The Trials of Oscar Wilde

“It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as "the love that dares not speak its name," and on that 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.”
– Oscar Wilde

(TW: Pedophilia mention)

This week, we enter the long awaited analysis of Oscar Wilde, playwright, poet, novelist, and all around brilliant man. He was a well-known author when he was alive, and thrived in the artistic society of his time. He is remembered for his incredibly influential work even now. Many of his works are still taught in school, though they are often edited in an attempt to minimize the heavy queer themes (among them is the green carnation, which is theorized to symbolize a queer character). He is a well known and well liked historical figure even in the heterosexual community, but let’s look at what the heterosexual community did to him while he was still alive.

Oscar Wilde was a very popular man for the majority of his life, and he had some famous works. The most famous among them are the play The Importance of Being Earnest and the novel The Picture of Dorian Grey. He was a large figure in the aestheticism movement, which had a philosophy of “art for art’s sake,” and enjoying things for the beauty of them, not believing that art had to have a deeper meaning to be considered good. Wilde embraced this philosophy in his entire life. His style was extravagant, and his home was much too luxurious for his budget, but with his wife’s wealth and the money from his writing, they managed. True to this philosophy, he tended to say things because they sounded clever and not because they were true. This led to an extensive list of incredible quotes, but also led to problems in more official matters, such as the trials he was subjected to later in life.

These trials will be the focus of our article this week, and it all started with Oscar Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. Conflict was found with the father of Lord Alfred Douglas, Eighth Marquess of Queensberry, who found out about the relationship. He began a campaign against Wilde, showing up at his house to berate him, going to the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest to harass Wilde, amongst other things. Though most of the harassment was stopped quickly, he did not stop entirely. He went as far as threatening the owners of places the couple frequented; turn the couple away, or be beaten.

In the end, the straw that broke the camel’s back was a man at Wilde’s hotel. The man gave a note to a porter with accusations of Wilde’s sexual relationships. Wilde was the one to initiate the first trial, charging Queensberry with criminal libel. For a while, the trial went well for Wilde. There was no question that Queensberry had done what Wilde had claimed; the point of contention was whether Queensberry's claims were true. If they were, it wasn’t libel. Therefore the first trial was to prove whether Oscar Wilde had ever participated in same-sex relationships, as Queensberry had accused him.

In the beginning, the trial leaned in Wilde’s favour. His wit and the competence of his lawyer won over most of the courtroom. His romantic letters to Lord Alfred Douglas were dismissed as just being flowery and full of romance because Wilde was a poet, and that is how poets talk, apparently. It looked like Wilde was winning. The trump card was pulled out by Wilde’s old colleague with a grudge, a turning point in the case that had the source in Oscar Wilde’s fondness for pretty things. It seemed that Wilde had often given beautiful and expensive gifts to men who were in a lower class than himself, which the defense used to suggest that Oscar Wilde had using these gifts as payment to have sex with the men.

After that moment, the trial was a clear loss. The witty comments he began the case with only dug his hole deeper, and as Queensberry was let off as innocent, Wilde was proven guilty. The only way to keep the charge of criminal libel from sticking was to prove that Queensberry had been telling the truth, and they did. At the time, sexual acts between men were still illegal in England, and though Wilde’s friends encouraged him to run away to France, the man went to his second trial as the defendant.

In this trial, his eloquent tongue was a help in contrast to the harsh hinderance it had been in the last trial. While proof was laid before the court of Wilde’s same-sex relationships, Wilde was able to talk his way out of a conviction. The most rousing moment was about a quoted portion of one of Lord Alfred Douglas’ poems to him “Love that dares not speak its name, ” and Wilde explained the sentence for the court.

"'The love that dares 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, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as "the love that dares not speak its name," and on that 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 older and a younger man, when the older 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 at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

Here is where we want to stop and clarify something. There was an age difference between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, but Douglas was not a boy. He was by no means underage, and their relationship was between two consenting adults. Unfortunately, at that time, there was an attitude that still exists now. There was an idea that same-sex relationships consist of an older people seducing and corrupting youth. And this idea isn't completely baseless. Many times throughout history, when the attraction between men was institutionalized into a society, an age difference came along with it. It is more than likely that much of this attitude was internalized in Wilde and many other people, so they believed the age difference was a part of what same-sex relationships were. Many queer scholars and authors praised that connection, but there is a difference between same-sex relationships and pedophilia. 

Pedophilia cannot be classified as a queer relationship, because it is not a relationship, as there is no way for a child to give consent. Just because many authors embraced the age difference, it does not mean that they were attracted to children. Though they were attracted to people younger than them, that is not the same thing. 

When Douglas and Wilde met, Douglas was twenty-four: an adult. Their age difference was sixteen years. Despite having a large age gap, it was a consensual relationship on both ends. While there are reports that he had sexual relationships with people younger than Douglas, England's age of consent for most of Oscar Wilde's life was 13, and there is no evidence he even came close to breaching that. So while our modern society may have frowned upon the age gaps that did exist, they were socially sanctioned at the time. 

