Why we need to reconsider Oscar Wilde, on the 125th anniversary of his famous trial

words Nicholas Sheppard

Every available seat in the central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey was taken on Friday, 26 April 1895, when Oscar Wilde, looking ‘haggard and worn,’ under pressure from prosecutor Edward Carson, delivered his ‘Love that dare not speak its name’ address, in defense of his love for the younger Lord Alfred Douglass, known to all as Bosie.

The case was, by then, already lost. Wilde’s health and spirits had deteriorated ‘to a startling degree,’ the newspapers were universally hostile, street ballads and cheap pamphlets were beginning to appear. Wilde’s letters were being burnt, his books thrown away. It was a shocking fall from grace for a man whose most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, had debuted only six weeks earlier.

real Oscar Wilde

            On the 125th Anniversary of the most famous trial of the Nineteenth Century, here are five new ways in which we need to reappraise Oscar Wilde.

Firstly, we need to reconsider the boys and young men with whom he had sexual relations. Many biographies have been indifferent to them, with one stating they were already ‘steeped in vice’ by the time they met Wilde. But most of these boys were teenagers when they were paid for sex by the famous author and playwright. Is it fair to assert that, emotionally and socially, the identities of sixteen and seventeen year olds are decisively formed, to the extent that they can be too ‘steeped in vice’ to warrant being viewed, at any level, as credible or sympathetic, or conflicted in their judgment? Many were callous and opportunistic, some were blackmailers; but most were also from poor backgrounds, and had they not been so ‘very terribly hard up,’ in the words of one, there is far less likelihood they would have accepted the offers of middle-aged Alfred Taylor who, in the fog and grime of Victorian London, would wander speculatively where boys tended to mill and loiter, accost the poorer looking teenagers and offer them a place to stay in his lodgings in Little College Street. Many of the boys would share his bed, and then be steered into making some money from prostitution, behind the screened curtains, in the stale air, heavy with incense. Picture the following scenes: Oscar Wilde, and his partner Bosie, invited by Taylor, to have dinner with Taylor’s latest find: sixteen-year-old Fred Atkins, a cynical cockney lad, rough, pimply faced, the grown men at the table exchanging sly, ironical looks. Wilde, with Atkins in a Paris hotel, Wilde going into the boy’s room to ‘perform certain operations with his mouth.’ The pair returning to London, and Wilde summoning the boy, almost daily, for sex. Wilde taking seventeen-year-old ‘renter’ Alfred Wood back to his home in Tite Street. Paying him two pounds. In the private room of a restaurant, with shaded red candles at the table, Wilde with seventeen-year-old Charles Parker, feeding him preserved cherries from his own mouth, then taking the boy to the Savoy Hotel. Wilde summoning the boy, each day for a week, by telegram. Wilde staying at the Savoy Hotel for a month and binging on a procession of teenage boys, a chambermaid describing a sallow-faced, ‘rough-looking boy, about fourteen-years-old,’ in Wilde’s bed; the sheets always in ‘a most disgusting state,’ covered in ‘vaseline, semen and soil.’ The sixteen-year-old servant boy, Walter Grainger, Wilde unbuttoning the boy’s trousers and stroking his ‘private parts,’ buying his silence with ten shillings. In a classic stratagem of sexual abuse, Wilde threatening the boy each time, telling him he would be ‘in very serious trouble’ and would ‘go to prison’ if he told anyone what had happened. Wilde renting a house, with Bosie, summoning Grainger as a servant, bringing the boy into his room every night, Grainger deposing that Wilde ‘acted as before’ and that he felt ‘scared.’ Wilde and Bosie encountering two teenage boys on the beach at the seaside resort of Worthing. Their inviting the boys for a sail. Oscar inviting his favourite, Alphonse, who had turned sixteen a few weeks earlier, for an evening walk. Wilde ‘suddenly taking hold’ of the boy, reaching inside his trousers and masturbating him until he ‘spent.’ Large sums of money being given to Alphonse. A modern interpretation of Wilde has to consider that while he was writing The Importance of Being Earnest, he was paying a sixteen-year-old for sex. The total sum over the course of these liaisons, as inferred by the prosecution, was the equivalent, in today’s terms, of 1,500 pounds, a staggering sum to a simple country boy. In the present day, we ought to be less swayed by historical context. If it is illegal and immoral to pay seventeen and sixteen-year old’s for sex, both by the standards of Wilde’s time, and by the standards of our time, then there isn’t much ambiguity. In fact, if Wilde’s trial were held today, his plays would be whisked off the stage quicker than back then, and his jail sentence – two years hard labour – would be longer: paying for sex with a boy of sixteen or seventeen carries with it a sentence of up to seven years.

