LGBT

Arguments for Oscar: The Director’s Cut

A silver cigarette case that Lord Alfred Douglas gave to Oscar Wilde when they were reunited after Wilde got out of prison is coming up for auction again. I knew about this gift from Bosie to Oscar from a description of it from the last time it was sold.

Etched into the case is a piece of a poem by John Donne:

The Phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us, we two being one are it
So to one neutral thing both sexes fit
We die and rise the same and prove
Mysterious by this love.

What I don’t think I realized (or assimilated) when I first read about this object was that it was one of the things left behind at the hotel where Oscar Wilde died. (Others being some shirts that were at the laundry, some books, and a set of false teeth.) That Oscar carried this object with him until he died, rather than, say pawning it, re-gifting it, or using it to pay a prostitute, is at least a little bit telling.

The subject of Wilde and prison got me to thinking about a bit of Oscar’s Ghost that didn’t make it into the final cut. While Wilde was in prison both Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross wrote defenses of him that were not published at the time. In the outtake that follows, I compared their approaches:

 

To correct the prevailing narrative, Bosie would have to make the world understand the depth of Wilde’s love for him, and the sacrifices he was willing to make for it. He wrote impassioned pleas in Wilde’s defense and bold declarations of the beauty of same sex love. His tone was idealistic, romantic and often melodramatic.

Douglas had, for some time, lived in such a protected world of like-minded people he had little sense of how his professions of devotion to Oscar Wilde, and excerpts from his love letters, would sound to the general public. To Douglas they were pure beauty. To the world they were either humorous or sickening. Because Douglas was seen either as Wilde’s unwitting victim, or as a fellow deviant who had escaped jail only because of his title, no one was inclined to listen to what he had to say.

Bosie was not the only one to write a spirited defense of Wilde. Early in 1896, Ross read a report on the New Year’s sermon of Rev. John Clifford, a prominent Baptist preacher who had used the opportunity to pronounce the death of aestheticism which he said had been exposed and condemned by the imprisonment of Wilde.

The two then-unpublished arguments are remarkable both for what they have in common, and how they differ. Like Douglas, Ross made a point of expressing pride in his relationship with Wilde. Douglas had written “While I am still young and bold, let me put myself once and for all on the side of honesty and declare that I am proud to be what I am, proud to have been so much loved by a great man, and proud to have suffered so much for him.”

In his letter to Rev. John Clifford, Ross wrote: “I rejoice to say that I am one of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s greatest friends.”

Douglas never learned the skill that Wilde had in spades, that of tailoring a message to a particular audience. Wilde once famously said, “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.” The masks he put on for the press, for the parlor, for the theater audience, for the reader did a better job of expressing the truth than they would have if they were unmitigated. Bosie was always unmasked. (“Unpoliced” as Shaw would write.) He did not self-censor. He did not consider context. His truth was his truth and he would speak it.

So Bosie’s article contains all of the arguments he had pent up inside– in addition to a bold defense of same sex love came his unvarnished bitterness for his father, his outspoken criticism of the trials, and an indictment of the hypocrisy of the English people. The result was an article that argued both that Wilde was innocent of the charges against him and that anyway there was nothing wrong with love between men.

Ross, on the other hand, was well aware of the biases of his audience. Instead of trying to justify homosexuality, he made a case for charity for the condemned, pointing out that Christ came to save the sinners not “to redeem the moral from the contamination of wicked people” adding that it was very uncharitable of a minister to attack someone who was suffering during the holiday season. (Bosie, incidentally, had also published an article for the British public that used this “fair play” line. Wilde would criticize it as insincere and formal in De Profundis.)

Ross had been moved to write by the minister’s condemnation of Wilde’s art. In answer to Clifford’s statement that “art for art’s sake was exposed and condemned by the imprisonment of the high priest of aestheticism” Ross listed Christian martyrs whose ideas had not been “exposed and condemned” by their prosecution and deaths. He then offered to send Clifford copies of Wilde’s works.

