The Downfall of Oscar Wilde

Something was dead in each of us, and what was dead was Hope

Famous Victorian playwright, author, poet and critic Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was widely successful and lived a charmed life, but tragically everything changed in 1895.

Oscar Wilde 1889.jpg
Oscar Wilde in 1889 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Oscar was a well-known literary figure in England and Ireland, having written popular plays like The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan. In his personal life he was married to Constance Lloyd and they had two sons Cyril and Vyvyan. Yet he had a secret, which was that he had been in a relationship since 1891 with Lord Alfred Douglas (commonly referred to as Bosie). Sadly at this time in England homosexuality was illegal, and LGBT people had to be careful to hide their relationships lest they ruin their reputation and end up with a prison sentence. Such was the case for Wilde and Douglas. Douglas was a vain, spoiled rich boy who didn’t treat Wilde particularly well by all accounts, once saying “when you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting“. They had blazing rows but always reconciled. Douglas’ father was the Marquess of Queensberry, and he had suspicions about the nature of Douglas and Wilde’s relationship. Wilde found himself embroiled in this family rift, and it was to be the light that struck the match of the upcoming chain of events.

“For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate, that makes a man accursed”

Queensberry left a note for Wilde in February 1895 accusing him of posing as a gay man. Wilde and Dougal were furious, and Wilde decided to sue Queensberry for libel against the advice of his friends. During the 19th century if you were sued for libel you could get out of the charge by proving what you had said was true and in the public interest. Thus Queensberry’s lawyers went digging and found evidence of Wilde’s sexual involvement with other men. The minute the trial got in motion Wilde didn’t stand a chance, as you can see from this extract of the trial transcript between Wilde and Queensberry’s defence attorney Edward Carson:

C–Do you know Walter Grainger?
C–How old is he?
W–He was about sixteen when I knew him. He was a servant at a certain house in High Street, Oxford, where Lord Alfred Douglas had rooms. I have stayed there several times. Grainger waited at table. I never dined with him. If it is one’s duty to serve, it is one’s duty to serve; and if it is one’s pleasure to dine, it is one’s pleasure to dine.
C–Did you ever kiss him?
W–Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it.
C–Was that the reason why you did not kiss him?
W–Oh, Mr. Carson, you are pertinently insolent.
C–Did you say that in support of your statement that you never kissed him?
W–No. It is a childish question.
C–Did you ever put that forward as a reason why you never kissed the boy?
W–Not at all.
C–Why, sir, did you mention that this boy was extremely ugly?
W–-For this reason. If I were asked why I did not kiss a door-mat, I should say because I do not like to kiss door-mats. I do not know why I mentioned that he was ugly, except that I was stung by the insolent question you put to me and the way you have insulted me throughout this hearing. Am I to be cross-examined because I do not like it?
C–Why did you mention his ugliness?
W–It is ridiculous to imagine that any such thing could have occurred under any circumstances.
C–Then why did you mention his ugliness, I ask you?
W–Perhaps you insulted me by an insulting question.
C–Was that a reason why you should say the boy was ugly?–
[The witness began several answers almost inarticulately, and none of them he finished. Carson’s repeated sharply: “Why? Why? Why did you add that?” At last the witness answered]:
W–You sting me and insult me and try to unnerve me; and at times one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously. I admit it.
C–Then you said it flippantly?
W–Oh, yes, it was a flippant answer. No indecencies ever took place between myself and Grainger.

Wilde dropped the libel charges but it was too late for his reputation, and he was himself convicted of gross indecency being sentenced to two years hard labour in prison.

“For his mourners will be outcast men, and outcasts always mourn”

Wilde’s two years in prison (spent mostly in Reading Gaol) broke his spirit and his body, and it was where he formed the basis of his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol which he wrote after being released. It is about the case of Charles Thomas Wooldridge, who was in prison with Wilde, and also about Wilde’s personal experience of prison. It is beautifully written with stanzas like:

“Dear Christ! the very prison walls, suddenly seemed to reel

And the sky above my head became, like a casque of scorching steel

And though I was a soul in pain, my pain I could not feel.”

During this time Constance stopped access to their children and changed their children’s surname to Holland so they were not associated with the tarred Wilde name. Wilde never saw his children again. On his release from prison he went straight to France and for a time reconnected with Douglas, much to the horror of his friends. Their union was not meant to be, at the risk of them being cut off from their remaining funds they ended their relationship for a final time. During his time in prison Wilde had written a letter for Douglas, that was never sent, but an edited version was published after his death under the title De Profundis by long time friend and confidante Robert Ross. Douglas claimed to have never received the original letter. Wilde’s time in France was without joy as he lived a half life, dying in 1900 from meningitis. Ross was with Wilde at the end (as was another friend Reggie Turner) and recounted his death in a letter to a friend, it is a harrowing account:

At about 5.30 in the morning a complete change came over him, the line of the face altered, and I believe what is called the death rattle began, but I had never heard anything like it before; it sounded like the horrible turning of a crank, and it never ceased until the end…I went to his bedside and held his hand, his pulse began to flutter. He heaved a deep sigh, the only natural one I had heard since I arrived…he passed away at 10 minutes to 2p.m. exactly.”

Wilde’s tragic end was the result of the horrifying homophobia of the 19th century, ultimately he should have never gone to trial or prison for having a relationship with another man. Wilde was pardoned posthumously in 2017 under the Turing Law, which is a step in the right direction, but it can’t undo the gross injustice Wilde received during his life which contributed to his early death.

“And by all forgot, we rot and rot, With soul and body marred”

What do you think we can learn from Wilde’s life and story? I’d love to hear your comments below.

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NPG P1122; Oscar Wilde; Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas by Gillman & Co
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas 1893 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


British Library:

The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Analysis of the Ballad of Reading Gaol:

Oscar Wilde on Trial:

Oscar Wilde Biography:

Oscar Wilde Biography:

Oscar Wilde Biography:

Constance Lloyd Biography:

Lord Alfred Douglas Biography:

Trial of Oscar Wilde:

‘Written in History: Letters That Changed the World’ by Simon Sebag Montfiore

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