Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, Merlin Holland

Ah, the book that Started It All, The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, the transcripts of his libel trial against the Marquess of Queensberry.  Yes, if it weren’t for my having seen this book in a Bongs & Noodles in Atlanta, I would never have had this wild (ha, ha, ha) fascination with Oscar Wilde.  At that time I was very interested in the Scopes trial (I still am!  It was interesting!) & spending lots of time trying to find excerpts from Scopes trial transcripts.  I expect that is partly to blame for the fact that I saw this book and said I MUST HAVE THIS and subsequently decided to learn everything about Oscar Wilde.  Which is nice because Oscar Wilde is brilliant.

Lacking all perspective myself, I have no idea how much normal people know about Oscar Wilde.  So as background to this book (I swear I am going to do this really succinctly), he had a boyfriendy thing called Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), and Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, was a raging lunatic jackass who hated Oscar Wilde and one time left a card for him that said “To Oscar Wilde posing as somdomite [sic] [idiot]”.  And Oscar Wilde, who despite being brilliant was very silly sometimes, egged on by Bosie, decided to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.  That didn’t work out for him, and he ended up getting in trouble with the law himself and sent to jail for two years for gross indecency between males, and they would hardly let him have any books.

The bulk of the trial is simply Wilde being examined by the attorney for the defense, Edward Carson, and the attorney for the prosecution, Edward Clarke.  It’s strangely entrancing.  The libel is so vague – “posing as a sodomite” – that Carson is all over the place with his interrogation, trying to make Oscar Wilde sound like a bad guy.  The result is an incongruous mishmash of literary criticism and seedy insinuating backstairs gossip.

Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s only surviving grandson, is the editor of this book.  (It must be interesting to be Oscar Wilde’s grandson – but not all the time – don’t you think?)  He does a wonderful job of putting this all together, for the first time uncensored!, and with a lovely succinct introduction and informative, occasionally wry, endnotes!  For instance, when they are eading out Queensberry’s [yes, of the Queensberry rules – funny, eh?] letters to Bosie, which are quite hateful –

I have received your postcard, which I presume is from you, but as the writing is utterly unreadable [true] to me have been unable to make out hardly one sentence….My friend I am staying with has made out some of your letter, and wished to read it to me, but I declined to hear a word.  However, according to his advice I shall keep it as a specimen, and also as a protection in case I ever feel tempted to give you the thrashing you really deserve.  You reptile.  You are no son of mine and I never thought you were.

Bit rich accusing his wife of infidelity when he was constantly bringing his mistresses home – well, never mind.  Just you take my word for it that the Marquess of Queensberry was not a very nice person in his private life.  Or anywhere.  And did not fight fair at all.  From another letter to Bosie:

If you are my son, it is only confirming proof to me, if I needed any, how right I was to face every horror and misery I have done rather than run the risk of bringing more creatures into the world like yourself, and that was the entire and only reason of my breaking with your mother as a wife, so intensely was I dissatisfied with her as the mother of you children, and particularly yourself, whom, when quite a baby, I cried over you the bitterest tears a man ever shed, that I had brought such a creature into this world, and unwittingly had committed such a crime.

The endnote about these letters excerpts part of the coverage of the trial by The Sun:

Throughout the reading of these letters the scene in court was one of the most painful and astounding character.  Sir Edward [Clarke – Wilde’s lawyer] read on imperturbably, just in the tone he would have read a bill of costs.  But the Marquis of Queensberry stood up, gazing alternately at Mr. Wilde in one corner, and at his son at the opposite end of the court.  Every now and then he turned to the man in the witness-box [Wilde] and ground his teeth together and shook his head at the witness in the most violent manner.  Then when the more pathetic parts of the letters came, the poor old nobleman had the greatest difficulty in restraining the tears which welled into his eyes, and forced him to bite his lips to keep them back.

Well, really.  I think the Sun should consider the far more likely possibility that the poor old nobleman is crying because he is mentally unhinged and has somehow realized how improbable it is that anyone’s going to invent Seroquel in his lifetime.

If you know anything about Oscar Wilde in 1895 (a year that started out more promisingly for him than it ended), you are quivering with suspense, because you know what happens next.  You can see how complacent Oscar Wilde gets about his Views on Art, and how annoyed with Carson’s repeated questions about the boys he was friends with, and you want to scream OSCAR PLEASE DO NOT SAY IT, and in the crucial moment –

Carson: Did you ever kiss him?
Wilde: Oh, no, never in my life; he was a peculiarly plain boy.

– you want to be all, TURN BACK TIME QUICK but (I have it on good authority) the world only spins forward, so instead of having a quick rewind and giving Oscar Wilde a second to control his pique, the trial keeps spinning forward, and it’s –

Carson: He was what?
Wilde: I said I thought him unfortunately – his appearance was so very unfortunately – very ugly – I mean – I pitied him for it.
Carson: Very ugly?
Wilde: Yes.
Carson: Do you say that in support of your statement that you never kissed him?

– the beginning of the end.  Or anyway the end of the beginning of the end.  It’s like the moment in Inherit the Wind when (er, spoilers, but you knew this, right?) Brady says, “The day referred to is not necessarily a twenty-four hour day”, and Drummond won’t leave it alone, and the momentum of the trial shifts; but instead of being a (fictional, anyway) ideological win for liberalism, this with Oscar Wilde is true and exactly what happened.

And all you can think about is that it’s going to be really sad for Oscar Wilde when, after years and years of everyone liking him (because he’s delightful!), suddenly nobody does.  Even his friends and sometime lovers.  John Gray, whom Oscar Wilde sometimes teasingly called “Dorian”, would write a poem years later that said:

A night alarm, a weaponed mob,
One blow and with the rest I ran.
I warmed my hands and said aloud,
“I never knew the man.”