Some years ago after the appearance of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s novel Dorian Gray in Protestant and puritan Scotland it was my good fortune to hear a Presbyterian minister preach on the moral of that wonderful story. More than one Non-conformist paper praised the novel on moral grounds…At all events I would ask you to judge for yourself & then give your unbiased opinion not on Mr. Wilde but on his works.

Where Ross wrote as an admirer of the artist, Douglas wrote as one who loved the man:

I, for my part, love him for the uniform sweetness of his character, the extraordinary goodness of his heart, and his eternal and inexhaustible tenderness for me. I love him for his magnificent intellect, his genius and his verve. He had taught me everything that is worth knowing. He has given me a little of the secret of his infallible instinct, which never overlooked what was fine and which was never taken in by what was bad (I am speaking of art and not of morals, of course). He diverted my attention from what was vulgar and tedious in life, to lead it towards what was beautiful. He showed me the strength and might of the intellect, its superior emotive force, he taught me to know the good works form the bad. He armed me against cant, gave me a philosophy of life, he made my life worth living…

Ross’s editorial was the earliest example of what would become his main technique in his life-long quest to get Oscar’s works accepted again in society. He would separate the artist from the man, promote the art, and try to downplay and conceal the more “unsavory” aspects of the Wilde story. In order to do this successfully, it became increasingly important for him to conceal his own sexuality. If he did not, his efforts on Wilde’s behalf would be seen as special pleading.

Whether he had made a conscious decision or not, Ross’s own literary ambitions were put on hold when Wilde was arrested. Wilde’s fate had been sealed as much by his writings and his literary success as by his sexual peccadillos and this had a profound effect on the friend whose conversations had shaped The Portrait of Mr. W.H. He had become wary of revealing the erotic energy that had been behind his youthful creativity, but he found that he had trouble writing anything “in which the heroine is not a beautiful boy.”

“I do not write now,” he told Max Beerbohm. When he finally did return to writing, he focused almost entirely on satire and criticism, forms that revealed little about their authors. Although he would gain some prominence in this field, most of his real creative energy would be devoted to advancing the careers of other artists.

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Happy 162nd George Bernard Shaw

Shaw Gifts One of the things that set me off on the journey that became the book “Oscar’s Ghost” was reading George Bernard Shaw’s correspondence with Lord Alfred Douglas edited by Mary Hyde.

It is a book that fascinated me, not only for how vividly the letters revealed the characters of their writers, but also for what seemed to me to be an uplifting message about friendship between people who have nothing in common. Shaw and Douglas sparred over the editing of Frank Harris’s “Oscar Wilde.” Oscar was a topic that tended to bring out Douglas’s defensiveness and prickliness. But they always came back to treating each other with affection.

Shaw called Douglas “Childe Alfred” and coined one of my favorite descriptions of an aspect of Douglas’s personality that remained into his senior years: “blazing boyishness.”  He wrote to Mrs. Alfred Douglas “Alfred is a psychological curiosity. Sometimes he is possessed by his father, sometimes by his mother; often by both simultaneously. Add to this that his age varies from five to fifty without a word of warning. But you know this a thousand times better than I do.”

Shaw, who also had a difficult relationship with his father, was sympathetic to Douglas’s familial bitterness, but he did not have patience for the grudge Douglas continued to hold against Robert Ross.

“Ross did not get his testimonial for nothing,” he wrote, referring to a public letter of support signed by hundreds of luminaries, including Shaw after Douglas had tried to expose Ross’s homosexuality in a libel action. The testimonial had always stuck in Douglas’s craw.

“Only a great deal of good nature on his part could have won over that distinguished and very normal list of names to give public support to a man who began with so very obvious a mark of the beast on him. A passage in one of my prefaces on the influence of artistically cultivated men on youths who have been starved in that respect…was founded on a conversation I had with Ross one afternoon at Chartres in which he described the effect produced on him by Wilde, who, in the matter of style, always sailed with all his canvas stretched. Let Ross alone: the world has had enough of that squabble.”

