The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was easily the most notorious homosexual of the Puritanical Victorian era. His openness and subsequent trials exposed the conservative society to extreme scrutiny. Despite the negative discussions, the turmoil created by Wilde helped to fuel a later movement towards tolerance of which Wilde could only have dreamed. His resume includes the titles of actor, poet, novelist and convicted criminal.
His university education began in 1871 in Dublin. He earned a scholarship to Trinity College and then another at Magdelen College, Oxford. He went on to win the Newdigate Prize for English verse in 1878 for his poem Ravenna which he recited. While at Oxford, Wilde became well known for his less-than-manly gestures and poses. In 1879 Wilde began to write professionally in London and to draw much attention from his outrageous dress. In a velvet coat edged with braid, knee-breeches, black silk stockings, a soft loose shirt with a wide turn-down collar, and a large flowing tie he repeatedly raised the ire of the conservative middle class around him. He also carried a jewel-topped cane and lavender-colored gloves, and he is also well-known for wearing a button hole flower dyed green. He married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and had two sons before acknowledging his homosexuality to even himself.
Oscar Wilde became the sexual protégé of Robert Ross (1869-1918). Under Ross's tutelage, Wilde was slipping out at night to meet male prostitutes. Wilde's affections became fixated on a young Scot, Lord Alfred Douglas. In 1884 Wilde's only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was based on his visits to the studio of the artist Basil Ward who often had young and naked male models about. In the book the artist is named Basil Hallward.
Three separate times, Oscar Wilde was taken to trial for his homosexuality. The first was initiated within a week of his opening of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895. Wilde at 40 was rapidly winning accolades in the theater world when the Marquees of Queensbury, the father of Wilde's young lover libeled Wilde at the Albemarle club accusing him of sodomy. The Marquees was brought to trial by Wilde for libel, but was acquitted when the Marquees threatened to bring to court witnesses that would testify against Wilde. A day or two before the trial, Wilde was appalled to learn that the defense had come up with ten names of boys Wilde had (supposedly) solicited, along with some letters he'd written. Wilde's plan backfired as the allegations brought out by the Marquees of Queensbury resulted in charges filed against Wilde. On April 26, Wilde was tried on these charges and gave this emotional defense:
While eloquent, he was still denying his orientation. The jury was hung and the second trial began on May 22nd. Wilde again denied his proclivities but the confessions of many of his partners assured his conviction. Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor. The judge declared, "People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame... It is the worst case I have ever tried.... I shall, under such circumstances, be expected to pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate for such a case as this. The sentence of the Court is that... you be imprisoned and kept to hard labor for two years. " His marriage fell apart, his sons were taken from him, he was declared bankrupt and his house and belongings were auctioned off, and many of his friends deserted him. Within 4 months, his play had closed, and he had been publicly humiliated. Soon after his arrival in prison a prison chaplain wrote:
While in prison Wilde wrote De Profundis , in which he blames Douglas for everything that had gone wrong. Upon his release, he and Douglas moved to France. Wilde then wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol . Wilde adopted the name of Sebastian Melmoth. Wilde died on November 30th, 1900 at the age of 44 from cerebral meningitis.