As a retired court lawyer, it has never ceased to amaze me how badly advised Oscar Wilde was when he brought a private prosecution against the Marquess of Queensberry for criminal libel. The alleged libel took the form of a calling card left with the doorman at Wilde’s club in which Wilde was described as ‘posing as a sodomite’. Not an actual sodomite, it will be noted, but merely one who posed as one.
Take a look at the real life photograph of Wilde above, skilfully worked into the front cover of the latest Jack and Esther Enright novel, The Posing Playwright. What did he think he looked like?
He could hardly have been greatly offended by being confirmed in the image he had sought to create for himself. His every action is reported to have been foppish, languid, limp-wristed and effeminate; even in court, when notionally seeking to protest at the self-image he had worked for years to create, his responses to questions were smart-arsed affectations in the bored drawl of one who was only interested in beauty, art and aesthetics.
So, to put it politely, he looked exactly as he had taken the trouble to look. Can he have been surprised if the objective observer drew the conclusion that he was posing as what we would today refer to as ‘gay’?
Even if he were offended, how bad was the publicity, and for that matter how widely broadcast? These days we fear mass exposure on social network websites, and even in Wilde’s day it would have been much worse had Queensberry expressed his opinion in the columns of a newspaper. Instead, he confined the ‘publication’ of his riposte to the doorman of a gentleman’s club. The old duffer couldn’t even spell the word correctly, since the word he used was ‘somdomite’.
And Wilde’s accuser was hardly someone whose opinion counted for anything. The Marquess was, if anything, even more of a laughing stock than Wilde himself who, on the day that the card was left, was the darling of the West End theatre set, the doyen of the footlights whose latest play – The Importance of Being Earnest – was playing to full houses in the St James Theatre.
Queensberry, on the other hand, was a man reviled and avoided by ‘decent’ members of society because of his rampant Atheism, his brutal treatment of several wives, his vile and unpredictable temper, his suspected syphilis, and his obsession with horse-racing and pugilism. To be insulted by a man like that was almost a compliment, and about as damaging as a slap on the wrist, limp or otherwise.
But someone advised Wilde that he had grounds for bringing an action for criminal libel against Queensberry. If that ‘someone’ had been a student of mine in the days when I taught criminal law, he would have failed the subject. Remember that Wilde was only being accused of ‘posing’ as a sodomite – not actually being one. Had he been accused of the latter, then this would certainly have constituted a criminal libel, since it alleged behaviour that was a criminal offence in those days. But where is the criminality in ‘posing’ like one, except – at a long shot – the risk of provoking a breach of the peace?
Wilde should have taken the hint when the authorities refused to prosecute, since in those days a criminal libel would ordinarily have been prosecuted by a senior Government Law Officer. No doubt they rightly concluded that the ill-spelt drivel of a crusty old fart whose mental stability was in question was hardly a justification for the expenditure of public funds. Undeterred, Wilde exercised his right to bring a private prosecution, and thereby brought about his own downfall.
Queensberry was fortunate – or wise enough – to secure, as his counsel, the redoubtable Edward Carson QC. He also had sufficient resources to hire private detectives who scoured the brothels, hotels, ‘molly houses’ and other dens of iniquity in order to acquire the potential evidence of a depressingly large number of young men whose testimony would have exposed the embarrassing truth about Wilde and his sexual preferences. This was late Victorian England, remember.
When Carson had finished shredding Wilde in cross-examination, he was a punctured balloon, exposed as a ‘poser’ of the first order. That should surely have been enough to confirm that Queensberry had been justified in alleging that Wilde came across as a ‘left-footer’, the term employed for such persons in the years of my youth that were not as politically correct as they are now. It was not necessary to prove that he was a sodomite, simply that, intentionally or otherwise, he gave the appearance of one.
But Carson was not a man to do things by halves, and his client was a man rich in resources and venom, whose youngest son had fallen into Wilde’s clutches. When Carson opened the case for Queensberry, he announced his intention of calling, one after another, a trail of Wilde’s victims, most of whom were penniless drifters whom Wilde had entranced, wined and dined, then seduced. At this point, Wilde’s counsel withdrew – no doubt in considerable embarrassment – and Wilde conceded that Queensberry had won on a technicality, rather than have his private life spread like a verbal centrefold across the popular newspapers of the day.
He was financially ruined, since he had to pay the legal expenses on both sides, but this was the least of his concerns. Someone in a position of influence was not amused by what had been revealed about Wilde, and sought to reaffirm heterosexuality as the game of choice in Victoria’s Empire by prosecuting Wilde for ‘unnatural offences’. His last work of any note, The Ballad of Reading Gaol was written from experience, and he died a broken man in a seedy Parisian garret a few years after his release.
Moral? If you live in a glass house, don’t throw your own stones.
But the Wilde trial sent nervous ripples through a straight-laced Establishment that was already reeling from previous revelations that homosexuality was rife in exalted circles. Circles that spread their circumferences as widely as royal princes. Little wonder that a senior officer in the ‘Political Branch’ of Scotland Yard, Percy Enright, is entrusted with ferreting out the unpalatable truth, and suppressing it. His nephew and acolyte Sergeant Jack Enright also becomes involved when one of those who might have been implicated, a peer of the realm, goes missing, along with his private railway carriage. With so much going on, they can be forgiven for drafting into the team, yet again, Jack’s talented wife Esther, and – for the second time in recent years – his sister Lucy.
The Posing Playwright is already available on pre-order from Sapere Books or Amazon.