He later wrote to Douglas, “The one thing that no man can afford, and that nobody but a fool insists on carrying is a grievance. Besides, what claim had Oscar on you or anyone else that it should be a reproach to us that we did not spend the rest of our lives holding his hand after he disgraced himself?”

(Of course they did have claims on one another which could not be acknowledged in that era.)

If you have not seen it, George Bernard Shaw wrote a very interesting letter in 1889 in the wake of the Cleveland Street scandal. It was sent to the editor of Truth, but was not published. He argued that “we may presently be saddled with the moral responsibility for monstrously severe punishments inflicted…[on those] whose conduct, however nasty and ridiculous, has been perfectly within their admitted right as individuals.”

After the familiar discussion of the ancient Greeks and the culture in schools, which always came up in such conversations in the era, Shaw appealed to the champions of individual rights “to join me in a protest against a law by which two adult men can be sentenced to twenty years penal servitude for a private act, freely consented and desired by both, which concerns themselves alone.”

Being Shaw, he brought his argument around to socialism and women’s rights. “My friend, Mr. Parke… is menaced with proceedings which would never have been dreamt of had he advanced charges–socially much ore serious–of polluting rivers with factory refuse, or paying women wages that needed to be eked out to subsistence point by prostitution.”

It is fascinating then to read Shaw’s discussions with Lord Alfred Douglas– who was the conservative of the pair–a believer in sin and the evils of liberalism and women’s suffrage–debating the events of Oscar Wilde’s life and their meaning, among other topics. (Shaw had the chutzpah to believe he understood Wilde much better that Douglas did.)

So again, I recommend the book, and raise a glass to Shaw this evening, won’t you?

 

 

 

 

Oscar Christ?

Around the time I was writing the novel Angel, I started a project of reading the New Testament with the books in the order that scholars believe they were written. (This was before the late Marcus Borg released his Evolution of the Word, which does this very thing for you.)

Reading chronologically you start to see how the idea of Jesus expanded over time as he moved from a more human figure in Mark to a thoroughly mystical Christ in John. One of the things that made an impression on me was how Jesus’s response to his arrest and execution evolved.  What was, in Mark, deeply traumatic was transformed over time so that in John, Jesus was aware of his destiny, nearly choreographing his own destruction, walking with a sense of the larger meaning this event would one day have for the world.

I was reminded of this while watching this interview with Rupert Everett about his new film The Happy Prince. Everett describes Wilde as stage managing his own ruin.

The tendency to cast Oscar Wilde as the gay Christ is something I have talked about occasionally here, particularly in the context of the Oscar Wilde shrine that was created by two artists in New York a while back. Stephen Fry is another actor who has portrayed Wilde and spoken of him in the same terms.

I have some reservations about this comparison. It depends a great deal on what you take a “Christ figure” to be.

The most obvious parallel is that Wilde was punished by society, he died as a reviled figure but was resurrected by his apostles, in particular by Robbie Ross and friends of his like Christopher Millard who preserved Wilde’s work and tried to bring it to new audiences.

This common refrain of Wilde as Christ figure certainly speaks to a need for a symbol to make the sufferings that gay men have enured meaningful, to spiritualize the pain and make it transcendent. A Christ figure is not just resurrected, the story of his rebirth is cleansing for those who identify with him.

This is easier to do, I think, with a symbolic Wilde than with Wilde as a man. But perhaps this was also true of Jesus of Nazareth. He has come down to us as both fully human and fully divine, yet not quite so human that he could make mistakes. (Whereas for Everett being “an idiot” sometimes is part of the humanity of his gay Christ figure.)

When I read the first chronological gospel, Mark, I was surprised by one episode I found there. (Also by the naked guy who went streaking through Mark 14:51-52.)

I am talking about the story of the Syrophonecian woman in Mark 7:24-29 (the story is repeated in Matthew 15:21-28).

A Gentile woman comes to Jesus. I am not informed enough to understand all of the ancient cultural politics between Syrophonecians and Jews. In any case, the woman begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. Maybe he is tired and his nerves are frayed after the constant barrage of his own people asking him to heal them, now he is supposed to heal Syrophonecians too? He refuses and compares her to a dog. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

She answers, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Jesus dismisses the woman because of her social status. He doesn’t see her suffering as his problem. He speaks to her in a rude manner. What should a reader make of that?