This is all to say that it is fine to personally be upset by the age gaps that did exist, but to say that it is pedophilia when it applies to a queer man, and not make the same accusation to the legions of heterosexual relationships that contained the same, if not larger, age gaps is a decision we cannot approve of.

It is important to make that clarification, so as not to allow people to try and pretend pedophilia and queer relationships are the same things. They are not. Oscar Wilde was not a pedophile, and in this quote, we don’t believe he was condoning pedophilia, we believe he was referencing to the only queer relationships he was exposed to. Regardless of the way we analyze the speech now, the speech was well received at that time, or at least as well as a speech praising queer relationships could be in 1895 England.

The speech earned Wilde a hung jury, so he had a reprieve. Again his friends encouraged him to leave, and again he refused, saying he "did not want to be called a coward or a deserter."

This could have been a conviction on his stance or pride, but either way, it proved to be for the worst. In this, the third trial about Oscar Wilde’s sexuality, a verdict was decided, and Wilde was sent to prison for two years of hard labour.

From what we know about Wilde, we know that he was not a man meant for hard labour. In prison, they took everything from him: his access to the art he adored, books to read, or any way of writing himself. He was forced to work in harsh conditions that his body was not used to. He ended up collapsing from illness and malnutrition, hitting his head and rupturing his right eardrum, and he was forced to spend two months in the infirmary.

He was eventually released from prison in 1897 and quickly fell into poverty. Though he was grateful to be out of prison, it was clear his quality of life never returned to it once was. He was no longer able to support his lavish tastes, as his wife, who he had relied on financially sent three pounds a week, and his writing no longer brought in enough money to live on. His writing, which had been his one true love before the imprisonment, had become a chore, he said:

"I can write, but have lost the joy of writing."

He died only three years after his release from prison, partially due to his earlier head injury.

Society stripped everything Oscar Wilde loved from him. A man who was known to be vibrant, flamboyant, and witty throughout most of his life had everything taken from him because people could not stand the fact he was attracted to men. As his trials went along, they even took his name off of the playbill for The Importance of Being Earnest. As if this treatment was not sufficiently cruel during his life, society continued after his death. 

It was apparently not enough that the prison sentence he endured for his relationship effectively killed him, it was important also to strip his work of its identity. Still today, there are works of Oscar Wilde’s that are edited to remove any parts that may suggest queer characters or relationships, and there is nothing more offensive than that. They killed him, and then they stole his art. Any edited version of Oscar Wilde’s work is the purest form of disrespect for the artist himself, yet the people who teach them claim to admire the man. When someone says they admire Oscar Wilde, yet knowingly choose edited versions of his work, they are lying. They like parts of him, the parts that don’t challenge them, the parts that they can use to pretend that every single author and literary character was also heterosexual, and fits their own paragon of moral purity. One thing we are certain of? Oscar Wilde would have hated it. 

He would have hated every single person who knowingly contributed to queer erasure with his works, all the while saying that they loved the way he wrote. The censorship of Oscar Wilde’s work is nothing less than desecration, and the fact that censored copies of The Picture of Dorian Grey are more common than the original shows we have not come as far as we often pretend we have.

Though it is not the queer community's responsibility to fix what the heterosexual community has done, we are often forced to do so. In this case, there is something we can do. The uncensored version of The Picture of Dorian Grey exists, and it is time that the censored version doesn’t anymore. It is our suggestion that you throw out the censored version and buy the uncensored. If you don’t own the hetero-edited version of the book, all the better. The true work of Oscar Wilde is the one that should be taught in schools, the one that should be read, and the one that should be commonplace. To honour Oscar Wilde’s memory in the best way possible, we suggest buying the real version here:

If you do not have the money to do so right now, or already have it, the best thing you can do is spread the information. It is unfortunate, but when the censored version is taught and read, it is rare that the people reading it even know the history of the book and the author. Teach them. Tell them the history. If you aren’t as comfortable with giving long history rants as the author is, send them the link to this article. If you are an ally reading this – this is your job. If you are an ally, this is what you are here for. If you are queer, please make sure you are in a safe environment first, but we encourage you to share this information if you are able. If there is any way to pay respect to this amazing man, it would be to restore his work to its former (and very queer) glory.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Cliffnotes. Critical Essays Three Trials: Oscar Wilde Goes to Court 1895.

Retrieved July 8 2016 from

Linder, D. A Trial Account. Retrieved July 8 2016 from

British Library. Oscar Wilde on Trial. Retrieved July 8 2016 from

The New York Times. (1988, March 20.) What Killed Oscar Wilde?  Retrieved July 8 2016 from

Allen, B. (2011, May 1.) “Dorian Gray” as Wilde actually wrote it. Retrieved July 8 2016 from