reconsider Oscar Wilde

Secondly, we have to reappraise Wilde in the context of our growing understanding of the complex psychology of abuse, and the seeming ambiguities and contradictions in the responses of many victims. If the sixteen year old Walter Grainger stated that Wilde, at one set of apartments, ‘played with his private parts,’ and induced him to lie down on a bed, why did he return the next day, and allow the same experience to occur? Why did he assent to work, weeks later, at a house Wilde had rented in the country, and allow himself to be drawn quietly from his bed and into Wilde’s to have sexual acts performed on him? Does it not imply consent and perhaps even an eagerness for gratification? Why, when sixteen year old Alphonse Conway deposed that Wilde ‘suddenly took hold of him’ on a moon-lit walk, and masturbated him till ‘he spent’, did he allow the same experience to happen a night or two later, and then consent to visit Wilde a few more times at his lodgings? Surely that would imply that the boy was excited by, or at least unharmed by the intimacies? When eighteen year old Edward Shelley, a clerk at Wilde’s publishing house, accepted an invitation from Wilde to dine at a restaurant, and then to go to his suite of rooms, he deposed that ‘Mr Wilde kissed me, he also put his arms around me. I felt insulted, degraded and objected vigorously.’ When Wilde groped him more intently, Shelley stated that he fell into a state ‘resembling stupor,’ and stated that he felt ‘entrapped.’ If this was the case, why did he return the next night to again go to bed with Wilde? When asked, he could only reply, ‘I was weak of course.’ Why, in fact, did Shelley socialise with Wilde over the next three months?

reconsider Oscar Wilde

            Up until recently, society has had certain expectations of what a victim should act like prior to, during and after an assault. ‘Compelling’ victims are depicted as people who always say no assertively. Reasons for victims simply not ‘getting out’ of situations is not straightforward. Only recently has society begun to comprehend that interpretation of unwanted sexual experiences is generally a gradual process, and that a large proportion of victims never even contextualise their experience as such. A meta-analysis of 28 studies of women and girls aged 14 and older who had had non-consensual sex obtained through force, threat or incapacitation found that 60% of these victims didn’t acknowledge that they had been assaulted. Similarly, the majority of men who were sexually abused as children or raped as adults don’t consider their experiences to be abuse. A study of 77 female college students  produced varied reasons as to why the respondents didn’t classify their experiences as assault. One is especially pertinent: The attacker didn’t match their expectations of an assaulter (“he was my friend and everyone loved him”).

            Another confounding factor in realising an experience was an assault is that survivors sometimes continue – or even start – relationships with the person who assaulted them. As the forensic psychiatrist Barbara Ziv testified for the prosecution in the Harvey Weinstein case, sexual-assault victims “almost always” return to their assailants. “Most individuals think, I can put it behind me; I can move on with my life and forget about what happened to me.”During the trial, Weinstein’s defense built most of its case around the fact that his two primary accusers maintained contact with the producer after he raped them. His attorneys presented supposedly compromising email and text exchanges. Two years after the attack, one signed an email to Weinstein Lots of Love. She also texted himHi! Just wondering if u have any news on whether Harvey will have time to see me before he leaves? X. The other victim also sent messages to Weinstein, such as, I appreciate all you do for me.  Consider this, then in relation to Edward Shelley, who wrote a gushing letter to Wilde, congratulating him on the debut of one of his plays, a week or so after his alleged assault; and a year or two later, (in a difficult financial state) wrote a letter to Wilde stating, ‘I am conscious that I can never sufficiently express my thankfulness to you.’ 

reconsider Oscar Wilde

            Research has shown that in response to the trauma of an assault, victims tend to ‘freeze’ rather than fight or flee. In a 2017 study of women visiting an emergency rape clinic in Stockholm, 70% reported entering into this state, known as ‘tonic immobility’: a temporary and involuntary paralysis. These women hadn’t passively consented. Their bodies had responded in a biologically normal way to a threat. There is also another type of response to this type of trauma called “fawn” – in which the victim seeks to gain the favour of their assailant by complying with his demands or acting in a pliant way. This can be especially disruptive and confusing to the victim in the aftermath, because they’ve been told that advances always have to be aggressive and violent to count as assault. One of Weinstein’s victims said that she didn’t initially consider his actions an assault, because she ‘didn’t physically resist.’ She said, ‘I felt like an idiot, and I felt numb.’ Again, there is an evocation, in tone, of the description of Shelley as ‘flattered, inebriated, terrified,’ and in his seemingly odd reply to Wilde’s defence attorney, about returning to Wilde: ‘I was weak, of course.’ A further analogous detail is that Shelley seemed very belatedly to contextualise his experience. ‘Shelley was in the habit of writing me many morbid, very morbid letters which I tore up,’ Wilde said later. ‘In them, he wrote that he was a great sinner.’