The way Mark depicts Jesus at this point is like a celebrity being hounded by paparazzi. Jesus was getting tired, he wanted to be off the clock, and he snapped at this woman in an inappropriate way and she called him on it. He changed his mind and healed the woman’s daughter.

So perhaps Jesus was once seen as someone human enough to make mistakes too. But today Christ is not a man who makes mistakes, but a man who was too good for the world and was thus destroyed by it.

For someone like Oscar Wilde to be Christlike in this sense means he is a symbol of the best of humanity being destroyed by the worst of society. To make that case, it helps to make good and evil a bit neater and clearer.  Oscar Wilde has often been polished to enhance the tragedy of his downfall, a process that I wrote about in detail in Oscar’s Ghost.

An interesting question, one which came up in the comments on my previous article on The Happy Prince, is whether Lord Alfred Douglas became a scapegoat for some of Wilde’s own sins. Both men were snobbish, but Wilde’s snobbishness is often read as charming. Both were promiscuous, but Douglas has been depicted as the driving force in their amorous adventures. Both were careless with money, but Douglas has often been blamed for making Wilde overspend.

Because of his erratic behavior, his attacks on people like Robert Ross, his litigation, Douglas made himself an easy target for those who would try to find a vessel for some of Wilde’s sins.

I believe that today we might be inclined to forgive some of Douglas’s emotional extremes were it not for his cardinal sin, his anti-Semitism in his bitter middle years. The views that are so rightfully distasteful to us today were unfortunately common in his time. (And in fact, we seem to be in a similar era today with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment becoming increasingly accepted.)

One of the aspects of the story that I explored briefly, and wished I was able to explore in more depth was the time Wilde spent in the company of Ferdinand Waslin Esterhazy during his exile in Paris. At the time the Dreyfus trials had polarized French culture.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the general staff of the French army had been a convenient patsy when it became clear that military secrets had been passed to the German military attaché in Paris. Dreyfus was found guilty on questionable evidence and, before a howling mob shouting anti-Semitic epithets, exiled to the Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He was kept in solitary confinement, manacled to his bed at night. By the time Zola took up his cause, he was losing his teeth and hair and was unable to speak.

In February 1898, Wilde and Douglas’s friend, the journalist Rowland Strong, was in Paris covering the trial of the author Emile Zola who had been accused of defaming the high command of the French army with an open letter that alleged the Dreyfus affair was a gross miscarriage of justice.

In the wake of Zola’s article, the French public became divided along familiar fault lines as to who was the real traitor. On the right were those who believed the verdict had been just. This group included nationalists, the military and the Catholic church. On the left were the Dreyfusards, mostly Protestant, Socialists, Freemasons and intellectuals. In fact, the word ‘intellectual’ was coined by Georges Clemenceau, the politician who published Zola’s letter, to describe the Dreyfus supporters.

One might expect Wilde, who had so recently suffered public prejudice and a painful jail term, would be sympathetic to Dreyfus. Instead he spent a number of evenings in the company of the real culprit, Esterhazy.

There were a number of reasons he might have made this choice. One may have been his personal feelings about Zola. Zola, whose works were also frequent targets of censorship, had fathered two children with his live-in seamstress under the nose of his wife, but had refused to sign a petition calling for clemency in Wilde’s conviction.

Most of the people in Wilde’s circle at the time were anti-Dreyfusards including Douglas, Strong, and journalists Frank Harris and Robert Sherard. Was Wilde the singular standout among his circle? As I wrote in Oscar’s Ghost:

What Wilde actually thought of the Dreyfus affair is hard to discern. Douglas was an anti-Dreyfusard, although he in September 1898, admitted in a letter to Wilde that things looked rather bad for his side. It is not clear from the letter whether he believed Wilde agreed with him or not. At the very least, he did not think Wilde would be shocked by his opinion. Sherard was not much better at defending his friend against the charge of anti-Semitism than he was against homosexuality. He explained that Wilde’s sympathies were, of course, with Dreyfus. He liked Jews. “’The Jews,’ he used to say, ‘are the only people who lend money.’”

