On this day in history : 3rd April 1895 -The libel trial brought by Oscar Wilde against the Marquess of Queensberry begins – only for Wilde to later be imprisoned on charges of homosexuality….
Playwright, poet and novelist Oscar Wilde had become a celebrity in Victorian England – not just for his writing but also for his eccentric flamboyant style and sharp wit…. He stood out in society – dressed in his snazzy bright silks and velvet and choosing to wear his hair dandyishly long…. He totally bucked the austere Victorian trend of the time….
Wilde was born in Dublin in October 1854; he began writing and publishing his poetry whilst at Trinity University, Dublin, during the 1870s…. He then went on to study at Oxford….
He was to become perhaps London’s most popular playwright, with works such as ‘Salome’ and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and his novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’….
Homosexual acts between men were illegal in Britain at the time and so Wilde was careful to conceal his sexual orientation…. He married Constance Lloyd – the daughter of Horace Lloyd, a wealthy lawyer – in May 1884 and they had two sons, Cyril in 1885 and Vyvyan in 1886….
In 1891 he began an affair with young British poet and aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas, who was 16 years younger than him…. Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, found out about the relationship and was livid…. He set about exposing Wilde, confronting the pair several times – a bitter feud was to ensue…. Eventually Queensberry left a calling card with the porter at the private ‘Albemarle Club’ in London, reading “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” [sic]…. Wilde had been publicly accused….
Close friends who knew Wilde’s secret begged him to flee to France and stay there until things had died down – homosexuality had been legal in France since 1791…. However, Wilde ignored their pleas and instead decided to sue the Marquess for defamation and libel…. Queensberry’s lawyers responded by hiring private detectives to uncover evidence of Wilde’s liaisons with young men…. It probably didn’t take too much investigation – as Douglas was less than discreet and had introduced Wilde to the underground world of Victorian gay prostitution….
The trial opened at the Old Bailey – and it soon became evident that things were not going to go Wilde’s way – basically because what Queensberry accused him of was true…. To make matters worse for Wilde the Defense accused him of enticing 12 other young men to commit acts of indecency…. His 1890 novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ – in which an artist is attracted to a younger man – was also brought into question and it was implied that he had used it to seduce Douglas….
After three days Wilde dropped the lawsuit – this action was seen as an admission of guilt – a warrant was issued for his arrest…. Once again his friends urged him to go to France – but Wilde was determined to stand his ground….
Wilde was arrested on grounds of indecency…. The trial began on the 26th of April 1895 – he pleaded not guilty on 25 accounts…. The trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict…. Three weeks later a retrial took place and this time Wilde was found guilty…. He received the maximum penalty, two years hard labour…. On the 25th of May 1895 Wilde was taken to London’s Pentonville Prison and he spent the next few months untwisting old ropes to recycle the fibres for making oakum (used to seal gaps in the shipbuilding industry)…. He was then transferred to Reading Gaol, where he served the rest of his sentence – being released in 1897….
While he was in prison Wilde’s health declined considerably…. After his release he spent his remaining three years living in exile in France – where he died in Paris on the 30th of November 1900 of meningitis….