Published: March 6, 2017
The first criminal trial of Oscar Wilde began on this day as the downfall of the celebrated playwright, accused of gross indecency, moved into high gear.
On the advice of his lawyers, Wilde had just withdrawn a criminal libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry who had publicly accused him of being a sodomite – a serious criminal offence.
Queensberry's solicitor had said that he intended to call to the witness box a procession of young men with whom Wilde had been sexually associated.
After Wilde dropped the case, the solicitor sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions copies of statements by these young men.
As a result, an inspector from Scotland Yard appeared before Magistrate John Bridge to request a warrant for Wilde’s arrest.
Bridge adjourned the hearing for an hour and a half, apparently to give Wilde time to make his escape from England on the last train to the Continent, as the playwright’s friends had urged. But Wilde could not make up his mind and finally left it too late.
On the fourth day of the trial he took the stand and produced a memorable moment when questioned about a phrase used in a poem by his friend Lord Alfred Douglas – Queensberry's son.
Prosecutor Charles Gill asked: "What is 'the Love that dare not speak its name'?"
Wilde's response drew long and loud applause – as well as some hissing and booing. He said:
"The love that dare not speak its name in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare.
“It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name,’ and on account of it I am placed where I am now.
“It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man when the elder man has intellect and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him.
“That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”
The jury could not reach a verdict and so Wilde was bailed to appear for a second trial three weeks later. This time he was found guilty. The judge told him:
“Oscar Wilde, the crime of which you have been convicted is so bad that one has to put a firm restraint upon oneself to prevent oneself from describing, in terms I would rather not use, the sentiments which must rise to the breast of every man of honour who has heard the details of these terrible trials.
“It is no use for me to address you. People who can do these things are dead to all sense of shame and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them.
“This is the worst case I have ever tried. I shall, under such circumstances, be expected to pass the severest sentence allowed by the law. It is, in my opinion, totally inadequate for such a case as this.
“The sentence of the court is that you be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for two years.”
Wilde’s hard labour included stepping onto a giant treadmill, a contraption on which prisoners walked side by side, divided by vertical separators, usually for eight hours.
Inevitably, legs would give out under this tedious misery and prisoners would fall, leading to more punishment for abandoning their task.
There was also picking apart old ropes to extract oakum, a fibre used in shipbuilding. Laboriously separating used rope by hand stained the fingers permanently and made them bleed, as well as causing tendonitis and nerve damage.
These tasks had to be performed in silence. No communication was allowed between prisoners — not at meals, not during exercise (in which they walked in circles wearing masks), and not after lights out.
After his release Wilde lived abroad as a bankrupt under the name Sebastian Melmoth. He died in Paris on 30 November 1900, aged 46.
More than a century later, Oscar Wilde has reached heights of popularity he could not have dreamt of. His life – and wit – is endlessly retold in books, films and on television.
And in 1995, a stained glass memorial was unveiled in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, “for Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wilde, playwright and aesthete.” At the service Dame Judi Dench and Sir John Gielgud read extracts from Wilde’s works.
Vindication indeed for a man who once said: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”