Could Oscar Wilde have been, at the same time, the victim of prejudice and on the side of those who perpetrated it against others?

I was quite interested to read a review in the Guardian of Michèle Mendelssohn’s new book on Oscar Wilde, which I am looking forward to reading. According to the Guardian’s review, Mendelssohn presents Wilde during his famous American lecture tour as someone who was sensitive to being marginalized both as an Irishman and as a homosexual whose feminine mannerisms made his difference apparent. (Max Beerbohm described Wilde as “Effeminate but vitality of twenty men.”) She describes some of the public pillorying he endured in post-Civil War America.

One episode that bookends quite nicely with his socializing with Esterhazy was his visit to meet the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. He publicly identified with white Southern farmers, the former slave owners, and told stories that connected him to the most manly of men.

The story, for instance, about the miners he met in Leadville, Colorado – one he loved to tell audiences at his Personal Impressions of America lectures on his return home – was almost entirely made up to make himself seem more masculine.

Wilde would be far from the first or last marginalized person to seek protection by identifying with the oppressors. This tendency could help explain his snobbishness, his attraction to a young man with a title, and his fateful decision to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.  He expected to be able to win over the legal authorities as he had done with so many other establishment figures. It is understandable, but it certainly complicates him as a pioneer of gay rights or a gay Christ. As the Guardian’s article concludes:

Wilde returned from the US in 1883. By 1892, he was London’s leading theatrical phenomenon, the writer of Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance. What impact did his American adventures have on his comedy? Mendelssohn links these early hits to the influence of the Christy Minstrels show, an American blackface group that went in for much witty repartee and which always placed a dandy centre stage. Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance is, she believes, a near relative of the blackface dandies who parodied Wilde while he was on tour (he must have known about them; these troupes were attracting audiences far greater than his own). Wilde’s most successful characters often wear masks; he had created, Mendelssohn writes, “his own kind of white face theatre”, one that used the sweetening effect of comedy to expose hierarchy and social prejudice.

Why are these influences largely forgotten today? In his own time, after all, the critics were certainly aware of them. Mendelssohn’s research is prodigious; she has tapped sources previously unavailable to other scholars. But the thought also occurs that, perhaps, there is something willed at play here, too. In the 21st century, the good and the bad, the tolerant and bigoted, the free and the closed, are simply not allowed to snuggle up together. Our understanding of what it means to be human – by which I mean to be flawed – grows ever more limited. As we all surely know, Wilde’s extended afterlife has been every bit as extraordinary as his corporeal one. He has long since become a saint, gay history’s Christ figure. It may be that we can only see him as a victim of the attitudes of his age, when, at key moments, he was also in cahoots with them, an accomplice after all.

Together these episodes from two ends of his life show how successful Wilde was in crafting his own biography.  The 1997 film Wilde opens with the playwright’s visit to Leadville. Lord Alfred Douglas is depicted in the film (as he was in Richard Ellman’s biography on which it was based) as the alluring but sinister influence he was in Wilde’s De Profundis. The film ends before the story has a chance to get too messy.

With the help of Robert Ross, the story of Oscar Wilde’s operatic downfall and resurrection has endured and continues to intrigue. The biography of Oscar Wilde may be Wilde’s greatest work.

Straight Authors, Gay Characters. The Case of “Call Me By Your Name.”

The other day I watched the film Call Me By Your Name.  Whenever I see a film based on a novel, I am curious to know more about the book, which brought me to this clip in which The Advocate interviews author André Aciman.

I was interested to learn that like my own novel Angel, which is also the story of a consequential love between two men, the setting came first. Aciman was inspired to write about Italy. The setting must have been romantic to him, and it brought to mind the tentativeness of early love. He initially imagined a boy/girl couple, but quickly changed because, he felt he wanted to write about overcoming inhibition and that there would be more inhibition with a gay couple.

