Wilde on trial: lynchpin day

Alfred and Francis Douglas

Here’s a little story, made up of anniversaries, one of which (as you might have guessed) is today. In and amongst all the pressing matters, we take a moment to look back 120 years…

On 18 October, 1894, a sad death: Francis Douglas, Lord Drumlanrig – the private secretary of the then Prime Minister, Archibald Philip Primrose, aka Lord Rosebery – in what is called a hunting accident, but is possibly murder or suicide. He is rumoured to have been in a homosexual relationship with the Prime Minister. In fact, his title has been granted him as a result of his services, and it elevates him higher than his father, Lord Queensberry.

For, yes, Drumlanrig is the brother of Lord Alfred Douglas, whom we know as Bosie.

So, 14 February, 1895: The premier of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, at the St James Theatre. Lord Queensberry, the father of both Drumlanrig and Bosie, has got it in for Wilde. He arrives at the theatre to present Wilde with a bouquet of vegetables (or to throw them on the stage), but is refused entry, following a tip-off. There is a scene in the street.

18 February, 1895: Queensberry leaves a card for Oscar Wilde at his club, which provocatively reads, in now-legendary poor spelling: ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite’. 

Wilde – at the behest of Bosie? – decides to sue Queensberry for criminal libel, and thus mixes up his fortunes irrevocably with a messed-up, unhappy family plagued by bad luck, blighted lives and unhappy doom through the generations. Here’s a taster:

In 1858 the 8th Marquess, who was an MP and Lord Lieutenant for Dumfriesshire, shot himself dead with his own gun while out hunting rabbits, whether or not it was accidental is not known.

In 1865 his second son Lord Francis was killed while climbing the Matterhorn. In 1891 his third son Lord James Edward Sholto Douglas committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor in a London ­hotel.

A month earlier he had been summonsed to appear in court on charges of defacing his census return: he had described his wife as a “cross sweep” and “lunatic”.

In the same year Oscar Wilde met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, son of the 9th Marquess (and nephew of the deceased Francis and James)…

aa858b77b33-4 April, 1895: the trial for libel. It goes wrong, becomes more about Wilde’s behaviour than Queensberry’s, and is decided in Queensberry’s favour. Queensberry has his lawyers gather all their evidence about Wilde’s activities and the trial notes, and send them to the police.

5 April, 1895: Wilde is arrested, famously at the Cadogan Hotel, charged with the decade-old offence of gross indecency, and taken to Bow Street, where he is held without bail over one sleepless night before being transferred to Holloway.

In the next weeks, Queensberry demands immediate payment in full of the order on Wilde to pay his court costs, which are £600; Wilde’s estate is liquidated, his house in Tite Street opened up at auction and all his goods are sold. He is taken in chains to the bankruptcy court, before being returned to prison to await his trial, having lost everything.

26 April: the first of Wide’s trials begins. Bosie leaves the country. Oscar’s wife Constance leaves for Europe with their two sons; she changes their last name and Wilde never sees his children again.  This trial will end in a hung jury, which could in fact be the end of it. But no.

It has been strongly suggested that the pressure to prosecute Wilde – until a verdict is arrived at – comes in the form of blackmail from Queensberry, who is threatening to expose the Prime Minister’s relationship with his older son if Wilde isn’t brought down.

22 May, 1895: Wilde’s final trial begins. The same evidence, the same witnesses, the same ‘nest of almost infant blackmailers’ that so horrified Henry James, as the rent boys of London line up and name names – and a judge as thick and immovable as a plank, and as moralistic as – well, as a caricature high Victorian judge.

25 May 1895: Wilde is sentenced to two years of hard labour. It’s generally agreed that for a person of the gentleman class, unused to physical labour, this amounts almost to a death sentence.

oscar_wilde_bosieThere’s more, of course: the general loathsomeness of Queensberry, and that of Douglas, who will go on to be spiteful, litigious and unpleasant all his life. Two years of peripatetic life on the continent, ending in a hotel room in Paris, with Bosie never quite off the scene, a shadow life. Constance dies even before Wilde, in 1898; he follows her in 1900.

And yes, this is a boys-only story, this bit of it. Constance herself stands at the centre of it, for me, in shadowy form, her life ruined no less than and even maybe more than her husband’s. I do want to write something about her too. But here, to mark this anniversary of the opening of this persecuting trial, is a poem I wrote a year or so ago but haven’t done anything with as yet, besides reading it at a Word Factory event last summer.

The Things That You’re Liable to Read into Libel 

Lord Queensberry had two sons.
Lord Queensberry had two sons.

One was a scandal,
Disguised as an accident:
Those are the dangerous ones.

Lord Drumlanrig died by the gun.
Lord Drumlanrig died by the gun.

Was it his or another’s?
Hunted down to eternity:
That’s how a cover-up’s done.

 Bosie was just like his dad.
Bosie was just like his dad.

That thing about Oscar,
Was it gospel, or libel?
Cover up, cover up! Or be had.

The weakest most fear what they are.
The weakest most fear what they are

 The nest full of vipers,
The hall of bent mirrors,
Both lies and true stories go far.

 The whole thing was really quite sinister.
The whole thing was really quite sinister.

Wilde was up on a platter;
His life was the forfeit
For Drumlanrig and the prime minister.

What the world wants it destroys.
What the world wants it destroys.

The clever, the glamorous,
Quick-witted, amorous:
Dull dullards break all their toys.

 The rose leaf is ripped by the thorn.
The rose leaf is ripped by the thorn.

Look away, look away!
Let the rose remain beautiful…
…paid Rosebery’s debt like a man.

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