Whether you were forced to read Oscar Wilde in some English class or came across his work through your own literary endeavors, you’ve probably heard the name Oscar Wilde at some point or another.
The Irish-born poet, playwright, and novelist became most well known for his epigrams, his plays that became wildly popular in London’s high society, and his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Before the dawn of the internet age and celebrity culture, back in the 1890s, Oscar Wilde was just about as close to a celebrity as one could get. He was known through England’s royal society for his lavish lifestyle, his flamboyant character, and his avid pursuit of pleasure.
His love of aesthetic beauty and pleasure came at a price, however, when it was discovered that he was engaging in romantic acts with other men, a practice that was not only taboo but actually considered criminal back in those days.
As a result, Wilde was put on trial, publicly defamed, and spent years in prison and serving sentences for hard labor. In a tragic saga of libel and homophobic persecution, one of history’s greatest writers was thrown in jail for his sexuality and effectively had his career cut short.
The story of Oscar Wilde’s life is a sad one because he is a human being who was imprisoned simply because of who he loved. You have to wonder what other eternal works of art he could have created if he hadn’t been needlessly imprisoned.
My first introduction to Oscar Wilde’s works was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, a beautiful novel filled with fairly overt homosexual eroticism. After reading the novel and later finding out that Oscar Wilde had actually been imprisoned for his love affairs, it made me wonder how such hypocrisy could exist, how the same society that enjoyed and popularized this novel could have sent the man who created it to prison.
These are the circumstances that led to Oscar Wilde being sent to prison for the crime of “gross indecency with men”:
Before Wilde’s sexuality ever came to light, he was married in 1881 to a woman named Constance Lloyd, the daughter of Horace Lloyd, a well-off Queen’s Counsel. The two of them met in London and Wilde later proposed to her when she was visiting Dublin. The couple had two sons together, Cyril and Vyvyan, and lived in a home on Tite Street.
Around 1891, Oscar Wilde met and fell in love with a much younger poet named Lord Alfred Douglas, who Wilde affectionately referred to as “Bosie.” Wilde, who was 38 years old when he met the 22-year-old poet, showed great interest in Bosie’s creative talent as well as his physical appearance. In fact, it seems that the relationship between Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde may not have been much different than the relationship described in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Oscar Wilde certainly did not try to keep his affection for Bosie a secret. Apparently, he would shower the younger poet with gifts. The two would stay in each other’s house and go on trips together. They would dine together most evenings. Wilde would even write a sonnet for him.
The problems began when Bosie gave one of his old suits to a friend of his at Oxford named Alfred Wood. Wood discovered a love letter from Wilde in the pocket of the suit and used the information to extort money from the successful author.
After the blackmail, things started to get worse. Bosie’s father, John Sholto Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry began to suspect that the relationship between Wilde and his son was more than a friendship. The Marquess was known for being ill-tempered and a bit of a brute. He’s even credited with creating the modern rules for boxing. When the Marquess began to suspect the relationship, he became expressly contemptive and demanded that his son cut ties with Wilde.
Wilde, however, being the fantastic orator and charming aristocrat that he was, was able to win over the Marquess’s favor temporarily at a lunch at the Cafe Royal in 1892. Wilde bought expensive cigars and liqueurs for the Marquess and alleviated his stress about their relationship. However, in 1894, the Marquess concluded that Wilde was probably a homosexual and demanded that his son stop seeing him.
Wilde vs. Queensberry
In 1894, the Marquess wrote to his son, “Your intimacy with this man Wilde must either cease or I will disown you and stop all money supplies.” Bosie took the letter in stride, replying, “What a funny little man you are.”
Things escalated from there as the Marquess took increasingly desperate measures to try and end the relationship. He even showed up to Wilde’s house with a boxing prize-fighter and threatened Wilde, to which Wilde replied that he would shoot him on sight if he ever returned to his house.
After the Marquess began a private prosecution against Wilde, Wilde had him arrested for criminal libel because the accusations against him amounted to the act of criminal sodomy. Under the 1843 Libel Act, the only way that the Marquess could avoid imprisonment was by proving that his accusations were in fact true.
Thus, the details of Oscar Wilde’s private life began to come to light. The Marquess’s private investigators revealed details about Wilde’s relations with blackmailers, male prostitutes, homosexual brothels, cross-dressers, and the wild nightlife of the Victorian underground.
At the trial, the Marquess’s lawyer actually referred to a passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray, which pretty clearly outlines Wilde’s decadent philosophy and homosexual tendencies. The lawyer also threatened to provide several male prostitute witnesses who would testify that they had sex with Wilde. Upon the advice of his own lawyers, Wilde dropped the charge against the Marquess and left the court.
Regina v. Wilde
Once Wilde dropped the charges, a warrant was immediately issued for his arrest for the crimes of sodomy and gross indecency. Many of Wilde’s friends advised him to flee to France before the trial, but Wilde seemed too depressed to fight the charges anymore. In April of 1895, he was arrested and detained in Holloway. Bosie visited him at the prison nearly every day.
The prosecution of Oscar Wilde moved swiftly as there was ample evidence that he had committed the “crimes” that he had been accused of under the homophobic penal code of London in the 1890s. Upon the insistence of Wilde, Bosie and many other of Wilde’s friends fled to France to avoid prosecution themselves.
Wilde was convicted and sent to Newgate prison where he was forced to walk on a treadmill for hours, pick oakum, and was only allowed to read the Bible. He was later moved to Wandsworth where he continued to be subjected to forced labor.
One day, Wilde collapsed from exhaustion and ruptured his eardrum, an injury that would trouble him until the day he died. He was later moved to HM Prison Reading, more popularly known as Reading Gaol. During the transfer to the prison, he was jeered at and spit on by a crowd of people. Wilde served a total of two years in HM Prison Reading, which he would later describe in his final work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
The story of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment is a troubling one of horrific homophobia and an unjust legal system that prosecuted people for the “crime” of love. It should serve as a warning about the impacts that homophobic laws and social attitudes can have on people’s lives and the history of art and culture.