Angel was inspired by the Pacific Northwest. In particular, Mt. Rainier. I started writing to answer the question of what might cause a minister, who was burned out on the ministry, to become a mountain tour guide. The story I wanted to tell had to have undercurrents of nature. He had to be seeking something in the mountain that he had also been seeking in his ministry, and whatever it was that he was seeking should also be the cause of his separation from the church. The thematic link that came to me was that the minister, Paul, was drawn to beauty, beauty of a particular, transient kind. Rainier is a volcano and will one day erupt. So the beauty he found in the form of Ian was something that had an awesome power.

The question of appropriation comes up in this clip. Aciman believes that artists should not be constrained to write only about their own selves and that with empathy and imagination you can put yourself in the shoes of another person. There is a joke that I believe I have quoted here before that if writers only write what they know there would be nothing but books about English professors contemplating having extramarital affairs.

I found in my own writing that I wasn’t really able to write fiction worth reading until I got beyond myself. I thank God on a regular basis that there was not much self-publishing when I wrote my first self-indulgent autobiographical novel.  The publishers who rejected it did me a great service. I don’t think that old saw “write what you know” should be taken too literally. There are multiple ways of “knowing” and that one way is to use empathy and imagination.

What Aciman knows is the hesitation of first love, and how he felt he could best illustrate it was with these two characters. In Angel what I “knew” had something to do with what it feels like to experience beauty, beautiful moments, beautiful relationships and how valuable and fleeting those glimpses of beauty can be. For whatever reason Paul and Ian came to me as the best way for me to illustrate that concept.  I don’t think a writer should shy away from writing a story in the form it comes to her, because those sparks of inspiration that are compelling enough to propel you through an entire project are too rare to brush aside.

Appropriation is tricky, though. The real problem is not that an individual artist might feel called to tell a story across various identity lines. The problem comes when a dominant group, because they are seen as having more authority or access to an audience, drowns out the voices of people from other groups telling their own stories. I wrote about this a few years ago. I had read an interview with a white writer who said she’d written a dark skinned protagonist because the world needs more books with African-American heroes.  My reaction was:

If I were to say, “There are not enough stories with African-American protagonists, and I think I should write one,” the results would be clunky. Not because I am incapable of imagining the internal life of a Black woman but because I would be approaching her as a representative of a social identity rather than as a person in her own right. The only reason I would make the choice to write from that perspective is if a story came to me that I could not imagine any other way.

I would like to think that readers, and viewers in the case of film, get a feel for what the creator was trying to express and to do. It will come across in the writing if the story is properly told, if the author was empathetic or exploitative, if the story wouldn’t be the same in any other form. From the reviews I’ve seen of the film and novel, Aciman did write characters who both straight and gay people respond to as real.

 

 

P.S. After seeing the film I can’t get that Bach piece out of my head. I suppose there are worse songs to be stuck in a continuous loop but…

 

 

Before Oscar Wilde

When I was researching Oscar’s Ghost, I read an article in a literary journal (forgive me for not looking it up right now) that made the persuasive case that Oscar Wilde’s trial was an aberration. What was unique about it, the author said, was that previous to the Wilde trial,  prosecutions of this class of crimes operated on the assumption that the gentleman was the victim of the blackmailers and prostitutes. In the Wilde case suddenly Wilde was presented as corrupting the young men in spite of their sometimes questionable backgrounds.

Shortly after Oscar Wilde went to prison, a young man from Newcastle named James H. Wilson came to visit Lord Alfred Douglas in exile in France. They commiserated with one another about the injustice of it all, and Wilson, with a fresh ear-full of Douglas’s complaints, went home to write a pamphlet that came to be called Some Gentle Criticisms of English Justice under the pseudonym I. Playfair.

It mostly focused on Oscar Wilde’s trials and Douglas’s theory that a political conspiracy, and a desire to protect certain prominent people, was behind the prosecution. It does, however, mention another case in passing, an 1893 case in which Wilson alleges that young men were not only let off scot-free, they were actually encouraged to solicit men in order to bring about their prosecution. He identified the prosecutor in the case as Mr. Waddy, Q.C.

