A Tale of Two Scandals: The Innocence of France's Captain Dreyfus-A Jewish Officer Incarcerated on Devil's Island after He Was Accused of Spying for Germany-Has Long Been Established. but Was There a Real Traitor? and What Part Did Oscar Wilde Play in the Murky Affair?

By Jones, Nigel | History Today, February 2011 | Go to article overview
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A Tale of Two Scandals: The Innocence of France's Captain Dreyfus-A Jewish Officer Incarcerated on Devil's Island after He Was Accused of Spying for Germany-Has Long Been Established. but Was There a Real Traitor? and What Part Did Oscar Wilde Play in the Murky Affair?


Jones, Nigel, History Today


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Oscar Wilde arrived in Paris, the city where I he would die impoverished less than three years later, on February 13th, 1898. Coincidentally, on the same day his last literary work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a passionate poetic protest at the cruelty of Victorian penal policy, was published in England. It was received with surprisingly widespread acclaim, given the scandal surrounding the author's imprisonment for homosexual offences that formed the subject matter of the ballad and the near--universal execration and banishment from polite society that had accompanied his fall.

Wilde had gone into exile as soon as he was released from his two-year prison sentence in May 1897. At first living pseudonymously as 'Sebastian Melmoth' near Dieppe, he came to Paris via Italy, where he had enjoyed a winter holiday with his nemesis, the decadent young aristocrat Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas. It was Wilde's heartfelt but unwise adoration of Bosie that had triggered his downfall in 1895, goading Lord Alfred's unstable and violent father, the Marquess of Queensberry, into uncovering Wilde's reckless escapades with rent boys. Famously, Wilde romanticised his dangerous--because illegal--gay cottaging with waiters and telegraph boys as 'feasting with panthers'.

Wilde enjoyed living dangerously. His affair with Bosie, as he bitterly related in De Profundis, the long and self-pitying letter to his lover written from prison and published posthumously rather than posted to its recipient, had brought him, at the peak of his celebrity, to utter ruin and the degradation of Reading gaol. Now a scorned exile without funds, he had thrown caution to the winds once again. Dependent on his estranged wife Constance for his sole regular income--a weekly 3 [pounds sterling] allowance--Wilde had risked her wrath and the end of his handout by rekindling his 'filthy, insane life" as Constance called the affair with Bosie, in the balmy and sexually unrestrained atmosphere of Naples and Capri.

Hearing that the two men were cohabiting in Naples a furious Constance duly turned off the financial tap. So did Bosie's mother, who had kept her son afloat with a similar, if more generous, 8 [pounds sterling] weekly allowance. Sheer penury, along with the realisation that their former passion had faded, in Wilde biographer Neil McKenna's words, 'from epic love to loving friendship; now forced the two friends asunder. When Wilde crept back to Paris he was broke, miserable, lonely and desperate.

The France that Wilde returned to was a nation in crisis. Preoccupied by his own troubles though he was, the writer, with his nose for scandal and taste for danger, was soon almost inevitably caught in the thick of it. The same week that Wilde took up residence in the first of a series of cheap hotels in which he would spend the rest of his fife another and very different writer moved into the eye of the storm engulfing the country.

On February 7th, 1898 Emile Zola, grubbily realistic novelist and trenchant social critic, went on trial in the Paris' Palais de Justice charged with defaming the entire high command of the French army in J'Accuse!, his open letter to the president of the French Republic. Zola's explosive intervention was the central event in the Dreyfus Affair; the miscarriage of justice which had blown up into a political firestorm that threatened the very survival of the Third Republic and whose echoes would bedevil France to the Second World War and beyond. It was a scandal that divided France, splitting friends and families and pitting one half of the nation (the Right, the army, the Catholic church, monarchists and nationalists); against the other (the Left, Freemasons, Socialists, Protestants, Republicans and radical intellectuals). Indeed the very word 'intellectual' was coined by the politician Georges Clemenceau, who published Zola's letter in the first edition of the newspaper L'Aurore, dated January 13th, 1898, to describe Dreyfus' cerebral supporters.

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A Tale of Two Scandals: The Innocence of France's Captain Dreyfus-A Jewish Officer Incarcerated on Devil's Island after He Was Accused of Spying for Germany-Has Long Been Established. but Was There a Real Traitor? and What Part Did Oscar Wilde Play in the Murky Affair?
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