This Day In Literary History
On April 6th, 1895, the legendary Irish writer Oscar Wilde was arrested as the result of a failed libel suit he had filed against the Marquess of Queensberry.
Wilde, who was gay, (and married to a woman with whom he had fathered two children) had been involved in a four-year affair with the Marquess' son, Lord Alfred Douglas, a young undergraduate student and poet known as Bosie to his friends.
Around this time, Wilde's most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, had opened to rave reviews from critics and theatergoers.
It was a comedy that satirized the hypocrisy and foibles of Victorian society. The play, which is packed with witty dialogue, (Wilde was known for his rapacious wit) tells the story of aristocrats who use the same alias (Earnest) in order to lead double lives.
Considered to be Wilde's best play, it would also be his last. It closed after 83 performances due to the scandal that ensnared him.
The Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde's lover Bosie Douglas, was a brutal man who despised his son for being gay. He believed that Bosie had been corrupted beyond repair by older gay men.
So, he decided to take revenge by publicly accusing Wilde of being a "posing sodomite." In Victorian England, an accusation of homosexuality could ruin a man and his family, so Wilde made a complaint of criminal libel against the Marquess, who was arrested and released on bail.
His lawyers hired a team of detectives to dig up dirt on Wilde. They infiltrated London's gay underground and details of Wilde's associations with transvestites, male prostitutes, and gay brothels were uncovered and leaked to the press.
The press then assailed Wilde nonstop, dragging his name through the mud. Queensberry's lawyers claimed that the alleged libel was done for the public good. Their client was acquitted and Wilde was arrested for "gross indecency" - a term for homosexual acts that were illegal under British law at the time.
The jury in Wilde's first criminal trial failed to reach a verdict. At his retrial, presided by Justice Sir Alfred Wills, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to the maximum of two years imprisonment - a sentence that the judge believed was too lenient for the "crime" of homosexuality.
Wilde served his sentence at three different prisons. By the time of his release, prison life had left him in poor health. He spent his last years abroad in self-imposed exile.
He lived under the name Sebastian Melmoth, an alias based on St. Sebastian (a 3rd century Christian martyr who was gay) and the main character of Melmoth The Wanderer, a Gothic novel written by Wilde's great uncle, Charles Robert Maturin.
Over the objections of their families and friends, Wilde and his ex-lover Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas later reunited and lived together, but their relationship wouldn't last. They separated again, this time for good.
Wilde later settled at the Hotel d'Alsace in Paris, where he enjoyed the uninhibited gay life that had been denied him in England. He died of cerebral meningitis on November 30th, 1900, at the age of 46.
Some have speculated that the meningitis was a complication of syphilis, but Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, has said that it was a complication of a surgical procedure, most likely a mastoidectomy. Wilde's own doctors blamed the meningitis on an old suppuration of his right ear.
Bosie Douglas, Wilde's ex-lover, would become famous for his classic poem Two Loves, wherein he described homosexuality as "the love that dare not speak its name." Oscar Wilde remains to this day one of the world's great literary icons.
Quote Of The Day
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." - Oscar Wilde
Today's video features a complete live performance of Moises Kaufman's play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Enjoy!