After a bit of searching in the newspaper archives, I uncovered the case that had so outraged Wilson. While it is little remembered today, it caused a minor sensation in 1893.

That year Mr. Waddy had been in ill health and therefore had not been busy in the Royal Courts in London, but he had an important circuit practice. I turned up a shocking number of cases that he prosecuted in the assize courts of assaults against women, a libel action for a bad theatrical review, a fraud on a farmer, a number of libels involving businesses ranging from a coal company to an inn, a few divorce cases, a breach of promise case, a couple of slander cases, one murder case, a dispute over cattle, two injury cases–one involving a builder and one a steam ship, a betting conspiracy, a shipyard  dispute, theft of furniture and a case called “The case of the Gipsy Queen and Organ Grinder.” His most time consuming case in 1893 was an insurance fraud case. The only other case involving homosexuality and Waddy was of a man who felt up a boy on a train.
And then there was the case that the press dubbed “The Newcastle Scandal.”
The case is interesting for its parallels to the Wilde case and perhaps gives a sense of what things might have been like if Lord Alfred Douglas had been tried along side Wilde.

Lionel Hans Hamilton, 44, like Oscar Wilde, was born in Ireland. It is not clear why the court was determined to make an example of him, but it is clear that it was.  Hamilton was a factory inspector, a highly prominent position but also one that presumably made him enemies. His status was such that after his arrest the Queen saw fit to post a notice disassociating her government from him.

Hamilton had been having a sexual relationship with a clerk named Henry Dady, 22, for two to three years.

A number of letters “of a very indecent nature” were cited as evidence. In magistrates court, the prosecutor, Mr. J.E. Joel argued that Dady had acted as a procurer for Hamilton.  “The evidence was of a revolting nature and seemed to indicate the existence of a horrible club.”

The two men plead guilty to misdemeanor, but the judge set this aside as he felt the plea was not sufficient. On advice of counsel, Hamilton pled guilty and admitted that he and Dady “feloniously, wickedly and against the order of nature, did carnally know each other and commit the abominable crime of buggery.” In addition, he plead guilty to gross indecency with three other young men.

Dady was also advised to plead guilty, but he refused. On the date of his trial, he seemed confident, and waved to friends in the gallery.

Mr. Waddy, opening the case for the prosecution, said that he did not intend to wallow in the filth of a crime “not to be named among Christians” any more than necessary and if the charges were proved it would be the duty of the court to give the strongest sentence as this was “the worst crime known to all humanity.”

A series of witnesses described engaging in acts that the papers were coy about, and admitted to accepting money for it, but they were not charged themselves and were described as victims.

The jury took little time to find Dady guilty, and counsels for both men made pleas to the judge for leniency. The judge was having none of it. It was a most egregious case, he felt, because Hamilton had encouraged boys to follow these abominable and filthy practices. Hamilton was the head, he said, of “an extensive system for the corruption of youth.” The only redeeming thing he found in Hamilton was that he had plead guilty and spared the court having to hear the details of his debauchery.

“It is necessary to make an example of men of education and position who so lower themselves to commit these most abominable crimes,” said Lord Chief Justice Coleridge.

To Dady he said, “you are younger, and although you are 22 years of age, I am satisfied that you have been following these practices for a considerable time. You acted as a decoy to other boys, and you acted as a procurer of other boys, and you corrupted other boys and led them into the commission of these terrible offences.” The judge was especially annoyed that Dady had compelled the court to listen to the horrible details instead of pleading guilty. “But although your crime is great, yet I will take into consideration your age, I will take into consideration the fact that no doubt you were somewhat influenced by a man who was older than yourself, probably better educated than yourself, and who may have had influence over you.”

The older man was sentenced to 10 years penal servitude, the younger man to 5. Dady burst into tears as he was led away.