Which, when I first read it in 2004, made me so cross at John Gray, and so sad for Oscar Wilde, that I remember it verbatim five years later.  And then after being utterly rejected by the city he loved (poor him!  I would be crushed, crushed, if London hated me), it’s all pathetic stories about missing his children, and asking everyone for money, and words about curtains not really his last, and finally converting to Catholicism as he’d been wanting to do since college.  And being buried outside of Paris actually originally, but Robbie (bless him) swung it so he could be moved to Pere Lachaise with an epitaph he wrote for himself really –

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn;
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

– and have his grave smooched by (the world only spins forward) ever-less-outcast men & women.

Just this second I went to Wikipedia to double-check that I’d remembered the epitaph poem correctly (I had – but I checked my beloved and long-neglected Schmidgall and I had the John Gray poem wrong by one word in the first line), and Wikipedia said, “Jenny, do you ever wonder why you like Oscar Wilde so much?  You don’t need to wonder because I will tell you.  Here it is.  Here’s why.”

It’s because when you are investigating Oscar Wilde, you find out the most brilliant and insane things.  Ever.  Most brilliant and insane things EVER.  Listen, internet: In 1912, they erected a monument to Oscar Wilde in Pere Lachaise, right?  And it was an angel sphinx thing like this:

OscarWildeTomb

We apparently don’t know precisely what happened, but someone came to the grave and presumably felt it was a filthy way to commemorate a filthy man and hammered off the angel sphinx thing’s genitals.  And [Wikipedia says] the cemetery keepers used them for a paperweight for years and years and now they are lost.

See, if this were a Someone Else story, that would be the end of the story right there.  And it would be a good story.  I would tell that story whenever Someone Else’s name came up in conversation, because I think it’s interesting, the things people do to take a stand, and because the paperweight thing is funny.  But it isn’t a Someone Else story.  It is an Oscar Wilde story, which means there is more and oh does it get better.

In 2000, an artist called Leon Johnson commissioned a silversmith called Rebecca Scheer to create shiny new silver genitals.  New shiny silver genitals to attach to the monument in Pere Lachaise Cemetery.  Which they went to France and did.  In a ceremony.  And made a video about it.  And called it [Re]membering Wilde.

  • Awesome post, and I even read it all, even though it’s really long.

    I always liked Oscar Wilde, but I’m not at your level. I thought I liked his writing, since I loved The Importance of Being Earnest, having studied it twice in university, but after read Dorian Gray and Fairy Tales, I discovered I only like the idea of Oscar Wilde’s stories, and him, himself, not his novels. It was a sad discovery, because I had hoped to be a fangirl. I guess I’ll have to leave it to you. This trial book sounds interesting, but I’ll never read it. I can be honest.

    There is an Anne Perry book, one of Thomas Pitt’s mysteries, that has Oscar Wilde as a character, when Charlotte’s mother is dating an actor. It was awesome.

    • Haha, I didn’t notice how long it was until you said that – I can’t help it! I start talking about Oscar Wilde and can’t stop! It would have been way longer if I’d said everything I wanted to say. Actually I do not love Oscar Wilde’s writing – I mean, I do, but I don’t love it best. Oscar Wilde’s life is what interests me most. Because of all the craziness. So something like this, Oscar Wilde’s words from his mouth, absolutely enthralls me.

  • Eva

    I already had this one my TBR list, but now I want to read it right away! 🙂

    • Oh yay. I am always afraid that I am putting people totally off Oscar Wilde by babbling about him incessantly – I hope you enjoy this!

  • well…. I really DO learn something new every day!
    Silver! Somehow, apropos.

    • Yeah, you know, I expect Oscar Wilde would be like – well actually he would probably think it was completely weird if it happened in his day; but you know, bring him up to date on the twenty-first century mindset, and I expect he would think it was rather sweet.

  • bluehammer

    Hello J /

    Leon Johnson here, the artist who performed reMEMBERING WILDE some years ago! My research into the Great One continues – I have a new project in development called The Uncut Hair of Graves, about a triangulation in Brooklyn in the the 1890’s between Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Look for it next year. Thanks for your interest, and best regards, Leon.

  • Catherine

    My husband is jealous of Oscar. I can’t stop talking about him. We produced “Lady Windermere’s Fan” for One-Act play competitionthis spring. Our last performance is tomorrow night, April 16, 2010. My husband directed, I assisted, costumed and cut the four acts down to the bare bones into one act.

    I am so sorry, Oscar! I hope you forgive me. It broke my heart, and I did my best to keep the spirit of the piece. I kept as many of your wonderful lines as possible. Competition rules limited us to 40 minutes. In the end it worked beautifully and our high school student-actors loved it!

    The trash that passes for good material in competitions these days is truly deplorable. We had to give them something some wit, fun and quality, so we gave them Oscar. Our duchess of Berwick was awarded “Best Actress”, our Lady Windermere, Mrs. Erlynne, and Lord Darlington won “All Star-Star Cast” awards and our Lord windermere, Lord Augustus and Parker won “Honorable Mention” acting awards.

    Thank you, Oscar, with all our hearts for giving the world such a rich experience! And shame on anyone who ever hurt you.

    • That sounds fun, and congrats on all the honors y’all received! Even though you did have to make the cuts – Oscar Wilde would have understood, as long as you cast it in terms of the fact that the inventors of the competition were Philistines, and you yearned to present his play in toto, but when you recognized that you must either cut the play down or deprive the audience of his words altogether, you decided it was for the best. 😛