Sunday, 24 March 2013

Penguin no. 1857: Famous Trials 7 - Oscar Wilde
by H. Montgomery Hyde

'"The love that dare not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the "Love that dare not speak its name", and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope, and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.'

Penguin's Famous Trials series comprised 10 books, all published with green crime covers, except for this one, which describes the three trials of Oscar Wilde at the Old Bailey, and which has an orange spine. It is interesting to speculate on why they made the alteration for the 7th book while returning to green for the following three. Perhaps it was because Oscar Wilde was a writer, or perhaps it was because the misdemeanours with which he was charged were relatively trivial, notwithstanding the comments of Sir John Bridge when he remanded Wilde and the co-accused Alfred Taylor in custody, that 'there [was] no worse crime than that with which the prisoners [were] charged.' Or perhaps it was simply an oversight, as I have seen a later ISBN edition bearing a green spine.

Oscar Wilde's first trial was his unsuccessful prosecution for libel of John Sholto Douglas, eighth Marquess of Queensberry, which Lord Queensberry had intentionally provoked by leaving a card bearing the words 'To Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite', misspelling included, with the porter of the Albemarle club. This prosecution was Oscar Wilde's undoing, as the evidence presented in justification of the libel triggered his arrest on charges alleging the commission of acts of gross indecency (and initially, conspiracy to procure the commission of such acts). Interestingly, the magistrate delayed issuing the warrant for his arrest until the night boat had departed for the Continent, and so it seems he was given the opportunity of getting away, but Oscar Wilde chose to stay in England despite knowing that his arrest was imminent. His arrest led to the following two trials and his eventual imprisonment for two years with hard labour.

His problems began with his friendship with the much younger Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, and stem largely from the animosity existing between Bosie and his father Lord Queensberry. Hyde suggests that the eccentric Queensberry was probably mentally unbalanced. He was known to be a bully, having pursued the prime minister with a dog whip on hearing that his eldest son had been raised to the peerage.

Queensberry became a man with the single obsession of severing the friendship between his third son and Oscar Wilde, and for more than a year he threatened to disinherit and to thrash his son if he continued to go about in Wilde's company. He visited hotels and restaurants in London warning that he would cause disruption should they be permitted to dine together, and he once attempted to intimidate Wilde by turning up at his home uninvited in the company of a prize-fighting boxer. The card left at Wilde's club was a provocation designed to cause a public scandal. His allegation was not that Wilde was a sodomite, but that he posed as one, and it left Wilde with few choices, as Queensberry showed no sign of abandoning his ongoing harrassment. The prosecution was an attempt to get some respite from his bullying behaviour.

Queensberry's defence had only three weeks to prepare their case, and in this they were given considerable help from Charles Brookfield, another man obsessed with Wilde. Perhaps motivated by jealousy, he set out on his own initiative to track down the names and addresses of any young homosexuals who could testify against Wilde. The defence was further helped by carelessness on the part of Bosie which provided them with two letters Wilde had written to him in overly affectionate language. They were quoted to devastating effect in each of the three trials.

With the exception of sodomy, the law had not been concerned with indecent acts involving adults and committed in private before 1886, and so the offences for which he was tried had been considered criminal acts for less than 10 years. While the moral sensibilities of the Victorians were no doubt offended by the acts in question, they seem to have been equally appalled by the fact that Wilde enjoyed the company of young men who were beneath him socially. Part of the hostility seems to relate to these social transgressions, and the perceived inappropriateness of providing dinners, holidays and presents to men who worked as valets and grooms, irrespective of whether anything more was involved.

The problem with information on events from the past is that it can come down to the present filtered, Chinese Whispers fashion, with some detail retained and much of the context lost. The story told here is very different to the one I expected to read, particularly in terms of the series of unfortunate events which conspired in bringing about Oscar Wilde's imprisonment. Here Montgomery Hyde uses the transcripts of the three trials to tell the story of Oscar Wilde's downfall in detail, and to place the events in their historical context, and the edition also includes the reflections of Sir Humphrey Travers, recorded in 1948, when he was the last person involved in the trial who remained alive. Irrespective of his guilt, and noting that many others were known to be guilty of the same behaviours, Oscar Wilde comes across as the unfortunate victim of a feud being carried on between a father and a son.


  1. The first trial- for librl- was a civil action rather than a criminal one, which may explain why Penguin published the book in both crime and non-crime editions.

    "While the moral sensibilities of the Victorians were no doubt offended by the acts in question, they seem to have been equally appalled by the fact that Wilde enjoyed the company of young men who were beneath him socially."
    Something of a euphemism there: Wilde and Douglas had sex with boys, not young men. Some were less then sixteen years old. Now he would be prosecuted for paedophilia.

    Lord Alfred Douglas- whose later career was controversial, to say the least- seems to have been one of the most selfish and self-centred men that ever lived. His one redeeeming vice was that he seems to have been unable to imagine that other people didn't think he was as wonderful as he did and so sometimes didn't try to exercise his extraordinary charm on them. When he did exercise his charm it was almost always disastrous for his acquaintances.

    1. That is not the story being told in this book, though. The men described here are certainly young - between 18 and 20 - but Montgomery Hyde never suggests Wilde had sex with boys, and in fact expresses doubts that Wilde had sex (in the form of sodomy) at all. Only one witness ever alleged that he had, and Hyde considered it likely that the witness was unaware of the meaning of the term. These men were in effect male prostitutes, and there was no suggestion made during the trials that Wilde had corrupted anyone.

  2. I've seen many references to the Famous Trials series but have never seen one!

    1. I nearly have them all, although I've only been tempted to read the ones by Montgomery Hyde so far. The others seem a bit more heavy-going.

  3. I have a selected Famous Trials (selected by John Mortimer!), which is great for dipping into. It has all the most famous ones. Of course, I'd love to have more of the 'proper' Penguins. I see there are lots of new (+ cheap) Penguin kindles of the trials too, but 'abridged and refreshed', which rather makes the heart sink. I rather like the toughness of the originals.



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