Dady served four years of his five year sentence. Prison records at the time of his release describe his distinguishing characteristics as including scars on his eye and finger and pockmarks on the buttocks. In 1907 he was arrested again for false pretenses and served a 6 month sentence. Ten years later he had changed his name to Henry Dudley and was working as a waiter.  He was arrested for committing an act of gross indecency with a boy in a theater, but was found not guilty. After that, his trail goes cold.

Hamilton served 8 years of his 10 year sentence, and went blind in prison. Upon his release, he went to live with a nephew. He died in 1931.

“One of the Most Fascinating Gay Love Stories”

The Guardian today published a joint review of Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years and my own Oscar’s Ghost. called Oscar’s Ghost “a fascinating account of the feud between Robert Ross and Alfred Douglas and of Wilde’s legacy…” and concludes:

 

While the relationship between Wilde and Douglas cannot simply be seen as just a great tragic love story that was thwarted by dark forces, nonetheless the complications that beset it, and the personalities of the two lovers themselves, make it one of the most fascinating gay love stories.

Treppenwitz

The clever rejoinder that comes too late…

Thank you to the Ann Arbor District Library for inviting me to come and speak this evening– my first speaking engagement on Oscar’s Ghost. I was pleased that there were a number of questions about the book, and inevitably, I spent most of my ride home thinking of better answers to them.

That’s what blogs are for.

The first question was whether Oscar Wilde lived in a circle of artists where homosexuality was not a problem and whether or not Victorian and Edwardian homosexuals used the laws against same sex love as a club against one another.

I replied that Oscar Wilde did inhabit a particular Bohemian subculture– much of it of his making, as he had disciples who imitated him–where being a man who loved men was not a problem. In the wider culture, it was also true that there was something of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. There was an understanding of a lot of the vices that went on behind closed doors, but the rule was that it was better not to know about it, and as long as everyone kept quiet and did not make a scandal no one would make an issue of it. In that situation, it was not uncommon for gay men who had bitter disputes to use this vulnerability against each other.

And that is where I left things, but that is not really a full answer. England of the late 19th and early 20th century was not a monolith. No culture is. So while it is fair to say that there were elements of society that embraced alternative sexualities, and there were elements that tolerated them as long as they were kept under wraps, there were also elements that were disgusted and appalled by the very notion.  One of the big problems for a homoerotically inclined individual was that he didn’t know with certainty, in any given situation, whether his “eccentricity” (this is what Robbie Ross’s family called it) would be accepted, tolerated, shunned, mocked or punished.

Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross used the courts a number of times to fight their battles. They faced a series of judges, some of whom were even handed and fair, others who were outraged by their sexuality. It was impossible to know in advance how fair or how prejudiced a judge or jury would be. It was always a gamble.

In our time the balance has shifted more towards acceptance, but the same situation remains. There are comfortable, welcoming parts of society; parts that are more concerned about their own lives– live and let live; and parts that are opposed–sometimes violently opposed–to same sex love. In Oscar’s time the percentages, not the actual categories differed and those who were opposed had the backing of the government.

Oscar Wilde sometimes inhabited a world of artists where he sexuality was not a problem. He sometimes inhabited a world where people who admired him as an artist gossiped and whispered behind his back, but looked the other way. And he sometimes wandered through a world where it was necessary to hide that part of his life or to face serious repercussions. Until he was exposed in court, he lived a double life.

My partial answer, I think, might have made it seem like being homosexual in Victorian England was less fraught than it really was. But it would not be fair to say either that the life of a gay man of that era was only fear, hiding and strife. To quote the Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated.

There was one other question that I re-answered on my ride home. I finished my lecture by noting that while no one won the battle between Ross and Douglas, Ross did a better job of shaping the narrative about Oscar Wilde.  In most cases his view of things won out. I was asked what Bosie’s view was. I mentioned a number of cases where Bosie’s version of event was less believed, but better documented.

But a better answer may be this, if Bosie were to tell the story of Oscar Wilde’s life and he were able to speak freely about their relationship, I believe he would have said that it was a great tale of love overcoming all odds.

At least, that is what he would have said before he read the unedited De Profundis.