            Wilde was no Harvey Weinstein, not even remotely close. For the most part he was a kind and generous figure; but he is due for reassessment in light of the gradual contemporary appreciation of the complex territory where consent, influenced by power-relations, strays into abuse. There was an unsettlingly familiar tone of entitlement that is very contemporary: ‘I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws,’ he once declared. The truth will never fully be known in all of these historical encounters, and, as Wilde also observed, ‘The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.’ It would be priggish to suggest there aren’t young men on the make, or others, in a youthful phase, flexible about their route to gratification. What is valid, however, is to assert that Wilde often strayed beyond those notions into more contentious territory; and while he was rightly recognised as a victim of Victorian morality and hypocrisy, he has come to be lauded a little too fondly, and leniently, as a martyr and an icon. The pendulum now needs to swing a little back the other way, away from the blasé assessments given of him, time and again, in recent biographies, works in which Walter Grainger is blithely referred to as ‘poor Walter’ or ‘the luckless Walter;’ Alphonse Conway as a boy who was ‘picked up,’ and for whom ‘it was no small matter to be the companion of a man of genius,’ and Edward Shelley is dismissed as a ‘foolish, impressionable and altogether sad young man,’ who had ‘a brief and inconsequential affair.’

We also have to consider Wilde’s two most intimate companions, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglass, and Robbie Ross, and the extent to which Wilde tacitly endorsed their behaviour. Ross, on holiday with family friends, entered into an affair with a sixteen-year-old schoolboy, Claude Dansey, a naïve boy ‘of no particular character,’ from a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic, abusive father. Bosie and Wilde set the boy up at the Albermale hotel in London. A contemporary recounted that, ‘On Saturday the sixteen-year-old boy slept with Bosie. On Sunday he slept with Oscar.’ They were so rapacious, that they neglected to get the boy back to school on time. This precipitated a crisis in which the boy, buckling under the strain of accounting for being three days late, blurted out to his headmaster, and then to his shocked and distraught parents, what had happened. More appallingly, it emerged that Robbie Ross had also been having sex with the fourteen-year-old son of his hosts. The son relayed that, ‘I was in my night shirt. He was in his pyjamas. He put me on the bed. He had me between the legs.’ One of the distraught and outraged fathers raged that, ‘Ross is simply one of a gang of the most absolutely brutal ruffians who spend their time in seducing and prostituting boys, and all the time presenting a decent appearance to the world.’ Wilde seemed indifferent to his friend’s underage encounters: Douglass, in Egypt, wrote of being in a sexual relationship with a ‘sugar-lipped’ boy of fourteen. Wilde wrote of Douglass later having an affair with another boy, in Paris, ‘aged fourteen.’ Besides the testimony of a chambermaid that a boy aged about fourteen had been in Wilde’s bed at the Savoy Hotel, the writer Andre Gide recounted sharing a pair of youths with Wilde while in Algeria, with Gide’s companion being aged about thirteen. Wilde, in Rome after his release from prison, bragged of kissing a fifteen year old seminarian boy behind a church altar ‘every day.’ Perhaps most disturbingly, Bosie once declared of Wilde’s eight-year-old son Cyril, ‘He will be for me.’ Again, historical context shouldn’t mitigate as much as it is often allowed to. In Wilde’s time, the age of consent, for girls at least, was sixteen, just as it is, generally, today.

We also have to reconsider Wilde in the light of our evolving understanding of narcissism as a personality trait. People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are characterized by the traits of persistent grandiosity, an excessive need for admiration, and a personal disdain and lack of empathy for other people. It is genuinely perplexing that these criteria have never been applied in relation to Wilde. The first two fit well enough; but it is the third that deserves particular attention. There was a fundamental distinction between Wilde the dazzling conversationalist and socialite, and his ability to form deep connections. His obsession with the even more narcissistic Bosie left no room for emotional involvement with anyone else. By 1894, at the height of Wilde’s decadence, the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley described Wilde and Bosie as ‘really very dreadful people.’ Frank Harris, a friend and confidant to Wilde when he was in Europe, acknowledged that Wilde, ‘didn’t really consider me an intimate friend.’ Eerily, Robbie Ross, who had considered himself Wilde’s most loyal and affectionate companion, had confessed to Harris that Wilde had never really considered him a real friend either.

