A while back, the Oscar Wilde Literary Society posted a link on Facebook to an article arguing that it is time for “the left” to stop idolizing Oscar Wilde because “he is a pervert.” [I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to any article that sets up a straw man of “the right” or “the left” and argues against the people to whom it ascribes a belief rather than the underlying ideas, but that is not the issue at the moment.] The thought-provoking article in The Federalist argues that in the #MeToo era we should find Wilde’s behavior as distasteful as his contemporaries did.
The most common response to the Federalist article among those who appreciate Wilde was a variant of “I admire the art, but not the man.” But there is something unsatisfying in this answer, especially because Wilde’s biography, as much as his writing, has been a source of fascination, inspiration and social commentary. No one is out there building a shrine to “The Importance of Being Earnest.” They are making shrines to Wilde the gay martyr, and that is based on an understanding of the man’s biography. The repeated attempts to canonize him points to a real need for such a figure, a man who takes on all of the abuse heaped upon gay men through the ages, and rises again. LGBT history has produced many tragic figures, but none has risen from the dead quite like Wilde.
But Wilde was not a “gay man” as we understand it. He was not proponent of “gay liberation” but of “The New Chivalry,” a worldview that idealized the sexual mentorship of a younger man by an older, and by “younger” they often meant an age that would, today, make us shudder. I find the whole subject messy and complex. The tricky question is the issue of consent, something we conceptualize differently than Victorians did.
In a previous article in which I broached this subject, I wrote about the age of consent in Wilde’s time. It was an era of shifting values in England. The age of consent had recently been raised for girls (male-male sexuality was strictly illegal) from 12 to 16. It was still 13 in France. Wilde was not uniquely “perverted” then in hiring prostitutes who had not yet seen 20 years. The Victorian era was notorious for its child labor and for sending children to prison to be treated as adults. Society as a whole seemed to view what we consider to be children (at least when they were working class) as laborers, criminals– people capable of making adult decisions and being punished accordingly. The age of Wilde’s partners (mostly teenagers), although noted, wasn’t much of an issue for the court. They were more concerned about their gender and social class.
Wilde was a product of his time and could not help but view these boys as capable of consent. While we cannot blame Wilde for lacking the wisdom of another age, we should question those values and show them for what they were.
Today, our ideal of love is a partnership between equals. This was not the case in the Victorian era. Their view of love was hierarchical. The man was the head of the household. Women were viewed in child-like terms. They were virginal, innocent and vulnerable and thus needed to be shielded and protected. As women were supposed to be less worldly than men, men would guide them and keep them safe. The woman would be an object of beauty and inspiration and she would support the man in his endeavors. This was the nature of pure love.
Victorian men who were attracted to their own sex tried to find a way to superimpose their desire onto that model. They imagined a great love would be between a person of superior status who nurtured, protected and guided a beautiful, but less worldly person. Men of the educated classes like Oscar Wilde found in classical Greek texts a model for this– the love of the beautiful boy. An older man would take the younger under his wing. He would write hymns to his beauty, and teach him about the world and, as in that other great love– betwixt man and maid– there would be a sexual element.
Both of these ideals are viewed as unhealthy today. In our ethics of love there should not be an imbalance of power. In theirs, this was assumed. In fact, it was considered part of love’s beauty. When Wilde gave a speech in court about the love of an older man for a younger, he received applause from the gallery.
We do not blame our great-grandfather, who lived in an era before women’s suffrage, for assuming the woman’s place was in the home, even as we condemn that point of view. Likewise, if Wilde had been raised in our time we have to believe that he would have thought about, and acted upon, his attractions in an entirely different way.
Of course in any ideal, people fail to live up to it. Our supposedly equal relationships are not in many ways. Wilde used the concept of love with an ennobling asymmetry to justify a lot of questionable actions. His attempt to cast his relations with prostitutes as a noble example of man of higher class and education raising up the less fortunate can only be seen as a desperate excuse.
Maria Roberts, an excellent Wilde researcher, tracked down the records of one of Wilde’s blackmailers, Freddie Atkins, who appears to have been born in 1872. His partner in crime, was a man named James Dennis Burton, alias Watson. Their age-old con worked like this: Atkins would go to the public urinals and other notorious pick-up spots and get someone to take him home at which point Burton, claiming to be his uncle, would barge in and demand money for his silence. Their con was famous enough in certain circles that Burton was known as “Uncle Burton.”
Atkins and Burton are usually described in a jaunty way as “a two act.” This description gives Atkins far more agency than he could have had, for if Robert’s identification is correct, he started working for the thirty-six-year-old bookmaker when he was only nine years old. He may have been old enough to consent under law (had he been a girl) when Wilde met him, but his life had not put him in a place where he had many choices.
We sometimes become unwitting conspirators in objectifying Wilde’s partners. There is an expression that is often used by people writing about Oscar Wilde and his circle in his more promiscuous period. I encountered it most recently in a review of Rupert Everett’s film Happy Prince in reference to Maurice Gilbert, a young man who was often in Wilde’s company in his final years.
The review described him as someone who had been “passed around” by Wilde and his friends. It was common for Wilde and his friends, Robert Ross, Alfred Douglas, and Reggie Turner to have the same sexual partners. Gilbert was one of these young men. Saying Gilbert was “passed around” makes the higher status men the actors and the person we know little about the one who is acted upon. We could equally describe Maurice Gilbert as someone who enjoyed sexual play with his circle of friends.
