Magazine article History Today

The Mysteries of Oscar Wilde

Magazine article History Today

The Mysteries of Oscar Wilde

Article excerpt

On the centenary of Oscar Wilde's death, Trevor Fisher takes a fresh look at the reasons for the writer's downfall.

A CENTURY AFTER HE DIED, Oscar Wilde has reached unprecendented heights of popularity. Recently commemorated with a window in Westminster Abbey, his plays long established as a staple of modern stage and film, Wilde has become a secular icon. His life is endlessly replayed in books, films and on television while his wit is re-cycled in anthologies and on bookmarks -- vindication indeed for a man who once said `There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.'

Yet though Wilde lived his life in a blaze of self-generated publicity, the causes of his catastrophic fall are surrounded by mystery. The events of his trials, imprisonment and early death have been exhaustively recreated in film and plays. He himself chronicled his disastrous relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas -- `Bosie' -- in the prison letter later published as De Profundis. Since his death writers of the calibre of H. Montgomery Hyde and Richard Ellman have described Wilde's fall in abundant detail.

But as Wilde himself commented, truth is rarely pure and never simple. The familiar tale of a glittering talent brought down by the actions of the Marquess of Queensberry and a homophobic government is untenable. Wilde created his own downfall by suing the Marquess for criminal libel, an action that some have seen as a deliberate act of self-destruction -- `a long and lovely suicide', for at least one writer. Yet there was a cynical rationale behind Wilde's decision to sue Queensbury. He sought to have the Scarlet Marquess imprisoned to stop allegations about his sexuality. This was a high-risk strategy with disastrous consequences.

Wilde's initial action had a reckless logic, but his actions as his gamble went disastrously wrong seem inexplicable. Despite being warned by close friends that he would lose, he staggered, as he put it in De Profundis, `as an ox into the shambles'. He repeatedly refused to flee to safety while he had the chance to do so. Strangest of all, he claimed in De Profundis, that `the sins of another were being laid to my account', and that he could have `saved myself at his expense, not from shame indeed, but from imprisonment'. Yet what Wilde meant by this has never been properly scrutinised.

The mysteries surrounding the fall of Wilde start with the notorious calling card which Queensberry left at Oscar Wilde's club on February 18th, 1895, inscribed `To Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite' (sic). This famous card was the culmination of a savage battle between the Marquess and his son Alfred into which Wilde was drawn. Queensberry was monomaniac over any cause which annoyed him, and when he suspected a homosexual relationship he became a man possessed. He was determined to destroy Bosie's relationship with Wilde. Bosie was equally determined that he would not. Wilde was caught in the crossfire.

The quarrel rose to fever pitch in the autumn of 1894, despite which Wilde finished the most sparkling of his comedies, The Importance of Being Earnest. When this opened triumphantly on February 14th, 1895, it joined An Ideal Husband in playing to packed houses. Wilde knew, however, that Queensberry was plotting against him. The Marquess planned to disrupt the opening night with rotten vegetables to publicise his accusations over Wilde's sexuality, an eventuality the theatre preempted by banning Queensberry and having police posted at the doors to keep him out. Queensberry spent three hours prowling round the building, `gibbering like a monstrous ape' as Wilde later recalled, before retiring frustrated. Four days later, Queensberry left his card at Wilde's club.

It is a mystery why Wilde took this crude provocation seriously. The famous scandal lawyer George Lewis later said that if he had been approached by Wilde he would have advised him to tear up the card and avoid giving Queensberry the legal fight he wanted. …

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