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Wilde At Heart

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Holland is Oscar Wilde’s grandson and, with John Mortimer, in this astonishing book he shows us the enfant terrible (or perhaps by then the eminence grise) of London’s literary circle battling, albeit unwittingly, for his very life. The book contains the entire, unexpurgated tanscript — previous versions were heavily censored.

When John Sholto Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry, publicly accused Wilde of being a homosexual, Wilde — ill-advisedly as it turned out — brought a libel case against him. It was without the doubt the most sensational case of its time and contained all the elements of a racy potboiler — intrigue, scandal, dangerous liaisons and, ultimately, tragedy.

The infamous love affair between Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the Marquess’ son, flourished clandestinely but was doomed the moment it became public — and it did so at Wilde’s own hands.

On 18 February 1895, the Marquess sent a note to Wilde at the Albemarle Club, addressing it to “Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite” (sic). Blinded by rage, deceived by his infatuation and actively encouraged by Bosie Douglas, Wilde issued notice to the Marquess claiming damages for libel.

It proved to be a tragic mistake. Within days, Wilde went from being adored to reviled by Victorian London, the literary lion turning to accursed cur, in what was the biggest scandal of its time.

The fall from grace was quick and deadly. Wilde lost everything. He lost the libel action and was prosecuted and incarcerated in Reading jail (where he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol). Insolvency followed and he fled to Paris, abandoning his family, which he never saw again.

Holland is a well-known researcher, scholar and archivist and he has unearthed the original transcript of the Wilde trial. The book contains the unexpurgated record of a case, the details of which, in 1895, London’s Central Criminal Court Sessions Papers said “are unfit for publication.” Holland’s introduction is both poignant and perceptive, masterly in its own right.

There were actually three trials of Oscar Wilde. It began with his criminal charge of libel against the Marquess, prosecuted on Wilde’s behalf by the legendary Edward Clarke. Despite advice from his peers (including George Bernard Shaw), Wilde persisted with the charge. The Marquess was represented by Edward Carson, a rival of Wilde from college days. When Carson began questioning Wilde on his relationships with younger men, Wilde moved from discomfiture to a state of near breakdown. The next day, he withdrew his case.

The Marquess countered, getting a warrant issued for Wilde’s arrest, on the basis of the statements of several young men proposed to have been called as witnesses for the defence in the earlier case. Wilde was arrested and stood trial. The proscutor, Charles Gill, another classmate of Wilde’s from Oxford, was determined to prove the charges. However, the jury was deadlocked on all but one of the 25 charges and Wilde got bail and a temporary reprieve. A few weeks later, the criminal charge was retried and Wilde convicted.

From a purely literary perspective, perhaps the most astounding exchange between Gill and Wilde takes place when Gill, perhaps hoping for something elementary, asks Wilde, “What is ‘The Love that dare not speak its name?’”?

Wilde’s response is worth quoting in full:

“‘The Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the “Love that dare not speak its name,” and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

The relentless cross-examination and the record of the trial, presented by Holland complete and uncensored, is not only devastating but highlights the fatal cleft between literary license and flourish and forensic exactitude. Under the brutal onslaught of the latter with its relentless probing for a nugget here and a piece there, with which to build the whole, the literary cause falters and ultimately perishes.

“Perhaps he was too clever for his own good”; “hoist by his own petard”; “too clever by half” — these thoughts are unavoidable as one goes through the transcript. In the dock stands the foppish Wilde, confident in his wit and his mastery of the mot juste, his epigrams, able to ‘strike an attitude’ on demand. The prosecutor, Charles Gill, is, in contrast, pedestrian, plodding and utterly dogged. There is much thrust-and-parry here, cat-and-mouse games, Gill biding his time and evaluating every opening. Then comes the definitive moment, when Wilde, too clever for his own good, blithely responds to Gill’s question if he kissed that boy. “No, he was far too ugly,” says Wilde — and seals his fate.

This exchange is, of course, well-known. But what Holland’s book shows is that Wilde was only arrogant and cocky in the first case, his own libel action. As that deflated, he lost his hubris and was soon reduced to whingeing and appealing for help to his own Counsel and even the judge. Gill managed to rattle him much earlier.

The book is astonishingly vivid and has a powerful dramatic balance to it. The entire era is brought alive and it is almost a sense of despair that we watch Wilde literally talk himself into jail and exile.

Musings of a suist in mufti on books, music and film at Bibliophage; Gravity Denied – The Hidden Paw’s Blog at mcavity.com

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About Gautam Patel

Mumbai-based lawyer and weekly columnist for a local newspaper.