What One Calls Life


The fall of Oscar Wilde is a tragedy that has been told and retold in the last several years, from director Brian Gilbert’s film biography to Moisés Kaufman’s Off-Off play Gross Indecency, a savvy reconstruction of the trials that resulted in Wilde’s imprisonment for engaging in gay sex. Kaufman et al. based their courtroom scenes on H. Montgomery Hyde’s 1948 book, The Trials of Oscar Wilde, itself largely taken from Stuart Mason’s Oscar Wilde: Three Times Tried, published in 1912. Mason had used court reports and newspaper accounts (necessarily incomplete) to reproduce the testimony at the 1895 trials, but to satisfy Edwardian prudery he heavily edited the results.

Sometime after that, the official records of the proceedings mysteriously disappeared. They were considered lost to posterity—until now. In 2000, an anonymous donor brought a transcript of Wilde’s first trial to the British Library, where it was authenticated. It was an astonishing find. Edited by Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandson, and published as The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, the document provides the first complete, verbatim record of what occurred at the Old Bailey a century ago.

Wilde’s first legal skirmish was a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry, the crackpot father of Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Wilde’s boyfriend. Queensberry was a short, irascible troublemaker, already estranged from his wife and sons, who were on good terms with Wilde. (Bosie’s brother put up bail for Wilde before his second trial for gross indecency.) Obsessed with tormenting Wilde and Bosie, Queensberry stalked the couple around London and promised to cause a public scandal, even threatening to shoot Wilde. In February 1895, he upped the ante by leaving a card at Wilde’s club, inscribed “For Oscar Wilde/posing somdomite.” (Spelling was never the marquess’s strong suit.) As a terrified Wilde wrote to his friend Robert Ross, “My whole life seems ruined by this man. The tower of ivory is assailed by the foul thing. . . . I don’t know what to do.” He was right to be scared: Under an 1885 British law, “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons” (i.e., any form of sexual contact) was punishable by two years’ hard labor. But if Wilde wasn’t sure what to do next, Bosie was. He urged Wilde to sue, and his father was duly arrested.

Practically every aspect of Queensberry’s trial seems backward today, from the linguistic (to prove he hadn’t libeled Wilde, the marquess only had to show that Wilde was “posing” as a sodomite, not that he was one) to the legal (the witnesses against Wilde, a gaggle of known blackmailers and male prostitutes, had been bribed and coerced by Queensberry’s agents). Perhaps the strangest part was Queensberry’s claim, in his plea of justification, that Wilde’s writings “subvert[ed] morality.” Despite being irrelevant to the case, this led to some of the trial’s most heated exchanges, with Queensberry’s lawyer, Edward Carson, essentially putting Wilde on trial for obscenity. “There is little Wilde would have relished more,” Holland notes, “than to stand in the witness box and defend his art.”

Grilling Wilde on his notorious introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray—”There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all”—Carson offered, “A well-written book putting forth sodomitical views might be a good book?” Wilde shot back, “No work of art ever puts forward views of any kind.” Carson then implied that the novel was based on his affair with Douglas, asking, “Wasn’t that the way . . . that Lord Henry Wotton corrupted Dorian Gray . . . ?”

WILDE: He doesn’t corrupt him: you must remember that novels and life are different things.

CARSON: It depends upon what you call corruption.

WILDE: Yes, and what one calls life.

Next Carson quoted from a letter Wilde had sent Douglas, “It is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made . . . for madness of kissing.”

CARSON: Do you mean to tell me, sir, that that was a natural and proper way to address a young man?

WILDE: Yes, I think it was a beautiful letter. If you ask me whether it is proper, you might as well ask me whether King Lear is proper, or a sonnet of Shakespeare is proper . . .

CARSON: But apart from art?

WILDE: Ah! I cannot do that.

CARSON: But apart from art?

WILDE: I cannot answer any question apart from art.

Unfortunately, he was forced to answer too many questions apart from art, as Carson interrogated him for a day and a half—128 pages of badgering, in this text—about his indiscretions with various young men, culminating in a fatal slip of the tongue. Asked if he’d ever kissed one Walter Grainger, Wilde replied, “Never in my life, he was a peculiarly plain boy.” The playwright had no choice but to withdraw his prosecution and accept a verdict of not guilty on Queensberry’s libel. Within hours, Wilde was arrested and charged with gross indecency. When the subsequent trial ended in a hung jury, the Crown proceeded to try him again. He was convicted in May 1895 and released from prison two years later, dying in Paris on November 30, 1900. If Wilde lives on through his writings—plays, essays, fiction, and letters—the publication of this transcript, in recovering his actual words, finally does him justice.