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“The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name”: Your Guide to the Oscar Wilde Trials

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“Queers Through the Years” is the section curated by Molly Saxby

Who was Oscar Wilde?

Oscar Wilde is famous for his status as a celebrity novelist, poet, and playwright in the late 19th century. His most popular works include The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray. He was also known for his flamboyant and expressive dress and eccentric lifestyle and personality which contrasted models of Victorian masculinity which found theatricality suspicious. However, his fame as a writer and reputation as a dandy (a theatrical man) has been overcast by the trials he endured for homosexuality.

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1- Oscar Wilde

The Backstory

Homosexuality was a criminal offence in England during the Victorian Era and up until the 1960s. As a result, Wilde kept his homosexuality a secret, choosing to marry a woman and have two sons. However, Wilde did have secret homosexual relationships. His relationship with poet and aristocrat, Lord Alfred Douglas, led to his eventual demise. Douglas was the son of the 9th Marquess of Queensbury, John Douglas, who was outraged at his sons relationship.

John Douglas left a calling card for Wilde at a club in London reading For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite. Somdomite was in fact a spelling error for sodomite: the common term for a homosexual man at this time. Therefore, the card proved that the Marquess knew of Wildes homosexual actions and was willing to threaten him. However, against the advice of his friends,Wilde decided to sue the Marquess for defamation (a false statement) and pursued a libel case against him.

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2- The Calling Card

 

The Trials

Now bear with me here, Ive broken them down but the trials are a little confusing!

The First Trial

So, the first trial saw Wilde take the Marquess to court on April 3rd,1895, (if youre interested you can access much of the trials on the Old Bailey court website!) This trial was tremendously unsuccessful for Wilde simply because the allegations of homosexuality against him were true. He was questioned about the contents of his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray which featured controversial homoerotic themes, and he was accused of engaging in sodomy (homosexual acts) with 12 other men.

As a result, Wilde and his lawyer were forced to withdraw their lawsuit. This withdrawal indicated guilt and a warrant was issued for Wildes arrest.

The Second Trial

After discovering grounds for a criminal case against Wilde, ironically at the hands of Wilde himself, a second trial was pursued. Despite the evidence against him, he pleaded not guilty to 25 counts of gross indecency.

Nonetheless, masses of evidence were brought in against him: hotel chambermaids and a housekeeper testified to seeing Wilde in bed with young men, and he was questioned about the homosexual suspicions around Douglass poem Two Loves in which he wrote the love that dare not speak its name.

The trial was inconclusive as the jury were unable to reach a verdict.

The Third Trial

The third trial took place three weeks after the second and called for a re-trial on the previous evidence and accusations. This trial was short and ultimately determined that Wilde was guilty. As a result, Wilde was charged with two years of hard labour (the maximum sentence allowed for crimes of gross indecency).

The Outcome

Wilde served his full sentence up until 1897, but a few years after his release he fell ill and died. Unlike so many others, Wilde was able to speak in the trials (due to a change in legal clauses and his stand in the first trial). It is saddening that so many men, criminalised for loving who they loved, were not even given the opportunity to speak in their defence. Homosexuality for men was not legalised until the outstandingly late date of 27 July 1967.

Image references

  1. https://www.history.com/topics/gay-rights/oscar-wilde-trial
  2. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/museum/item.asp?item_id=41

Written by: GlitterBeam

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