            Even by Victorian standards, and even in the context of a man wrestling with his sexual identity, and therefore liable to project insecurities, his attitude towards women – with the exception of aesthetically abstracted and idealised actresses such as Lilly Langtry – was arid and dismissive. Wilde loved, but neglected his wife Constance, remaining absent for months at a time. According to Frank Harris, who doubtlessly embellished his recollections, Wilde said of Constance after a year of marriage: ‘The flower-like grace had all vanished; she became heavy, shapeless, deformed: she dragged herself around the house in uncouth misery with drawn blotched face and hideous body.’ After ‘forcing himself to kiss her’, he would ‘wash my mouth and open a window to cleanse my lips in the pure air.’ In his view, ‘passion was killed by maternity.’ Girls ‘had no minds, and whatever intelligence they had was given over to wretched vanities and personal jealousies. There is no intellectual companionship possible with them.’ When Robbie Ross heard of Constance’s death, it affected him keenly, and he was not convinced by Wilde’s grief, confiding to a friend, ‘Oscar of course did not feel it at all.’ The Picture of Dorian Gray is shaped by a certain misogynistic culture. Under the influence of the elder Lord Henry, Dorian Gray assumes a negative attitude to women that leads to the novel’s first tragic episode: Sibyl Vane, Dorian’s first love and victim, fails to appeal to his aesthetic ideal of a woman and, abandoned by him, kills herself. The men in The Importance of Being Earnest are amusingly feckless; but the women – Gwendolen, Cecily, Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism, emerge particularly badly, and are portrayed as selfish, scheming, manipulative, capricious and grasping, reflecting Wilde’s disdain for women, and suspicion of their motives.

            His relationships, or encounters with boys and young men all had, in one way or another, power dynamics entirely in his favour. All were younger, and liable, through naivete or lack of education, to be coerced, convinced, dominated. All were poorer, and prone to the lure and domination of a financial quid-pro-quo, or a steady stream of gifts as an implicit quid-pro-quo – a context that society then, and now, deems beyond the sophistication of sixteen and seventeen year olds to consent to. In the case of the servant Walter Grainger, and the fourteen year old page boy at the Savoy Hotel, Herbert Tankard, who deposed that ‘Mr. Wilde was often kissing me,’ there was an exploitation of a position of trust. There were vulnerabilities in some of the boys backgrounds: estrangement from parents, a dead father, a surviving parent struggling to make ends meet and unable to stay abreast of her son’s whereabouts. Wilde often entertained ‘renters’ or other boys to dinners or lunches; but the interest in them was due largely to an egoism in which he could hold-forth as the center of attention and enjoy the exciting flirtation between subterfuge and public appearance. In his words, sexually, and reputationally, ‘the danger was half the excitement.’ The young men in his circle in the early days, he described as ‘Eolian harps, astir in the breeze of my matchless talk.’ For these impressionable undergraduates who hovered around him before his descent into what he termed, ‘The Mire,’ he used the partially-facetious, ultimately self-aggrandizing term: ‘disciples’. ‘I grew careless of the lives of others,’ Wilde wrote in De Profundis, ‘I took pleasure where I found it and moved on.’

             Perhaps the most jarring instance of this lack of empathy and consideration was at the defining moment of his trial for gross indecency. Cross examined about the sixteen-year-old servant, Walter Grainger, the prosecutor, Edward Carson, asked Wilde if he had ever kissed the boy. Wilde’s flippant, callous answer was extraordinary, given the profoundly serious, public context. ‘Oh no, never in my life; he was a peculiarly plain boy…His appearance was so very unfortunately – very ugly – I pitied him for it.’ It was the climactic moment of the case. In being so oddly cavalier, Wilde had more or less incriminated himself, admitting he would have kissed the boy, had he not been so ugly.

Lastly, we need to appreciate that Wilde’s love affair with Bosie was not as idealised and romantic as it is often portrayed. Bosie was a petulant and entitled young man, prone to rages of ‘almost epileptic fury.’ Sometimes amusing and intelligent, he was also appallingly lazy. ‘You demanded without grace, and received without thanks,’ Wilde wrote to him. ‘The froth and folly of our life grew often wearisome to me. It was only in the mire that we met…and terribly fascinating the one topic around which your talk invariably centred, still, at the end It became quite monotonous to me. I was often bored to death by it.’ He accused Bosie of ‘the supreme vice of shallowness,’ and maintained that the relationship had lain waste to his own intellect. ‘I blame myself for allowing an unintellectual friendship…to entirely dominate my life. Your friendship was intellectually degrading to me.’ This was written in anger, from the isolation of prison, and they eventually reconciled, for a time; but when Bosie inherited a fortune, he accused Wilde, then penniless and exhorting him for money, of acting like ‘a fat old prostitute,’ and gave him comparatively little, which left Wilde aghast and despairing.

It is likely that Oscar Wilde would be almost as scathing of identity politics and ‘cancel-culture’ as he was of conservative morals, philistinism and hypocrisy. He would have found it intellectually vapid; so it is important to not be strident and insist on taking him down a notch. What is valid, is asserting that our understanding of the complex territory of consent, played out many times in public over the last few years, invites a reassessment that is intellectually honest, even if it leads to conclusions, about an icon, that we might not like.

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