Even though Wilde was ultimately convicted based on what he did with prostitutes, that would not have been enough to bring him to trial in the first place. The world was prepared to look the other way. It was his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas that brought everything to light. The whole thing happened because society felt that Douglas, and young men like him, needed to be protected from sodomy, even if the men loved each other and wanted to express their feelings that way.
But because Queensberry’s libel accused Wilde of “posing as a sodomite” rather than being one, he had a challenge proving that his slur was made in the public interest. Why does the public need to be alerted about how the writer seemed? His defense team argued that Wilde’s pose was dangerous because of his influence on innocent young men. He might be such an effective propagandist for vice that unsuspecting young men would be seduced into doing more than pose. We do not believe that anyone can be seduced into changing his sexual orientation. Wilde did not have the power to make anyone turn gay. That is, in effect, what his accusers believed he was capable of. A person could be persuaded to sin– enticed into deviancy. We see it differently, and the Wilde trials have become a symbol of how misguided, and damaging historic homophobia was. It was, indeed.
When we entertain the thought that some of the young men who hero-worshipped Wilde might have been confused or troubled by his advances, or encouraged to engage in activities they might not otherwise have, or that the immature undergraduate Alfred Douglas might have been heavily influenced by the older artist, we find we’re dangerously close to saying that the prosecution was right. So admirers of Wilde tend to avoid that.
Douglas was the symbol par excellence of the golden youth wilted by Wilde. In order to maintain any semblance of his position in society Wilde had to create an alternative to this narrative.
Over the past few years we’ve started to recognize the kind of stories that prominent men tell in order to defend themselves against charges of abuses of power: She was not as innocent as people think. She was promiscuous. She was the one who tempted me. My main fault was that I was too weak. She was only interested in my money and fame. Anyway, she is hysterical, emotionally unstable. It isn’t right that we should allow someone like that to bring a great man down.
Does this not sound a lot like the description of Lord Alfred Douglas in De Profundis?
In spite of Oscar’s vivid description of the young man as always being in pursuit, it is possible to see the story through another lens, one in which Oscar wants Bosie around, but always on his own terms. He resents him when he wants to do something Oscar does not, or wants Oscar’s attention when he doesn’t want to give it. Oscar is the one with all the power. Where does this leave us? Was Wilde wronged or in the wrong? It was, I fear, a combination of both.
So this is the heart of the problem: When you go back in history, the lawful and respectable often turns into the regretted immoral. The person who proved he was not a communist during the Red Scare avoided the blacklist, but was shunned years later for having named names, while the person whose career was left in shambles is lauded for his bravery.
One of the characters in the Wilde circle, who I have continued to research, was considered a problem because of his sexuality and the bad company he kept. To learn more about him, I delved into this family, and found that some of its highly esteemed members were involved in the coolie trade, and wrote about Chinese indentured laborers in ways that compared their efficiency to cattle. It is not until you read something like that that you’re confronted with how close to the slave years these people were and how much they took colonialism and rigid social hierarchy for granted.
Michele Mendelssohn, in Making Oscar Wilde, chronicles Wilde’s pilgrimage to meet the Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and the inspiration Wilde took from blackface minstrel shows. Years later when he and Lord Alfred Douglas sampled the sex tourism in Algiers their senses of entitlement and their views of the natives were on ugly display, if Andre Gide’s account is accurate. (Lord Alfred Douglas wrote to Gide complaining more about the betrayal of confidence than the context of what Gide wrote, so the broad outlines are most likely true, although probably heightened for literary effect.) Wilde was fascinated by criminality, Douglas said of him that he “would love to chat with an assassin and would happily invite him to dine in his room. This would involve danger. He believes this would be truly fun.” In this spirit he befriended Esterhazy, a spy who allowed an innocent Jewish man, Alfred Dreyfus, to take the blame in a show trial charged with anti-Semitism.
So when I read the sign at the Oscar Wilde shrine:
Only Love Here
It doesn’t seem to fit. As much as we need Wilde as a symbol of a man who stood in opposition of the homophobic biases of his time, he also stood well within others of its biases. So he was in one sense exactly the gay martyr he is made out to be. He was convicted because his partners were male, not because they were young. He was stalked into bringing a disastrous libel suit in the first place because of fear and disgust at his love, not his intemperate lusts. We are justified in seeing him as the symbol of a profound tragedy– an era in which a kind of sexuality that we no longer disapprove of was criminalized and an artist was destroyed because he could not conform. That is what the Oscar Wilde shrine is all about. The dying and rising of a great man under an unjust law, and with him the dying of the old world and the birth of the new.
The other side of that coin is that there were things Wilde’s contemporaries did not disapprove of that we now find problematic. By making shrines to him, we run the risk of elevating them as well. (Whatever the opposite of that expression about babies and bathwater is.)
And that tells us something about our own time. Human relations are messy and complicated. Justice is never as neat or clear as we would like it to be. A century from now people will look back at some of the things we took for granted and find them appalling. We have no idea what they are. All we can do is stumble around, making our best efforts to be good to one another. I find it all incredibly complicated, and fascinating.