play to the crowd. (The most chilling part of the above exchange is the absence, after the crack about I Grainger’s plainness, of the word ‘laughter’ in brackets: the response that is recorded after so many of Wilde’s bon mots earlier in the trial.) We see him rattled, and squabbling with Carson over the use of individual words. We see him quote himself, coming out with stock axioms of Aestheticism, even if they led him into contradictions, or were inadvisable in the circumstances. 

Most of all we see, complementing the flamboyant stylishness, his lack of common sense. Holland writes, ‘If I could ask my grandfather a single question, it would have to be, “Why on earth did you do it?”‘ Why did he take Queensberry to court? As we proceed, line by line, through Wilde’s humiliation, we continue to wonder. Was he dominated by Alfred Douglas, sixteen years his junior but with more fury of personality than Wilde could muster, and hell-bent on confounding his father? Did he imagine the defence would fail to find, or not dare to use, the evidence of the rent boys? Had Queensberry’s persecution left him with no apparent alternative? Could it have been arrogance?

Inevitably the answer is not one of these but a combination. Wilde’s spell in prison killed his spirit and extinguished his creative spark (during his exile in France he could no longer manage what he called the ‘architecture of thought’ necessary for writing), but it ensured his immortality. The opprobrium heaped on him at the time was so disproportionate that society later felt guilty and Wilde became the most prominent martyr in the continuing fight for equal rights for homosexuals. In a broader sense, he is today an icon of the libertarian mind oppressed by a punitive Establishment. Did he anticipate this vindication? Is that a further answer to his grandson’s question? Could it be that Wilde consciously embraced his eventual apotheosis? Though there is no evidence for it, I sometimes like to think that he did.